Six questions to ask
Rita was confused. She had been a believer for over three years, and now a leading minister in her church was telling her that she was possessed by a demon. She had to be delivered. Satan had her in his grip, she was told, and perhaps there was also a curse that had been passed down to her by her ancestors. The minister advised her that if she attended an all-night session on Sunday at 8 pm, she would be released from “demonic bondage.” Rita knew she loved Jesus, and she trusted her minister. But could a demon really be in her Christian heart? What was she to do?
John had been attending his local church for well over 10 years. The congregation’s morale had gone through peaks and valleys, but he was comfortable there. A visiting preacher had given a stirring sermon on evangelism, and he said that the world must hear the gospel before it is too late. “We need to get involved in a meaningful action plan to reach unsaved peoples both in this community and around the world.”
John was excited. The preacher was right—the gospel must be preached. John decided to be a prayer warrior for evangelism, and began to attend the interdenominational prayer meetings. At one of these prayer meetings he learned that part of the plan for world evangelism must include defeating Satan and tearing down spiritual strongholds. Demons are in charge of nations, cities, even local communities, John was told. These demons have to be sought out and expelled before effective evangelism could take place. John thought this idea was strange, but also plausible. Surely Satan must be defeated before evangelism could take place. But John was not sure—should he continue his involvement with this group, or back out?
Deliverance. Bondage breaking. The binding of curses. The tearing down of Satanic strongholds. These are concepts that are pre-occupying many Christians today. Some popular theologians and other sincere men and women are teaching and encouraging these ideas. But is it safe? Are there pitfalls?
If you go into your local bookshop you’ll see that some of the best sellers are on the subject of spiritual warfare. There are tapes and videos available, too. What is a believer to do? How can he or she be guided through all this sometimes conflicting material to arrive at a balanced and biblically defensible view?
The Bible is clear that there is such a thing as spiritual warfare. 1 Peter 5:8 and Ephesians 6:12 indicate that Satan is warring against the efforts of Christians in order to prevent the spread of the gospel. The Bible also explains that through Christ this battle is already won. We have the victory! (Colossians 1:13; Acts 26:18; 1 Corinthians 15:57; Romans 8:37-38). There is a clear foundation of biblical teaching that we already have the victory in Christ.
Here are six questions you can ask yourself when presented with material on the subject of spiritual warfare.
1. Does the teaching or the practice support a dualistic world view?
Dualism is the idea that two opposing cosmic powers – good and evil, or God and Satan – are locked in a perpetual struggle, and the outcome is not always clear. Sometimes good wins, sometimes evil. As you look around the world today some would come to the conclusion that evil has already won the battle. However, the biblical view is that Christ has already overcome the world (John 16:33) and that Satan is already defeated (Luke 4:1-13; Hebrews 2:14; Colossians 2:15).
The truth is that “The Lord God omnipotent reigns” (Revelation 19:6). Satan and the demons can operate in a limited way, and only as God allows. Many stories, like that of Job, illustrate this. Dualism is not an accurate picture of how the world is. It is a deception of the devil, who wants to be seen as equal with God.
Any teaching on spiritual warfare that directly or indirectly supports dualism is not biblically defensible, and is therefore questionable. The idea of dualism diminishes God and puts him on an equal status with Satan. Thus this teaching, which is the basis of much deliverance ministry, is fundamentally wrong. We have the victory. God is greater than Satan.
2. Does the teaching or the practice lead to animism or superstition?
Animism comes from the Latin word “anima,” which means breath or spirit. It is the view that the world is full of good and evil spirits, and humans have to find a way to manipulate or control the energy of those spirits for our own benefit. Animism is found in ancient religions and in New Age thinking. Controlling the spirit world is also the thought behind witchcraft and sorcery. Mediums try to make contact through rituals, spells and occult techniques. To look to ritual for the exercise of power is to place trust in magic.
This animistic thinking is mirrored in some Christian circles. A magical quality is sometimes given to such phrases as “in Jesus’ name.” “In Jesus’ name” is not some magical incantation, but rather it is recognition that Jesus Christ is our Mediator, and that through his saving grace we have freedom from the bondage of fear and destructive thinking.
Some people may try to command or bind spirits, which has to do with control and manipulation of the spirit world. James 4:7 and 1 Peter 5:9 explain that the Christian response to Satan is to resist, not to cast out or repeatedly bind him. There is no evidence in the New Testament to show that the apostles went on a “search and destroy” mission for demons. There were occasions when they were confronted by demonic activity in such a way that they had to act. As they encountered demons, they then dealt with them, bringing the focus always to Jesus. However, the apostles did not go around picking fights with demons and looking for trouble. Nor was the primary focus of ministry to be on the power to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but rather it was on the joy of assurance of salvation (Luke 10:20).
One of the problems with the “deliverance” approach is that Christians tend to become pre-occupied with how Satan may or may not be affecting them. They naively attribute any problem to the working of Satan, which in effect can become superstition. We are told in Philippians that we should think on good and helpful matters, not on the negative things. We should be concentrating on our relationship with Jesus Christ, not wondering regularly about our relationship with Satan.
3. Does the teaching or practice promote the fear that Christians can be demonized?
Some evangelicals will say that it is possible for Christ and a demon to co-exist in a believer. Some even claim that even up to 85 percent of Christians are demonized! This teaching is frightening and does not lead to peace.
One young lady approached me on this a few months after her baptism. She had been told that even though she had God’s Spirit, she also had several demons. She was petrified and in tears. I explained that she need not be afraid, as God and Satan do not live side by side in the Christian. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but….of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
The Bible does not substantiate the idea that demons co-exist with Christ in the believer. 1 John 5:18 is encouraging to us in that it explains that we Christians are not touched by the evil one. 2 Thessalonians 3:3 also reminds us that Jesus keeps us from evil, and we have faith that God does this, as we are exhorted to pray in the Lord’s Prayer – “deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13).
We can have faith in the promises of God, that we have been delivered, through the Cross, from the power of darkness, and that Jesus himself keeps us from evil. We are safe in his hands. We do not need to rely on quasi-magical Christian-sounding phrases and the dramatic waving of hands and commands shouted at real or imagined demons.
The joy of our salvation is that “Christ lives in” us (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 3:17; John 17:21-23). The Bible does not endorse the idea that our Savior and our Adversary co-exist in us. Satan does not live in the believer: Jesus does. Demons may try to oppress, or bring temptations in our way, but they cannot control us. The only way that a demon can possess a believer is if the believer gives him or herself over to a demon.
4. Does the teaching or the practice promote a false view of the Holy Spirit?
It is clear from the Bible that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is God. The Holy Spirit is not merely a good angel or powerful force emanating from God. The Holy Spirit is God. Unfortunately, some people who are involved in spiritual warfare treat the Holy Spirit as if the Holy Spirit were a powerful angel or even a demon. We know from Romans 8:15 that the Holy Spirit is not the spirit of bondage but is the spirit of freedom, and John 14:16-17 explains that the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer.
When demons possess a person, they sometimes go in and out of the person whenever they wish. However, the Holy Spirit does not work that way. Once we receive the Holy Spirit, he abides with us, and 1 John 2:27 explains that the anointing, which we receive upon accepting Jesus Christ, remains with us.
Another danger is to regard the Holy Spirit as an agent of control. The Holy Spirit does not take over and control our minds against our will. God has not given us free will in order to take it away from us. It is Satan who wants to remove our free will. Our desire to submit to God’s will is voluntary, not by force. Some writers think that if we call on him to do so, the Holy Spirit will possess us so that he can manipulate us and force us to do what God wants. However, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us is self-control (Galatians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 14:23). One of the results of Satanic possession is lack of self-control (Acts 19:16). The Holy Spirit never acts like a demon, and any teaching that suggests that he does is a heresy.
5. Does the teaching or the practice place experience above the Scriptures?
Some people place their own spiritual experiences above the teachings of Scripture. They will defend their position vigorously. “I don’t care what you say. I have had a real spiritual experience, and that carries more weight than all the scriptures you can throw at me.” What is wrong with this approach?
Some time ago I attended a Marriage Guidance seminar. A man there was having problems with his wife (his viewpoint!) – his claim was that she did not sexually fulfill him, and as a result he was mistreating her (therefore implying it was all her fault – how we deceive ourselves!). The advice given to him was to have an affair! “Get sexually fulfilled outside the marriage,” a counselor said, “and then you will begin to have a better relationship with your wife.” Afterwards the man did have an affair, mellowed towards his wife, and he ceased to verbally and emotionally abuse her. So, adultery works? Does this experience mean that we can dismiss the biblical teaching on extramarital sex? Can experience override Scripture?
The problem is the equation: experience = reality = truth. For the Christian, truth is not always predicated on the reality of presumed experience, and this is why we need faith. Reality can illustrate biblical truth, but it is not the foundation of it. John 17:17 says that God's word is truth. The reason we reject the idea that adultery “works” is that we know the Bible is the greater authority on moral truth. It is also the greater authority on spiritual truth.
Heresies and cults have often been built on the visions and spiritual experiences of founding prophets and prophetesses. All experiences – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – have to be seen in the light of the Word of God. Be careful when someone claims that his or her experience is equal to or of greater value than the Scriptures.
6. Does the teaching or the practice have validation in scripture?
Check the Scriptures, as the Bereans did, “to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Many of the teachings and practices (teaching does not always agree with practice!) on the subject of spiritual warfare do not have validation in Scripture. Some clearly ignore biblical precedent, some go against the spirit of grace, and some have parallels in pagan theologies.
But doctrinal mistakes in these matters do not mean that there is no such thing as spiritual warfare. There is. We have the victory from God already, but Satan and his legions remain determined in their attack on us. We can relate to the comforting words of Jahaziel to Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah – “Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s” (2 Chronicles 20:15).
James tells us to “submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7), and Peter also advises us to resist, at the same time not judging others and understanding that temptations and trials are common to all people (1 Peter 5:9).
Paul explains in Ephesians 6:12-18 that we fight against spiritual wickedness and against “principalities and powers.” Using the same Greek terms, Paul also states in Colossians 2:15 that through his crucifixion and resurrection, our Savior has “disarmed principalities and powers…triumphing over them.” He rejoices that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us…for I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers…can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
Paul goes on to say in the same section of Ephesians that in order to “withstand in the evil day” we must put on the whole armor of God, thus submitting to him, as James said. We have to do our part. It is like Proverbs 21:31 – “the horse is prepared for battle, but deliverance is of the Lord.”
There is nothing to fear. We have the victory. God is on the side of the Christians, and “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
James R. Henderson