Recently, I saw a meme of a father wielding the Shield of Faith to protect his young children from the “gay rainbow” that swarmed their bed like a weapon. His other arm wrapped around them, he holds the Bible as they read together. The message is clear: parents must protect their children from the “gay agenda”. Faith and the Bible (as interpreted by the conservative church) are the cover that will help them do this. Not only is it a disgusting image, but it also conveys something I will call the cover doctrine, which is also a lie.
The Doctrine of Coverage
Raised in conservatism, I believed in the Doctrine of Covering. This teaching is essential for church leaders who practice church discipline. Without the doctrine of covering, church discipline has no power. This article is the third in a series on church discipline. In “Matthew 18 and Spiritual IntimidationI discussed the church’s misuse of Jesus’ words as an excuse to confront people with their sin. In “Are Pastors God’s Moral Police?“I criticized the practice of excommunication. Today I will discuss how church discipline becomes abusive when it teaches people that they need the church for spiritual cover.
Many Christians have learned that the church is a spiritual covering. Like when I was a child and held the covers over my head to protect myself from monsters, I also believed that the church kept evil at bay. Sometimes this teaching is overt, and sometimes it is hidden. Either way, members have the distinct impression that the church is protecting them from harm. Here are some other types of blankets the church wants you to live under:
- Prayer blanket. During the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, Frank Peretti’s book This darkness presents paints an amazing picture of the war between angels and demons. Through prayer, the saints strengthened the angels in their fight. The prayer blanket was a defensive weapon that protected heavenly warriors as well as believers. Whether explicitly taught or simply suggested today, Christians still feel that not only is there physical security in numbers, but also spiritual security. Like spiritual soldiers, Christians cover each other with the natural and the supernatural.
- The Blood of Jesus. Evangelicals describe the Christian as covered by the blood of Jesus. Not only does this blood wash away all our sins, but it also functions as a divine shield.
- The Shield of Faith. If you believe in it enough, you can extinguish all the fiery arrows of the devil. The corollary is that if you feel defeated by life, you don’t believe in it enough.
- Patriarchy established. Another work of art depicts a cover where under the Divine umbrella is the husband. As the pious husband is covered by God, the conservative wife is covered by the husband, and the obedient children are covered by the wife. Imagine how vulnerable you would feel if you didn’t have all that coverage! Why, you would feel as unprotected as a shameless teenager wearing a mini skirt and tank top!
- Modest clothes. Oh, yes, that’s another kind of covering that the church teaches. Modesty is a cover that will protect you from the dangerous and lustful male gaze. If there is sexual abuse, it is because the young woman has come out of her cover of modesty, or obedience, or some other form of divine protection. Without the covering of proper garments, the blood of Jesus, the shield of faith, and the prayers of saints, the believer is in danger of physical injury and the loss of his immortal soul.
Church Cover and Discipline
This doctrine of covering is essential for those who want to exercise the discipline of the Church. After all, there must be a consequence for sin. The Bible says the wages of sin is death. In church discipline it is like excommunication. Some denominations believe you must take communion to receive God’s grace. Therefore, to be excommunicated is to be denied this grace by the Church. The keys to the kingdom are therefore the ability of the church to grant or withhold grace. For the excommunicated sinner, the removal of this covering is tantamount to spiritual death.
Most evangelicals don’t believe the Lord’s Supper can save you. They rarely use the word excommunication, which has to do with denial of communion. But removing a member from the fraternity is pretty much the same thing. Many unofficially believe that to have one’s name on the list in a church is to have one’s name on the list in heaven. If you’re excommunicated on earth, then when the list is called there, you won’t be there.
Besides the potential eternal consequence, there is the earthly consideration of living outside the umbrella of faith. Without the prayers of the saints to protect you, you are vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. This is why in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul recommended that a sinner be handed over to Satan for the salvation of his soul. The hope was that with the shield removed, Satan would stab him with those flaming darts. If the sinner suffered enough, Paul hoped he would come running back with a repentant heart.
A control tool
Without the doctrine of covering, the church has no footing to stand on if it wants to control its members. How are you going to enforce your morals if it doesn’t matter whether you are excommunicated or not? If we allow you to believe that physical safety and eternal security are possible outside the local congregation, how can we enforce your behavior? I know pastors who act as if behavior modification is what the church is about. These ministers even refer to the practice of church discipline as “giving someone church.” When the word churchused as a verb, means manipulate a person’s behaviorsomething is completely wrong.
Dismantling the Cover Doctrine
Of course, the idea of divine covering falls apart when you realize that God doesn’t protect everyone, heal everyone, or save everyone. Spiritual naivety only lasts as long as nothing bad happens in your life. The problem with the blanket doctrine is that when suffering occurs, it breaks the faith of the person who was brought up to believe that they would always be safe as long as they were part of the church.
Perhaps you at some point deconstructed the idea of special divine protection for Christians. The whole idea falls apart when you realize that Christians and non-Christians are dying at exactly the same rate. And it’s not just the dead. As a hospital chaplain, I saw that Christians had as many heart attacks as non-Christians. They fall from the ladders just as much. Nor does God put a protective hedge around Christian soldiers in times of war. In fact, it is possible that a fraction of those who believe in this celestial cover are actually less cautious and therefore less secure.
In fact, Christians have as many mental health problems and traumatic events as non-Christians. They suffer just as much from PTSD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and everything else you can imagine. Just as God does not give us special physical protection, God does not protect the hearts and minds of believers any more than he protects unbelievers.
The best coverage the church can offer
The idea that God has favorites and protects those inside the church more than those outside the church is ridiculous. Yet religious leaders who use church discipline to control their members must continue to teach this broken doctrine of spiritual covering. It would be so much better if those facing excommunication realized they would be better off outside of such an environment of control and left voluntarily, either to find a healthier church or no church at all. Soon other parishioners would catch on and stop following the spiritual bullies. Perhaps the bullies would rather be those who are expelled from the church. In fact, expelling bullies would be the best cover the church could offer its members.
Next time… “Church Discipline (Part Four): When Covers Become Concealments”