This is the terse query raised by many modern Christians whenever they encounter those who meet outside the institutional church. But what is at the heart of this inquiry? And what Biblical basis undergirds it?
It is my contention that a great deal of confusion and subnormal Christian behavior is connected with a modern teaching known as "protective covering." This teaching holds that Christians are protected from doctrinal error and moral failure when they submit themselves to the authority of another believer or organization.
The painful experience of many has led me to conclude that the "covering" teaching is a matter that greatly troubles Zion today. And it desperately begs for critical reflection.
In the following pages, I attempt to cut through the fog that surrounds the difficult issues attached to the "covering" teaching. Thorny issues like church leadership, spiritual authority, discipleship, and accountability. I also seek to outline a comprehensive model for understanding how authority operates in the ekklesia (church).
Is "Covering" Covered in the Bible?
Strikingly, the word "covering" only appears once in the entire NT. It is used in connection with a woman's head covering (1 Cor. 11:15). While the Old Testament uses the word sparingly, it always uses it to refer to a piece of natural clothing. It never uses it in a spiritual way. Nor is it ever used in connection with authority and submission.
So the first thing we can say about "covering" is that there is scant Biblical evidence upon which to construct a doctrine! Yet despite this fact, countless Christians glibly parrot the "who-is-your-covering" question. Some even push it as a litmus test to measure the authenticity of a church or ministry.
If the Bible is silent with respect to "covering," what do people mean when they ask, "Who is your covering?" Most people (if pressed) would rephrase the question to be: "To what person are you accountable?"
But this raises another sticky point. The Bible never consigns accountability to human beings! It consigns it exclusively to God (Matt. 12:36; 18:23; Luke 16:2; Rom. 3:19; 14:12; 1 Cor. 4:5; Heb. 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet. 4:5).
Consequently, the Biblically sound answer to the "to-whom-are-you-accountable?" question is simply: "I am accountable to the same person you are-God!" Strangely, however, this answer is usually a prescription for misunderstanding and a recipe for false accusation.
So while the timbre and key of "accountability" slightly differs from that of "covering," the song is essentially the same. And it is one that does not harmonize with the unmistakable singing of Scripture.
Unearthing the Real Question Behind Covering
Let us widen the question a bit. What do people really mean when they push the "covering" question? I submit that what they are really asking is: "Who controls you?"
Common (mis)teaching about "covering" really boils down to questions about who controls whom. And the modern institutional church is built upon such control.
Of course, people rarely recognize that this is what is at the bottom of the issue. For it is typically well clothed with Biblical garments. In the minds of many Christians, "covering" is merely a protective mechanism.
But if we dissect the "covering" teaching, we will discover that it is rooted in a one-up/one-down, chain-of-command style of leadership. Within this leadership style, those in higher ecclesiastical positions have a tenacious hold on those under them. Oddly, it is through such top-down control that believers are said to be "protected" from error.
The concept goes something like this. Everyone must answer to someone else who is in a higher ecclesiastical position. In the garden-variety, post-war evangelical church, this translates into the "laymen" answering to the pastor. In turn, the pastor must answer to someone with more authority.
The pastor typically traces his accountability to a denominational headquarters, to another church (often called the "mother church"), or to an influential Christian worker. (The worker is perceived to have a higher rank in the ecclesiastical pyramid.)
So the "layman" is "covered" by the pastor. The pastor is "covered" by the denomination, the mother church, or the Christian worker. Because each is accountable to a higher ecclesiastical authority, each is protected ("covered") by that authority. So the thinking goes.
This "covering-accountability" template is applied to all spiritual relationships in the church. And each relationship is artificially cut to fit the template. No relationship can be had outside of it-especially that of "laymen" to "leaders."
But this line of reasoning generates the following questions: Who covers the mother church? Who covers the denominational headquarters? Who covers the Christian worker?
Some have offered the pat answer that God covers these "higher" authorities. But such a canned answer begs the question. For why is it that God cannot be the covering for the "laymen"-or even the pastor?
Hmmm . . .
Of course, the real problem with the "God-denomination-clergy-laity" model goes far beyond the incoherent, pretzel logic to which it leads. The chief problem is that it violates the spirit of the NT! For behind the pious rhetoric of "providing accountability" and "having a covering," there looms a system that is bereft of Biblical support and driven by a spirit of control.
The Bible never consigns accountability to human beings! It consigns it exclusively to God (Matt. 12:36; 18:23; Luke 16:2; Rom. 3:19; 14:12; 1 Cor. 4:5; Heb. 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet. 4:5). Consequently, the Biblically sound answer to the "to-whom-are-you-accountable?" question is simply: "I am accountable to the same person you are-God!" Strangely, however, this answer is usually a prescription for misunderstanding and a recipe for false accusation.
There are scriptures that point to the mutual accountability of Christians just as some of the above-mentioned scriptures assert personal accountability to God. Consider the following verses:
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, "YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET," and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. [Rom. 13:8-10]
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. [1 Cor. 5:9-11]
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. [1 Cor. 8:9-12]
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. [Heb. 10:23-25]
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. [Heb. 13:17]
Both kinds of accountability are scriptural.
This is a brief initial response to this"coverning-accountability" issue. I offer the following thought that might be a more compelling perspective from which to approach the matter: So far the model of accountability presented is linear, thus we run into the difficulty of naming the elephant. Perhaps a circular model with each individual, including our leader/authority figures, accountable to those to the right and left might be best suited?
Heb. 13:17 certainly supports the notion of "upward" accountability. We are also encouraged to submit one to another; confess our faults one to another; prefer others over ourself - all of which supports the bi-directional nature of accountability. So, I don't believe that the concept of accountability/covering is the issue per se, but rather the complete separation of the leaders and laity regarding accountability. The laity is accountable to the leader as a child recognizes the authority of a parent, and is also accountable to the sinner for the life they (the laity) live before them. Likewise the leader is accountable to laity, to live an exemplary life.
The institutional relationship is the one that is most problematic. I believe that it is intended to serve more of a coordinating and facilitating role, leaving the accountability between individuals.
That is not the spirit in which I receive Br. Gill's comments, nor that mine were intended. We must look at the finitude of man, and accept the reality that there is no end of leadership in the natural. That being said, if we focus on the vertical accountability, eventually someone or some organization would not be accounting to anyone. Leadership takes place within an organizational context, and within that context then, the relational accountability is what is operational on a day-to-day basis.
Men and women who forget this principle are the ones susceptible to fall more readily. Remember that you are better covered by the one 'who's got your back', than by the one who can hit you over the head. By the time the head honcho is aware of our issues, struggles and wrong doings, it is usually very late. The ones who walk daily with us are more likely to see us about to stumble and fall.
We watch for our brothers and sisters.