Around 250 CE, the Christian church in Rome employed 154 people to act as clergy. 52 of those people were exorcists. (Rise of Western Christendom, p70) That gives you some idea of the importance of spiritual warfare in the ancient church. One third of the staff functioned to expel demons.
What about today? In the Journal of Christian Ministry there’s an article from Dr. Kenneth D. Royal of the University of Kentucky has an interesting article on the practice of Christian exorcism in North America. Through a process of snowballing (finding one exorcist, asking for others, asking them, etc.) he pulled together a sample of 316 folks operating as exorcists. He surveyed, received 170 response, and interviewed 15 subjects.
There a few points that I had never thought about. I’d always thought of possession as being the full control by a demon, as seen in The Exorcist. That’s probably why modern exorcist watchers prefer to avoid the term:
Christian scholars today prefer to use the word demonization, as Christian demonization is a matter of control, not presence or ownership. To have demons inhabit a believer does not necessarily mean total possession or ownership. The present tense of the root ‘daimonizomenos’ means continuous, ongoing control of a person by a demon. Various degrees of demon possession have been described as influence, oppression (outside the body), and possession.
As a former Episcopalian, I was surprised to see that two of the respondents were from my old church. I imagine them casting out the unclean spirits that drive people towards foolish actions, like drinking light beer or eating a meal with a salad fork.
Does any of this matter to us? Probably not directly. The fact that spiritual warfare is still alive and active won’t mean much to atheists, except for a few encounters where people try to drive the spirits of doubt from our minds.
To our pagan friends, however, it’s another story. Spiritual warfare has always meant a hostility to pagans. The earliest Christian demons were the gods of the greco-roman pantheon, and the enormous push to Christianize Rome after Constantine was a result of this spiritual war. The idea that this war might continues is disturbing.
Based on Royal’s sample, Daniel Silliman does some back-of-the-envelop math and comes up with a estimate of 1,300 exorcists operating in North America. That’s not a huge number, but still impressive for a movement that most moderns think died out in the middle ages. Hopefully Royal will continue his research and come back to us with a better understanding of the scope of this practice.