I had the onus of a specific request placed on me recently—to write some reflections on the topic of spiritual warfare and to take special note of my African experiences. This is an area of interest to me, but one which, I freely admit, I don’t know much about. I have many more questions than answers, but perhaps the questions will be helpful in pointing us in the right direction as a church. I don’t believe that this is a topic that demands as much attention as some Christians would have us believe (or at least not in the form they present it), but I do think it’s worthy of far more attention than most Americans give it. We are all called to be warriors in the
When it comes to questions of the spiritual realm, and specifically the demonic, C.S. Lewis hits the center of the mark in his preface to The Screwtape Letters: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” The American church is all over the spectrum on this. Most of us go through our day-to-day lives without even giving a second thought to demons. Others seem to be obsessed with them. In researching this topic, I found some intriguingly fanciful books in our seminary library, including one that claimed to know that demons named “Ahab” and “Jezebel” were behind much of the lack of spiritual power in the church’s men and women, respectively, and that the Babylonian goddess Ashtoreth is responsible for the feminist movement.
To those who live their lives in willful ignorance of the spiritual forces at work in the world, I would urge that this issue be seriously considered. And to those who “see a demon behind every bush,” I would suggest that we have missed the forest for the trees. In his book Breaking Strongholds in Your City, C. Peter Wagner thanks his “less informed critics” for keeping him conscientious in his studies of spiritual warfare. I think this article would probably fit into that category. I’m not very well-informed on this subject, but it is of interest to me, and I’d welcome any additional thoughts or critiques.
Anyone who takes the Bible seriously must take the demonic realm seriously as well. One of the clear agendas of the gospels is to portray Jesus’ authority over these dark powers. However, a biblical theology of demons doesn’t tell us much more than that. The Old Testament, in contrast to the gospels, is almost entirely silent about demons. It does far more in attacking idols and foreign gods, so some have conjectured that demons and pagan gods are one and the same (for example, “Beelzebub” is not merely a demonic prince cited in the gospels, but also appears as “Baal-zebub,” the god of Ekron, in 2 Kings 1:2). But to be honest, we don’t know much about the connection between demons and pagan gods. Some later OT writings imply that idols and foreign gods aren’t real at all in the spiritual sense. Satan makes a few interesting cameos, but other than his sporadic appearance and the intriguing cases of harmful or deceitful spirits actually sent by God (1 Sam. 16:14; 1 Kings 22:19-23), the OT tells us little on this matter.
Though the NT tells us more, one must admit that outlining a robust theology of spiritual warfare is very low on the priority-list of the writers. Clearly, spiritual warfare is a proper part of kingdom-life, but we are seldom told how to do it, and those passages that do address the subject are rather vague. Perhaps the clearest statement we have comes from Mark 9:29, where Jesus instructs his disciples that a certain kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer. The best exposition of spiritual warfare in the Bible (at least to my knowledge) is the famous passage in Eph. 6, which tells us that our battle is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But when Paul instructs his readers how to go about this battle, he gives no strategies for “warfare prayer” or “spiritual mapping.” Rather, he tells them to gird themselves with defensive weaponry in order to stand fast in their faith and to live the Christian life in righteousness and active witness. When Paul finally gets around to addressing prayer, which is the focal practice of most discussions of spiritual warfare, he focuses exclusively on intercessory prayer rather than on directly attacking or claiming authority over spiritual powers.
This is a topic which should be addressed carefully. Not only is there a lot that the Bible doesn’t tell us, but there are a lot of curious things that it does tell us which seem to go against the grain of what we’re usually taught about demons. This extends further than the OT instances of God sending harmful spirits. 1 Peter 3:19-20 appears to allude to 1 Enoch’s interpretation of the odd story of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. According to early Jewish traditions, this is a tale of spirits (possibly demonic, depending on how one uses the term) who mated with human women and were locked up by God until the final judgment. This, then, would apparently be a different class of beings than the demons Jesus confronts during his ministry. Moreover, 2 Peter and Jude both warn against “slandering celestial beings,” and both contexts imply that these celestial beings aren’t angels (Jude explicitly puts Satan in this category as a being who shouldn’t be slandered or spoken about without understanding). Perhaps these are demons. Or perhaps there are other classes of spiritual beings, rather more independent in their allegiance than angels, who also have power over earthly affairs. We just don’t know.
This doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t concerned with spiritual warfare. But it does mean that the Bible isn’t as concerned with it as with the glorious truths of the gospel and the importance of living a faithful and obedient life. In the relative dearth of explicit biblical treatment of this subject, Christians have filled in the gaps with their own experience. And rightly so, for we can learn much that is true from experience. For me, experience has confirmed the biblical worldview of demonic powers, but it has done little beyond that. I saw a few exorcisms during my time in
Beyond this simple confirmation of the biblical worldview, however, my experience falls short. The exorcisms I witnessed seemed at least temporarily effective, but they also seemed to be a bit syncretistic in their methods and attitudes (using the Bible and Jesus’ name as magical charms in themselves—one pastor even began beating a possessed woman with his Bible).
Other Christians have much more extensive experience in this realm than I, and it seems to me, in reading some of the literature produced by the spiritual warfare movement, that it is these experiences which drive their understanding and their methods. A number of Christian counselors, even here in
I’m not criticizing these practices. If counselors do indeed have to face demonic spirits from time to time, they should at least have some idea what to do. No doubt missionaries are keenly aware of the reality of demonic powers, and they understand the power of prayer better than I do. Prayerwalks in unevangelized countries may well be one of the causes behind the dramatic worldwide expansion of the gospel. Furthermore, I admit that charismatic insights, direct from the Holy Spirit, are very rare events for me, so I would be out of place to assume that those who do receive such insights are merely engaging in flights of fancy. However, I would urge that such practices be subjected to the rigorous tempering of the biblical perspective, because I get the feeling that we often lose our proper outlook.
I should also address the issue of “territorial powers,” since this is one of the base assumptions of contemporary demonology and spiritual warfare studies. It is assumed that the same demonic powers rule over specific locales for long periods of time, if not permanently, and that by discerning the nature of those powers, warfare-prayers are given an added power. Aside from the issue of charismatic insights concerning specific locales, which I’m not qualified to speak about, I can say that we don’t know much biblically about territorial powers. The only passage that is regularly cited is Daniel 10, in which an angelic character tells Daniel about his wrestling with the “prince of
What does trouble me, though, is the assumption that this form of spiritual warfare is the answer we’ve been looking for. Not only does the Bible never tell us to pray directly against demonic powers, but this development is fairly recent, as even its leaders admit. I’m a bit of a conservative, and so if no practice has ever been used fruitfully in the long history of the church, I am very wary of accepting it. There are certainly instances of “power encounters” with demons throughout church history, but these take the nature of casting demons out of people and destroying pagan shrines. To my knowledge, there has never before been a movement of Christians who assumed that they could directly discern the organization of specific spiritual powers and then directly attack them. That should give us pause.
No doubt it is very beneficial to research local spiritual history in order to pray better for our communities, because history does indeed affect the present situation in countless ways. But I’m not convinced that it’s either wise or efficacious to pray directly against specific spiritual powers. The picture of intercession in the Bible is overwhelmingly about beseeching God for the sake of people, not against spiritual powers. Is it wrong to pray authoritatively against spiritual powers? No, I don’t think so. In fact, if the Holy Spirit leads us in that direction, that is precisely what we should do. But why do we need to know the specifics of local demonic powers? Is God’s power restricted when we pray “Lord, please break the power of the evil spiritual forces in our community” rather than, “Lord, please break the power of the Ahab and Jezebel demons in this place”? For that matter, why would either of these prayers be better than, “Lord, please bring your light into our community”?
In short, spiritual warfare is an essential part of Christian life. But, first and foremost, it should consist of conventional intercessory prayer rather than prayer-assaults on demonic powers. Second, we should never assume that this no-holds-barred spiritual warfare is the key to revival. Revival is a work of God, and when he chooses to send it, no demonic power can stand in his way. Revival comes with an understanding of sin and grace, and it comes from faithful living and fearless witnessing. Third, we need to embrace the Ephesians 6 paradigm and, rather than focusing exclusively on offensive assaults on spiritual powers (which is more God’s task than ours), we need to focus on equipping the church to stand its ground in faithfulness. And finally, we should embrace the biblical focus toward spiritual warfare—that the battle has already been won by Christ, and that the church is the vehicle of Christ’s authority on earth. Let’s not get so wrapped up in a spiritual battle we don’t understand that we miss the point of the victory of Jesus Christ.
And a final caveat—these observations and critiques are written as a relative outsider to this movement, so I may have missed the real emphasis and thrust of these spiritual warfare efforts. I’d love to hear some responses.