All Out War: Investigating Spiritual Warfare, part 3 (your reactions to this topic and the powers)

Over the past week it has been interesting to see the kind of reactions folks have to discussing “spiritual warfare.”  There are three broad responses besides the “right ons!” and the “way to be academic and true to the spiritual realm!” type.

1) Abused post-Pentecostals who hear spiritual warfare and think “demon-under-every-bush.”

I want to assure you that if this is your situation, that I have never been part of a Pentecostal church.  I have been Mennonite Brethren most my life with a short time as a Baptist.  I am not of this ilk and am deeply saddened by situations like yours…

2) Skeptical of the supernatural realm and its active reality.

I also had a time when I was skeptical, but God since has experientially shown me in my own life that “if it happened in the New Testament, it can happen today.”  My charismatic experiences with the Holy Spirit and spiritual warfare, along with my exegetical studies of the Bible have convinced me of this.

3) Spiritual Warfare is only about personal situations and has nothing to do with institutions or systems of injustice.

In the following, I hope to demonstrate from a theological perspective that there is more to it than this…

There has been much discussion about what/ who the powers are and how they interact in the natural world.  Widespread confusion has been stemmed from the various interpretations of powers language.  This is because the texts about the powers, including this Ephesians 6, are ambiguous.  Lets attempt to discern an approach to the powers that is both practical and biblical.

The primary mode of understanding the language of the powers in modern evangelicalism has been to see them as been personal demonic tempters of the individual Christian.  How this actually is understood to affect daily life varies.  Many Christians have, by all practical means, dismissed the powers as being separate from most human affairs, with the exception of major acts of evil.  Others often portray themselves as being demon hunters behaving as if there is a “demon-under-every-bush.”[1] Whatever the case may be, the powers are often limited to the influence that they have on individuals; which I want to continue to affirm as part of but not the whole picture.

Another understanding of the language of powers would be the definition that has been put forth in the work of Walter Wink.  In his book, The Powers That Be, he describes the language of powers in the following fashion:

We might think of “demons” as the actual spirituality of systems and structures that have betrayed their divine vocations.  When an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination System.  Do these entities possess actual metaphysical being, or are they the “corporate personality” or ethos of an institution or epoch, having no independent existence apart from their incarnation in a system?…   My main objection to personalizing demons is that by doing so, we give them a “body” or form separate from the physical and historical institutions through which we experience them.  I prefer, therefore, to regard them as the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of intuitional life.[2]

In the above statement, Wink determined that the powers are to be understood as the “ethos” at the center of systems of institutions.  The powers are therefore depersonalized and acknowledged as a cosmic force that is impersonal.  The character of the demonic has more to do with the determination to manipulate the minds and actions of humans within a system, rather than having a personal transcendent nature.[3] In one sense, it could be argued that Wink demythologizes the powers by “concluding that they have no separate spiritual existence outside the structures of society.”[4] This theory about the powers seems to have some validity when it comes to the influence of institutions, but it fails to bring a strong view of Scripture, especially in regards to the personal nature of demons that is attested to in the New Testament.  N.T. Wright appreciates the work of Wink but believes something is missing:

“…there is at least a grain of truth in the theory, made famous by Walter Wink, that the inner or hidden forces latent within organizations, companies, societies, legislative bodies and even churches are the sum total of the spiritual energies which humans have put into them, abdicating their own responsibility and allowing the organization, whatever it is, to have it instead.  I believe there is more to it than that, but not less.” [5]

Many have had difficulty with the view of Wink, yet at the same time, most scholars  (like Wright) are grateful for his academic contribution to the subject.  Those who hold to a more personal understanding of the demonic will accuse Wink of allowing Western thought to influence and secularize such interpretations.  That which is unable to be analyzed by the human senses is dismissed as illusion and myth.[6] Kraft, who is part of the so-called “Third Wave” or “signs and wonders” movement, accuses many evangelicals of not taking the bible seriously enough in this area.  He contends that Enlightenment rationalism has clouded the thinking of many Christians.[7]

So, I have demonstrated that there are two basic polarities of thought in regards to how one is to understand the powers.  On one end of the spectrum is the view that emphasizes spiritual warfare against the powers of the age.  The other end of the spectrum acknowledges that fallen powers operate within systems, structures, or institutions in order to oppress and marginalize others.  The interesting thing about these two poles is that most Christians would likely land somewhere in-between.[8] Is this an idealized belief or is it legitimately possible to hold these two views in tension?

Holding two views in tension is often a difficult task for the modern person.  Oftentimes, the desire to ‘figure it all out’ is frustrated by ambiguity.  In the New Testament, the issue of defining and combating the powers seems to need to include both of the views that have been presented above.  Yoder Neufeld supports this “both/ and” approach stating:

Any restrictive definition of the powers undervalues and thereby defeats the central argument in Ephesians, that God’s design is to gather up all things.  A full appreciation and a faithful translation for our day of what the author of Ephesians has in mind requires that we not force and exclusive choice between and exorcistic and a prophetic view of evil and the church’s response to it.[9]

Basically, Yoder Neufeld seems to argue that the text of Ephesians does not try to resolve these issues and so perhaps it is good to embrace some understanding that would not exclude.  The language of the powers should therefore be seen as dealing with the cosmic forces “great and small, personal and impersonal, individual and systemic, that resists the saving activity of God among humanity.”[10] In other words, the church ought to resist the powers who have a hold on individuals, and seek God’s power for their personal liberation.  Along with that, the church must also recognize that these same demonic powers can manipulate the institutions and structures of society, creating systems of systemic injustice.  God is a liberator of both and is calling the church to put on the full armor of God to resist the powers of evil.[11]

[1]Kraft, Charles H., Confronting Powerless Christianity: Evangelicals and the Missing Dimension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Chosen: Baker Book House Company, 2002), 53-54.

[2]Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday: Random House Inc., 1998), 27-28 [emphasis added].

[3]Yoder Neufeld, Thomas R., Ephesians, 356-357.

[4]Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Cultural Conceptions of Power in Biblical Perspective,” Missiology: An International Review, ATLA Serials, XXI, no. 1 (Accessed: April 2008, January 1993): 42.

[5]N.T. (Tom) Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 112.

[6]Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Cultural Conceptions of Power in Biblical Perspective,” Missiology: An International Review, ATLA Serials, XXI, no. 1 (Accessed: April 2008, January 1993): 42.

[7]Kraft, Charles H., Confronting Powerless Christianity: Evangelicals and the Missing Dimension, 48.

[8]Ibid., 355.

[9]Yoder Neufeld, Thomas R., Ephesians, 358.

[10]Ibid., 296.

[11]Van Rheenen, Cultural Conceptions of Power in Biblical Perspective,” 50.

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  • Marc

    Wink's position, also held by N.T. Wright (and myself) seems to represent the outer reaches of conservative belief just before you hit liberal views where, say, demon possession is seen as a psychosis. Our position is also a hair's breadth away from saying that "spirit" means the "team spirit", the "atmosphere" surrounding, permeating or emanating from individuals or collectives where these verbs are taken in a metaphorical sense.

    The discussion gets really interesting when we consider how Jesus approached the "possessed". Was he really omniscient or was he a typical simple peasant who thought people who had spasms were possesed by devils and found he had an uncanny ability to reverse the psychosis. And does it matter?

    Also, how did Mark intend the story of the demoniac in the Gerasenes to be understood. Surely "Legion" hints strongly at a metaphorical pointer to the Roman forces which Jesus is expected to expel into the sea like the pigs they are. When is Mark reporting plain fact and when is he taking liberties and using apocalyptic language…

    • Chris Price

      I have been studying Mark's Gospel and the overriding theme concerning demons is that Jesus demonstrates his authority in casting them out and thus proving his divinity. This is no accident as its Jesus who makes the point. So yes, it is very important. A common practice at the time was to invoke a strong demon to cast out a weaker demon which is why Jesus is accused of being possessed. To cast them out as Jesus did was unthought of.

      The demoniac says 'my name is Legion because we are many'. I don't see any reason to connect this with Roman soldiers apart from the obvious.

    • JM

      I don't think it need be an either/or when it comes to the symbolic nature of Jesus' encounter with the demons and pigs. God, being the author of human history, based Isreal's entire symbolic world in actual historical events with symbolic significance. I believe this is especially true of every one of Jesus' miracles recorded by the Gospel writers. Just because an action has political/historical significance doesn't mean that it is therefore purely a literary convention…even in apocalyptic literature (which label I'm hesitant to apply to the synoptic encounters with the demonic).

      • Kurt

        JM… I couldn't agree more!

  • Marc

    …and heads up to Kraft! Given the NT witness we really must conclude that a Church which cannot perform wonders is a Church out of sync with the power and authority established by Jesus and issued in the followers of the way. My personal suspicion is that either the reports we have are unreal or we are.

    • Chris Price

      Its important to remember that Jesus told the disciples not to rejoice that they could cast out demons but that their names were written in the book of life. Throughout Jesus' ministry people were astounded by the miracles but were oblivious to salvation. In healing the paralytic Jesus said the miracle was to prove that he had the authority to forgive sins, i.e. a cure for our terminal illness. In this skeptical age I do believe that people want to see their situations healed so they can believe in the God of salvation but I see most of the signs and wonders ministries as magic shows. When communities and lives are restored people sit up because they recognise authenticity.

      • Tasiyagnunpa

        Turning prayer and the power of Jesus into magic shows sound like someone else in the Bible.

  • Tasiyagnunpa

    I am intrigued that there's something to the established ethos of an organization…and I would simply state that demonic activity seems to me to be mostly of the scavenger quality. It looks for an open niche (the roaring lion seeking who it may devour) or a startled response or an open wound, whether it's in an individual or a system.

    I also believe that nature is our mirror. As for the pigs, I don't have my notes in front of me, but I did a prayer study about something similar, and what I saw in that situation was a group of people who didn't seem to care about themselves, their herd, or for God. Remember, they themselves begged Jesus to leave, so in my view, I believe the whole crowd of them was possessed, not just the single man. Remember, Christ told him to stay and witness to that area, when he wanted to follow him. It had always bothered me why the pigs die, but it shows animals don't have free will like we do…and that the humans didn't protect them like they should. They became mere scape goats. Jesus was simply working within the parameters of the power dynamic in many ways, which would take us to the other post about the Bible as ad lib. :)

  • Tasiyagnunpa

    To Marc about power…

    Jesus didn't always perform a sign or miracle…and in fact refused to do so on a number of occasions. Signs and wonders FOLLOW them, right? This miracle seeking can do nothing but the opposite. Neither should we not believe it could happen, though.

  • Marc

    @Chris, can you cite a reference that stronger demons were invoked to cast out lesser demons? That would seem to contradict Jesus' claim that Satan cannot expel Satan, a Kingdom set against itself cannot stand. Also, Jesus is quite clear that his disciples will do greater things than even He himself did and Acts confirms this pattern. There is warrant for some kind of impotence (in the face of unbelief) and also the idea that our sufferings cannot be evaded by calling down fire from heaven but a Church which can't pull of ANY miracles needs to seriously consider that something is amiss, something ain't right, something is fake.

    @Tasiyagnunpa, I'm saying we need to do SOME miracles in order to have any claim to be of apostolic line and authority. If all our miraculous experience is hearsay and video clips then we may be breeding self-delusion. The world needs healers, not wheelers and dealers. We've too removed the sphere of salvation to another disembodied plane that we've forgotten that Jesus is the saviour of the world (cosmos) not the saviour from the world and off into blissful heaven.

    • Tasiyagnunpa

      I don't think we really disagree. Again, as I've said before, I've seen signs and miracles and healings being chased, rather than them being the 'natural' supernatural fruit of a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ. However, some of the greatest miracles are people working together, people sharing with the poor, etc. Jesus said, "By your love, they'll know you're my disciples." Not because of grandiose displays of power–though obviously, like Pentecost, that can happen, too. [shrug] Again, I don't think we're disagreeing.

      As for what Chris said, I think he was saying that was the mythology at the time, and Christ shattered that thinking with what he did and taught. I would like to see a reference though, too.

  • Marc

    That we are known by our love for one another is certainly necessary but probably not sufficient "for the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" and thus I think we are basically on a par with Hare-Krishnas if we only have love and no miraculous power. Many people love their friends but it does not validate their religious convictions and I at least have come to question many of my cherished religious convictions…

    • Tasiyagnunpa

      To a certain extent, I agree with you, because I know I serve the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. However, I also serve the Slain Lamb, who with roaring peace spoke truth that cut asunder earthly presumption, set the religious community on it's head and made no pretensions that by might and force His Kingdom would come. He was not all talk; He died for us. He told us to take up our cross and do likewise. There's no such thing as "only have love." When I speak of love, though, make no mistake, I do not just mean, holding-hands, kumbaya, sentiment, but a roaring, ridiculous love that makes the King of Kings die for his fellows, makes the last of us first, compels those that would lead to serve, and that my friend, is what validates our convictions. I have lived an eventful life, you could say, and I have pondered why during some of the toughest moments, Christians of all stripes were the last ones to offer help or hope…and it was the other folks marginalized who were more apt to. As a Christian, that haunts me…and I hope it is never said that I was one of THOSE Christians. Or one of those Christians, who prayed for power and miracles to pour down on top of my head…but who wouldn't look for a moment at what I needed then and there. For those who wish another to eat well or be warm, and doesn't supply said food and clothing is not spoken highly of in scripture.

      Miracles. Yes. Power. Yes. Love…is the only thing that gives meaning to the other two. Love surpasses mere charity.

      When I'm a busy mother of three…and have to manage homework, am sick myself, running kids here and there, with a toddler at home, and our calendar is trembling on the edge…it's a miracle when the world eases and I'm able to pull some pants together that my boys have outgrown for a neighbor through Freecycle. When a local family is affected by a flood…and I still have not been able to get things in order to have them over for tea so they can pick out what they yet might need for their home…then I'm in lack…and when it happens my miracle becomes their miracle.

      So, I don't mean to point a finger at you, but I've heard that reasoning before…that Christians must have power…that it's what distinguishes us from the heathens, so to speak. And I'm not convinced, because I know what Jesus said, did and lived.

      I'm further convinced, though I don't have any references to back this up, that until the Church humbles herself, follows Christ's humility and meekness that there will be no more miracles or powerful changes like at Pentecost.

      Anyways, I'll close comments with that…seems I'm off subject of Kurt's blog post at this point. Forgive me Kurt. Take care, Marc.