Post-Charismatic: Part 3 – Coverings, Authority, and Accountability
Your average evangelical may have never heard the phrase “who is your covering” but it is very common in Charismatic circles. A covering is a governing spiritual authority. A member of a congregation may be covered by an elder or small group leader who is in turn covered by the pastoral staff who is in turn covered by the senior pastor. Usually the hierarchy stops there but it could extend to denominational officials. Most Charismatic churches are in a non-hierarchical denominations or in no denomination at all.
I’ve always struggled to understand why so many people in these types of churches stress the importance of being under authority. If you really believe in church governing authority you better hook up with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church.
The whole concept of covering has minimal biblical support. 1Cor 11 is the only place you’ll find coverings. They were a physical covering women wore on their heads. These coverings are identified as a symbol of authority.
11:3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 11:4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head. 11:5 But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head. 11:6 For if a woman will not cover her head, she should cut off her hair. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should cover her head. 11:7 For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. 11:8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. 11:9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man. 11:10 For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
Taken literally and directly one could argue that Paul maintains that husbands have authority over their wives. However it would be hard to use these passages to justify some sort of hierarchy of church authority because Paul plainly states Christ is the head of every man, not an elder, pastor or apostle!
If you ask someone to explain what covering means they would probably start talking about accountability. Your covering is just someone you are accountable to. A quick search in the bible (NRSV) on accountability finds the following relevant passages.
Ro 3:19 – Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
Ro 14:12 – So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Jas 2:10 – For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
We are held accountable to God and there is no mention of accountability to other Christians. I don’t want people to hear something that I’m not saying. I’m not saying the concept of accountability is unbiblical. I would argue that there is something deeper and richer than mere accountability. I would call that concept koinonia or fellowship. Some forms of accountability can be found in koinonia. This form of accountability is primarily relational, between equals. It is driven by love and based on mutual submission. It is only possible inside a transparent, trusting relationship. The focus is building up one another in love.
A common form of accountability is the stick and shame approach.
Shame: I avoid committing certain acts because I don’t want to admit my shame to my accountability partner.
Stick: I avoid committing certain acts because I will face certain negative consequences if an authority finds out.
Both of these are much like the regulations Paul talks about in Colossians “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”
Sadly this is the main form of accountability that exists in church. When it is over emphasized it makes koinonia less possible. Fear of shame or judgment keeps people from being real. What often happens when people file in to a church building on Sunday morning? They go in to church mode. In church mode language, mannerisms, and behavior all change to project a more holy image to others. The lack of transparency and authenticity makes real accountability impossible.
Unfortunately when we over emphasize accountability it ceases to be part of life giving fellowship and becomes oppressive.
What about authority then? There is lots of biblical support for authority. 1Peter 5:1-5 (NRSV) is as strong a verse as any.
1Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you 2 to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it not for sordid gain but eagerly. 3 Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.
5 In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
How we understand authority has to reconcile with Jesus’ and Peter’s words about lording it over others.
25 But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Paul also chimes in on the role of leaders in the church. 1Cor 2:5-10, 21-23
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.
21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Church authority exists but it is found inside a church leadership marked by servanthood, humility, and equality. We are all God’s servants. Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The emphasis in the New Testament church is the work of the body, the entire body. Leaders exist and they do have their roles but they do not dominate the life of the church.
This is what bothers me so deeply about many Charismatic churches. The spiritual authorities dominate and maintain a tight control on everything. They are not equals. They are the spiritual elites.
I’m still deeply shaken by what Paul means in verse 22 when he says that the apostles belonged to the members of the church in Corinth. What does that mean for leaders to belong to the people in their oversight than the other way around?
Are there times for church authority to hold people accountable for their actions? Yes. Sometimes people engage in activity that is extremely harmful and they should be sanctioned or removed for good of the church. This kind of policing should be done as a last resort. This should happen when all other forms of encouragement fail.
From what I observed most leaders that stress “coverings” aren’t as concerned about fruitful accountability. They are far too content with a church that has very little koinonia and a whole lot of top down control. Biblical accountability is primarily found in mutual submission. There is “top down” authority in the New Testament but it is used primarily as a last resort to keep the church safe. When the emphasis switches from mutual submission to hierarchy the church is hindered as people don’t have the freedom to minister as God has called them. The working of the gifts is not facilitated but stifled.