"Spiritual Covering Or Accountability?"
by Keith Giles
A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a member of our Mission House Church about our "Spiritual Covering". It was a great discussion about whether such a concept was even really Biblical or not, and if it was, what would that look like for our House Church?
Our House Church is truly an independent endeavor. My wife and I left our previous church to start the House Church without any official "covering" from any other church or organization. I've been a licensed and ordained minister of the Gospel now for about sixteen years or so, through the Southern Baptist Denomination, although the last ten years or so I had been serving at Vineyard Churches in Orange County.
To be honest, I never really felt a need to research the whole question of spiritual covering because God had called me to step out and launch our house church and there had been no hint that we needed to do this with the "blessing" or "covering" of any other leader or organized church. Now that my friend was asking me this question, I wasn't sure how to respond. I had my own, very strong opinions about the subject already in place, but I decided to at least entertain the subject and ask some of the spiritual advisors in my life what their take on the subject might be.
So, I shot off an email to people like author Dallas Willard ("The Divine Conspiracy"), Todd Hunter (former National Director of Vineyard Churches), Paul Martin (Pastor at Soul Survivor USA and St. James Anglican), David Ruis (worship leader, author, songwriter), and also a few of my own personal mentors. They are former pastors, Chaplains, Seminary Graduates, and lay leaders. I asked them each to share with me their thoughts on the subject of "Spiritual Covering".
Quite honestly, I expected a robust series of heated debates on the concept. Of that list, only two of them had any real bias in favor of house churches. All the rest were either full-time pastors of traditional churches or at least former pastors. What I heard back, unanimously I might add, truly surprised me.
They each agreed with my conviction that "Spiritual Covering" was simply not a Biblical concept as most people understand it.
(*NOTE- Not all of those polled responded. Dallas Willard was too busy to weigh in, and David Ruis was in Europe at the time.)
First let me explain the basic idea behind "Covering" here. Whenever someone, like myself for example, decides to start a church (house church or traditional), it is usually expected that the leader will submit his group to a higher organizational authority in order to protect the leader, and the new church, from doctrinal errors (heresy), and to protect against moral failures within the leadership staff.
This sounds like common sense, and I have to admit that if we were starting a traditional church, I might agree that such a system might be prudent. However, the House Church by design is already a highly accountable group of like-minded people. In the House Church model, it's hard to be anonymous for very long. There is a high level of accountability in our small group. Plus, I do not lecture as the resident Biblical expert in our house church. Everyone, even my two sons who are elementary-age, is free to share scripture and discuss the Bible at length. Because of this, it's much more difficult for heretical ideas to flourish very long. In fact, just a few weeks ago my eleven-year-old son Dylan put me in my place by reading a passage out of Exodus that completely contradicted something I was saying. The Word of God won out and I had to concede my point.
In contrast, the traditional church (especially the larger ones) make it much easier for people to remain anonymous and to wear masks that suggest "everything is alright". A recent coffee meeting with a good friend of mine, who pastors a very large denominational church locally, confirmed this idea. He admitted that he usually hears about "secret sin" in His Body when the marriage is already over, or the surprise pregnancy has already taken place, etc. In our House Church, we encounter things on the front end, not the last gasp.
Each person who responded to my question about "Spiritual Covering" agreed that there was no Biblical foundation for such a teaching, although many churches use this as a way to control their leaders and manage their "flock" by fear.
Simply put, "Any church without spiritual covering is not, because of this fact, in error. However, if any church (with or without spiritual covering), believes or teaches or allows heretical ideas or doctrines or immoral activities to flourish, THEN that church is in error."
I think one of the main things that came out of this larger discussion was the idea that "Accountability" IS Biblical, but "Covering" is artifical, fear-based, man-made, and still not effective in preventing doctrinal heresy or avoiding moral failures in the clergy.
Most of us who have been around for while in the Christian Church can testify that our best systems of accountablity do not prevent adultery, heresy, embezzlement, etc. We've probably all seen good, Godly men and women fall hard. Sometimes the ones who fall are the very last ones we would ever expect to fail in such a way. Nevertheless, they do, and often.
As a pastor, I have personally witnessed such failures over the last sixteen years first-hand and it's never a pretty sight. Why do these things happen? Is there really nothing we can do about it? (That's another article).
Basically, there is a misunderstanding of what "Spiritual Covering" is and what Biblical "Accountability" looks like. I am happy to report that our House Church has "Accountability" by the truck-load. I am accountable to every single person in our group. I am accountable to the Men of the Mission who meet for coffee every-other week, and I am accountable to a handful of other Godly Men whom I am in constant relationship and contact with every day. I am accountable to my wife and to my two sons and to my parents, and yes, even to those of you who read these articles every week. (Because if I did something stupid I would be compelled to write about it).
"Spiritual Covering" is not the same as "Accountability". Todd Hunter had a great quote that I thought really expressed how arbitrary this idea of "Covering" is. He said that if Rick Warren or Chuck Smith (or some other Christian Celebrity with a large, succesful ministry, book, radio show, etc.) were to announce today that they were leaving to start a brand-new house church, no one would dare ask them, "Who is your spiritual covering?" But if you or I (or some other "regular guy") were to hear God's call to start simple house church, then suddenly the question of "Spiritual Covering" arises. Suddenly it's just too dangerous to do this without another, higher spiritual authority looking out for things.
The truth is, when Chuck Smith left the Foursquare denomination to start Calvary Chapel, he had no spiritual covering. When John Wimber left Calvary Chapel to launch the Vineyard Movement, he also had no spiritual covering. Does this mean that, to this very day, these large, international church-planting movements are without a spiritual covering? Yes, it does. Is that a problem? Not if you attend Calvary Chapel or a Vineyard church...and not if you reject the idea of "Covering" anyway.
For that matter, when Martin Luther left the Catholic Church of his day and started a Protestant Reformation, he also had no "Spiritual Covering" either. So, I suppose there is no need to go much further than this.
For me, it boils down to whether or not your are convinced that there is such a thing as "The Priesthood of The Believer" and how you define it. Scripturally, I believe, that every follower of Jesus is qualified to use their God-given spiritual gifts without the approval of a denominational leader or an organization. Basically, there is no need for a spiritual "go-between". We might need accountability, or discipling, or encouragement, or sometimes even rebuke from one another, but it is not necessary that we have a man, or an organization, to stand between us and God.
A few years ago, some friends of mine wanted to start a Bible Study in their apartment. Because the lead pastor of the Church they were attending couldn't be there to oversee the study, they were not allowed to have their Bible Study. That is a prime example of the complete denial of the Priesthood of the Believer because "regular Christians" were not allowed to read the Bible on their own and understand it without the direct oversight of an official Church representative.
We might as well trade in our modern English Bibles for Latin ones and apologize for the Reformation if that is how we feel about things.
I realize that there are good people, sincere followers of Jesus who would disagree with me on this issue. I am not trying to argue or sling mud at anyone. However, it is my very strong opinion (and also, surprisingly, that of those distinguished gentlemen I surveyed earlier this week...smarter men than I, let's admit), that all that is needed for a Church to operate properly is to submit to one another, and to Christ, and to let the Word of God (the Bible) be your guide. The Holy Spirit promised (and I really do believe Him) to lead us into all Truth. We do not need an expert or a professional to tell us we are "safe" or "official".
We are The Body of Christ. We are The Church. The Bible is our Statement of Faith. We are accountable to one another and to The Holy Spirit of God. Jesus if our Head and He will build His Church just as He pleases (1 Cor 12).
"A good man will remain faithful, even with a poor structure of accountability, and a degenerate man will frustrate and resist even the most iron-clad system of accountability," my friend Todd Hunter said to me. I must agree.
Even so, I have seen enough pastors fall into sin and self-deception and pride to know that no one is immune from moral or doctrinal failure. Accountability is essential. We must submit ourselves to God, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ, or we will never avoid the sin which so easily entangles.
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