A while back when I posted on Facebook a question about authority teachers, one person told me that John Bevere’s book Under Cover had taught “church authority” in such a way that that it had nearly destroyed her and her family.
So I bought the book and started reading it.
I saw that the presentation of authority in the book was indeed dangerous and . . . I might even say craftily presented.
First of all, Bevere spends the first 25-30% of the book establishing that God is the ultimate authority.
Then throughout the book he keeps coming back to examples of God as the ultimate authority, weaving those examples in and through the rest of the book.
But that’s a bit of a non-issue for me, because I already believe wholeheartedly in God’s authority. I want to follow Him wherever He leads and do whatever He says.
The question comes when talking about any people who have or claim to have spiritual authority. Do they actually have authority over the people of God? If so, what does that look like?
Bevere presents the answer to the first question as an unequivocal and resounding yes. You are to be “under the cover” of those in “spiritual authority” in your church. And by the term “spiritual authority,” I mean—and he means—“What I’m telling you to do is what God wants you to do.”
And by “under cover,” of course that means you are to give them unequivocal obedience.
In true Gothardesque umbrella-style theology, Bevere says, (page 165), “[O]ur judgment will be relative to our submission, for authority is of God. To resist delegated authority is to resist God’s authority.”
Of course his point all through the book is that God’s authority is delegated to the church leader, and as you obey the church leader, you are obeying God.
Here are a few of Bevere’s arguments to drive his point home, and my responses.
Bevere compares the man in the position of “church leader” to Moses
Bevere spends several pages (pages 159-163) describing accounts of the failures of the Israelites to follow Moses’ divinely-appointed leadership, and what happened to them as a result.
He then seamlessly moves into discussion of your pastor. Seamlessly, that is, because he never says, “Your pastor is in the place of Moses.” No, what he says is,
“You may consider yourself wiser than the children of Israel. . . . You would have discerned Moses was right . . . you would have been right there with Joshua.”
See what he did there?
He put you in the place of the Israelites. Then it’s a seamless assumption to put your pastor in the position of Moses.
Then he says (page 163), “What separated Joshua from the rest of his peers was not his discernment, but his ability to recognize and submit to true authority. Out of that came true discernment.”
The implication, of course, is that when and only when you submit to your pastor, you’ll be able to have true discernment.
Then he moves into the full-blown presentation of your “spiritual leader” as if he is in the place of Moses.
But no matter who your pastor is, he doesn’t fill the role of Moses.
No, in fact Moses himself said (Deuteronomy 18:15-19),
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”
So . . . who was that prophet?
It most certainly was not your pastor.
It was Jesus.
In the days of the Old Covenant, Moses was chosen directly by God to lead the Israelites, and that choice was solidified again and again to the Israelites through one miracle after another.
Moses heard directly from God. There were no Scriptures in those days; Moses went up on the mountain and received the words from God. If the Israelites were going to hear anything from God, they had to get it from Moses. He was the intercessor of that day.
But the intercessor of our day is Jesus.
We, the New Covenant church, do not need another leader like Moses, because we have Jesus.
Moses was faithful in God’s house as a servant, and he spoke of the things that God would say in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son in charge of God’s house. We are his house if we keep up our courage and our confidence in what we hope for. (Hebrews 3:5-6)
Bevere compares the man in the position of “church leader” to a king
In the same chapter, Bevere uses Esther’s approach to the Persian king to show you how you should approach your pastor when you disagree with him.
Obviously when you disagree with someone you want to be as polite and respectful as possible. But no, Bevere’s advice goes way beyond this.
You should approach your pastor as if he is a king.
He then backs it up with the story of David’s respect toward Saul and Abigail’s respect toward David.
You should approach your pastor as if he is a king.
Where does this come from? Certainly not from the Word of God. Jesus said, in Matthew 23:8-12,
You must not be called ‘Teacher,’ because you are all equal and have only one Teacher. And you must not call anyone here on earth ‘Father,’ because you have only the one Father in heaven. Nor should you be called ‘Leader,’ because your one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great.
Bevere’s teaching, while using Scripture to buttress it, goes completely counter to Scripture.
Bevere compares the man in the position of “church leader” to the apostle Paul
During our family’s church pilgrimage, for a year we were in a denomination that we discovered leaned so far toward pastor worship that it could perhaps have been called cultic. A friend gave me some sermons from the “chief among equals” pastor of a “sister church.”
As I listened to him talk about the pastor’s authority, I heard him pivot to talk about Paul. I remember thinking, “Oh, he’s not going to go there, is he? He’s not going to go there?”
But he did. He went there. He said that you are to treat your pastor as the New Testament believers treated the apostle Paul.
I was truly appalled, but my friend said, “That’s the kind of teaching we were fed on all the time. That was normal.”
But there’s quite a difference, you know.
Paul was the primary one to communicate God’s Word to His New Covenant people. He actually received the direct word of God. If your pastor argues that he also does, well, you could argue the same. Nowhere does the Bible say that being in a position of church leadership gives a person an inside track to the mind of God.
But not only does Bevere say your pastor is to be honored like the apostle Paul, he takes it a step further, perhaps even further than I’ve ever heard anyone take this “submission to church authority” thing.
Some back story:
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul had told his readers to put a certain man out of the church, a man who was flagrantly living in sin. Then in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul told them that because the man had repented, they should forgive him, love him, and bring him back into the congregation.
But here is how Bevere presents it:
The apostle Paul told the Corinthian church to do something in his first letter that he altered in his second one. Once he changed his order to the church, he made this remarkable statement: “For this was my purpose in writing you, to test your attitude and see if you would stand the test, whether you are obedient and altogether agreeable [to follow my orders] in everything.” (2 Cor. 2:9 AMP).
Then, contrary to the truth that Paul wanted the Corinthians to follow truth and do the right thing, Bevere says, “Paul gave them orders for one purpose: to see whether they would submit to his authority.” (page 175)
That was a jaw-dropping statement to me. But because Bevere doesn’t give any context for Paul’s “order reversal,” he is able to make Paul’s orders sound completely capricious.
And yes, that’s how he follows this up. Keep reading.
I have a very wise friend who has been a pastor for years. He told me the way he finds insubordination among his workers is to give a directive that makes no sense. He said, “John, I’ll soon hear the gripes and complaints of the rebellious. I deal with it, then change the directive back to normal operations.”
A few sentences later: “The purpose: if they followed this directive, they would follow anything else.”
Indeed. All the staff members who were actually thinking, who realized that to spend time doing a senseless job was a waste of the Lord’s time and money, could be kicked out. Only the ones who mindlessly obeyed were kept on.
Is this the way the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to operate?
And no, that wasn’t like Paul at all. Not even a tiny bit. Besides the fact that Paul’s directives in 2 Corinthians did indeed make complete sense, if you’ll recall, Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians (11:1), “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
And as if that weren’t enough . . .
Bevere compares the man in the position of “church leader” to God
Yes, he certainly does.
Bevere tells the story of Moses pleading with the Lord regarding God’s decision. “First, Moses spoke in complete submission and with fear and trembling. Second, Moses pleaded passionately or petitioned God; he never commanded.” (page 173)
He then goes on to draw the comparison that you know is coming: this is our guideline for petitioning a church leader. The way Moses petitioned God is the way we are to petition church leaders.
Does this seem perilously close to idolatry to you?
Do you see why CEOs of abusive churches would love this book and order copies by the dozens and make it required reading for their members?
Who is your pastor, really?
Your pastor is supposed to be a leader, but not like a general. If we’re an army and there’s a general, that’s Jesus only.
As I described in detail here, your pastor is to be a leader like a guide on an expedition. He is to be one who is farther down the path of life—a little or a lot—and can say, along with others who are elder in the church, “Look! There’s Jesus! Let’s follow Him!”
That’s who your pastor is supposed to be.
But how are pastors often chosen? Well, in many churches, church “pulpit committees” will ask God to help them and will then put out a request for resumes to fill the job.
They’ll often look for graduates of certain seminaries, according to their denomination, and perhaps they’ll add other qualifiers and administrative strengths, as would an organization looking for a CEO.
After interviews with several prospective leaders, and praying, the committee will then ask one or two of the men to preach at their church. The Sunday the man “candidates” (verb) will often be the first time the church members have met him. There might be a dinner after church so they can talk with him more.
Then the congregation will vote according to how they liked the man, and if they vote yes, the man is invited to come be the leader of the church.
In another common scenario, a man starts a church on his own, perhaps commissioned by others from somewhere far away. Because something about him is very attractive, usually his speaking ability, and sometimes because he has secret investors behind him, he becomes very popular and draws crowds to his church. (Mark Driscoll is only one of many who have fit this pattern).
The people who flock to the church to hear the popular preacher don’t really know what he’s like behind closed doors, where he could be living a very different life.
What a far cry from either Moses or Paul this is.
The new pastor the church has gone to so much trouble to find, or the man who has started a church “on his own,” may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
After all, it’s not that hard for a sociopath to present well for a while, and under certain circumstances.
And I’m telling you, wolves love to be in charge of the sheep. That’s why “pastor” is one of the most attractive jobs for sociopaths.
These men also love to preach “spiritual authority” like what John Bevere teaches. In fact, I heard from more than one person that Under Cover was required reading in their church, and it’s no wonder.
That “when I hear from my pastor I’m hearing from God” and “I dare not question my pastor except with fear and trembling like going before a king” attitude is exactly what cult leaders love.
True spiritual Christian leaders, on the other hand, will want to faithfully present the Word of God, will faithfully walk with those who are on the road of following Jesus, and will never, ever consider themselves on a different spiritual plane than the ones they serve.
In a healthy church, the “members,” those of us who are “parts of the body,” will view the pastor the same way.
John Bevere’s Under Cover “spiritual authority” sets up a situation perfect for a cult to thrive.
That is not what God wants for His people.
An edited version of this blog post has now become chapter 13 of the book Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind: Book 2 Patriarchy and Authority.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.