Take it easy on that spiritual warfare stuff

luther.jpgSpiritual warfare is a topic that occasionally raises its controversial head at my on-line tavern, but I’ll admit to ducking like a coward when it comes to saying what I think. Since BHT fellow J.S. Bangs tossed this rock at the window, I’ll stick my head outside and yell for a few moments. Then I’ll wait and see what happens.

A few preliminary comments. I think I know my way around this subject. I’ve read the requisite books, and even spent more than a few dollars on Neil Anderson tapes. The evangelicals I grew up with and work for are quite enthusiastic about the devil. The ministry where I work regularly cites the devil as the reason for student behavior problems, adversity, mischief, annoyance and serious illness. I’ve spent more than twelve years here being known for having little agreement with this emphasis, and more than once I have ignited the ire of good people who found me to be a liberal blasphemer. I may be. I’ll let you make up your own mind.

I’m of the opinion that Satan and demons exist. I am also of the opinion that the major Christian confessions have very little to say beyond that affirmation. My own preferred confession, The Westminster Confession, contains seven references to Satan. In those, we learn that good reformed people believe Satan exists, and has a dominion on earth and over unbelievers that has been broken by Christ. Satan tempts the saints and persecutes the church. That’s it, and I believe all of it.

I’m also of the opinion that the New Testament was written in a world where many things were credited to the devil and demons that we, today, would call mental illness or physical deficiency. Epilepsy, cerebral palsy and stroke come to mind as conditions we understand today, but which would have been understood differently in the first century. (I am not going to debate you people about this, so don’t write me.) In fact, I would say that the vast majority of times “evil spirits” are mentioned in the Gospels, the purpose is explanatory, as in, here’s the reason a guy was cutting himself or the reason a woman had a disease.

In other words, the Gospels do point us in the direction of explaining some things as because of “Satan and demons,” but what is explained is almost always physical or behavioral. I think that’s important.

In the epistles, the writers talk about Satan as the opponent of the church in particular and the individual Christian especially. Revelation 12 explains Christian persecution as the wrath of the dragon. Peter says it is Satan who seeks to devour those who belong to Jesus. Paul says his thorn is a messenger of Satan. Christians are in a war, but it is the same war Jesus fought….and won by his death and resurrection. Satan puts up obstacles to the expansion of the church. The dark powers are opposed to Kingdom of God and to those who belong to it.

But at times one would expect a new Testament writer to use spiritual warfare as an explanation for a situation, it is entirely absent or clearly secondary. Take, for example, the raucous church at Corinth. Here was a church with numerous, serious problems running the gamut from sexual immorality to spiritual confusion. Yet, in the two letters in our New Testament, Paul hardly mentions Satan at all. There are five mentions of Satan, and only one referring specifically to the auses of problems in the Corinthian church. This kind of pastoral avoidance of spiritual warfare as the primary explanation for behavior is very important to notice if we are going to adopt the Biblical attitude toward spiritual warfare.

Take the fellow involved in sexual immorality in I Corinthians 5. Read the chapter and look for the devil. Instead of diagnosing the man with an “unclean spirit” or otherwise looking for an explanation for this bad situation in the activity of demons, Paul’s only mention of Satan is in the passage on church discipline, where the world beyond the church is the territory of Satan. I think this kind of pastoral approach is consistent throughout the epistles, and says a great deal about how much can be legitimately, wisely and compassionately said about spiritual warfare in ministry and in the Christian life.

My contention is that the modern spiritual warfare movement often uses the language of Satanic or demonic causation for situations where 1) the ultimate reasons and explanations are unclear or 2) the situation demands complex understanding of reality or higher levels of honesty than are readily available to those involved. In that respect, I think the spiritual warfare movement is frequently unhelpful. It’s explanations can become cover-ups for more honest or intimidating truths. In the hands of fanatics, it can be dangerous. (cf Salem, Massachusetts for more detail.)

For example, I frequently counsel parents who explain their teenager’s behavior in terms of spiritual warfare. Without denying that Satan may have an agenda at work, it is usually very apparent to a youth and family professional that the behavior under discussion comes from common developmental or emotional issues in the lives of teenagers. A family’s commitment to the spiritual warfare model can often prevent insight into the truth about what is happening in a home or a teenager’s life. The more extreme the behavior, the more attractive is spiritual warfare as the easy explanation.

Another example comes in relationships where unacknowledged feelings create stress. A husband might interpret his wife’s depression as “Satan attacking our marriage,” when, in fact, the issue is the wife’s feelings of fear or rejection that the husband does not want to bring onto the table for discussion or the wife is afraid to explore because of past trauma. Since feelings are normal but difficult, they are often masked or denied, and a person wanting to avoid feelings may find spiritual attack to be a viable explanation, when the matter is really much more explicable.

Situations like these could be repeated over and over. Modern spiritual warfarists are often not helpful because they encourage those who are “troubled” to look to outside causes for feelings and reactions that are very explicable without demonic causes. Pastoral ministry most often encourages us to look at our lives, feelings and behaviors in the light of truth, not as the playground of renegade spirits.

(It ought to be noted that spiritual warfarists often resort to repeated “bindings” and “casting out” prayers. I want to know why not once and for all? If the authority is there, then why can’t one prayer get immediate results? The repeated explanations that follow multiple “failed” demonic confrontations begin to border on the ridiculous.)

Before you start praying for my deliverance from the demons blinding me to the truth, I want to make it very clear that C.S. Lewis’s version of demonic activity in The Screwtape Letters is one I can confidently affirm and follow. Lewis shows demons suggesting behavior, bringing thoughts into consciousness and working within divine limitations to bring souls to the “Father below.” But Lewis does not deal with demonic possession or causation, and this is wise. He stays within the boundaries of a cautiously conservative view of scripture without throwing out the insights of science or the truths of human development.

Screwtape advises Wormwood to keep the patient unaware of his existence, and to work to keep the patient in conflict with his mother, at a distance from serious discipleship and attracted to peers who despise religion. A person reading Screwtape is sensitized to the “schemes” of the devil Paul warned the Corinthians to consider, but without the tendency to go into areas of Satanic explanation that are unwise and unwarranted. There is a great deal of pastoral wisdom in Lewis’s book, but it won’t make for much of a conference on “Power Encounters.”

I would urge those who find spiritual warfare to be a valid category to believe what scripture says, but to also believe that scripture does not tell us to resort to the demonic as an explanation for what is plainly ordinary or simply unpleasant to consider.

3 thoughts on “Take it easy on that spiritual warfare stuff

  1. Note the first chapter of James where the author talks about each of us willfully sinning. The devil, I think, is largely our scapegoat to escape personal responsibility. The example of Christ in the desert is good on this point, in that he tempted Christ but it was only Christ himself who could have sinned in that moment, something he chose not to do. So yes, perhaps Satan is “out to get us” but only we can let him succeed.


  2. From what I have seen of Neil Anderson he seems to present a pretty good psychological approach to spiritaul warfare:

    1. How you think effects your emotions: What you believe effects your body and its release of nuerotransmitters, adreneline, etc.. whether what you believe is true or not (perception is the key).

    2. so then how you feel is effected by your thinking.

    3. then what you do in action is effected.

    4. Learn to believe the truth of the Good News, what Christ’s work has done for our standing before God etc.. and you feel a certain way and actions will more easily follow Biblical norms.

    5. There is a devil that we have at times given into and we need to resist him as we draw toward truth.

    I don’t see much wrong with this. Have I missed something?


  3. Some of the early Charismatics (read that mainline church Charismatics) in the late 60’s and 70’s had a much more balanced view of the deliverance ministry. When done properly WITHOUT an emphasis on IT, but on Christ as the center of the church (in other words there shouldn’t be any “deliverance churches” or any “deliverance ministries”), then it can be helpful

    However, beginning in the ’80’s it went astray. And today we have nothing but nonsense. Deliverance takes discernment, not some immature person taking their “deliverance handbook” out to see what demons you might have from the handbook’s list of symproms. This is simply ridiculous as is flying in an airplane so you can “bind up” the “air spirits.” I mean really. It’s such a shame that the modern Charismatics have ruined it for everyone.

    I’m sure you will disagree with this but I had to write it anyway::)


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