Divine Weapons

Exorcisms were not part of what we considered the norm of church life when I was coming of age. I didn’t hear a word about exorcism until in college a group of ministers-to-be got to talking (we weren’t using “sharing” yet) about how one of them had participated and, to ready himself, fasted for a day and then prayed most of the night before the exorcism. It struck me as bizarre though I knew the Bible well enough to know Jesus exorcised, and I was enculturated enough into the “cessationist” ways to think this stuff might not be for today… but, still, some friends I knew were involved. A pastor friend told me it was mostly hocus-pocus and I should concentrate on other things… sitting here now I don’t think much of this was on my radar until I began teaching at TEDS with a colleague who had an exorcism ministry. Then Wayne Grudem got hold of the Vineyard movement, or it got hold of him, and we spent an evening with John Wimber. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie crossed my desk… I was asked to lecture on the topic, wrote up a two-part article in Moody Monthly and have routinely raised the topic as one who teaches the Gospels where Jesus routinely exorcises.

The issue is often called spiritual warfare. In the book we are examining, called Understanding Spiritual Warfare: Four Views (with Walter Wink, David Powlison, Greg Boyd, C. Peter Wagner, with some others as well), the view that comes closest to what my “pastor friend” told me is in this book called “The Classical Model.” The proponent is David Powlison, and the essay is articulate, theological, informed, biblical and pastoral. If Wink represents a politicized viewpoint, Powlison represents a kind of cessationist or alternative viewpoint.

In brief, Powlison diminishes and domesticates power encounters without diminishing the reality of Satan or demons or evil or their importance in the world or Christian life. Spiritual warfare for him is about repentance, prayer, Scripture, and obedience. He seeks to show that texts are either misunderstood or overcooked, and that the most common way one deals with sin and evil spirits in the Bible was the ordinary way of trusting and obeying God and praying and fellowship.

His approach is to examine Ephesians 6:10-20 as the major text. The “armor” is more properly understood as the “weaponry” of God at work in the mission of God in this world through Christ. He doesn’t think this is about a Roman soldier but about mostly Isaiah’s themes. (The Logician’s Nephew might now need to stand up and point out that this is a false dichotomy, and it almost is… but give the guy some slack. He’s drawing our attention to the Isaiah texts.) “To win spiritual warfare is simply to live as light in a dark world” (98). The look and feel of the spiritual warfare life is the normal Christian life.

Occult? No need for power encounters.  Bondage to sin? No need for power encounters. The norm for these are the norms of repentance and faith and Scripture and obedience and fellowship, etc.

Most will want to know what about Jesus and exorcisms? “Jesus’ mode of good good is by dramatic, performative words and actions. For us [that’s a huge hermeneutical leap], the mode of doing good changes into dependent prayer and loving action” (105 n 2). There is just no defense of this but it’s got colossal influence in this chp.

He tells two stories, one of a missionary in Africa who learned that power encounters were not effecting long term transformation but by adapting to Powlison’s “classical” approach more change was seen; the other story is about a woman who had been abused who was changed not by power encounter but by routine discipling ministries.

1. I have no dispute with his concerns about extravagances in this field. There is some craziness at work.
2. Powlison, to me, seems hesitant to be “biblical,” searching for an alternative angle, when it comes to a worldview in which there are spirits that are to be encountered as Jesus and the apostles encountered them. He domesticates and diminishes what is demonic in the Bible.
3. Powlison’s “classical” themes are right-on: there is no need to flip into diminishing the importance of prayer, faith, trust, Scripture, fellowship, discipleship, etc..

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  • Jon Bartlett

    Surely there is a need for ‘both… and… ‘ Power encounters are sometimes needed, but are only effective if backed (and followed up) by the classical approach?

  • I’m also going to fall back onto the need for “both… and…” with regard to demons and power encounters, except I would say that in light of the cross a “power encounter” can only be understood as a supreme ability to encounter a hurting/damaged/demon oppressed person in the profound weakness, co-suffering, mercy, and grace of Christ. To overpower “evil spirits” is of course a power encounter, but in the crucifixion Christ manifested the eternal Truth that the greatest weapon against death is Love that does not fear to enter it.

  • Joe Canner

    Two points:

    1. The penultimate paragraph talks about the lack of long-term transformation following power encounters. This seems to have been true in Jesus’ ministry as well. Although we can’t know for sure, it doesn’t appear that his healings and power encounters produced a large number faithful disciples. This is not to say that power encounters are not for today, but perhaps that we need to understand better what Jesus’ purpose was.

    2. A number of the symptoms described in the Gospels that are attributed to evil spirits would today be attributed to epilepsy and mental illness, so perhaps Jesus’ exorcisms could better be thought of as healings. As with other physical illnesses, our typical approach today would be some combination of prayer for healing and seeking of medical treatment. Again, this is not to say that evil spirits might be involved in some cases, but it would take considerable discernment to do a “differential diagnosis”.

  • John I.

    BTW, I don’t consider working together to be a meeting–if it were then a Ford factory would be a giant meeting. Nor are two people together a “meeting”. By “meeting” I’m referring to those things that are “called” by someone in authority or a busybody, “scheduled”, have “agendas” and use “boardrooms” (or the equivalent).

    If the extroverts want to schedule a hippy-dippy love fest to satisfy their personal craving for interaction, let them do it on their own time and send me a memo of the results, preferably by email so that it’s easier to trash and so friendlier on the environment.

  • T

    It’s interesting that we see the same kind of argument regarding exorcisms as we do with other gifts of the Spirit described in the NT: “We don’t need ‘x’ anymore, we just need [the bible, Jesus, etc.] Whether it’s the Spirit’s gifts or Jesus’ exorcisms, we just don’t do those things anymore. It’s as if this world or the Church’s mission just wasn’t big enough for both the Bible and the Spirit, for both exorcism and standard tools for growth, for Jesus’ life and death; for crisis and process; for fruit and gifts.

    My favorite is how everything in this vein is couched as an attack on the sufficiency of scripture. Classic. Never mind that one has to ‘miraculously’ explain away that scripture is the thing that gives us teachings, generation after generation, and examples of exorcism and spiritual gifts.

  • Mark Nieweg

    Scot, your first point is leading me to share this.
    In 1993, I had the privilege to experience first hand the destruction of my family through a combination of “spiritual warfare” beliefs combined with Christian counseling’s flirt with “repressed memory” ideas. It is still not resolved. The total inability for Christians, including their leaders to bring any kind of biblical discernment to this deadly cocktail led me to study extensively on the topics. I was witnessing what could only be described as the newest form of the witch hunt – personal lynchings of parents – as Christian counseling could not come to terms with the creative ability of its profession over real discoverability in substance, and thus turning the presumption of innocence to the presumption of guilt in family, church, and society arenas. The profession had no tools to do this, and no humility to realize it. And it could not allow for any questioning of the victim in its process of “healing.” The accused had no recourse, and those claiming they belonged to Jesus had no discipleship. I could only think of the verse in Jeremiah, translated in the King James: “they gave their minds over to the imaginations of their hearts.” David Powlison’s writing helped me immensely at that time. I recall pleading with my sister’s pastor to reign this in, but he simply blew me off. When leaving my last meeting with him, I asked him if he had any children. He had three young sons. I said to him that if thirty years from now one of his sons accused him of pedophilia he would hope to God that the other two were me. He sat dazed as if possessed himself. Later, when my wife and I were in Williamsburg attending a play called “Cry Witch,” they gave us a chance to engage the actors “in character” afterwards. I engaged the accuser until a group from the larger audience gathered around us. One woman asked how did I learn to engage the character as I did? I responded “let me tell you about what is going on around us right now called repressed memory and demonization.” By the time I was done there was no parent that heard us that left without fear of the possibility of it happening to them. At the time I felt the church was the most dangerous place for a family to be if it wanted to remain intact.
    So in all this, while I do believe in the demonic, I’ve had to wonder just who is “taken captive” by it. Jaroslav Pelikan, in his series “The Christian Tradition” documents the early
    church’s experience and teachings on the demonic. He said in so many words that when ideas went beyond scriptural boundaries superstition abounded. Every so often the church recycles what had gone before. Most of what I experienced in those days by the accusers (I was an “enabler” instead of a biblical advocate, needing the therapeutic process itself for my “healing”), by the church (“how do you know he isn’t guilty?” to which I pointed out they just turned the world into something they wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of themselves), by the church leaders (see above), and mostly by the Christian therapeutic community (see the accuser above) demonstrated to me the bizzaro world being revealed to me and I was living in. Hopefully after twenty years and the fallout, this stuff has fizzled out, and some sanity will come of it. But given the state of any real discerning discipleship I am not holding my breath.

  • Stephen W

    I’m a member of a Vineyard church in the UK and I have to admit that I wonder about some of the theology behind our approach to Spiritual Warfare (the whole “binding” and “loosing” thing strikes me as perhaps being a bit of a misunderstanding of what Jesus was saying) HOWEVER… the thing is, it works. And it is certainly doing what Jesus did (or at least faithfully attempting to do so). And I can personally attest to the lasting and ongoing transformational effects of this form of ministry (as will many of my friends!)

  • Norman

    I’m not sure “He domesticates and diminishes what is demonic in the Bible” is a bad idea. The ancient world was somewhat immersed in a different view of reality and was often cloaked in mystical terms to explain issues that we modern’s might identify more realistically. Part of the process of interpreting scripture for our times seems to be to translate it into effective application for everyday living for us.

    Perhaps then, being biblical could be couched as an effective movement to make practical the essentials of the Gospel for our day and age.

  • phil_style

    @Mark Neiwig, #6,

    I would highly recommend Mark S. Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross which has some really interesting discussions on the scapegoat mechanism that lies behind a lot of the use of the very victimization you describe in your comment. And you’re right, the early church was VERY conscious of the undoing of this victimization as one of the fundamental purposes of cross.


  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Whatever one believes about such issues, I often see that if people do not have any experience of the reality they say they believe in, often they really do not believe it. It’s like many Christians who say they are theists but live their lives like deists. They say one thing with their mouth but their hearts or actions tell a different story. Despite whatever people believe on this topic, where the rubber really hits the road is whether or not there is actual experience behind one’s beliefs or not. I for one for many years said I believed in angels and demons, but whenever I came into contact with someone with a demon problem, I always took it as a psychological problem. Then one day, many years ago, I encountered the demonic and nothing has been the same since when it comes to prayer and bringing healing and deliverance to others.

  • Diane S.

    As a former Charismatic, one of the many reasons I left was the realization that much of the teaching going around about the devil and spiritual warfare is just plain religious superstition and not even biblical. The devil is seen as the culprit behind everything unpleasant that occurs, lurking behind every situational bush. Sadly, it appears that many are more preoccupied with the devil and his involvement in their lives than they are with Jesus Christ.

    The church I had been a member of also taught that a new believer could not be free from the “hook of the devil” by salvation alone, but had to go through an elaborate process that was called a “Freedom Appointment”. This took hours of confessing every known sin or sins of family and past generations to a second party who had to be present in order for the ritual to “take”. The process had to be repeated every few years or so, because that was the only way to be free of bad habits or other personal or relational problems. Such things were viewed not as a result of wrong choices or disobedience to God, but demons. Actually, it is understandable why this view is so popular – it is definitely easier to blame everything on a demon that can be cast out than to admit personal responsibility and choose to repent and change one’s behavior.

  • Percival

    I like Neil Anderson’s approach to Spiritual warfare/bondage. He strikes a good balance between delivery/exorcism ministry and long-term transformation. His work is rooted in the believer understanding His identity and standing in Christ. The Bondage Breaker was the first work I read and recommend but he has newer works as well.

  • Mark Nieweg

    @Diane S, #11,
    Did you have in your previous experience a teaching called “generational demonization” where demons attached themselves to family lines based on scriptures that speak along the lines that the “sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation”? This teaching plagued my family and was the primary reason no one would listen to any challenges from me (see comment #6 above).
    In my research I found a lot of teaching coming out of Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission, with names as familiar as C Peter Wagner and Ed White. Ed White wrote a thick book that made shivers run up and down my spine as he would actually interview the possessing demon in order to find out how the person in front of him got possessed. In one example the demon said it was through “abuse” by the person’s father. Imagine that, a demon being your primary source material for truth! In all this I was keenly aware of issues of abuse. I was not denying that. What I was finding was that because of a “victim parochialism” that created a tunnel vision of what was presented in front of those experiencing the demon, no other considerations had any validity, including God’s word on how you would deal with accusations that were coming out of the experience. After all, once the person becomes an accuser they’ve been given carte blanche to pretty much become a “son of the Accuser.” That pretty much was my experience. There had to be a better way in all this without destroying people’s lives, both the one possessed and all others implicated.

  • Mark Nieweg

    @Phil_style, #9,
    Thank you for directing me to the book link. I have heard of Rene Girard. How deliverance comes about for us is important. How it affects others is also important.

  • Diane S.

    Mark Nieweg – Yes, the generational stuff you mentioned was there right along with it. I think it is interesting that the common thread of these teachings (And many other uniquely Charismatic beliefs, for that matter) come from the Old Testament and are passages either taken out of context or twisted to back up a belief system not taught in the New Testament. Or they are biblically foreign concepts that have been “revealed by God” to the prophetically elite crowd.

    I read your story, and I am so sorry for all that you and your family have been through…I will keep all of you in my prayers!

  • RogerJS

    “[Powlinson] seeks to show that texts are either misunderstood or overcooked, and that the most common way one deals with sin and evil spirits in the Bible was the ordinary way of trusting and obeying God and praying and fellowship.”

    As one who’s been involved in theology, as well as practical experience of deliverance, the statement above sounds like someone outside looking in. In all the spiritual warfare experiences I’ve had, those elements — trusting, obeying God, praying, restored fellowship — have been key foundations in the process. Only a person, who’s never experienced, and looks in, only sees the externals, and doesn’t realize that those very things, that Powlinson theorises about (but maybe never experienced in his deepest core?) are central to the whole experience of deliverance and spiritual warfare. There’s no way we can communicate this to Powlinson, except to share and enable him to participate and experience it for himself. Powlinson is stating the theory. He doesn’t realise that the theory does translate into practice.

  • Daniel O

    I’m wondering if the power encounters originated as a mirror image of the militarization of society post WW1 and WW2? Would this be an angle worth exploring?

  • Diane Reynolds

    Dear Mark # 6,

    I am moved by your story. Certain times grow “out of joint.” We lose sight of the eternal … not you, but some, who had power.
    Having seen a car commercial in a movie theater with the theme “ordinary isn’t amazing”–the point being we all have to pursue the “amazing” or, I suppose, become ” losers”–I am more and more convinced that pursuit of the amazing is a damaging ideology that permeates society and leads to situations such as a family issue blown up into imagined demon-induced pedophilia. The Bible teaches that the ordinary is the miraculous. A carpenter’s son … born in a stable … eating bread and wine with his friends. He resisted the Devil’s temptation of grasping for the spectacular.

  • Scott

    As a Christian counselor I’ve notice that we (I) often long to find one reliable approach for solving our worst struggles. It’s not there. We hate suffering that we cannot predictably eliminate. When we deride our own powerlessness, we blind ourselves to what we can learn from each other and create unnecessary divisions within the church. All moment toward deeper love for God and others is miraculous, be it prompted by warfare prayer, profound discovery in therapy, a moving sermon, or an ordinary act of mundane obedience. God sanctifies us as he wills…but God sanctifies. We ought to be amazed that we are used at all, especially given our finite and fallen ideas about what it takes…only in this awe do learn anything true about the matter.