Covering theology rarely produces sustainable healthy Christian movements. High profile people in these movements are often mired in scandal and controversy. One of the biggest weaknesses of these movements is, ironically, the lack of accountability at the top. Unlike the Roman Catholic church with its hierarchy that culminates with a pope there is no Pontiff in evangelicalism. This leaves the people at the top of the local church isolated and exposed.
For the rank and file accountability is coerced through fear. Covering theology lays out very severe negative consequences for those who don’t come under authority. The fear of demonic attack, financial distress and the removal of God’s presence motivates people to submit. This isn’t biblical submission because it isn’t a voluntary attitude of cooperation. This submission is involuntary because it is coerced by fears and threats. True accountability is the by product of true fellowship which is grounded in biblical freedom and motivated by love not fear.
High profile ministries that have bought in to covering theology have failed spectacularly
Consider this video promo for John Bevere’s “Under Cover” the mostly widely read books on covering theology. Keep in mind that John Bevere is and has been a member of New Life Church in Colorado Springs.
In the promo Ted Haggard, John Bevere’s pastor says:
Bevere speaks on the subject as “one who has been and is currently under authority” which would obviously be Ted Haggard. This is the same Ted Haggard who was removed from leadership when he was caught soliciting homosexual sex and illicit drugs from a male prostitute. At first he completely denied the allegations and later on he confessed. It was the media that found him out not the church.More recently a church volunteer came forward claiming he was paid hush money to stay quiet about a sexual encounter with Haggard. Sadly another sign of the times. Ted Haggard is one example of many who likely found being at the top of the covering pyramid insulated and isolated him from others. Such a spectacular moral failure should be enough to make anyone rethink whether they truly understood “how relationships should function in the local church for maximum health and productivity in the Kingdom of God.”
Just because Ted Haggard was proven to be a hyprocrite that doesn’t mean every leader of a church that believes in covering theology is completely unaccountable and his hiding some sin. However Haggard’s example isn’t uncommon. In fact a great many authoritarian leaders have used covering theology or something very similar to it to avoid accountability.
For another spectacular implosion one has to look no further than Todd Bentley. Amidst great hoopla and fan fare the star of the Florida Outpouring was aligned (code for coming under authority) with some of the “recognized apostles” in the Revival Alliance. The commissioning can be found here. Of course a few months later the Florida outpouring came to a close as it was revealed that Todd Bentley and his wife were splitting up. Slowly more sordid details came out. In this situation the media did more discernment than the leadership of any of the organizations involved. On the sidelines a great many discerning Christians in the church were very effective and spotting the errors and excesses of the movement. Not all of it was true, caring or even civil but they definitely pointed out things the “apostles” had let slide. Because of the total lack of accountability the church endured another colossal spiritual shipwreck.
Ft. Lauderdale Five
The most prominent movement that adhered to covering theology is the Shepherding Movement. This movement was lead by 5 charismatic leaders dubbed the Ft. Lauderdale Five. These guys developed most of what we call covering theology today. Today’s groups have moderated some of the excesses of the shepherding movement but the core principles remain. The Shepherding movement started in the early seventies. Many leaders in their movement took excessive amounts of control. Spiritual abuse was widespread. Despite the movements 5 main leaders sincere efforts to moderate these excesses they continued. Eventually the movement collapsed under fierce criticism and political infighting.
The movement had sincere leaders and sincerely caring critics. However the voices of legitimate concern were largely ignored. The leadership did not recognize their folly until fierce opposition had begun collapsing the movement from underneath them. For all their dedication to accountability they revealed the only ones they were truly accountable to were each other.
Find a brief history of the Shepherding movement here.
The Non-escape escape clause
Bevere offers one escape clause for those suffering under a abusive authority. If an authority commands someone to do something unbiblical then they can act against their authority. While this might seem reasonable it isn’t as easy as it sounds. The charismatic churches that believe in covering theology often believe in a spiritually inspired method of interpreting the bible. These churches are biased against the scholarly historical/critical method because they view it as overly academic and spiritually dead. They would also see the literalist approach of the very conservative evangelicals as insufficient. This makes it very difficult to challenge the leadership of the church.
If the truth of the bible is spiritually discerned, and the leadership of the church is recognized as having the most spiritual authority, how can a mere church member challenge their interpretation of scripture?
Imagine what it would be like to be that church member.
Our leader is asking us to do something that I find very questionable. Should I follow it? Who am I to say I know something better than the pastor? The pastor walks in so much spiritual authority. What about the elders? They are spiritual men. If there was something wrong wouldn’t they have said something? Should I tell someone? What if I’m wrong and I end inciting rebellion against the church? I should just ask God for more guidance and help me to resist this rebellion in my heart.
If the questions in the person never subside then they usually go one of three ways. The most common path taken is to just stay silent, focus in on what brings life. The other is to leave quietly out the back door. The third option, taken by some of the braver souls to approach the pastor and talk things through. In strongly authoritarian churches the person my then be labelled a rebel and thrown out. In some cases a true misunderstanding is resolved and everything works out well. In some others the pastor manages to manipulate the person in to dropping the issue for awhile. Some are very good at offering an non-explanation explanation that initially convinces people but they come away confused wondering what really happened. I like to call it the “jedi-pastor mind trick.”
If your “covering” has more “spiritual authority” than you how do you know what is biblical and what isn’t? How can scripture be used as leverage against unbiblical teaching when the highest authority isn’t actually scripture, it is scripture rightly interpreted by God’s delegated authority?
How does one learn to discern when he or she is instructed to not worry about the decision making. On one hand Bevere suggests people should not obey their leaders if they are instructed to sin, but then says they shouldn’t bother themselves with discerning whether the leaders decisions are right in so called “grey areas.”
“We should not take upon ourselves the pressure to discern beforehand whether leaders are right nor not. Nor should we judge after the fact. This is not our burden, but God’s He alone knows and can change hearts as he so desires (Bevere 147)” .
How does unhealthy hierarchy undermine true accountability?
Many healthy Christian organizations have leadership hierarchies. While I personally am a proponent of relatively flat simple organizational structures I believe that very legitimate churches have positional hierarchy. Hierarchy presents its own challenges but a church or ministry can be healthy and productive with this type of leadership structure. It should also be noted that even in organizations and churches that have flat organizational structures hierarchies of influence develop. There will often be people who have tremendous influence but have no recognized position. A church with a flat organizational structure can have a very unhealthy hierarchy, it is just a hierarchy of a different kind.
Healthy organizations and churches will be marked by the following:
- Guided by authoritative principles that can be appealed to by anyone in the organization
- Independent critical thought is encouraged
- It is recognized that God can inspire and speak through anyone
- Members and staff can hold and share opinions without fear of recrimination
- There are checks and balances against unfettered power (usually a board or council)
- The board can act independently
- The board is actively involved and with a clear understanding of activity in the church or organization
- The board is free from conflict of interests (e.g. the leader’s spouse can’t be on the board)
- The organizations finances are handled with independent qualified oversight
- Challengers to the status quo are respectful and offer their positions in a non-inflammatory way
- Challengers do not start an backroom campaign against leadership
- Challengers respect the decisions of leadership after challenges have been processed in a fair and honest way
- People are not exposed to avoidable public humiliation or ridicule
- People recognize that leadership will make mistakes and continue to remain fully committed
- Diversity is encouraged and intentionally facilitated
- All people involved recognize the inherent value of each member and view one another through a lens of sincere grace and love
- People are accepted and feel the freedom to be deeply honest with their closest friends, and transparent with the rest
Unhealthy organizations and churches will have the following:
- The guiding principles of the organization must be correctly interpreted by leadership
- Independent critical thought is considered rebellious and a source of disunity
- God speaks almost completely through those the highest level of anointing
- People self-censor thoughts that go against the status quo and are afraid to share them
- There few or no checks and balances
- The board is dominated by the leader or a select few
- The board cannot act independently
- The board makes decisions based only on the information leadership provides
- There are conflicts of interest on the board
- The organizations finances are hidden from review
- Challengers are disrespectful and inflammatory personally attacking and harming people in leadership
- Backroom underground whisper campaigns are started against leadership
- Challengers refuse to give up after their concerns have been processed fairly and honestly
- Leaders and members are exposed to avoidable public humiliation and ridicule
- People seize upon every mistake as grounds for criticism
- Diverse elements of the group find themselves marginalized and shut out
- People who leave the organization are vilified with pubic pronouncements or whisper campaigns
- People feel like they need to live up to several social standards making it difficult to be themselves
- The church feels as they are the elite with special knowledge and/or anointed leadership that puts them at the vanguard of the Holy Spirit’s activity on earth
The kind of hierarchy found in covering theology shuts out all the voices except for those in the inner circle. When all the people in the inner circle have a vested interest in keeping the gravy train going criticism is muted. This is made worse when those in the inner circle only get their by being selected by people already in the circle. Diversity gives way to uniformity.
Through this process covering theology marginalizes contrary voices and opinion. It assumes that the people higher up the chain of command have the greatest spiritual authority and must have the clearest communication with God. Those with contrary views are ostracized and even demonized as the backslidden, the prodigals and rebels. Leadership falls in to group think as they degenerate in to an insular “old boys club.” Stunningly, people maintain complete faith in this leadership despite all the promises and prophecies that don’t come true.
Biblical submission is “a voluntary attitude of giving in” not a elitist, isolationist tendency that marginalizes contrary opinions. In the church submission must always go both ways. Leaders should be free to exercise their gifts and should be respected. The wise should be given respect and honor. They should have greater influence in the church because they are leaders. They should also be protected against malicious accusations and slander.
In covering churches the culture of fear, if not the rules prevent realistic levels of submission from the leadership to the people.
Covering theology changes the way in which people relate:
- Few are brave enough to share a contrary opinion
- People are taught that leadership knows best
- Leaders have more spiritual authority so naturally they must know God and understand the bible better
- People are not taught critical thinking or basic biblical hermeneutics
- Critical thinkers learn to either stay quiet or leave
- Verbalizing a contrary opinion is considered complaining and labelled as rebellious
In this context all appears calm on the surface because much of the tension that should exist in any group of people is forced underground. The people who have happily bought in to the system never notice any disruptions. Those that don’t eventually find the door, or are shown the door.
Covering theology results in a lack of accountability
Leadership cannot be effectively challenged in an environment where people are afraid that the benefits of their salvation are on the line if they criticize leadership. Without proper checks and balances or critical thought a leader can easily deceive people. No one inside the organization can effectively call them to account on all but the most dire ethical or theological failures.
Bevere, John. Under Cover. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2001.