The term spiritual covering is usually used in the context of the Shepherding Movement, though it can have other meanings. In its primary context, having a spiritual covering means being submitted to the authority of another Christian believer. The concept is taken to mean that, for a person’s spiritual life and/or ministry to be valid in the eyes of God, the person or ministry must be under direct submission to a specific person. This might be an elder or pastor of a church, an older or more mature Christian, or some other authority figure. The idea that a “spiritual covering” is required was initially developed within the Charismatic movement. Today, it is sometimes associated with the New Apostolic Reformation and the Hebrew Roots movement.
According to the teaching of spiritual covering, Christians are not only accountable to God but also to their leaders and elders. For biblical backing, supporters of spiritual covering cite verses such as Ephesians 5:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13, 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, and 1 Peter 5:5. In practice, the concept of spiritual covering makes an earthly authority figure an intercessor or a substitute for God in the life of the person or ministry that has the “covering.” This has led some Christians to consult their designated “shepherd” prior to making career or family decisions. In some cases, professing Christians have claimed that, given an apparent choice between obeying God or their shepherd, they would obey their earthly shepherd.
Naturally, this idea is not without controversy within Christianity. The teaching of spiritual covering has been the cause of various levels of authoritarian abuse. Several early proponents of the spiritual covering concept, such as Bob Mumford and Charles Simpson, have since distanced themselves from it and apologized for being involved. Of course, it is not wrong to submit to the authority of a pastor and follow his lead; however, with the “spiritual covering” concept, some groups have taken the basic structure of church authority and moved it far beyond biblical precepts.
Biblically, each person is ultimately accountable only to God (Romans 3:19; Matthew 12:36), not to any other person. Consulting with others for guidance (Proverbs 11:14) and being humble enough to learn from the wisdom of others (Proverbs 5:11–14) are commendable. Our approval comes from God, not men (2 Timothy 2:15). No person, strictly speaking, has the absolute right to declare our service to God valid or invalid (Romans 14:4). Mandating a human shepherd for our spiritual lives not only obscures our relationship to Christ (1 Timothy 2:5), but it can lead to division within the church (1 Corinthians 3:4–9). Jesus, in fact, speaks against excessive earthly authority in Matthew 20:25–28.
Submission to the will of God is necessary for all people and for any activity that claims to be a “ministry.” Respect for authority (Romans 13:1), mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21), and cooperation between believers (John 13:34) are commanded in the Bible. And relying on the experience and wisdom of others is a matter of common sense. However, there is no biblically valid mandate for a “spiritual covering” under a particular person in order for our efforts to be legitimate.