Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.
Preface to C.S. Lewis' Screwtape
A Brief Analysis of Deliverance Ministry Doctrine
Robert Wetmore, Th.D.
Associate Professor of Theology at Toccoa Falls College
Deliverance ministries are becoming a significant force in the Christian church these days. How can we tell if deliverance ministries are really biblical? Those who carry on such “power encounters” cast spirits out of born again Christians, break and bind curses, and speak words of loosing and healing. Christians actually go so far as to believe that many (if not most) in evangelical congregations are being oppressed by demonic forces! If they are wrong, then their bad doctrine and practices are hurting innocent Christians. If they are right, then those who oppose their ministries are resisting the Spirit. But how can we discern if those who oppose deliverance ministries are resisting the Spirit or if those who are practicing the ministries are resisting? After all, Jesus warned that on Judgment Day, "Many will say to Me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' (Matthew 7:22), yet they will be informed that Jesus had never even known them. Surely we need measuring sticks for our ministries that will be more reliable than our convictions that the Spirit is working among us.
Point 1: The Bible Nowhere Commands Christians to Deal with Demonic Oppression in Born Again Christians. Those who support deliverance ministries have only a few verses suggesting that Christians can be "oppressed" by demons and need deliverance. None of those verses, however, actually teach that.
Before we go any further, we should point out the Bible never uses the words "demon oppression" or "demon possession." When the NIV says someone was demon possessed, the Greek actually says that the person "had a demon." That phrase is very, very loose, and could be applied to what those in deliverance ministries describe as demon possession or demon oppression.
a. Deliverance Ministry Argument: The fact that many people in the Gospels and Acts were oppressed by demons proves that Christians can be oppressed by demons. Answer: In the Gospels and Acts, every person who had a demon showed profound symptoms, such as being dumb, deaf and blind or being thrown into the fire (Matthew 8:28, 9:32, 12:22, 15:22, 17:18, Luke 4:33, 9:42, 11:14, Acts 16:16). Furthermore, since none of these people were born of the Spirit, which did not happen until Pentecost, they can hardly be proofs that Christians can be oppressed by demons, which is the question we are attempting to solve.
b. Deliverance Ministry Argument: Ephesians 4:27 teaches that the devil can gain a foothold in a Christian's life if he/she allows anger to continue, proving that born again Christians can be demon oppressed. Answer: Deliverance ministries believe that this "foothold" is demonic oppression, but much more likely it simply means that we should not bring discord into our relationships which will work to Satan's advantage. If it did mean demonic oppression, why is it that the passage does not suggest that we should attempt to rebuke or cast the devil out from us if he does gain a foothold?
c. Deliverance Ministry Argument: The fact that Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23), shows that Peter was oppressed by Satan, proving that born again Christians can be demon oppressed. Answer: If Peter was really demon oppressed, Jesus should have said "Get out of Peter, Satan" rather than saying "Get behind Me, Satan." Furthermore, since Peter was not yet born of the Spirit (John 7:39, Acts 2), even if he was oppressed by a demon, that would not teach us that Christians can be oppressed, but simply that people who are not born of the Spirit can be oppressed.
d. Deliverance Ministry Argument: In 2 Corinthians 10:4, Paul describes destroying fortresses, which could be Satanic, proving that born again Christians can be demon oppressed. Answer: When Paul describes how the apostles go about doing this, he says that they demolish “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” and take “captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” This does not sound like they are breaking and binding demonic spirits in anyone, whether born again Christians or unsaved people.
e. Deliverance Ministry Argument: Paul warns Timothy about “paying attention to deceitful spirits and the doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1), proving that born again Christians can be demon oppressed. Answer: Paul does not suggest anywhere in the passage that Timothy's charges needed to undergo deliverance sessions. In fact, Paul may be warning that Christians can become too interested in such matters. How does Paul suggest we deliver those who have been tricked by demonic doctrine? He writes in 2 Timothy 2:25-26: “with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” If they were in the devil's snare, wouldn't they need deliverance? Instead, Paul commands Timothy to correct them with gentle admonition.
f. Deliverance Ministry Argument: Paul says that the Galatians have been bewitched (Galatians 3:1), proving that born again Christians can be demon oppressed. Answer: When Paul exclaims, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”, he does not try to save them from their bewitchment by bringing them deliverance. Instead, Paul reasons with them from the Scriptures. Furthermore, the word "bewitched" here can simply mean "confused." This is the original meaning of the word anyway. There are no suggestions anywhere in Galatians that they are being influenced by demons, but rather by men.
Once examined, the strongest arguments in that born again Christians should break, bind and cast out demonic spirits in their lives are actually not arguments at all. When studied in their original context, there are no contextual indications that they are about dealing with demonic oppression.
Point 2: Passages which clearly do describe Satan or demonic activity never suggest the need for deliverance. Think about the world in Peter and Paul's day. They were surrounded by pagan religions and many competing understandings of idols, spiritual powers and gods. Many of Peter and Paul's converts did not know what to believe about demonic influence, since their previous religions had many contradictory beliefs. In light of their probable confusion, we would have expected Paul to explain exactly how they should deal with spirit oppression, curses, fetishes, and power encounters in general. Yet he remains silent about all of this. Why?
For example, Peter tells us to resist Satan. “But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace . . . will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:9-10) If the power encounter approach was true, we should expect Peter to tell us to bind Satan or cast out his demonic servants.
What about the whole armor of God in Ephesians 6:12-20? Have you ever noticed that in this passage about spiritual warfare Paul never suggests in any way that we should speak to demons by name, bind them or cast them out? Instead, he tells us to stand against the heavenly forces of wickedness (11,13,14) by holding on to the truth (obviously God's word), holding on to our righteousness, being ready to proclaim the gospel, standing in faith, looking forward to our future salvation, and speaking the Word of God praying about everything. Surely, no one would ever suggest that these activities sound anything like deliverance ministries. They sound like the normal Christian life. The same holds true for James when he commands us to resist the devil that he might flee from us. (James 4:7-8)
There is a passage which might suggest that Christians can be oppressed by demons. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul said that he had a “ thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment” him. I personally believe that Paul here has a disease brought upon him by Satan. Yet Paul does not rebuke it or command it to leave in the name of Jesus. Instead he tells us that he prayed about it. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) Paul's approach to this "messenger of Satan" (we do not know if this is an illness or something else) is to ask God to take it away and then trust His perfect plan regardless. What is odd about this story (from a deliverance ministry's perspective) is that Paul does not record praying the prayer of faith, but instead pleads with God.
Point 3: Arguing that Christians can be oppressed by demons seriously misunderstands the nature of becoming a child of God. To be born of the Spirit means that we have been delivered from the “domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). We are no longer under Satan's authority, because God has removed our citizenship from this world, which is Satan's domain (Ephesians 2:1-6; John 8:44; Philippians 3:20). When we died to Adam's race, we died to Adam's allegiances. All of Adam's curses and responsibilities are canceled in Christ.
Furthermore, those who are seated with Christ in the heavenly places belong to the new creation. They are born of the Holy Spirit of God. They are children of God. They are seated far above all of these demonic powers (Ephesians 1:3ff.).
Point 4: In light of the diverse ancient views on demonic activity, the Bible's silence on the subject suggests that it is not possible. The Bible was written to many different cultures. Almost every culture in the ancient world believed something different about demons or spiritual forces. Significantly, these cultures often had ways of dealing with spiritual forces that entirely contradicted approaches in other cultures. For example, in many cultures, certain objects, foods, kinds of words, particular people, special days all gave spiritual protection from unfriendly spirits. But these techniques of controlling spirits varied dramatically between cultures. Which one was correct?
If God wanted Christians to deal with demonic oppression, how would these various cultures know what to do? Wouldn't they naturally resort back to the ways their culture dealt with spiritual conflicts? That is precisely what Paul writes about in his letter to the Colossians. These Christians are trying to find spiritual power from culturally familiar techniques (Colossians 2:18-23). Paul tells them to find their victory solely in Jesus Christ.
If God did want Christians to deal with spirit power through various approaches, would He not have made that very clear? Paul was well familiar with the varieties of folk religion in the many places he worked. How could he not have written clear instructions on the questions, knowing that otherwise Christians would resort to using their own techniques for dealing with spirit conflicts? Yet Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers remain silent.
Point 5: In order for demonic forces to oppress Christians, they must overcome the Christian's Master. When Jesus is accused of casting out demons by Satan, He replies:
"And if I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Consequently they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own homestead, his possessions are undisturbed; but when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied, and distributes his plunder.” (Luke 11:19-22)
Obviously, Jesus is making two simple observations. First, Satan is the strong man who guards his own homestead, which is obviously this world. Second, Jesus is infinitely stronger than Satan and is attacking him and overpowering him. Jesus is taking away all of Satan's armor on which he had relied and is distributing his plunder.
The Bible clearly and regularly teaches that Satan has authority over the people who live in this world. Jesus is stronger and therefore defeats Satan (Hebrews 2:14). Once Jesus dies on the cross and rises from the dead, He transfers His children out of Satan's kingdom. Now we are in His kingdom and no longer under Satan's authority. For demonic forces to get back into Christians, they must first bind our strongman who defends our household. That strong man is Jesus.
Point 6: Christians who “battle” demonic forces using various techniques, must base their approaches solely on their experiences, since the Scriptures are silent. This is a very frightening realization. How do Christian deliverance ministries know which techniques of dealing with demons actually work? They try all kinds of approaches. The demons seem to respond to some and seem to resist others. Deliverance ministries rely on singing hymns (a very animistic approach), learning the demons' names (a very animistic approach), quoting Scriptures (a very animistic approach), finding out all of the demonic hierarchy (a very animistic approach). How did they find out that these techniques work in casting out demons? By their experience.
But these techniques are also used by animists in their encounters with demons. Do demons respond to their techniques as well? Indeed they do! But we know that no non-Christian could cast out a demon, because demons have greater authority than humans (Jude 1:9). We also know that when an animist witch doctor learns a demon's name, he really has absolutely no power over that demon. Yet the demon will stop oppressing when the witch doctor does his rituals. We know why. The demon wants the animist to trust in these techniques.
This is the demon's game, a carrot and stick approach. Since all demons are liars, we can assume that everything they do in response to the animists is actually a lie. Why then would we assume any differently for Christians? When Christians base their theology of dealing with demons on their experiences, they are in the same boat as the animists. Lying demons are manipulating circumstances to deceive Christians. Christians begin to develop techniques for casting out demons. Christian experience becomes a classroom for bad doctrine and demons become the Christian's willing teacher. Those who participate in casting out demons must answer this question: Who reveals to them how to deal with demonic forces? Is it not their experiences in dealing with lying demons? And do they actually trust these demons?
Summary of Major Points
Point 1: The Bible nowhere commands Christians to deal with demonic oppression in born again Christians.
Point 2: Passages which clearly do describe Satan or demonic activity never suggest the need for deliverance.
Point 3: Arguing that Christians can be oppressed by demons seriously misunderstands the nature of becoming a child of God.
Point 4: In light of the diverse ancient views on demonic activity, the Bible's silence on the subject suggests that it is not possible.
Point 5: In order for demonic forces to oppress Christians, they must overcome the Christian's Master.
Point 6: Christians who “battle” demonic forces using various techniques, must base their approaches solely on their experiences, since the Scriptures are silent.
The question then arises, if finding freedom from demonic oppression is so important for born again Christians, why did the New Testament writers never write about it? They never once wrote about it, because deliverance ministries were simply not even a possibility among Christians. A careful biblical evaluation reveals that these theories are based solely on experience. And experience without the agreement of Scripture is a deadly teacher (Deut.13:1-5). Christians need to build their worldview not on what they have experienced in life, but on what God says about life. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:6: "Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other." With that approach, power encounter ministries fall completely outside what has been written in the Scriptures and Christians must not use them to help them overcome sin.
Dr. Robert Wetmore is Associate Professor of Theology at Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa Falls, Georgia. Th. D. Concordia Seminary. He is the author of Worship:The Way It Was Meant To Be.