If you know someone involved in a “covering” church but aren’t part of one you may wonder what is the real world impact of Covering Theology.  How does it harm people?  What are the things to look out for?

Inevitable Spiritual Abuse

Covering Theology wielded in the hands of a secure, caring person will only have a moderately negative impact on people.  If the authority in question has issues  like dependency, anger, insecurity, desire for control then the abuse can be acute and devastating.

What is spiritual abuse?  “Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.  It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being (Johnson 20).”

Ken Blue defines it this way in “Healing Spiritual Abuse”:

“Abuse happens when someone has power over another and uses that power to hurt.  Physical abuse means that someone exercises physical power over another causing physical wounds.  Sexual abuse means that someone exercises sexual power over another resulting in sexual wounds.  And spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds (Blue 13).”

Consider the following story found in “The Subtle Power Of Spiritual Abuse”:

Jeri stepped in the office of a Christian counsellor, explaining that she felt desperate, and felt like she was going crazy. “either that,” she said dryly,” or I’m on the verge of a major breakthrough in my spiritual growth.

“Well,” she began, choking out, “I went two my pastor a few months ago because I was feeling depressed a lot. He pegged the root problem right away, but I can’t seem to do anything about it.”

“Root problem…” the counsellor repeated. “what was that?”

Jeri looked down at her shoe tops. “I guess I would have to say the problem is, well me. My pastor says I’m in rebellion against God.”

What unfolded and was an unfortunate, and all too common, case history: Jeri’s church teaches that scripture is God’s word, the standard by which we must live. But they use it as a measure by which we gain acceptance with God rather than as a guide for living. Therefore, when she asked her pastor for help with her depression, she was given a “prescription” of praise scriptures to memorize and repeat over and over. This, she was told, would get her mind off her self and onto God. The depression would left when she got over her sinful self-centeredness.

Jeri had tried what the pastor suggested, but her depression did not lift, and this raised some questions. She noted that there was a history of depression among the women in her family, and that she was presently experiencing some physical problems. Moreover, she confided to her pastor that she was struggling in her relationship with her husband, because he shrugged off responsibilities with their two teenagers who were beginning to get into trouble.

“How did he respond when you said his suggestion didn’t help?”

“That’s when he dropped the bomb on me,” Jeri said.

The counsellor did not fail to notice her choice of metaphor – -the devastation Jeri was trying to portray–and asked, “what sort of bomb?

“The pastor had told her, ‘the fact that you won’t accept my counsel without to raising all these objections and other possibilities was the major indication to me, Jeri, that your root problem is spiritual, not physical or emotional. When you talked about arguing with your husband, rather than submitting to him and trusting God, that confirmed it.’ He concluded that the other problems – -emotional depression, physical illness, a troubled marriage and teenagers in turmoil – – were the result of her inability to submit fully to God and his word.

Jeri had tried to object. “I told him I felt condemned. That I felt I needed some other kind of help.”

“What happened? ” the counsellor are prompted.

“That made it worse. By pastor just smiled and said I wasn’t willing to accept his counsel – -so that proved he was right. That’s when he used the ‘R’ word on me. He said, ‘Jeri, you’ll need to repent of your rebellion against God. Then all these minor problems will be taken care of’”.

“That’s a strong judgment against you,” the councillor noted. “What you think about it?”

Tears welled up, and Jeri dabbed at them with that issue. Then she sat ringing that issue in knots as she replied. “I feel like a bug pinned down to a piece of cardboard. I try to praise God – -I do praise him. But the problem with my husband and kids goes on and on and when I’m honest with myself I get mad, because just repeating the scriptures, when a family and our health is falling apart, seems so shallow.

“But then I wake up in the middle of the night, hearing my pastors words. And I think I must be a terrible Christian – -in rebellion, like he said – -or my life wouldn’t be such a mass. He’s right, isn’t he? Rebellion is a sin we all deal with.

“But the turmoil in me has gone on for four months, and I find myself thinking I should stick my head in our gas oven. Another times I think I must be on the verge of a breakthrough to more ‘holiness’ – -if only I could pray easy enough, or submits enough. But I don’t think I can stick it out long enough. I just feel exhausted, and like I’m losing my mind.”

“I can’t carry all this wait anymore, close double quote she ended, pleadingly. “ Help me…”

(Johnson 17-18)

Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a “spiritual standard”  This promotes external ‘spiritual performance,’ and also without regard to an individual’s actual well being (Johnson 20).”

Here is another example from the same book:

“My Bible study leader tells me that i haven’t taken on the ‘mantle’ as spiritual head of my home.  I should be praying more, taking authority in the Spirit—then spiritual forces wouldn’t be able to attack my family.  Then my wife would be having menstrual problems and the oldest son wouldn’t be suffering from asthma.  I guess their sickness is my fault (Johnson 21).”

Unaccountable leadership

In the leadership structure of these churches there are no effective internal mechanisms to challenge the leadership.  People are afraid that if they resist the pastor they are resisting God.  The fear of spiritual retribution causes people to censor themselves.

People get twisted up inside

We all have some capacity to define our values internally based on rational thought and the interpretation of truth.  We make value judgments based on our experience and use them to formulate opinions and principles to live by.  In “Covering” churches this process is allowed as long as it is in line with church leadership.  Almost all value systems are defined externally based on the instruction of church leadership.  Those who resist the values espoused by leadership are seen and independent, outside God’s will and even rebellious.   People with strong internal value systems that conflict with church leadeship are stuck in a difficult spot.  If they have accepted covering theology they might conclude that the conflict between their values and the church’s values is an act of rebellion or the fruit of demonic deception.  This results in a death spiral of internal conflict and insecurity.

Excessive use of fear

In the teaching the fear of God’s personal and immediate retribution for sin (defined as lack of submission to God’s authority) is much more present in people’s decision making.  It is understood that wilful disobedience to authority could result in a tragic downturn in one’s health, family, job, or ministry.  The increased presence of fear will eventually have an impact on people’s mental health.

Extremely dependent people

Because people are instructed to trust authority over their own reasoning their reasoning skills atrophy.    People become less mature in Christ rather than more.

Blue, Ken. Healing Spiritual Abuse.  Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1993.

Johnson, David, and Jeff VanVonderen. The Subtle Power Of Spiritual Abuse. Bethany House: Minneapolis, 1991.