Uncovering Spiritual Covering

30th October 2013 by Norman Walford

One of the highlights—if I can call it that—of the legal calendar this year in Singapore
has been the drawn-out trial of the senior pastor of one to  the largest churches on the
island on charges of criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts.

The amounts of money involved are mind-boggling—in US dollar terms it’s about
$19,000,000. That’s $9,500,000 initially taken from the building fund to finance his wife’s
singing career, and then another $9,500,000 to pay off the first $9,500,000 to try and
conceal it in the accounts. That’s called the snowball effect, by the way.

I suppose I feel slightly vindicated, since in the final chapter of my book How To Survive
in the Pharisee Church I had use this particular church as an example of high pressure
fund-raising tactics that I had witnessed on one of my occasional visits to the Sunday
morning services there.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. The legal process will take its course and
eventually a verdict will emerge. There’s no point in prejudging the outcome. I want to
talk about something else that I first encountered on one of my visits to that same
church, which is the concept of SPIRITUAL COVERING.

I’d never heard of spiritual covering until that visit—perhaps that’s my sheltered life!—so
I had to try and work out what it meant from the context.  The context was a strategy of
the pastor to discourage people from leaving his church and moving to other churches.
And the meaning was, as long as you stay in MY church, you have spiritual covering;
whereas if you move to another church you lose that spiritual covering. As long as you
stay in my church, I as pastor ‘carry the can’ for you in the eyes of God. God will
recognize your sincerity and faithfulness, and so you will not be held accountable for
any spiritual error you might get into as a result of my teaching. The responsibility will be
mine, whereas you are ‘covered’.

If you stay, you are covered. If you leave, you are vulnerable to God’s judgment, Satan’s
attacks, whatever. So better stay. That’s Spiritual Covering, a doctrine gaining some
support in certain types of churches.

I can think of a lot of objections to spiritual covering, but I’ll confine to a few:

1. Firstly, I’ve got spiritual covering already. I’m covered by the blood of Christ. I try to
get my beliefs and my practices right of course, but I know that even if I don’t, in the final
analysis I’m accepted and I’m forgiven. I’ve been adopted into God’s family and that’s
enough. Do I need any additional covering from the church or the pastor? No I don’t, it’s

2. In fact there’s a rather negative, defensive posture to this concept of spiritual
covering that I find disturbing. The idea that if the pastor can somehow make me ‘safe’ I
no longer need to fear the anger of God if I accidentally step out of line. I was going to
say it’s a bit ‘Old Testament’ except that would be to insult the Old Testament which
doesn’t really seriously put forward this kind of system. I shouldn’t be asking, How can I
be safe?—I’m safe already.  Rather, How can I be most effective?

3. In fact it’s difficult to think of anything in the bible giving a precedent for this concept
of spiritual covering by another human being—as opposed to the spiritual covering that
comes from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. It’s the opposite. WE are responsible for the
path we follow. And if we follow a false teaching or a false pastor we are still responsible
for the path we take. The Old Testament prophets are full of it, God’s anger—not with us
the sheep, but with the pastors, the false prophets who lead well-meaning and sincere
people onto the path of destruction thinking it to be the path to life.

4. The New Testament may be a bit more ambivalent when it comes to ‘stepping
outside’. I don’t see that as a major doctrinal issue, rather as a practical issue in a tiny
first century Christian movement with effectively only one church to choose from.
Stepping out of the church meant a return to paganism, leaving God behind. Today, with
a multiplicity of churches available to choose from, the situation is different. There’s no

5. Then there’s the ultimate inconsistency in the doctrine. Spiritual covering is used by
pastors to protect their own congregation from attrition at the hands of neighbouring
churches. It says that if you are a part of this church, then God wants you to stay a part
of this church, permanently. BUT all pastors have a past. Almost without exception they’
ve come from another church somewhere along the line. And if I’m not supposed to
leave their church, then how come they were justified in leaving wherever it was that
they came from themselves?

6. This is certainly true of the case in point. In many ways (leaving the money side out of
it) he’s done a great job. He’s probably accomplished far more by the move than he ever
would have by staying. No argument about that. But—if it’s OK for him to leave that
church, surely it’s OK for ME to leave HIS church! If I feel called to leave his church and
start something new, why can’t he give his blessing and say, ‘Fantastic! God go with
you!’. Except that . . . his church is the RIGHT church and all the others are the WRONG
church. Enough of that self-deluding nonsense!

Spiritual covering—a ‘new’ doctrine from the more authoritarian segment of the Christian
church? A tool used by church leaders in authoritarian, one-man-show churches to
cement their own positions and shore up their authority. But not of course something
that would ever happen in a ‘respectable’ church—certainly not the rather staid Anglican
church that I attend. Or is it?

When I think about it, others may not give it a formal name or elevate it quite to a
doctrine. But the underlying mentality can still be there. Witness the highly negative
reaction of my own vicar when he found out I’d been attending meetings in other
churches. He COULD have said, “That’s great Norman! Get out there and get some new
ideas! I’m not perfect, go an listen to others, if you learn anything bring it back and let’s
hear it!” COULD have said, but didn’t. What he actually said, I leave to your imagination.

Where does all this defensiveness come from? It comes from pride, and it comes from
insecurity. Pride that can’t bear to contemplate than any other church somewhere might
actually be ahead of mine in hearing from God (no shame in admitting that, surely?).
And insecurity which, granted, can be worse if you’re a salaried church employee
dependent on the success for the church for your daily bread.  But aren’t we supposed
to be moving beyond that? Isn’t that the whole point?

So why not have two churches? Perhaps we should ALL have two churches. Perhaps I’ll
come to that one next . . .
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