The following article is from Reimagining Church by Frank Viola, the part of the book entitled “Who is Your Covering?” (copyright 2008, David C. Cook). The endnotes aren’t included in the article, but they appear in the book.
The New Testament doctrine of ministry rests therefore not on the clergy-laity distinction but on the twin and complimentary pillars of the priesthood of all believers and the gifts of the Spirit. Today, four centuries after the Reformation, the full implications of this Protestant affirmation have yet to be worked out. The clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the principal obstacles to the church effectively being God’s agent of the Kingdom today because it creates a false idea that only ‘holy men,’ namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry. In the New Testament there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity.
When we go back to the Word of God and read it afresh, we see that the clergy profession is the result of our human culture and history and not of God’s will for the church. It is simply impossible to construct a defensible biblical justification for the institution of clergy as we know it.
Today, the leadership structure that characterizes the contemporary church is hierarchical and positional. In the following pages, we’ll examine this structure and reimagine a form of leadership that’s completely different. One that is envisioned in Scripture and rooted in the triune God.
The present-day leadership structure is derived from a positional mindset. This mindset casts authority in terms of slots to fill, job descriptions to carry out, titles to sport, and ranks to pull. It resonates with concern over explicit leadership structures. According to the positional mindset, terms like pastor, elder, prophet, bishop, and apostle are titles representing ecclesiastical offices. (An office is a sociological slot that a group defines. It has a reality apart from the character and actions of the person who fills it.)
By contrast, the New Testament notion of leadership is rooted in a functional mindset. It portrays authority in terms of how things work organically. That is, it focuses on the expression of spiritual life.
Leadership in the New Testament places a high premium on the unique gifting, spiritual maturity, and sacrificial service of each member. It lays stress on functions, not offices. It emphasizes tasks rather than titles. Its main concern lies in activities like pastor-ing, elder-ing, prophesy-ing, oversee-ing, apostle-ing, etc.
To frame it another way, positional thinking is hung up on nouns, while functional thinking stresses verbs.
In the positional leadership framework, the church is patterned after the military and managerial structures of contemporary culture. In the functional leadership framework, the church operates by life—divine life. Mutual ministry comes forth naturally when God’s people are equipped and hierarchical structures are absent.
Native to hierarchical/positional oriented churches is a political machine that works behind the scenes. This machine promotes certain people to positions of ecclesiastical power and authority. Native to functionally oriented churches is the mutual responsibility and collegial interplay of its members. They listen to the Lord together. They affirm each other in their Spirit-endowed gifts. They encourage one another toward Christ.
In sum, the New Testament orientation of leadership is organic and functional. The hierarchical/positional orientation is fundamentally worldly.
Jesus and the Gentile/Hierarchical Idea of Leadership
Our Lord contrasted the hierarchical leadership style of the Gentile world with leadership in the Kingdom of God. After James and John implored Jesus to grant them the glorified power-seats beside His throne, the Lord replied saying,
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25–28 nasb)
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called “Benefactors.” But not so with you, but let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. (Luke 22:25-26 nasb)
Significantly, the Greek word for “exercise authority” in Matthew is katexousiazo. Katexousiazo is a combination of two Greek words. Kata, which means over. And exousiazo, which means to exercise authority. Jesus also used the Greek word katakurieuo in this passage, which means to “lord it over” others.
What Jesus is condemning in these texts is not oppressive leaders as such. He’s condemning the hierarchical form of leadership that dominates the Gentile world.
That bears repeating.
Jesus was not just condemning tyrannical leaders. He was condemning the hierarchical form of leadership itself.
What is the hierarchical form of leadership? It’s the leadership style that’s built on a chain-of-command social structure. It’s rooted in the idea that power and authority flow from the top down. Hierarchical leadership is rooted in a worldly concept of power. This explains why it’s endemic to all traditional bureaucracies. It’s present in the vicious forms of liege-lord feudalism and master/slave relationships. But it’s also present in the highly stylized spheres of military and corporate America.
While often bloodless, the hierarchical leadership style is undesirable for God’s people. Why? Because it reduces human interaction into command-styled relationships. Such relationships are foreign to New Testament thinking and practice. Yet hierarchical leadership is employed everywhere in secular culture. And the institutional church operates by it.
Summing up our Lord’s teaching on this style of leadership, the following contrasts come into sharp focus:
- In the Gentile world, leaders operate on the basis of a political, chain-of-command social structure—a graded hierarchy. In the Kingdom of God, leadership flows from childlike meekness and sacrificial service.
- In the Gentile world, authority is based on position and rank. In the Kingdom of God, authority is based on godly character. Note Christ’s description of a leader: “Let him be a servant,” and “let him be as the younger.” In our Lord’s eyes, being precedes doing. And doing flows from being. Put differently, function follows character. Those who serve do so because they are servants.
- In the Gentile world, greatness is measured by prominence, external power, and political influence. In the Kingdom of God, greatness is measured by humility and servitude.
- In the Gentile world, leaders exploit their positions to rule over others. In the Kingdom of God, leaders deplore special reverence. They rather regard themselves “as the younger.”
In brief, the hierarchical leadership structure characterizes the spirit of the Gentiles. The implanting of these structures into the church, therefore, is at odds with New Testament Christianity. Our Lord didn’t mince words in declaring His implicit disdain for the Gentile notion of leadership: “It shall not be so among you!” (Matt. 20:26 kjv) is His explicit feeling on it.
All in all, there is no room in the teaching of Jesus for the hierarchical leadership model that characterizes the institutional church.
Jesus and the Jewish/Positional Model of Leadership
Our Lord also contrasted leadership in the Kingdom with the leadership model that marks the religious world. In the following text, Jesus vividly expresses God’s perspective on authority in contrast to the Jewish perspective. Note His words:
But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father: for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:8–12 nasb)
Gathering up the content of this text, we may glean the following:
- In the religious climate of the Jews, a class system exists made up of religious, guru-like specialists and nonspecialists. In the Kingdom, all are brethren in the same family.
- In the Jewish world, religious leaders are accorded with honorific titles. (Examples: Teacher, Father, Reverend, Pastor, Bishop, Minister, etc.) In the Kingdom, there are no distinctions of protocol. Such titles obscure the unique honor of Jesus Christ and blur the New Testament revelation that envisions all Christians as ministers and priests.
- In the Jewish world, leaders are exalted into positions of prominence and outward display. In the Kingdom, leaders find their identity in the lowly towel of servitude and in the unassuming basin of humility.
- In the Jewish world, leadership is rooted in status, title, and position. In the Kingdom, leadership is rooted in inward life and character. (In this vein, the current fad of bestowing honorary “doctorates” before the names of countless clergy is one example of how the contemporary church mirrors those values that run contrary to God’s Kingdom.)
In sum, leadership according to Jesus is a far cry from what it is in the institutional church. Our Lord dealt a deathblow to both Gentile/hierarchical and Jewish/positional leadership models.
These ego-massaging models are incompatible with the primitive simplicity of the organic church and the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus Christ. They impede the progress of God’s people. They suppress the free functioning of the believing priesthood. They rupture the image of the church as family. They do violence to the leadership that exists in the triune God. And they place severe limitations on the headship of Christ. For these reasons “it shall not be so among” those who bear the name of the Savior.
REIMAGINING SPIRITUAL COVERING
While the “clergy/laity” distinction is embedded and assumed in religious circles, it cannot be found in the New Testament. Because the New Testament knows nothing of “clergy,” the fact that a separate caste of the “ordained” permeates our vocabulary and practice illustrates rather forcefully that we do not yet take the New Testament very seriously. The “clergy” practice is a heresy that must be renounced. It strikes at the heart of the priesthood of all believers that Jesus purchased on the cross. It contradicts the shape that Jesus’ Kingdom was to take when He said, “You are all brethren.” Since it is a tradition of man, it nullifies the Word of God. The clergy system stands as a monumental obstacle to genuine reformation and renewal.
Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire builders have been people unable to give and receive love.
So who is your covering? This is the terse query raised by many modern Christians whenever they encounter those who meet outside the institutional church. But what is at the heart of this inquiry? And what biblical basis undergirds it?
It’s my contention that a great deal of confusion and subnormal Christian behavior is connected with a teaching known as “spiritual covering.” (It’s sometimes called “protective covering.”) This teaching holds that Christians are protected from doctrinal error and moral failure when they submit themselves to the authority of another believer or religious organization.
The painful experience of many has led me to conclude that the “covering” teaching is a matter that greatly troubles Zion today. And it desperately begs for critical reflection.
In the next three chapters, I will attempt to cut through the fog that surrounds the difficult issues attached to the “covering” teaching. Particularly the thorny subjects of authority and submission.
Is “Covering” Covered in the Bible?
Since I’ve been gathering outside the institutional church, I’ve observed many who have suffered opposition from leaders in the organized church. These brave souls have generated acute questions about ecclesiastical authority. In fact, they have been asked the same questions that religious leaders asked our Lord centuries ago: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23 nkjv). Or to put it in modern parlance, “Who is your covering?”
If we strip it down to its bare roots, the idea of “covering” rests upon a top-heavy, hierarchical understanding of authority. This understanding is borrowed from the structures that belong to this world system. It in no way reflects the Kingdom of God. Consequently, there is a natural affinity between the hierarchical/positional orientation of leadership and the modern “covering” teaching.
Interestingly, the word covering only appears once in the entire New Testament. It is used in connection with a woman’s head covering (1 Cor. 11:15). While the Old Testament uses the word sparingly, it typically uses it to refer to a piece of natural clothing. It never uses it in a spiritual way.
So the first thing we can say about spiritual “covering” is that there is scant biblical evidence to support it. Yet despite this fact, countless Christians glibly parrot the “who-is-your-covering” question. Some even push it as a litmus test to measure the authenticity of a church or ministry.
This leads me to ask a question of my own: If the Bible is silent with respect to “covering,” what do people mean when they ask, “Who is your covering?” Most people (if pressed) would rephrase the question as: “Who are you accountable to?”
But this raises another sticky point. The Bible never consigns accountability to human beings. It always consigns it exclusively to God (Matt. 12:36; 18:23; Luke 16:2; Rom. 3:19; 14:12; 1 Cor. 4:5; Heb. 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet. 4:5).
Consequently, the biblically sound answer to the “who-are-you-accountable-to?” question is simply: “I’m accountable to the same person you are—God.” Strangely, however, this answer is usually a prescription for misunderstanding and a recipe for false accusation.
So while the timbre and key of “accountability” sounds slightly different from that of “covering,” the song is essentially the same. And it’s one that doesn’t harmonize with the unmistakable singing of Scripture.
Unearthing the Real Question Behind Covering
Let’s widen the question a bit. What do people really mean when they push the “covering” question? I submit that what they’re really asking is: “Who controls you?” Common (mis)teaching about “covering” really boils down to questions about who controls whom. And the modern institutional church is structured around such control.
Of course, people rarely recognize that this is what’s at the bottom of the issue. For it’s typically well clothed with biblical garments. In the minds of many Christians, “covering” is merely a protective mechanism.
But if we dissect the “covering” teaching, we’ll soon discover that it’s rooted in a one-up/one-down, chain-of-command style of leadership. Within this leadership style, those in higher ecclesiastical positions have a tenacious hold on those under them. And it’s believed (rather oddly) that through such top-down control believers are “protected” from error.
The concept goes something like this. Everyone must answer to someone else who is in a higher ecclesiastical position. In the garden-variety, postwar evangelical church, this translates into the “laymen” answering to the pastor. In turn, the pastor must answer to someone with more authority.
The pastor typically traces his accountability to a denominational headquarters, to another church (often called the “mother church”), or to an influential Christian worker. (The worker is perceived to have a higher rank in the ecclesiastical pyramid.)
So the layman is “covered” by the pastor, who is “covered” by the denomination, the mother church, or the Christian worker. Because each person is accountable to a higher ecclesiastical authority, each one is protected (or “covered”) by that authority. So the thinking goes.
This “covering-accountability” template is applied to all spiritual relationships in the church. And each relationship is artificially cut to fit the template. No relationship can be had outside of it—especially those of the “laymen.”
But this line of reasoning generates the following questions: Who covers the mother church? Who covers the denominational headquarters? Who covers the Christian worker?
Some have offered the pat answer that God covers these “higher” authorities. But such a canned answer begs the question. Why can’t God be the covering for the laymen—or even the pastor?
The truth is that the guy on the top ends up being accountable to no one, while accountability is pushed to the hilt for everyone below him. Of course, the real problem with the “God-denomination-worker-pastor-laity” model goes far beyond the incoherent, pretzel logic to which it leads. The chief problem is that it violates the organic nature of the church. For behind the pious rhetoric of “providing accountability” and “having a covering” looms a system that’s bereft of biblical support and driven by a spirit of control. In a word, the underlying issues that lurk behind the “covering” teaching have to do with power and control.
Covering is Smothering
The doctrine of “spiritual covering” fundamentally supplants the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the attempt to critically examine the “covering” teaching and all that’s bound up with it is far more than an arcane, theological exercise. It touches the very purpose of God–a purpose that is wholly occupied with the absolute sovereignty and supremacy of Jesus Christ in His church.
In the 1970s, God raised up many organic churches in virtually every part of America. Yet misteaching about spiritual authority caused the demise of virtually all of them. They experienced the smothering that follows “covering.” Those who waded into the swirling waters of spiritual covering capsized under the crosscurrents of human power and control.
May it not be so in our day.
While we are subject to the same foibles as those who have gone before us, we don’t have to succumb to their mistakes. If we have to make mistakes, let’s make new ones.
As in the 1970s, the Lord is now reawakening His people to His all-consuming purpose of restoring His house. In light of this new awakening, may we scrap the old leaking wineskins that have hindered the flow of God’s new wine.
Would to God that there would be scores of Christian groups who are gathering unto His Son alone. Groups that express His body in all of its fullness. Groups that are not hidebound by authoritarian leadership models or denominational structures.
May you, dear reader, be added to their tribe.
REIMAGINING AUTHORITY AND SUBMISSION
No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and they will ruin the wineskins. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and they preserve both.
—Jesus Christ in Matthew 9:16–17
Within the fellowship of the Trinity there is no lusting after power and position. No trinitarian Person considers himself better than the other two, but in loving deference esteems the other two more highly.
—Roderick T. Leupp
In Christianity today, a great deal of talk about authority and submission is circulating. Granted, the Bible has something to say about authority and submission. However, it spills far more ink in teaching us about love and service than it does about authority and submission. They are but footnotes in the unfolding drama that the Bible tells.
My experience has been that when the fundamental aspects of love and servanthood are mastered in a church, the issues of authority and submission amazingly take care of themselves. (In this connection, those who put undue emphasis on these subjects are typically more interested in making themselves an authority figure than they are in serving their fellow brethren.)
So while the Bible doesn’t make a lot of noise about authority and submission, the subjects are present. And they are germane to bearing ministry, receiving ministry, and pleasing Christ—the Head of all authority.
To my mind, using unbiblical jargon like “covering” only obscures the issue of authority and submission. It makes our conversation cluttered and our thoughts murky. If we stay with a New Testament vocabulary, we’ll be better able to cut through the matted layers of human tradition that have obscured the subjects.
Let me be candid. Most of what passes today for “spiritual authority” is a study in absurdity. The discipleship/shepherding movement of the 1970s is a classic example of the unspeakable tragedies that occur when bogus and foolish applications of authority are made. The aforementioned movement was riddled with spiritual mixture. And it degraded into extreme forms of control and manipulation.
Here is a summary of the discipleship-shepherding teaching. Every Christian must find a shepherd to disciple and “cover” them. The shepherd is “God’s delegated authority.” Therefore, his advice must always be followed. To disobey one’s shepherd is to disobey God Himself. Thus, all Christians must trust in their shepherd’s judgment above their own. If a person fails to submit to his or her shepherd, they have moved outside of divine “covering” and may experience loss—either spiritual or physical.
The major error of the discipleship-shepherding teaching rests upon the false assumption that submission is the equivalent of unconditional obedience. Equally flawed is the idea that God vests certain people with unquestioned authority over others.
To be sure, the leaders of the discipleship-shepherding movement were gifted men with noble motives. And they didn’t envision the direction that the movement would take. (Some of them have since apologized for their role in spawning it.) Even so, countless lives were devastated as a result. In many segments of the discipleship-shepherding movement, spiritual abuse was rationalized under the oft-repeated platitude that God works good despite the actors in the cast. God, it was taught, will hold individual “shepherds” responsible for wrong decisions. The “sheep” bear no responsibility so long as they mindlessly obey their shepherds—regardless of what they command the sheep to do.
Under this rationale, the movement constructed new yokes of control that were whittled and shaped to fit the laity caste. These new yokes suffocated the believing priesthood. And they exhibited the same domination of souls that characterize the cults. So-called “shepherds” were transformed into God-surrogates for other Christians, seizing control over the most intimate details of their lives. All of this was done in the name of “biblical accountability.”
In the aftermath, the movement left a trail of broken and disillusioned Christians who continue to mistrust any semblance of leadership today. (Some suffered crueler fates.) As a result, those who were clergy-whipped in the movement developed an aversion to words like authority, submission, and accountability. Even today, they still struggle to discard the distorted images of God that were etched in their minds by their “shepherding” experience.
The subjects of authority and submission, therefore, represent a sensitive and highly charged history for many. So much so, that when leadership terminology is merely uttered, alert lights go off and the red flag of victimization rises.
More than thirty years later, spiritual authority continues to be an emotionally laden and flammable subject. Despite the highly divergent take on the issue that’s contained in this book, we are nonetheless treading on the edges of a hazardous minefield.
Keep in mind that erroneous teachings never spring from the mere employment of biblical words. They rather stem from running roughshod over what they meant to their original hearers. Words like authority and subjection have been debased for so long that they need to be “redeemed” from the bogus connotations that have been attached to them.
Therefore, the safeguard to false teaching is not found in discarding these biblical terms. It’s rather found in rising above the fray and recasting them according to their original renderings. To put it another way, we must learn to not only speak where the Bible speaks. But we must also learn to speak as the Bible speaks.
The New Testament Notion of Subjection
The Greek word most often translated “submit” in the New Testament is the word hupotasso. Hupotasso is better translated “subjection.” In its New Testament usage, subjection is a voluntary attitude of giving into, cooperating with, and yielding to the admonition or advice of another.1
Biblical subjection has nothing to do with control or hierarchical power. It’s simply an attitude of childlike openness in yielding to others.
Biblical subjection exists, and it’s precious. But it must begin with what God wants and what the New Testament assumes. Namely, that we are individually and corporately subject to Jesus Christ; we are subject to one another in the believing community to which we belong; and we are subject to those proven and trustworthy Christian workers who sacrificially serve the body of Christ.
I stress “proven and trustworthy” because false prophets and pseudo-apostles abound. It’s the responsibility of the local brethren to examine those who claim to be Christian workers (1 Thess. 1:5; 2 Thess. 3:10; Rev. 2:2). For this reason, the Bible exhorts us to subject ourselves to spiritual leaders because of their noble character and sacrificial service (1 Cor. 16:10–11,15–18; Phil. 2:29–30; 1 Thess. 5:12–13; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17). Perhaps the most luminous text to consider in this discussion is in Ephesians:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21 NIV)
Again, the Bible never teaches “protective covering.” Instead, it teaches mutual subjection. Mutual subjection rests upon the New Testament notion that all believers are gifted. As such, they can all express Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are to be in subjection to one another in Christ.
Mutual subjection is equally rooted in the biblical revelation of the body of Christ. God’s authority has been vested in the entire body rather than to a particular section of it (Matt. 18:15–20; 16:16–19; Eph. 1:19–23). In God’s ecclesiology, the ekklesia is a theocratic, participatory society where divine authority is dispersed to all who possess the Spirit. In this way, it reflects the triune God where the relationship of the three Persons is communal and nonhierarchical.
Make no mistake about it: God has not deputized His authority to any individual or segment of the church. Instead, His authority resides in the entire community. As the members of a believing community discharge their ministries, spiritual authority is dispensed through their Spirit-endowed gifts.
At bottom, mutual subjection demands that we realize that we are members of something larger than ourselves—a body. It also demands that we acknowledge that we are inadequate in ourselves to fulfill God’s highest purpose. In other words, mutual subjection is rooted in the humble yet realistic affirmation that we need the input of our fellow brethren. It admits that we cannot be good Christians by ourselves. In this way, mutual subjection is indispensable to the texture of a normal Christian life.
God’s Idea of Authority
The flip side of subjection is authority. Authority is God-given privilege to carry out a particular task. The New Testament word that’s closest to our word “authority” is exousia. Exousia is derived from the word exestin, which means a possible and rightful action that can be carried out without hindrance.
Authority (exousia) has to do with the communication of power. Scripture teaches that God is the sole source of all authority (Rom. 13:1). And this authority has been vested in His Son (Matt. 28:18; John 3:30–36; 17:2).
In other words, Jesus Christ alone possesses authority. The Lord plainly said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). At the same time, Christ has delegated His authority to men and women in this world for specific purposes.
For instance, in the natural order, the Lord has instituted various and sundry spheres in which His authority is to be exercised. He has established certain “official authorities” which are designed to keep order under the sun. Governmental officials like kings, magistrates, and judges are given such authority (John 19:10,11; Rom. 13:1ff.; 1 Tim. 2:2; 1 Pet. 2:13–14).
Official authority is vested in a static office. The authority works regardless of the actions of the persons who populate the office. Official authority is fixed and positional. As long as a person holds office, they have authority.
When official authority is given to someone, the recipient becomes “an authority” in their own right. It is for this reason that Christians are charged to be subject to governmental leaders—regardless of their character (Rom. 13:1ff.; 1 Pet. 2:13–19).
Our Lord Jesus, as well as Paul, exhibited the spirit of subjection when they stood in the presence of official authority (Matt. 26:63–64; Acts 23:2–5). In like manner, Christians are always to be subject to such authority. Lawlessness and the despising of authority are marks of the sinful nature (2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8). Yet subjection and obedience are two very different things. And it’s a profound error to confuse them.
Subjection vs. Obedience
How does subjection differ from obedience? Subjection is an attitude; obedience is an action. Subjection is absolute; obedience is relative. Subjection is unconditional; obedience is conditional. Subjection is internal; obedience is external.
God summons His people to have a spirit of humble subjection toward those whom He has placed in authority in the natural order. Yet we must not obey them if they command us to do something that violates His will. For the authority of God is higher than any earthly authority.
One can disobey while submitting. That is, one can disobey an earthly authority while maintaining a spirit of humble subjection to their office. One can disobey while having an attitude of respect as opposed to a spirit of rebellion, reviling, and subversion (1 Tim. 2:1–2; 2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8).
The disobedience of the Hebrew midwives (Exod. 1:17), Rahab (Josh. 2:1ff.), the three Hebrew young men (Dan. 3:17–18), Daniel (Dan. 6:8–10), and the apostles (Acts 4:18–20; 5:27–29) all exemplify the principle of being subject to official authority while disobeying it when it conflicts with God’s will. It’s also possible to correct a person in an authoritative office while still having a submissive attitude toward them (Matt. 14:3-5; Acts 16:35-39).
While God has established official authority to operate in the natural order, He hasn’t instituted this kind of authority in the church. Granted, God gives believers authority (exousia) to exercise certain rights. Among them is the authority (exousia) to become the children of God (John 1:12); to own property (Acts 5:4); to decide to marry or live celibate (1 Cor. 7:37); to decide what to eat or drink (1 Cor. 8:9); to heal sickness and drive out devils (Matt. 10:1; Mark 3:15; 6:7; Luke 9:1; 10:19); to edify the church (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10); to receive special blessings associated with certain ministries (1 Cor. 9:4–18; 2 Thess. 3:8–9); to govern nations, and to eat of the tree of life in the future Kingdom (Rev. 2:26; 22:14).
Yet astonishingly, the Bible never teaches that God has given believers authority (exousia) over other believers. Recall our Lord’s word in Matthew 20:25–26 and Luke 22:25–26 where He condemned exousia-type authority among His followers. This fact alone should give us pause for serious reflection.
Therefore, it’s a leap in logic and an over-extrapolation of reason to suggest that church leaders wield the same kind of authority as dignitaries. Again, the New Testament never links exousia with church leaders. Nor does it ever suggest that some Christians have exousia over other Christians.
To be sure, the Old Testament portrays prophets, priests, kings, and judges as official authorities. This is because these “offices” stood as shadows of the authoritative ministries of Jesus Christ Himself. Christ is the real Prophet, the real Priest, the real King, and the real Judge. But never do we find any church leader described or depicted as an official authority in the New Testament. This includes local overseers as well as apostolic workers.
To be blunt, the notion that Christians have authority over other Christians is an example of forced exegesis. As such, it’s biblically indefensible. When church leaders wield the same type of authority that governmental officials do, they become usurpers.
Admittedly, authority does function in the church. But the authority that works in the ekklesia is drastically different from the authority that works in the natural order. This only makes sense because the church is not a human organization, but a spiritual organism. The authority that operates in the church is not official authority. It’s organic authority.
Official Authority vs. Organic Authority
What is organic authority? It’s authority that’s rooted in spiritual life. Organic authority is communicated authority. That is, when a person communicates God’s life through word or deed they have the support and backing of the Lord Himself.
By virtue of the fact that they have the life of the Spirit, all Christians are capable of communicating organic authority. . This is why the New Testament enjoins us to subject ourselves one to another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). But those who are more seasoned in spiritual life tend to express God’s will more consistently than the carnal and the immature (Heb. 5:14).
Organic authority finds its source in Christ’s immediate direction rather than in a static office. Organic authority is not intrinsic to a person or a position. It doesn’t reside in humans or in an office they may hold (as is the case with official authority).
Instead, organic authority operates outside of the individual. This is because it belongs to Christ. Only when Christ directs a person to word or action does that person exercise authority. Put another way, a person has the right to be heard and obeyed only when that person reflects the Lord’s mind. Organic authority, therefore, is communicative.
The communicative nature of organic authority can be understood within the framework of the body metaphor that Paul draws for the church. When the Head (who is the source of all authority) signals the hand to move, the hand possesses the authority of the Head. The hand, however, has no authority in itself. It derives authority only when it acts in accordance with the communication of the Head. Insofar as the hand represents the will of the Head, to that degree the hand is an authority.
Note that the movement of the physical head in relation to the physical body is organic. It’s based on the fact that a human being is a living organism. The same principle holds true for the spiritual Head and the spiritual body. Christians only exercise spiritual authority when they are representing Christ in their words and deeds.
Organic authority, therefore, is flexible and fluid. It’s not static. Organic authority is transmitted, not innovative. Therefore, it’s not an irrevocable possession.2 Organic authority is also evaluated and affirmed by the body.
Because organic authority is not officiated but derived, believers don’t assume, inherit, confer, or substitute for God’s authority. They merely represent it. This is a blunt distinction. Failure to understand it has led to untold confusion and abuse among God’s people.
When discussing spiritual authority, the emphasis ought always to be on function and service rather than on a mystical notion of “spirituality.” Claiming authority on the basis of one’s spirituality is practically the same as making oneself an official authority. For the claim to “spirituality” (in contrast with actual spirituality) can easily constitute a veiled office.
If one is truly spiritual, his or her spirituality will be manifested in how they live and serve. Spirituality can only be discerned by the latter and not by the touted claims of the person who assumes it. In this way, keeping the focus on service and function helps protect organic churches from devolving into personality cults.
A Helpful Comparison
Let’s isolate some of the differences between official authority and organic authority.
1. Official authorities must be obeyed as long as what they declare does not violate the will of a higher authority (Acts 5:29; 1 Tim 3:1). By contrast, those exercising organic authority never demand obedience to themselves. They rather seek to persuade others to obey God’s will. Paul’s letters are wonderful examples of this principle. They resonate with appeals and pleas rather than commands. They’re littered with the language of persuasion. (More on this later.)
2. Official authorities bear full responsibility when they lead those under them into wrong practices. In Numbers 18, we learn that the burden of iniquity fell upon the shoulders of the priests—the official authorities in Israel.
By contrast, organic authority never nullifies the responsibility of others. In the church, believers bear full responsibility for their actions—even when they choose to obey the counsel of another.
It is for this reason that Scripture gives multiple injunctions to test the fruit of others. It equally teaches that deception brings divine judgment (Matt. 7:15–27; 16:11–12; 24:4–5; 1 Cor. 14:29; Gal. 1:6–9; 2:4; Phil. 3:2–19; 1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Tim. 2:14; 1 John 3:4–10; 4:1–6). The New Testament never teaches that if a Christian obeys another person, he is no longer responsible for his actions.
3. Official authorities may be less mature, less spiritual, and less righteous than those they have authority over. Organic authority, however, is directly linked to spiritual life. It cannot be separated from it.
We often tell our children “obey your elders” because those who are older (in natural life) tend to be more mature in their counsel. Thus they deserve our respect and subjection (1 Pet. 5:5a). The same principle applies in the spiritual realm.
Those who have grown further in spiritual life bear a greater measure of organic authority. (Note that a person cannot exercise spiritual authority unless he himself is under God’s authority.) A sure sign of greater spiritual maturity is a spirit of servanthood and childlike meekness. Consider the following texts that exhort us to esteem those who display both characteristics:
Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. And I rejoice over the presence of Stephanas, and Fortunatus, and Achaicus; because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. For they have refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men. (1 Corinthians 16:15–18 nasb)
Therefore receive him [Epaphroditus] in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life. (Philippians 2:29–30a nasb)
And we ask you, brethren, to know those labouring among you, and leading you in the Lord, and admonishing you, and to esteem them very abundantly in love, because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 Young’s Literal Translation)
Let the elders who take the lead among the saints well be esteemed worthy of double honour, specially those labouring in word and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17 Young’s Literal Translation)
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 nasb)
Be obedient to [Greek: persuaded by] those leading you, and be subject, for these do watch for your souls, as about to give account, that with joy they may do this, and not sighing, for this is unprofitable to you. (Hebrews 13:17 Young’s Literal Translation)
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders. (1 Peter 5:5 nasb)
Clearly, the New Testament exhorts Christians to give weight to those who tirelessly labor in spiritual service. Such esteem is both spontaneous and instinctive. It ought never be absolutized or formalized.
The honor that a believer receives from the church is always earned by humble service. It’s never demanded or asserted. Those who are truly spiritual don’t claim to have spiritual authority over others. Nor do they boast about their spiritual labor and maturity. In fact, people who make such claims reveal their immaturity. The person that declares that he is “God’s anointed man of strength and power for the hour”—or similar self-accolades simply proves one thing: He or she has no authority.
Contrarily, those who receive esteem in the church have proven themselves to be trustworthy servants. Not in mere words, but in experience (2 Cor. 8:22; 1 Thess. 1:5; 2 Thess. 3:10). Earned recognition and trust from the body is the only valid benchmark for one’s spiritual authority.
4. Official authorities possess their authority for as long as they hold office. And their authority works regardless of whether they make unwise or unrighteous decisions. For example, as long as King Saul sat on Israel’s throne, he retained his authority. This was true even after the Spirit of God departed from him (1 Sam. 16:14; 24:4–6).
On the other hand, organic authority operates only when Christ is being expressed. So if a believer exhorts the church to do something that doesn’t reflect the will of the Head (even if it may not violate a prescribed mandate of God), there’s no authority to back his exhortation. Again, only Jesus Christ has authority. And only that which flows from His life carries authority.
5. Official authorities virtually always function in hierarchy. Organic authority is never related to hierarchy (Matt. 20:25–28; Luke 22:25–27). In fact, organic authority is always distorted and abused when allied with hierarchy. For this reason, hierarchical imagery is absent from the New Testament Epistles.
In short, organic authority doesn’t flow from the top down. Nor does it function in a chain-of-command, hierarchical mode. Equally so, organic authority doesn’t work from the bottom up. That is, it doesn’t flow from the church to the person. For even if a church decides to give someone authority for a specific task, it lacks authority if it doesn’t reflect the mind of Christ.
Organic authority works from the inside out. When the indwelling Christ leads a believer or a church to speak or act, the authority of the Head backs him or her. Jesus Christ, as represented by the indwelling Spirit, is the exclusive wellspring, mainstay, and source of all authority. And there is no covering over His Head.
The upshot is that leadership problems in the modern church stem from an obscenely simplistic application of official authority structures to Christian relationships. This faulty application is rooted in a one-size-fits-all mentality of authority. Indeed, it’s a profound mistake to transplant the official authority template into the church of the living God.
Organic Authority is Always Framed in Love
Whenever a Christian is exercising organic authority in the church, we do well to recognize it. To rebel against such authority is to rebel against Christ. Why? Because the only authority that exists is Christ. And when He is speaking through the church, genuine authority is at work.
Scripture plainly says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). For that reason, when God’s authority is being expressed, love is present. To put it another way, the exercise of divine authority is always framed in love. Let me unravel that sentence.
Love is willing to admonish others when they falter. It rejects free-lancing, do-it-yourself, lone-ranger spirituality. Instead, it values the interdependence of the body.
Love realizes that because we are members one of another and have the same ancestry, our actions have a profound effect on our fellow brethren. Love deplores individualistic, privatized Christianity. Instead, it affirms its need for the other members of the church.
Love is sometimes sweet, kind, and nice. But when it faces the horrors of unrepentant sin, it can be combative and unbending. Love is patient, respectful, and gentle. It’s never strident, demeaning, or dictatorial. Love repudiates pompous and inflated claims to authority. Instead, it’s stamped with humility and meekness.
Love isn’t flabby or sentimental, but keenly perceptive and discerning. It never manipulates or imposes its own will. It never threatens, forces, demands, or coerces.
Love propels us to accept responsibility in being our “brother’s keeper.” But it forbids us from becoming intrusive meddlers into their lives. Love never usurps the place of God and judges the motives of others’ hearts. Nor does it think the worst of them.
Love recognizes that we are called to represent the Holy Spirit’s will to one another, not to substitute for His Person or replace His work.
Consequently, organic authority isn’t a license to probe into the intimate affairs of our fellow brethren to “make sure” they’re walking aright. The Bible never gives us liberty to quiz our spiritual siblings about their financial investments, how they make love to their spouses, or other areas of intimacy.
This kind of unnecessary probing—exercised under the guise of “accountability”—is the stuff that authoritarian cults are made of. Such thinking will ultimately turn any believing community into a psychological pressure-cooker. (Of course, if a believer willingly desires to confide in another person about such personal matters, that’s a different story. But that’s a choice, not a duty.)
We should never lose sight of the fact that the Bible puts a high premium on individual Christian liberty, freedom, and privacy (Rom. 14:1–12; Gal. 5:1; Col. 2:16; James 4:11–12). So respect for these virtues should be high among believers. Unless there’s good reason to suspect that a brother or sister is living in gross sin, it’s profoundly unchristian to poke and pry into their domestic affairs.
The New Testament warns us against being “busybodies in other people’s matters, “speaking things that we ought not” (1 Tim. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:15). By the same token, if a Christian is in serious straits spiritually—struggling with grave sin—love demands that he or she both seek and welcome help from others.
In sum, because divine authority is always couched in love, it engenders a culture of spiritual safety and security. Subjection to God’s authority isn’t control. It’s aid. It’s never static or frozen into a formal system. It’s not official, legal, or mechanical. Instead, it’s relational and organic.
Danger looms whenever it’s transformed into a human institution—no matter what name it flies under. As Christians, we have a spiritual instinct to subject ourselves to spiritual authority. And the church always benefits when we do so.
Whenever we welcome others to speak into our lives, we wedge the door open for the Lord to encourage, motivate, and protect us. It’s for this reason that Proverbs repeatedly stresses that in “the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). Love, then, is the divine umbrella that affords spiritual protection. Yet thankfully, it’s not as narrow as the hearts of some who live under its reach. In the final analysis, only love has “covering” power. For “love covers a multitude of sins” (Prov. 10:12; 17:9; 1 Pet. 4:8).
The Cost of Mutual Subjection
Mutual subjection is radically different from unilateral subordination to authoritarian structures. At the same time, it ought never be confused with the highly individualistic, morally relative, tolerant egalitarianism that marks postmodern thinking.
Mutual subjection is costly. Let’s face it. Our egos don’t like being subject to anyone. As fallen creatures, we want to do what is right in our own eyes—without the interference of others (Prov. 12:15).
The inclination to reject organic authority is deeply rooted in our Adamic nature (Rom. 3:10–18). Receiving correction, admonition, and reproof from other mortals constitutes a big cross to bear (Prov. 15:10; 17:10; 27:5–6; 28:23). It is for this reason that mutual subjection serves as an antidote to our rebellious flesh as well as to our lawless culture.
Exercising spiritual authority is equally painful. Unless one is a control-freak, the task of reproving others is both difficult and risky. Scripture tells us that a brother who is offended is harder to be won than a walled city (Prov. 18:19). Hence, the awkwardness of correcting others, coupled with the fear of confrontation, makes obeying the Lord in areas of expressing His authority hard on our flesh. (This awkwardness merely highlights the importance of cultivating loving, accepting relationships within the assembly.)
It’s far easier to just let things go. It’s far simpler to just pray for our erring brethren and leave it at that. It’s far harder to lovingly confront them with patience, humility, and compassion. (Again the exception to this is the self-righteous control freak. Such a person seems to relish correcting others.)
All of this simply underscores the arresting fact that love is to govern our relationship with others. For if we love the brethren, we will subject ourselves to their counsel and admonition.
Likewise, love will compel us to approach our failing brethren in a spirit of meekness whenever they need our help (Gal 6:1; Jam. 5:19–20). And we will refrain from imputing evil motives to their hearts (Matt. 7:1–4; 1 Cor. 13:5). At bottom, the way of love is always the way of self-denial.
Mutual Subjection is Rooted in the Triune God
Let’s return our discussion of mutual subjection to the archetype of the church: The Godhead. Because mutual subjection is based in love, it’s rooted in the very nature of the triune God. God, by nature, is Community. The one God is made up of a Community of three Persons who eternally share their lives with one another.
Within the Godhead, the Father pours Himself into the Son. In turn, the Son gives Himself unreservedly to the Father. And the Spirit, as the Holy Mediator, pours their love from each to each. Within this divine dance of love, there exists no hierarchy. There exists no control. There exists no authoritarianism. There exists no conflict of interests. Instead, there’s mutual love, mutual fellowship, and mutual subjection.
The mutual sharing that perpetually flows within the Godhead is the cornerstone of love. In fact, it’s the very reason that John could say “God is love” (1 John 4:8). For if God were not Community, there could have been no one for Him to love before creation. The act of loving requires the presence of two or more persons.
The church is the community of the King. As such, it’s called to mirror the reciprocal love relationship that eternally flows within the triune God. Thus within the fellowship of the church, there is mutual subjection governed by mutual love. There is no hierarchy, no control, and no authoritarianism. Why? Because the church is called to live by divine life—the same life that exists within the Godhead (John 6:57; 17:20–26; 2 Pet. 1:4).
Within the family environment of the church, mutual subjection creates unity. It builds love, provides stability, and fosters growth. It gives rich meaning to Christian living. The Christian life was never meant to be lived outside of a face-to-face community. The ekklesia—the community of the King—is our natural habitat.
In this regard, mutual subjection is an antiseptic against hard-line Nicolaitanism (clericalism). It emphasizes power for and power among rather than power over. It encourages the empowerment of all rather than the power of a few.
While our culture encourages self-reliance, individualism, and independence, these things are incompatible with the ecology of organic Christianity. Because God is Community, His children are designed for community. Our new nature calls out for it.
We Christians are not isolated beings. Like the triune God who we were created after, our species is communal (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). We thrive on meaningful relationships with others of the same kind. The modern “covering” doctrine obscures this unearthing insight. But the principle of mutual subjection brings it into sharp relief.
Stated simply, the Trinitarian nature of God serves as both the source and the model for all human community. And it is within the love relationship of the Godhead that the principle of mutual subjection finds its true value. As Miroslav Volf says, “The more a church is characterized by symmetrical and decentralized distribution of power and freely affirmed interaction, the more it will correspond to the trinitarian communion.”3
Mutual subjection, therefore, isn’t a human concept. It instead stems from the communal and reciprocal nature of the eternal God. And it is that very nature that the ekklesia is called to bear. In this way, mutual subjection enables us to behold the face of Christ in the very fabric and texture of organic church life.
To borrow language from John Howard Yoder, the authority and submission that Scripture envisions “gives more authority to the church than does Rome, trusts more to the Holy Spirit than does Pentecostalism, has more respect for the individual than Humanism, makes moral standards more binding than Puritanism, and is more open to the given situation than ‘The New Morality.’”4
In sum, mutual subjection creates a culture that appreciates spiritual leadership without absolutizing it. It responds to spiritual authority without turning it into an instrument of control. For when “mentoring relationships,” “accountability partnerships,” and “spiritual direction” are governed by mutual subjection, they become spiritually healthy and mutually enriching. They also bear no resemblance to the modern practice of hierarchical “covering.”
Perhaps a closing metaphor will help sum up all that I’ve said in this chapter. We can compare mutual subjection to good music. When mutual subjection functions in the context of intelligent humility and deep faithfulness to the headship of Christ, it makes a beautiful melody that resonates with the sweet harmony of the New Testament song. But when it is replaced by hierarchical systems that characterize the spirit of the Gentiles, its sound is distorted and damaging. Still worse, when it’s rejected in favor of the postmodern sins of wholesale individualism and independence, its timbre and key ceases altogether, and the dead chill of silence stands in its wake.
REIMAGINING DENOMINATIONAL COVERING
What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community, and no community not lived in praise of God.
You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
—Paul of Tarsus in 1 Corinthians 3:3–5
Many Christians believe that denominations protect us from error. But this is an illusion.
“Denominational covering” is built on the superstitious idea that if I belong to a Christian denomination, I’m somehow magically “covered” and “protected” from error. But this idea is a charade. Countless Christians who have belonged to a denomination have gone off the beam theologically and morally.
Consequently, the notion that people are “covered” by tracing their accountability to a top-down organization is pure fiction.
The only protection from error is in submitting ourselves to the Spirit of truth in the body of Christ (1 John 2:20, 27). God’s idea of accountability works from community-to-person. Not from parson-to-person. Spiritual protection comes from relatedness to the Holy Spirit and spiritual connectedness with other Christians. Therein lies the genius of Christian community. By contrast, the complicated, legalized, over-under system of denominational accountability is a man-made substitute for mutual subjection.
The Tyranny of the Status Quo
If you doubt that the denominational system is built on top-down control, try questioning it. If you do, it’s quite likely that you will hear the rhetoric engines kick in.
The frightening truth is that all too often, those who raise questions about ecclesiastical authority send tremors through the ecclesiastical system. And they are often vilified as a result.
If you are a dissenter who leaves the institutional church because you believe it to be unscriptural, you might be branded “a heretic,” “a boat-rocker,” “a trouble-maker,” “a loose-cannon,” or “an unsubmissive rebel.” Such invocation of religious rhetoric is designed to stifle thought. It’s calculated to derail honest dissent with the partisan status quo.
Sometimes the religious machinery will concoct the most vicious and hurtful rumors on those who dissent. I have a good friend who used to be a pastor. He was part of the local Pastors Association in his hometown. After having a crisis of conscience regarding the biblical legitimacy of the modern pastoral office and the denominational system, he gave up being a pastor and left the institutional church for good.
Not long after, his fellow pastor friends in town began to spread vile rumors about him and his family. To their minds, a man couldn’t leave the pastorate without being embroiled in some sort of scandal that forced him to leave. So they made one up out of thin air.
None of the rumors were true. But my friend tasted firsthand the tremendous power of the religious system. More importantly, he learned to suffer with His Lord “outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13:13). Such is the price that many have paid for leaving the religious system.1
Interestingly, advocates of the denominational system argue that denominations are a safeguard from the cults. But here’s the irony: The concept of “denominational covering” is very much like the skewed, master/slave notion of leadership that marks most modern cults. Let me explain.
In the denominations, members unreservedly follow a single leader, a board of “lay-leaders,” or an organization. By contrast, the biblical principle of mutual subjection emphasizes submission to one another as opposed to unquestioned obedience to a human leader or hierarchical organization.
To put an even finer point on it, the “covering” teaching is often used as a bludgeon to dismiss those Christians who don’t meet under a denominational flag. “Covering” has too often become a weapon in the hands of partisan religious groups to secure the theological terrain. And that weapon has often been fueled by sectarian bigotry.
The Governing “Mother Church”
Every church born within the first seventeen years of Pentecost spawned from the Jerusalem church. But these new churches had neither a formal nor a subservient relationship to the church in Jerusalem. In this regard, the New Testament always envisions autonomous (independent), but fraternally related churches. The early churches made their decisions apart from external control. It is for this reason that Paul admonishes the assemblies he worked with to take charge of their own internal problems.
In God’s thought, every church is one in life with all other churches. But every church is independent, self-governing, and responsible to God alone for its decision-making. Hence, the concept of a governing “mother church,” or denominational headquarters, is based on a wooden interpretation of Scripture.
Scriptural principle affirms that each church is independent in its decision-making and oversight. (Consider our Lord’s words to the seven churches of Asia. He dealt with each assembly according to its unique problems—Rev. 1—3.)
This principle is also underscored in Paul’s letters. Paul consistently treats each church as an autonomous, self-governing organism. To Paul’s mind, each church is directly responsible and accountable to God (Eph. 5:24; Col. 1:9–10).
It’s a gross mistake, therefore, to spin local churches together with the thread of religious federationism. Every church stands under the same Head. They are all one in life. Consequently, churches should cooperate with, learn from, and help one another just as they did in the first century (Acts 11:28–30; Rom. 15:25–29; 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Cor. 8:1–14; 13:13; 1 Thess. 2:14; Phil. 4:22). At the same time, each church should embrace the tradition that the apostles established for “every church” (1 Cor. 4:16–17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33; 16:1; 1 Thess. 2:14).
According to divine principle, each church should develop its own oversight, ministry, and unique testimony. On the other hand, there should be spiritual relatedness and mutual helpfulness among the churches.
In short, there’s no evidence in Scripture that a church has the right to regulate, control, or intrude upon the affairs, teachings, or practices of another assembly. The denominational system betrays this principle.
The Church Council of Acts 15
As a counterargument, some have sought to tease out of Acts 15 a biblical precedent for a governing “mother church.” But a careful analysis of this text shows that this is an unwarranted application. On the surface, it could appear that Paul and Barnabas went to the Jerusalem church because it had unilateral authority over every other church. However, this notion falls apart when the chapter is read in context.
Here’s the story. Some from the Jerusalem church introduced a false teaching to the church in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas were prompted to pay Jerusalem a visit to settle the matter. Why? Because the teaching had originated from Jerusalem (Acts 15:1–2, 24).
If the false teaching had come out of the Antioch church, Paul and Barnabas would have dealt with it locally. But because the doctrine came from the Jerusalem church, the two men went to Jerusalem to determine who introduced the false teaching. They also wanted to make sure that the Jerusalem elders and the twelve apostles didn’t affirm it.
Upon their arrival, those in the Jerusalem church who taught the doctrine were identified (15:4–5). This led to a church council, and the church repudiated the doctrine publicly (15:6ff.).
The decision reached by the council, which included the approval of the twelve apostles, the elders, and the whole church, was circulated among the Gentile churches. This was done in the advent that other churches would someday face the same troubling issue. The church’s decision carried God’s authority because the Holy Spirit inspired it (15:28) and the church affirmed it (15:23, 28, 31).
To read anything else into this story reflects a failure to take seriously the historical specifics behind the account. It’s an example of reading one’s own biases into the text rather than reading meaning and direction out of it. Consequently, the idea of an authoritative “mother church” lacks scriptural merit.
To be sure, the Jerusalem church was loved, appreciated, and helped by other churches (Rom. 15:26–27; 2 Cor. 9:11–13). But there’s nothing in the New Testament that would lead us to believe that it possessed supreme authority. Or that all other churches were subservient to it. Rather, each church was autonomous and directly responsible to God. None were subordinate to any other.
Denominationalism is Self-Defeating
Another problem with the denominational system is that it frequently crushes that which it claims to protect. It effectively breaks up that which it alleges to build up. Like the misguided sectarian zeal that drove ancient Roman Catholicism, Protestant denominationalism has too often descended into a human institution that cracks the whip of despotism before its dissenters. It adeptly defends the party line. And it damns others for alleged doctrinal trespasses.
It is for this reason that Paul thunders against the Corinthian Christians when they denominated themselves into separate camps (1 Cor. 1:11–13; 3:3–4). That God’s family today be pressed into the partisan straight jacket of denominationalism is no less than scandalous. But today, it’s part of the Christian subculture, and few people wince at it.
(Incidentally, many so-called nondenominational, interdenominational, and postdenominational churches are just as hierarchical as mainline denominations. The same is true for many modern Christian “movements.” These also belong to “the denominational system.”)
More striking, the denominational system actually helps perpetuate heresy—the very thing it claims to curb. Think about it. If the autonomous nature of every church were preserved, the spreading of error would be strongly localized. But when a denominational headquarters is infected with a false teaching, every church connected with it embraces the same falsehood. Thus the heresy becomes widespread.
When every church is autonomous, it’s difficult for an ambitious false teacher to emerge and seize control over a cluster of churches. It’s also virtually impossible for a “pope-like figure” to emerge. Not so in a denomination. All related churches stand or fall together.
It can also be argued quite soundly that to form a denomination is to commit heresy. Denominations are formed when some Christians split off from the larger body of Christ to follow their favorite doctrines or practices and create a movement with them.
The sin of heresy [Greek: hairesis] is the act of choosing to follow one’s own tenets. So a person can be a heretic with the truth if he uses it to fracture the body of Christ. A person can be technically “orthodox,” and yet be a “heretic” by using an orthodox belief to divide Christians from one another.
While the typical institutional church makes its boast about being “covered” by a denomination, it actually affords less face-to-face accountability than organic churches. In the average evangelical church, for example, the pastor is said to “cover” the congregation. But in most churches of this ilk, the bulk of the congregation barely knows the pastor (let alone one another). It’s not uncommon for “churchgoers” to say less than three sentences to each other during a typical Sunday morning service. By contrast, in an organic church, all the brethren know one another intimately. This includes extralocal workers who help the church (1 Thess. 5:12a).
All in all, “denominational covering” is artificial. It turns the church of Jesus Christ into a hierarchical society. And it maps poorly to scriptural example.
The denominational system has fragmented the one body of Christ by religious partisanship. It has alienated the family of God into separate tribes. It has disintegrated the fabric of our spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood into an endless morass of religious parties. It has fractured the fellowship of God’s people. It has slashed the body of Christ into pieces. It has carved the church into splintered fragments. It has spawned thousands of warring clans out of the one family of Christ. (Shockingly, there are more than thirty-three thousand Christian denominations on the planet today.)2 In a word, the contemporary denominational morass has polluted the Christian landscape.
Advocates of denominationalism believe that this system is helpful. To them, the different denominations represent the different parts of the body of Christ. But the denominational system is foreign to New Testament principle. It’s incompatible with Christian oneness. It’s based on human divisions that are biblically unjustifiable (1 Cor. 1—3). It stems from a fractured vision of the body of Christ. And it runs contrary to the unified diversity of the triune God.
A Word About Christian Orthodoxy
Clearly, the mere employment of institutional church structures like the pastor system of Protestantism, the bishop system of Anglicanism, the priestly system of Roman Catholicism, and the denominational system of Christendom, can never safeguard the Lord’s people from doctrinal error. Barring the raft of independent churches that have gone off the rails of Christian orthodoxy, many clergy-led denominations have followed in the same path.3
Historic Christian teaching on the essential doctrines of the faith plays a crucial role in keeping a church on scriptural track. Throughout the centuries, Christians have preserved the core beliefs of our faith: Jesus Christ is God and man, He was born of a virgin, He was crucified for our sins, and He rose again in bodily form, etc.
These core beliefs do not belong to any one ecclesiastical tradition or denomination. Instead, they are the heritage of all genuine believers. And they reflect the voice of the church throughout history.
These “essentials of the faith” embody what C. S. Lewis called Mere Christianity—“the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”4 Thus the call to recover the ecology of the New Testament church doesn’t translate into a summons to reinvent the religious wheel on every theological issue. Nor does it include a rejection of all that has been passed down to us by our spiritual forefathers. At the same time, everything that is postapostolic is subject to scrutiny and should be critiqued by the apostolic tradition itself.
The call to restore organic Christianity sides with every voice of the past that has remained true to apostolic revelation—no matter what segment of the historic church to which they may have belonged. The primitive church was rooted in the soil of Christian truth. And staying within that soil requires that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. As C. H. Spurgeon affirmed, “I intend to grasp tightly with one hand the truths I have already learned, and to keep the other hand wide open to take in the things I do not yet know.”
By What Authority?
When the Lord Jesus was on earth, the religious leaders of His day pressed the vexing question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23 nkjv).
Ironically, not a few in today’s religious establishment are raising the same questions to those simple communities that are gathering around Jesus Christ alone—without clerical control or denominational partisanship. “Who is your covering?” is essentially the same question as, “By what authority do you do these things?”
At bottom, the modern notion of ecclesiastical “covering” is a thinly veiled euphemism for control. For this reason it maps poorly with God’s idea of mutual subjection. And it represents a wholesale departure from the New Testament concept of authority.
While some Christians carry on rather loudly about it, the notion of “covering” would be repudiated by all first-century Christians. To be sure, ideological divisions, doctrinal heresies, anarchic independence, and individualistic subjectivism are severe problems that plague the body of Christ today. But denominational/clerical “covering” is bad medicine for purging these ills.
The “covering” teaching is really a symptom of the same problem masquerading as a solution. As such, it compounds the problems of rugged individualism and independence by blurring the distinction between official and organic authority. It also creates a false sense of security among believers. And it introduces further divisions in the body of Christ.
Just as serious, the “covering” teaching inoculates the believing priesthood from carrying out its God-ordained responsibility to function in spiritual matters. Intentional or not, the “covering” doctrine strikes fear into the hearts of multitudes of Christians. It asserts that if believers take responsibility in spiritual things without the approval of an “ordained” clergyman or denomination, they will be raw meat for the enemy.
(On this score, many clergy chew up a great deal of Christian airtime touting how necessary they are to your spiritual well-being. They assert that they are essential for providing direction and stability in the church. It’s the old “without-a-vision-the-people-perish” sermon. But it’s routinely the clergyman’s isolated vision that we are hopelessly perishing without.)
In this way, the covering teaching contains an implicit threat that the “uncovered” are to blame for all the horrible things that will happen to them. As such, few things so paralyze the ministry of the body than does the doctrine of “covering.”
To put it succinctly, if we try to finesse the ills of the church by employing a technique of “covering,” we’ll end up with an illness that’s worse than the maladies it’s intended to cure. Stated simply, the “covering” teaching brings with it very specific tones, textures, and resonances that have little to do with Jesus, Paul, or any other apostle. While it avows to scratch a peculiarly modern itch, it’s alien to God’s chosen method for displaying His authority.
It is my judgment that the spiritual antidote for the ills of heresy, independence, and individualism is not “covering.” It’s mutual subjection to the Spirit of God, mutual subjection to the Word of God, and mutual subjection to one another out of reverence for Christ. Nothing short of this can protect the body of Christ. And nothing less can heal its open wounds.
You just read a long excerpt from Reimagining Church by Frank Viola, the part of the book entitled “Who is Your Covering?”