January 27, 2021

Liturgical Gangstas 16: Spiritual Warfare

gangsterUPDATE: Comments are closed.

Welcome to IM’s popular feature, “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion among different liturgical traditions represented in the Internet Monk audience.

Who are the Gangstas?

Father Ernesto Obregon is an Eastern Orthodox priest.
Rev. Joe Boysel is an Anglican (AMiA) priest and professor of Bible at Ohio Christian University in Circleville, Ohio. (Ask him about famous alumni.)
Dr. Wyman Richardson is a pastor of a First Baptist Church (SBC) and director of Walking Together Ministries, a resource on church discipline.
Alan Creech is a Roman Catholic with background in the Emerging church and spiritual direction.
Rev. Matthew Johnson is a United Methodist pastor.
Rev. William Cwirla is a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and one of the hosts of The God Whisperers, which is a podcast nearly as good as Internet Monk Radio.
Eric Landry is the editor of Modern Reformation Magazine. In addition, he is a PCA church planter in southern California.

Here’s this week’s question: How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?

Father Ernesto/Orthodox: The Orthodox have a strong belief in spiritual warfare. Before we baptize someone, we do three exorcisms on a person (or baby) and they are clearly called exorcisms. The first one begins, “The Lord layeth thee under ban, O Devil . . .” During the third exorcism we pray, “. . . Rebuke the unclean spirits and expel them . . .” Later the one being baptized, or the sponsors of an infant, are called to renounce Satan three times. This is not mere ritual, it is the recognition that no one can serve two masters, and thus one of them needs to be renounced, rebuked, and restrained. We are truly and honestly doing an exorcism of the one being baptized because that one has been under the influence of the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world (Ephesians 6:12).

During the annual blessing of the homes, part of the prayer is to rebuke and expel any unclean spirits. Once a year we have the Service of Holy Unction during Holy Week. There one of the prayers says, “. . . having been cleansed of the blood of demons through the Blood that mercifully flowed from thy side.” So, between the blessing of the homes and the Service of Unction, faithful Orthodox have demons rebuked from them at least twice a year. This is not mere ritual, it is the recognition that we are the Church Militant which is involved in serious and unremitting warfare against the devil, and that in that warfare the enemy can counterattack and gain a foothold in us.

I have been involved in more than one exorcism and I can guarantee you that demons are real. The Orthodox have a firm and sound belief in the existence of the evil and the demonic, and take that into account in our prayers, in our liturgies, and in our lives. Nevertheless, that is not the sum total of what we think of when we speak of spiritual warfare. When we speak of spiritual warfare, we are speaking in broader terms of our fight against: the world, the flesh, and the devil. If we have a criticism of those who speak frequently of spiritual warfare, it is that all too often those who speak of it limit it to dramatic, visible, and public actions against only the devil.

But, in order to truly live out the Christian life, the Christian must fight a war on three fronts, the battle against the world, the battle against the flesh, and the battle against the devil. The Orthodox discipline of fasting, the prayers, and the reading of Scripture are all our response to the flesh. We fast in order to teach the flesh that it shall not have charge over us. It, along with prayers and the reading of Scripture, are a way to gain control over our passions that would push us to a life of dissolution. This is not as exciting and dramatic as exorcisms and sprinklings with Holy Water. But, this is one of the key battles against the evil one. Saint James says, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. . . Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” We war with ourselves in order to prevent us from warring with others. This, too, is spiritual warfare. As Saint Paul said, “I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . .” We war in order that our inward man’s desire to follow the law of God may come closer to becoming a reality.

The final bit of the war is against the world. Saint James says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” When we do not show partiality–as Saint James says–when we reach out to our neighbors in practical works of mercy, we are warring with the world. “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” Our definition of profit is different than the world’s definition of profit. We fight against the world when, by our actions and giving, we clearly show that our profit does not come from greed, from our striving to simply maximize our personal wealth. Our profit comes from God when we give away what is ours–our time, our money, our selves–in the service of others.

Where does the Gospel fit in? It fits into all three categories: the world, the flesh, and the devil. We are to have our feet shod in the Gospel of Peace, as Saint Paul says. It is the fact that we now have God within us that makes us able to have powers over the very demons of hell. It is as we pray that we receive the peace of God which passes all understanding and keeps our minds and our hearts safe as we fight ourselves in order to conquer our passions. And it is the Good News of Jesus Christ that gives us what we say and what we do as we approach those who have been losing that warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is that Good News that gives them the way out of their situation.

So, yes, I do believe in spiritual warfare. Nevertheless, I do have limits. The Orthodox do not, by and large, get involved in some of the practices of spiritual warfare that are not backed by Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Thus, some of the prayers against “generational” demons and other oddities are not things we tend to do. The idea of going around claiming grounds and cities for the Lord–and even buildings–in the way in which some in the spiritual warfare movement do it seems to be a mistaken emphasis. There may be rare times when that is appropriate, but it is not the regular way of spiritual warfare.

Matthew Johnson/United Methodist: I don’t know that there is a theme or a practice of spiritual warfare in my tradition. We Methodists tend to be dispassionate when it comes to spiritual warfare. We do have some charismatic people and groups within our denomination, but my experience as a cradle Methodist is that the general attitude toward spiritual warfare can be summed up this way: “Meh”.

In my experience, United Methodists rarely talk about spiritual warfare and even fewer practice the more popularized versions of spiritual warfare. There is very, very little literature about spiritual warfare in our denomination both currently and historically. I had to skim through our Doctrinal Standards to see what I could find because I couldn’t remember. I thought, “Surely there is something about Satan in there.” In the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith (two of our doctrinal standards) there is nothing about Satan, angels, demons, or anything else related to spiritual warfare. Even the one of Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons that would appear to talk about spiritual warfare (Spirit of Bondage and Adoption) has to do with human sin and justification. If I had the time, I’d scan through Wesley’s notes on the New Testament to look at the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4). As I try to search around (and, admittedly, my Works of Wesley are not nearby), I find one sermon, number 72, that deals with what we might call spiritual warfare.

Of Evil Angels begins with Ephesians 6:12 “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against wicked spirits in heavenly places.” Far from a Dan Brown novel, Wesley biblically recognized that the fight we wage as followers of Jesus exists in a realm beyond what is seen. Wesley writes:

But whether or no particular men are attended by particular evil spirits, we know that Satan and all his angels are continually warring against us, and watching over every child of man. They are ever watching to see whose outward or inward circumstances, whose prosperity or adversity, whose health or sickness, whose friends or enemies, whose youth or age, whose knowledge or ignorance, whose blindness or idleness, whose joy or sorrow, may lay them open to temptation. And they are perpetually ready to make the utmost advantage of every circumstance. These skillful wrestlers espy the smallest slip we make, and avail themselves of it immediately; as they also are “about our bed, and about our path, and spy out all our ways.” Indeed each of them “walketh about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” or whom he may “beguile through his subtlety, as the serpent beguiled Eve.” Yea, and in order to do this the more effectually, they transform themselves into angels of light.

As a pastor in a pretty diverse denomination I recognize that many other United Methodists would scoff and others would shout “AMEN!” to Wesley’s words. When looking at the part of the question about the boundaries of my own comfort zones in practice, I lean toward the “AMEN!” corner which is odd because I’m a skeptical person. I’m not a fan of Neil Anderson’s stuff. I cringed when I listened to Mark Driscoll’s teaching on spiritual warfare. However, as a pastor who sees things, who experiences life with my people, there is no way I can possibly deny that there is a war going on against powers and principalities.

My boundaries are pretty tight. You’ll never hear me asking God to “bind” anything. You might hear me praying that God will drive Satan and his influences out of our midst. I will lay hands on people and ask God to silence the lies that this person is hearing, recognizing that Satan is the “father of lies” (John 8:44). I think talk of incubi and succubi is ridiculous. I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail. Jesus conquered evil and kicked Satan’s butt in the resurrection and while every problem, mistake, and calamity didn’t suddenly go away when I began to follow him, my eyes are fixed on him and I trust that Jesus conquered, is conquering, and will conquer evil in all of it’s form so I take his side in all these matters.

Wyman Richardson/Southern Baptist: “Spiritual warfare” is certainly part of the language of Southern Baptist Christians, but it is often spoken of tentatively or with qualifications. I should likely just come right out with it and say that many Southern Baptists – rightly or wrongly – are very concerned that our understanding of “spiritual warfare” not be confused with some of the more bizarre antics and actions of certain extreme charismatic and/or pentecostal groups.

Yet, most Southern Baptists I know are aware (at least in principle) of C.S. Lewis’ cautions about the devil in his introduction to The Screwtape Letters that giving the devil too much attention is dangerous, but so is giving him too little. (I personally prefer Chesterton’s observation in Orthodoxy that ancient people saw the devil behind every tree…but modern people deny the existence of the tree!)

Anyway, it is a regrettable trait of much Southern Baptist life that a good deal of our conversations about this or that issue in the Christian life is spent on explaining how “we” don’t think of it the way “they” think of it. Yet, it must be admitted that a great deal of bad thinking, weird practices, and general freakishness has been bandied about in the name of spiritual warfare, so one does want to be careful.

My experience as a Southern Baptist minister is that most ministers and laypeople alike in my tradition indeed believe in the traditional idea of the Devil (I will not hesitate to say that I do!) and believe that he prowls about like a lion seeking whom he can devour. On the main, it is held that there is spiritual warfare going on all around us in ways both visible and unvisible. I will hazard to guess that the average Southern Baptist believes in angels and demons. Most believe in demonic possesion of the lost and demonic oppression of the saved.

I think it is safe to say that most Southern Baptist ministers and laypeople see the name and person of Jesus Christ as a mighty and unassailable fortress. We believe that the Christian life is one of victory, but it is a victory in process. We struggle and fight against the devil every day, but only victoriously in the name of the risen Christ. The life of the church provides a kind of spiritual protection, of course, but I do regretfully report that most Southern Baptists have such a diminished ecclesiology that the idea of “the spiritual protection of the church” would be assented to but likely a bit puzzling in our context.

I do sincerely regret to say that most Southern Baptists (again, I generalize) do not have a high enough view of the sacraments to be terribly comfortable with the idea of the Lord’s Supper and baptism being weapons against the devil, but I also hasten to add that most would not actually disagree with the thought. It’s just not the normal way we talk. For instance, I’ve often wanted to borrow a page from the Fathers (was it Hippolytus?) and ask baptismal candidates in front of the church if they renounce the devil and all his pomp! I think that is helpful and good language.

One area in particular may illustrate Southern Baptist beliefs in spiritual warfare: the rise of “prayer walking” as a valid form of missions and ministry. It is almost commonplace now to see churches embark on prayer walking missions: walking around schools and towns praying for a loosening of spiritual bonds and for the salvation of souls. This is very interesting to me, and I remain a bit noncommitted on the whole issue, but it does give a helpful insight into Southern Baptist ideas concerning spiritual warfare.

We grow uncomfortable, I believe, with an overemphasis on demonic possession and some of the more Frank Perreti-esque notions. It is interesting to me how Southern Baptists gobbled Perreti up, but I do suspect that many who enjoyed the novel would be a bit uncomfortable if I spoke like Perrett from the pulpit.

I also wonder what the response of my congregation would be if a person came forward for an exorcism in the service. I’m in a county-seat First Baptist Church, and I suspect that while nobody would actually say it was wrong to pray for release from possession, it would likely raise some seriously sanctified eyebrows if done in a service!

So, on the whole, I would not suggest that Southern Baptists have anything like a bankrupt concept of spiritual warfare. Our understanding strives to be biblical in content. This makes us suspicious of and uncomfortable with some of the more novel offerings of some who traffic heavily in spiritual warfare. Practically speaking, it’s probably true that most Southern Baptists are more theoretical in their understanding of spiritual warfare. We do like to hear missionaries from Africa talk about great and grand visible displays of spiritual warfare spilling over into the tangible world…and we generally believe them. But one does sense that many Southern Baptists aren’t terribly unpleased when these dear saints take their stories back to Africa!

Yet, at the end of the day, I have heard fervent and strident prayers from Southern Baptist Christians in the name of Jesus seeking to combat the devil and his demonic forces, and I have heartily joined in these prayers myself!

William Cwirla/Lutheran: “Spiritual warfare” isn’t part of the Lutheran lexicon, at least traditionally speaking. However, we do tend to speak of the “church militant,” that is, durong the time between Jesus’ first appearing in humility and His second appearing in glory, the church remains at church at war.

Our warfare is not against flesh and blood; we are not contending with our fellow human beings but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). In his exposition of the Our Father, Luther noted the “unholy trinity” – the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh – that would not hallow God’s Name, have His kingdom come, or desire that His will be done. Spiritual warfare is waged both externally with the devil and the unbelieving world and internally with the old Adamic man.

The struggle is over the Gospel and true faith in Christ. This is not a war to see who’s in control, for Christ is already the victorious and reigning King of kings and Lord of lords. This is rather a contention for the Gospel in the world, the proclamation of the justification of the ungodly by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. For Lutherans, spiritual warfare is not about claiming the culture or the nation for Jesus, but ensuring that the Gospel of Jesus, the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, have free course and be preached to the world. The weapons of spiritual warfare are the “whole armor” of God given to His baptized believers: truth, righteousness, the Gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer (Eph 6:13-18). With these, the church militant defends the peace that Christ has won by His dying and rising.

Perhaps the best way to get a bead on the Lutheran perspective on “spiritual warfare” is to survey the “church militant” section of our hymnal. The foremost fight song, of course, is Luther’s A Mighty Fortress:

Though devils all the world should fill
All eager to devour us
We tremble not, we fear no ill;
They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince my still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none.
He’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.

(Lutheran Service Book #656)

(By the way, the “little word” that can fell the devil, according to Luther himself in a table talk, is “liar.” To name the devil the liar that he is is to render him powerless.)

This hymn from Luther originally named both the Pope and the Turk (Muslim) as enemies of the Gospel. We have it in a somewhat more sanitized version:

Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.

(Lutheran Service Book #655)

Rise! To arms! With prayer employ you,
O Christians, lest the foe destroy you;
For Satan has designed your fall.
Wield God’s Word, the weapon glorious;
Against all foes be thus victorious,
For God protects you from them all.
Fear not the hordes of hell,
Here is Emmanuel.
Hail the Savior! The strong foes yield
To Christ, our Shield.
And we, the victors, hold the field.

(Lutheran Service Book #668)

ericlandryEric Landry, PCA Presbyterian: I groaned a little when I saw this question. It brought back painful memories: the small group study in the mid-80s when the host told everyone to get rid of their ceramic frogs because they were portals to Satanic activity in their homes, the Christian school production in the park in the early 90s when the principal prayed against the demons of stage fright, every book by Frank Peretti, the list could go on and on. But as I thought about the question, I realized that it opened up a larger chapter in my own theological development. At one point, I had been in danger of lapsing into a rationalistic faith because of the abuses I had witnessed by otherwise well-intentioned people. I had heard too many people quote Frank Peretti as if he was a systematic theologian rather than a fiction writer–I could have easily adopted a sort of deistic attitude toward the spiritual world, but then I became a pastor and all that changed.

I still rate Frank Peretti below Dan Brown in terms of realism, and I’ve intentionally bought several ceramic frogs to place around the house (just out of spite, I guess), but I am far more aware of the day by day practice of spiritual warfare when it comes to the ministry to which God has called me. Within the Reformed tradition generally and within my own experience specifically, spiritual warfare is not understood as “a legion of demons versus a one faithful individual” enterprise. It is the story of the kingdom of God set against the kingdom of darkness. As those who live between Christ’s comings, we live in the day and age when the strong man has been bound, when Satan is chained, and when the Gospel is free to go forth in all its saving power. Any discussion of spiritual warfare that doesn’t start here is off on the wrong foot.

So, our practice of spiritual warfare is very much related to the practice of Gospel extension (both to unbelievers and believers). The Gospel rescues those who are in bondage; it redeems those who have sold themselves over to Satan; it transforms those who seem to be completely lost. This is Paul’s emphasis in Ephesians 6, when he asks for prayer to boldly proclaim the mystery of the Gospel and it should be our emphasis too; for putting on the armor of God is nothing less than reckoning ourselves according to the new man, to putting on Christ, to believing the Gospel again.

This isn’t sexy, but the Reformed never promised to bring sexy back. Instead, we can see day by day the ravages of sin and Satan as the world, the flesh, and the devil conspire against us. And day by day, week by week, the best defense we have is a good offense: proclaiming agin the power of God’s saving grace. I’ve got weird stories like a lot of people do; and though they go over well at pastors’ conferences, they aren’t the news that my people need to hear. Nor is it what I need to hear. So, in our practice of spiritual warfare, I’m going to take us back to the cross where the head of the serpent was crushed and where God’s people were free to live again.


  1. Fr. Ernesto – yes! 🙂

    Wyman – prayer walking sounds like processions by another name. Rogation Days, anyone? 😉

  2. Thanks to all for their thoughtful responses.
    Father Ernesto, I so appreciate you sharing the richness and depth of the Orthodox faith. I think there is a lot for us to learn from your theology and tradition.
    I was wondering if the three “exoricisms” you mentioned before one is baptized and also those done throughout the year for all congregants are assumed to always be actively present in the infant or adult, or, are they spoken as a way of “covering the bases” (meant in a good way)?

    • Exorcisms are rituals or prayers designed break the hold of Satan and his minions over a person, and expel them in the mighty name of Jesus; I don’t know how they can “always be actively present” — so I assume you meant to ask whether Satan and his evil spirits are assumed to be always present.

      I think if we take seriously what Scripture says we have to accept that anyone not following Christ is under the real and ongoing influence of Satan – thus the exorcisms at Baptism. But even after that Scripture warns us that Satan is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for prey so while regular prayers for protection from the evil one may be “covering the bases” in that we may not be aware of any specific current attack, we do know that he is actively present and is not seeking our good.

      As far as forms of spiritual warfare practiced by some today:

      All we are told in Scripture is to pray for God’s help, to rebuke Satan and his demons in the name of Jesus, and to flee from him. Everything else we do, particularly any specific rituals involved in Exorcism as practiced in various traditions, or beliefs about hierarchies of demons or types of demonic possession (i.e. incubi and succubi) is no more scriptural than talk of territorial or generational spirits in some contemporary charismatic circles.

      There is a danger of becoming too pre-occupied with Satan, and there is a danger of becoming too preoccupied with the mechanics of his presence, just as there is the danger of becoming too preoccupied with the mechanics of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

      If we are too taken up with the “how” of Satan’s influence, rather than simply seeking refuge in God and the name of Jesus, we give him a foothold in our life that he can and will exploit.

      And if we are too preoccupied with the “how” of Jesus’ presence we cannot properly enjoy His presence and benefit from the help He wants to give us against Satan.

      • Just want to clarify that when I called rituals “not scriptural” above I did not mean to call them UNscriptural, but simply to indicate that they are merely human forms of prayer, as are prayers against territorial and generational spirits.

    • Wolf Paul gave a good answer. We do not assume that anyone is possessed. But, we do assume that Satan prowls around. Think of it like an oil change. You definitely do not want to wait until the engine is growling to change the oil. Prophylactic spiritual care goes a long way to avoid more serious problems later. GRIN.

      Please note that regular confession, which I purposely did not mention, can be a part of the regular care and upkeep of your soul, and a good way to express accountability. Note to non-Catholics, non-Orthodox, non-Anglicans: do not enter into a “confessional” relationship with an ordained person unless they are well vetted and have taken some serious vows of privacy. Even then, be very cautious.

      • Thanks to both answers. “We do not assume that anyone is possessed” was what I was seeking clarification on. My past experience with those who used the term “exorcism” always referred to it only within the context of demonic possession.

  3. I think Bro. Wyman mentioned the missionaries. I have a general observation that may be way way off. But is it a crazy theory that perhaps the fringes of the planet where the gospel is relatively newer is more likely to be places where there are very real examples of strong demonic activity?

    I only ask b/c it seems that a lot of the stories that missionaireis shared and share as the gospel is taken to pagan lands are remarkalbly similar to the storeis coming from those who first brought the gospel to the Americas when they were a wild and pagan land.

    I’m completely impressed with the Father Ernesto’s answers. I agree with Bro. Wyman that I have considred using the “Do you renouce..” questions in my baptisms, and I also chuckle at Bro. Johnson’s UMC answer. My very best friend, like a brother really, is a UMC and he is the most vanilla fellow you will ever meet. The first time he came to my church when we were both kids and we crossed isles to hold hands and pray I thought he was going to run out. I think he was looking for the snakes.

    • I agree about the mission field thing. If Satan and his cohorts are able of inhabiting the bodies of the unsaved, to do so in America would be to prove his most powerful lie wrong: The lie that he doesn’t exist. By not possessing people in the states he manages to stay below the radar and many people live in a comfortable state of blissful ignorance regarding true evil. In the third world, that is much less possible. People know evil intimately in may forms. If a fraction of the stories I’ve heard are true, then in those areas where he cannot remain invisible, Satan prefers to war through fear and displays of power.

    • Heh heh, many of you know that my wife and I were missionaries and that towards the end of my service I was regularly riding mules into the Andes mountains to meet with mountain Quechua in very remote areas. One of our best friends was a couple form Wycliffe Bible Translators who attended our church when they were not out in an even more remote area than the one to which I traveled. So, uhm, yes, I do have the typical missionary experience of the reality of it all.

    • What you say is very oddly reminiscent of a story by R.H. Benson in his collection “A Mirror of Shalott”, entitled “Fr. Meuron’s Tale” and dealing with an account of an exorcism on a Caribbean island:

      “In civilized lands, as I have suggested to you, the air is charged with grace. Each is no more than a wave in the deep sea. He who is without God’s favour is not without His grace at each breath he draws. There are churches, religious, pious persons about him; there are centuries of prayers behind him. The very buildings he enters, as M. Huysmans has explained to us, are browned by prayer. Though a wicked child, he is yet in his Father’s house: and the return from death to life is not such a crossing of the abyss, after all. But there in La Souffriere all is either divine or satanic, black or white, Christian or devilish. One stands as it were on the sea shore to watch the breakers of grace; and each is a miracle. I tell you I have seen holy catechumens foam at the mouth and roll their eyes in pain, as the saving water fell on them, and that which was within went out. As the Gospel relates, ‘Spiritus conturbavit ilium : et elisus in tenant, volutabatur spumans.’”

      If anyone is looking for a good collection of religious ghost/horror stories for Hallowe’en, I would recommend this collection 🙂

      Indeed, any of the ghost stories by the Benson brothers are good.

  4. Talk about fortuitous timing. I just last week asked a staff member of Gordon Conwell Seminary, where I’m a student, if they offered any classes on spiritual warfare. His answer was that they didn’t really do that kind of stuff here. We’re, after all, evangelicals! I was obviously saddened by this response. He did recommend a couple of faculty who do focus more on that issue. As evangelicals, we have inherited a great treasury of beautiful theology from the reformers. But unfortunately we’ve forgotten that many of those same reformers had pretty robust doctrines of the spiritual realm. Much of modern evangelicalism is rooted more in the rationalistic materialism of the modern age than in anything found in Scripture or even taught by the historic church. Someone mentioned Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. That’s actually a great start. But we need more. We need to reconnect ourselves with a thorough-going supernaturalism that the modern church has lost touch with. Our ancient brethren in the eastern church can greatly help in that regard as can our Roman brothers as well. We’re living at a crossroad time when we’re moving from an era of modernistic naturalism to a post-modern age of supernaturalisms of every sort. Traditional Christian theology has always offered the great corrective to either extreme. It’s about time we take advantage of what Christ has already given us!

    • I’d like to combine what Irenicum says here with Austin’s comment about missionary stories of the demonic. I think one explanation of this is the rationalism that dominates our society and even the church. Satan is quite content with this situation — unlike God he doesn’t need people to believe in him in order to own them. If he manifested himself in our societies in obviously supernatural ways people might be more open to God’s supernatural existence as well.

  5. “It is almost commonplace now to see churches embark on prayer walking missions: walking around schools and towns praying for a loosening of spiritual bonds and for the salvation of souls.”

    As I mentioned, I knew this reminded me of something: a video from 2005 of Eucharistic Procession (or series of them) in New York for vocations. This is *not* meant in a spirit of Catholic triumphalism, I hasten to add, it’s just amusing – and heartening! – to see the traditions creeping back in, even where they may not have been carried over in the first place 🙂


  6. Ron Newberry says

    as a UM pastor and friend of Matthew Johnson, I would agree with Matt’s comments.

  7. I’m surprised that nobody mentioned some of the more common misconceptions regarding spiritual warfare. In both pentecostal and non-pentecostal circles the whole issue is erroneously treated as a white magic vs. black magic issue. God has the white magic and Christians have to use that against the black magic of the devil, and we have to fight hard or we will be overcome.
    I’ve had some extremely negative experiences regarding that type of warfare, including a scare on my friend’s mother’s life that had us convinced there was some real legitimacy to it. That story is too long to print here.
    But I think the Soli Deo Gloria is a good rule of thumb to carry into any situation of the sort. If an exorcism/display of warfare is man-centered and brings glory to the exorcist, I have a strong tendency to doubt it’s legitimacy. Too many actors out there. For some reason the same person needs to be exorcised every week. Fishy anyone? I guess they just make the demon’s run around the block a few times before letting them back in 😛
    But a few freak shows do not undermine the truths that lay at the core of this. I cannot believe that demonic possession and oppression was ceased after the first century. I believe it may be terrifying if we somehow could see how much of this actually goes on.
    Does anybody have a comment on Jesus’s words concerning our authority to cast out demons? Is that for today? Do we have the authority to do this? Are there certain dangers involved?

    • Christiane says

      I think Protestants, or anyone, can call on Catholic and Orthodox clergy to pray the ancient prayers if need be.
      If nothing more, pray this: “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle’ and say it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
      Yes, there are dangers.

      • No offcence, but as a Protestant, I prefer to pray to God directly in the name of Jesus. Don’t think we are encouraged to pray to angels anywhere.

        And precisely because this area is fraught with dangers (and I think most of us cannot even imagine their extent) I would prefer to go straight to the throne of grace rather than speak to one of the door keepers.

        We have a proverb in German, “Warum zum Schmidl gehen, wenn ich auch zum Schmied gehen kann” — why go to the “little smith” (i.e. the apprentice) when I can go straight to the master smith.

    • “Is that for today? Do we have the authority to do this? Are there certain dangers involved?”

      Yes to all that. The Roman Catholic Rite of Exorcism was revised in 1999. There is also, as Christine says, the St. Michael prayer:


    • As to the dangers involved, one need only read the Book of Acts 19:13-16. But, remember to not limit spiritual warfare to simply casting out demons. For well over 99% of spiritual warfare the common disciplines of Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, good works, and worship suffice.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In both pentecostal and non-pentecostal circles the whole issue is erroneously treated as a white magic vs. black magic issue. God has the white magic and Christians have to use that against the black magic of the devil, and we have to fight hard or we will be overcome.

      That’s what happens when your church bans Dungeons & Dragons 🙂 What would have been your D&Ders get their D&D fix some other “approved” way, and playing Live D&D as Wizard/Sorcerer player-characters against The Dark Lord’s forces is one way to do it 🙂

      Me, I just go down to the Knights of Columbus hall on Hobby Day and start rolling the D20s.

    • shadowfax777 says

      Even though my perception of Spiritual Warfare right now is now more in line with what Mr. Cwirla has stated (and possibly may change in due time), my horror stories with Spiritual Warfare have been a quazi-mix of what Mr. Landry and Miguel (especially the black magic versus white magic concept) has stated with a bizarre slant.

      A hodge-podge consisting of the supernatural, conspiracy theory, and paranormal aspects of the X-Files; antichrist one-world government exposing; the Tom Clancy / Jack Ryan undercover super secret Cold War spy thriller of double agents, counter espionage, treason, and sedition; the communist concept of “ratting out the enemy within” even if it involves exposing best friends and dearly loved family members and sending them to the “Gospel Gulag” for their punishment; the belief that psychology is secular humanism and all our problems are demonically influenced and can only be addressed by ‘spiritual warfare’; and the circus freak show act of people doing Gospel Gyrations, yelling, screaming, and acting like maniacs and repeating certain spiritual warfare catch phrases over and over again.

      All in the name of exposing evil, eliminating ‘secret sin’, and getting rid of ‘sin in the camp’ to become the ‘mega remnant’ that is eventually “pure and perfect” enough (Finneyistic concept of perfectionism lethally mixed in) to be the recipients of the great end times last days revival, blessing, wealth of the wicked, and harvest.

      It was bad enough in the 1980’s with the writings of Mike Warnke (Satan Seller), Dr. Patricia Brown (he came to set the captives free) and Phil Phillips (turmoil in the toybox) combined with the extremist spiritual warfare where Christians can be demon possessed and could only vomit into barf bags as a sign that demonic possession left them.

      Then in the 1990’s, the New Apostolic Reformation introduced prayer walking, territorial spirits, a global warfare prayer center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and spiritual mapping…..

      Today, if I am in a church setting where the congregation decides to break out into the slightest bit of ‘spiritual warfare’, I have to get up and leave the sanctuary and eventually go home or go on a long Sunday morning drive to ‘chill out’ because I get very nauseous, go through deep-seated anxieties and near panic, flashbacks of the past spiritual warfare techniques I saw and unfortunately I participated in (and still am repenting from), experience the sight tightness of the chest, heart pounding and racing, and experience very intense sweating that smells more pungent than a sweaty workout at a gym.

      The problem is that when I do walk out, you hear some of the congregation start clapping thinking that me leaving is the ‘enemy’ leaving and an answer to their prayers with some nutjob with the anointing oil running after you ready to approach you to cast that thing off of you because to them, those tensions can’t be resolved with proper Biblical counseling and proper Biblical teaching that promotes healing and wholeness. It has to come from some faith turned do-it-yourself-kit from a expensive parachurch seminar that turns into a circus freak show act.

      I am at the point to where I really want to believe that spiritual warfare, as we know it today is really nonexistent and just a figment of some warfare nutjob’s mind gone wild.

  8. joel hunter says

    This is a fascinating subject. I wonder what the gangstas might think about a couple of nonreligious considerations.

    1. Demarcation criteria. How do you distinguish between spiritual entities, forces and processes from nonspiritual ones? How do you tell whether a phenomenon originates in the kingdom of darkness as opposed to some other source (nature, etc.)?

    2. Is it possible, and if possible, desirable, to understand how new and diverse forms of spiritual warfare come to be? Are Frank Peretti and “prayer walking” a response to some new spiritual reality, a new front on the “war” as it were, or are these better understood rationally as sociological, political, psychological, etc., phenomena? The bigger question here is how much credence you give to naturalized explanations of religion.

    3. Do the disadvantages of the martial terminology for this “war” outweigh its expressive (and perhaps other) advantages? What you are all describing is jihad, is it not? Are there not dangers of allowing the concept of battle with the world to translate into concrete attitudes and actions of hostility toward others, both specific groups of “non-Christians” and institutions? Do we not risk giving our sinful desires, especially power over others, license to run amok in culture and society? Is there a connection between contemporary interest in “spiritual warfare” and the culture war? Don’t the critiques of religion by Nietzsche, Freud and Marx cast reasonable suspicion on much of what is advocated and prescribed under the guise of spiritual warfare?

    4. Finally, regarding the greater visibility of evil spiritual forces reported from the mission field, could the deemphasis of demonic activity in the developed world be religion’s adaptation to the social ecology of the modern technological environment? John Wilkins defines a social ecology as “the totality of all the social needs and pressures of the society in which religions exist; including economic and political pressures as well as ritual psychological needs, and community building roles.” Isn’t it possibly self-congratulatory to account the relative invisibility of evil spiritual activity in the urbanized and industrialized world to the length of time those areas have heard the Gospel?

    • FollowerOfHim says


      I think #4 is a most interesting consideration. It’s pretty hard to ascribe demonic interference to the malfunctioning of an automobile or computer, or the even more complex systems that make modern life go on. In traditional societies, on the other hand, where potential calamity is always nearby, natural disasters, crop failures, illness, birth defects, etc., can more naturally be associated with malign supernatural forces. What’s interesting beyond these two banal observations of mine is that, even in the developed world, it is precisely in these sorts of phenomena that the demonic is seen by some. That is, the devil causes (some) illness, but doesn’t seem to ever give anyone a flat tire.

      I tend to be rather agnostic about the existence of the demonic, but find it of great significance that the pastoral and missionary experiences of so many are quite otherwise and thus always to be borne in mind.

    • Joel, incredibly good questions. However, answering them accurately would take another whole post. Very briefly and inaccurately:

      1. Those questions apply only to a very few phenomena, and there are good answers, but too long for here.

      2. The social sciences have given us some powerful tools to understand cultures and motivations. They can be very helpfully used to prevent us from falling into merely cultural responses. But, they can be misused, as well, to try to explain away any an all phenomena. It is the difference between a surgeon and a butcher.

      3. Absolutely, and one can see in the USA that some do misuse the term “culture war” and have turned it into ways to exclude any and all believers who do not politically agree with them. Oddly enough, two of the three you cited became the intellectual forefathers of some of the most repressive regimes in human history. And most psychologists snort at Freud and say his opinions were adequate for his time and mistaken in many things. Among the Orthodox priests must take vows of non-violence, and we are permanently removed from the priesthood should we shed someone’s blood. We are forbidden to go to war save as chaplains. And, an Orthodox who kills is banned from communion until after confession, even if the killing is found to be justified. These are to keep us from an inappropriate warlike mentality.

      4. Actually, I agree with you in part. Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in their tales, picture some of the dehumanizing industrialization of modernity as arising out of the very pit. They see that dehumanizing industrialization as being a better tool than “mere” possession, etc. Thus, many modern Christians congratulate themselves for the lack of overt demonic activity while missing the incredible dehumanization of many parts of today’s societies.

    • Interesting points.

      #1 I think demarkation may not always possible, as I suspect that areas such as “natural” and “supernatural” overlap more than we would like to think. As a Christian doctor I am sure that if I had examined Job medically, I could have found a natural cause for his sores (and if I had taken swabs for the lab we could probably have identified the organism involved) however, the story tells us who was behind his skin condition.

      I believe is usually sensible to approach illness, at least, as natural, unless there is evidence to the contrary, but to me that would still involve prayer, although not necessarily from me, the doctor. If my kid has a fever, she gets tylenol, a prayer (and a hug) But, as I work in a context where whichcraft is common, although I find most epileptics respond to appropriate drugs, in at least one case (I was not involved) the patient presented with what we were told were “fits” but these turned out to be frenzied screaming, followed by the woman speaking angrily in a male voice “we are not a woman, we are men!” While this might be ascribed to a psychiatric state, it was taken at face value and she agreed to pray with a local pastor. She may have responded to antipsychotics instead, I don’t know.
      “Casting out spirits” where they do not present so overtly is more of a demarkaion issue and requires, I suggest, great maturity and sensitivity (spiritual and otherwise) It is, I suspect often more a matter of the psychology/sociology of the practitioner than anything else, and open to plenty of abuse: “Spirit of ignorance, we command you to leave this woman!” Gee, thanks, guys.

      #3 I try to avoid martial language, especially as the crusades are still a tender memory here. However I think as long as the “fight” is clearly described as against evil powers not against people or nations, there is less danger. It would certainly be acceptable here. “The concept of battle with the world” is, I agree, much more dangerous language.

      #4, could it be not just “religion” adapting it’s approach but also evil powers adjusting their approach as Miguel suggests above. Here people invite spirit posession in order to cure illness, and I am sure Satan often obliges. In the West, I am sure he prefers to work incognito. I suspect he is no less active, just prefers stirring culture wars to “spiritual” ones. It may, in fact, be a more effective approach when it comes to getting the church on his side…

    • First, an important caveat: the supernatural and superstition are not logically incongruous and can tentatively exist in the same reality.

      1. The Catholic Church, for her part, takes a “presumed natural until all natural explanations are shown lacking” approach to both alleged miracles and alleged demonic interference. Fr. Ernesto touches on this below. Alleged possessions are rigorously tested from a psychological standpoint and miracles are carefully researched. The Church typically and intentionally enlists non-Christians to do this research.

      2-3. A shift of understanding between the Old and New Testaments occurs as far as how “enemy” is used, I think. In the OT enemy typically means a political enemy of Israel. These have come to be understood as representative of Satan, like how the Israelites’ captivity under Pharaoh is representative of humanity’s enslavement to Satan through sin. “Enemy” should, without exception, be understood as the demonic, in light of the Gospel. Atheistic theorists of the articulation of cultural power should have no problem with us fighting our imaginary enemies. THE SECOND KIND OF “spiritual warfare,” which you allude to, IMO, has no place in Christianity. At least in its conception as “warfare.” I oppose praying rosaries outside of abortion clinics. This cheapens what prayer is supposed to be, and amounts to a useless act of violence against the women who visit the facility.

      4. Partly we are less superstitious and can attribute to the natural what is in fact natural. It is interesting to draw a line between industrialization to Christian heritage to having squelched out the evil spirits, and I don’t discredit that, but come on. We don’t believe in spiritual beings because we’re materialists. Mainly.

    • Re #2 — don’t get me started on Frank Peretti and the heretical understanding of prayer his books have fostered.

  9. Can I be completely honest about a couple of things.

    1. This topic and idea frankly, scares me. I think the idea that there are indeed active powers of darkness at work in aggressive ways in close proximity to me and not just overseas or in some movie is a very frightening idea. In fact, I think many evangelicals are scared, that is why we ignore it sometimes.

    2. I’m also worried that were I would to confront such powers my faith would be too weak, and I would find myself like the disciples when they could not work as they tried but were told these come not but with “prayer and fasting.”

    • As I was reading this article I thought of what Lewis said in the introduction in Screwtape, and sure enough Bro. Wyman mentioned it too, and I almost felt frustrated at the guy for stealing my thoughts. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, demonic powers are very easy to romanticize, and this is maybe the primary danger of this kind of spiritual warfare. I don’t think you’re in any danger of falling into that trap.

      In the Catholic tradition the mystical saints always have a run-in with the powers of darkness sooner or later, and it’s interesting how these exemplars of humility and meekness react. They get angry, curse them, show them contempt… but usually simply ignore them. Satan will tell these people that they are worthless and the reply is typically, “Yes, you’re right, except that Jesus loves me,” and that usually ends the discussion. Demons are always overcome partly by turning to God and begging him to get rid of the problem, and partly by simply ignoring them. Whether or not you take these accounts to be literal, I think there’s wisdom in their sense of proportion of things.

  10. I recognize that many other United Methodists would scoff

    of worse, out and out deny the existence of Satan – at least that was my experience, 1985, Cedarburg, WI, United Methodist Church

    Church in the round – the Pastor and I had it out in the middle of the service. It was pretty exciting.

  11. In my lifetime, I’ve swung between the extreme poles of C.S. Lewis’s “equal and opposite errors” about the Devil. Growing up going to an independent Baptist school and most of my childhood theological education coming from Chick Tracts, I lived at the “excessive and unhealthy interest” pole. That’s the blood striped pole with the Dantean three headed and winged Satan perched on top. 🙂 Post adolescent-rebellion too me to the “pretty much don’t believe in them” pole. I’ve since settled into a moderate, mostly Luthernan view.

    My favorite statement on The Evil One comes from a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. Calvin asks Hobbes, “Do you believe in the Devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?” Hobbes’s response:

    “I’m not sure man needs the help.”


  12. Michael, bringing up this topic shows one of the major holes you need to fill in your gangsta squad. A Pentecostal/charismatic voice is needed. It also shows that Pentecostals and charismatics are consistently underrepresented in the blogosphere, though they are the fastest growing group worldwide and are considered the “go to” voices on this issue of spiritual warfare, at least in pop Christian culture.

    • The intro explains that this is from Liturgical traditions. Even then I’m pushing it.

    • If you believe that Pentecostals are underrepresented, then why don’t you start a blog?
      I don’t believe there is a government agency out there stopping people from starting blogs.

      Go for it!!!

    • Actually, the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican communion are all considered to be solidly “charismatic” in their spiritual warfare theology. Since they each represent a more ancient stream of Christian thought, they have a more thorough-going supernaturalism informing their worldviews. While both the modern charismatic and pentecostal church movements certainly have a supernaturalist worldview, their lack of a liturgical tradition, and thus a more sacramental method of dealing with the spiritual realm, leaves them ill-prepared to deal with the evil ones’ machinations. The ancient churches, as mentioned above, have a view of reality that sees both the physical realm and the spiritual realm as equally “real” parts of the whole of reality. They are more pre-modern and so haven’t separated out those parts into “never the twain shall meet” compartments. They also have the historical advantage of having millennia of experience dealing with this stuff! And mind you, I say this as a charismatic Presbyterian!

    • Speaking as a Pentecostal, we are quite well represented in the blogosphere. There’s no shortage of us. There may be a shortage of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars out there, but historically we’ve always had a problem with that. Too many of us think you don’t need a brain if you have the Holy Spirit. That’s why we produce a whole lot of the wacky teachings about spiritual warfare.

      I don’t know that a charismatic liturgist needs to be added to the gangstas. In my experience, most of the Orthodox and Catholic clergy I’ve encountered are already charismatic. Anglicans and Protestants, not so much. I’m not sure why this is so. I have theories, but I’ll leave them be.

  13. Thank you, Rev Cwirla! Jesus has already conquered all powers that set themselves against His Kingdom and reign.

  14. Thanks, guys. Very interesting presentation of different perspectives on this issue.
    I am curious about something. Back when I first started moving toward faith after several years of substance abuse and a very nihilistic worldview, there were two or three years during which I had several experiences of what I suspect may have been demonic attacks. Usually, they happened at night while I was trying to fall asleep, and, to be honest, they scared the crap out of me. The odd thing is that, instead of driving me away from God, these experiences had quite the opposite effect on me, and, in a strange way, they helped to convince my skeptical brain that there are indeed spiritual realities underlying the physical universe. These attacks stopped right around the time I publicly confessed faith in Christ and was baptised, and they haven’t happened since.
    I guess I’m curious if there is precedent for such experiences in your own experience and/or church traditions — or do you think I was just having LSD flashbacks? And I’m also wondering if you think that God sometimes allows or has a hand in experiences of a demonic nature if they contribute to a person ultimately embracing faith in Christ?

    • I’ve had very similar experiences. At night, trying to get to sleep, recent convert… the whole nine. EASILY attributable to the kind of phantasms one might have in the twilight state between waking life and sleep, except for a distinct feel of authenticity. There’s nothing you can put to language that might justify this authenticity, but when you know, you know. And a couple instances where I wasn’t tired at all.

      I’ve had much more distinct and frequent experiences, during this time in my life, when I would try to pray. I took this to mean that the bad guys don’t like prayer, and I redoubled my efforts. They’re really bad about overplaying their hands, and they’re allowed nothing unless God feels their harassment will lead to one’s greater welfare and God’s greater glory.

  15. DreamWings says

    To the number of people on this thread pushing the idea of the ‘uncivilized’ parts of the world being filled with Satanic influence, I’d highly encourage you to read this article. Actually I’d encourage everyone to read it.

    “African Children Denounced as ‘Witches’ By Christian Pastors’

    I know some of you will probably reject this out of hand, being that it comes from a ‘liberal’ source. But this is a dangerous and growing phenomena. Large, and growing, enough to be reported on in the last year by ‘Sixty Minutes’ and so connected to the mainstream that we even have Sarah Palin’s favorite pastor bragging on video about harassing elderly African women and driving them from their villages based on his ability to ‘sniff out’ witchcraft.

    • L. Winthrop says

      The “witchcraft hysteria” of sub-Saharan Africa works like this: “Witches” are thought to be supernatural beings similar to demons. A person (usually a woman) can be accused of being a witch, and then killed or hounded into exile by others in the community. Anthropologists suspect the process of being some sort of social control mechanism designed to sideline trouble-makers and/or older women with valuable land and no male protectors. Anyway, African Christianity often shares many traditions with pre-Christian religion, and this is likely to be an example.

    • Yes, I am sadly aware of the phenomenon. This is why in both Orthodox and Catholic churches, local priests are forbidden from engaging in formal exorcisms (or even calling out people) without the permission of a bishop. The Catholic Church has formally trained exorcists. They are rare, and they are always trained in social and medical sciences. We have learned from our mistakes in other centuries. In Africa some of those mistakes of other centuries are coming back for another round. Nothing is so helpful to evil as those who claim to be good doing that which is evil.

    • This is atrocious, and is certainly something we need to oppose, but it is worth pointing out, as someone has already done, that some of these churches combine genuine Christian elements and local cultural elements into a dangerous mix. There are many other aspects of these churches’ practices which I would guess most of the Gangstas and most of iMonk’s readers would consider problematic.

      But then there are abuses in our “Western” churches as well and we recognize them as such. The same needs to happen here.

      • Indeed there are abuses. I was in a church where the pastor taught heavily on spiritual warfare using overhead transparencies with a illustrated text with emphasis on how you could tell if a person was under demonic oppression. Any time that anyone in the church questioned a decision made the the pastor, or had a different opinion from the pastor’s and verbalized it to the pastor, those transparencies came out for a quick review session. This was not a “charismatic” church, but a non-denom Bible church. This was one of his ways of controlling people.

  16. Father Ernesto writes I can guarantee you that demons are real. The Bible says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Associated Press writes The idea of witchcraft is hardly new, but it has taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity. Campaigners against the practice say around 15,000 children have been accused in two of Nigeria’s 36 states over the past decade and around 1,000 have been murdered.

    My question to Father Ernesto is this:

    How can you make compatible the notions that demons are real, that the Bible exhorts us not allow witches to live, and that it is NOT alright to allow these children accused by clergy to be possessed by demons to live?

    • If maintaining an unjustified belief that demons are real costs a thousand children (so far) their lives (not to mention albino children in Kenya being butchered for their body parts to be added to anti-demonic potions), then isn’t the belief itself the very source of evil attributed to the so-called demons?

      • What, in this mode of logic, do we have the option to believe?

        In your example, it seems to be the belief that demons are at work in the children that is problematic rather than the belief that demons exist.

        But take belief in swine flu, for example. I believe it exists. But if I am a doctor who seizes power and quarantines those who have it in camps, and has them killed, supposedly to protect the population because I have unique knowledge about how dangerous the disease is, THAT’S where the problem lies: in the unethical extension of the belief, not the belief itself. The belief in demons may be a kind of starting point, but it’s a pretty massive leap from that to assuming possession of children to slaughtering them. Can power–political, religious, whatever–always be abused? YES!

        However, the question I’d need to have answered under your paradigm would be this: do we avoid espousing all beliefs, sacred and secular, that could be abused? Can we then claim to believe anything at all (again, not just spiritual truths, but anything)?

        Never mind that there is probably much more to this particular situation than meets the eye. How many of these corrupted clergy are under the thumb of those with power, etc., etc…I have no idea. I know nothing about the infrastructure of these areas. But there are likely a lot of non-spiritual influences involved in the execution of these children: greed, fear, etc.

        As for the mandate to kill witches, that’s a biblical interpretation issue; I’m sure a topic for another post.

    • NOTE: Please do not assign to those who are participating in this discussion responsibility for atrocities.

      I’m not liking the direction of some of these comments.

      • I’m not assigning responsibility for atrocities to those participating in this discussion. I’m asking 1) how can the notions of this element of spiritual warfare be compatible – a very legitimate and important question within the context of the faith he is explaining, and 2) cannot the belief in demons itself be legitimately considered a contributing cause of actions against so many of these particular children?

        You may not like the direction of these questions for many reasons, perhaps because you may not like where the answers may lead us. But in no way are these questions a personal attack nor am I suggesting that Father Ernesto himself is responsible for atrocities. That responsibility lies with those who commit these acts. But the motivation to act in such a way does rest with a belief that it is somehow all right or acceptable to do so in spiritual warfare terms. There is a very important link, no matter how uncomfortable that association may feel, between belief in demonic possession and acting on that belief. If someone is going to promote that belief as a legitimate part of their faith, then the very least that person can do is clarify what that belief should look like in action. I am affording Father Ernesto exactly that opportunity.

        • Scroll up a few inches and read his response to DreamWings. If I may be permitted to speak for him, I think he covers the issues there.

          The older churches like the Orthodox and Catholic churches have a “presumed natural until natural explanations are proved lacking” approach to these things. We take this very seriously, if for no other reason than our dislike of being sued and looking very bad. The notion of a cloaked priest inspiring paranoid superstition in the hearts of a gullible and provincial family gathered around the bed of an innocent child may hold a certain romance for you, but it’s bad business on our part and we know it.

          “The killing of the possessed” is not a part of any formal exorcism rite that I’m aware of.

          All this said, superstition is very real and dangerous, and the vast majority of the time I hear “demon” I think “probably in your head.” Belief in such things is a necessary condition of such abuses, but one which does not lead logically to such. If you want to equivocate this distinction then you can read Fr. Ernesto’s intentionally ridiculous reply below.

    • Hmm, all I would need to do is reply with the exact same logic and point out that in World War II, more people died on the Eastern Front than in any other front. And the battle on the Eastern front was between two countries that were both headed by men who rejected Christianity. One, Stalin, was an official atheist. The other, Hitler, at best was some type of pagan, and was known to have an unhealthy interest in the occult.

      So, how can you make compatible the notions that atheists and paganists claim that the world would be better off with their beliefs, with the fact that when such beliefs have taken control there is an inevitable crushing of the human spirit, usually followed by outward oppression?

      Both your argument and the argument I have just outlined above are ad hominem arguments, and I would not recommend descending there.

      • If you mean to address my questions by way of this analogy about the Eastern Front and the state of religious belief its leaders maintained, then I simply don’t follow your logic but appreciate the quick side-step; after all, it’s a very hard question.

        Categorizing any answering of the question as ‘descending’ to deal with it in a real world fashion is not very admirable. In addition, my question is not an ad hominem argument, in that I am centering the question not about the person who makes the claim that demons are real but about the compatibility of the Bible-backed belief with this kind of expression. I assume that it is the Bible that is the central source for your belief in demons as well as the central source for the religious view that continues to support this belief.

        I also assume that we can agree that this kind of expression against demonic possession is wrong. We shouldn’t kill children.

        I can explain why I think this action is wrong on the grounds that its undertaking is acting contrary to respecting these children’s human rights and dignity. I can also explain why it’s wrong on the ground that the belief in supernatural interference within each of the children is not substantiated by any meaningful evidence, making the action a response solely to an unjustified belief rather than a legitimate response to an agent, supernatural or otherwise. Taken together, I can condemn this action unequivocally. Whether or not I am an atheist has nothing to do with it and casting aspersions in this direction is merely a red herring.

        As far as believers in demonic possession are concerned, condemnation of the action begs the previous compatibility question. Whether or not these folk are religious has everything to do with it, if the belief itself is religiously motivated. Perhaps we can excuse other occultists from this debate as your original post represented your faith in this aspect of spiritual warfare and not theirs. So how can you condemn the action without somehow qualifying respect for the Biblical source of the religious belief that motivates it?

        • Your question seems to be (1) if you believe in the absolute authority of your religious books and (2) if you believe that these children are witches and (3) your religious books say kill witches then (4) why aren’t you killing witches?

          Well, we don’t do that anymore, tildeb. So are we guilty of either (a) disobeying God or (b) hypocrisy? That’s the real question, isn’t it?

          Different cultures do deal with these things differently. The big witch-burning case in my country – Ireland – was back in 1324. One woman was burned, though she wasn’t the main instigator:


          The interesting thing here is that it was the Normans who set up the whole trial; the native Irish (who were more ‘superstitious’ if you like, with the fairy beliefs) were much more relaxed about these things. There was certainly belief in witches up to the 19th century, but there was none of the Continental or even Scottish witch-hunting. Belief in fairies was much more powerful, and there were acts of counter-magic and charms which were mingled with folk religion and superstition, as well as popular piety and Christian belief, against the acts of supernatural powers.

          I could just as well say the African people may have belief in witchesto harm them but don’t have it counter-balanced by belief in saints to protect them.

          Cultural differences, tildeb. Even the Catholic Irish didn’t engage in witch-burning at the height of the craze, so we’re hardly likely to start now.

        • Hmm, let’s see. You take one verse from Scripture from the over 70 books of Scripture. You fail to consider how it was interpreted in the other books and in the Talmud and in the Councils of the Church. You match it against actions of some people in one country nearly 3,000 years after that one verse was written. You claim that the one Scripture you choose and the actions of some of the people in this one country 3,000 years later are linked and also are determinative for the interpretation of the one verse. You then ask me to explain how I can justify a different explanation than the one that you claim that some of the people in this country have taken. You then claim that your question is about the compatibility of Scripture with this type of belief, after you have linked the two together in a way that is not linked together in any current or ancient Jewish or Christian writings.

          But, then, you also turn around and claim that you are not being tendentious and that I am side-stepping. I will repeat my claim that I am using exactly the same type of logic that you are using. It makes as much sense to claim that the actions of some in Nigeria gives meaning to that particular Scripture as it makes sense to claim that the actions of Hitler and Stalin give meaning to atheistic humanism.

          Try again.

    • Possession by demons and engaging in witchcraft are two different things, tildeb.

      To consciously become a witch and invite commerce with evil spirits is a deliberate act and not the same as being attacked by evil spirits.

      Myself, I don’t think the modern self-described “witches” of Neo-Paganism and Wicca are guilty of anything other than a desire to dress up; some of them (I’m thinking Titania Hardie and her line of witch books and accessories) are nothing worse (or better) than the good old-fashioned hucksters seeing a market and peddling goods to it; some of them are con-artists (the same way as there were fraudulent mediums during the Spiritualist craze of the late 19th/early 20th century); some of them genuinely believe they are in touch with spiritual realities.

      And there are those actively wanting to promote anti-Christian ideas, either through adaptation of a sub-group ideology or genuine hostility – I’m thinking along the lines of the Norwegian Black Metal church burnings, though even there it’s a mixture of genuine (?) Satanism and the culture of the group. Either way, I’m happy to leave it up to the cops to deal with that.

      What, you expect me to rush out and burn Marilyn Manson at the stake? 😉

      • Being accused of demonic possession and being accused of being a witch often are the same belief in action. In Nigeria, the children die because they are accused of being possessed, thus earning them the title of ‘witches’.

        The point you make is quite right: comparing possession on the one hand with engaging in witchcraft on the other is indeed two different things. Mind you, that presupposes that one can can be possessed and that one can engage in witchcraft as ‘things’. I see no evidence of either being more than assertions but I do see belief in the assertions being true as having real and sometimes quite deadly consequences for those so accused. If one cannot criticize the belief itself – the validity of the assertion about possession being a real event with real evidence (otherwise, how can anyone religious or not know that someone is possessed compared to one who isn’t?) – without being charged as an atheist, and all the negative connotations that label carries with it in the world of the religious, then isn’t that quite revealing in itself?

        • Again, you are deliberately being tendentious. What is not being criticized is your argument against demonic possession. What is being criticized is your linkage between a belief in demonic possession and the commission of atrocities. Neither are you being accused of being an atheist in any of the posts, nor can you find such. The example that was given earlier was of one atheist and one paganist, but only to point out a parallel logical mistake. Nowhere was it said that you were either an atheist or a paganist. In fact, your personal beliefs have not been addressed, only your logical constructions.

          • To be clear, are you suggesting that there is no such link between believing in demonic possession and children killed because they are accused of being demonically possessed?

  17. Oh boy. I just had an inkling that the discussion of the child witches in Nigeria would come up.

    As a Nigerian-American, let me say a few things.

    Wolf Paul hit it on the head. Nigerian evangelical Christianity is a dangerous mix of Christianity and other beliefs. Many people convert to Christianity still holding traditional views of demons and spirits, and demonology in Nigeria is a different ball game due to this.

    For example, in Igbo culture, where my dad comes from, if your child falls sick, someone suddenly dies or someone succeeds in life only to epically fail later on, it is blamed on a witch. Sometimes, the “witch” might be in your very family. And this bleeds into Nigerian Christianity. If I had a dime for every time my grandma has been accused of being a witch, I would be rich. I don’t know much of her religion, but due to her power in the village, no one has come out to exorcise her or pray for her. Hmm…money talks.

    There are also beliefs in other things such as the Queen of the Sea. A reputable bank built near the shore of Lagos, Nigeria has been said to be her mirror. When the tides come in, she admires herself in the reflection of the building.

    I am definitely against the strange demonology I observed living in Nigeria. It’s one thing knowing that there are evil forces – but the preoccupation with them in the country is nauseating. Add the prosperity gospel and you end up with people waking up every day to be preachers, with greediness and demon-obsessed personalities.

    I have so many stories involving spiritual warfare in Nigeria, but I’ll stop here. About 95% of it is all from traditional religion, and 5% from the Rebecca Browns and the Mary K. Baxters in Western evangelical Christianity. To a point, even some of the Catholic and Anglican churches in Nigeria are becoming influenced by this, now holding charismatic groups.

    Dare I say, my country is bubbling over in so much false doctrine I can’t stand to be there longer than a week now.

    • FollowerOfHim says


      I so very much appreciate the perpsective you bring to the dialogue. Many of us nth-generation Anglo-Americans are just beginning to grapple with the fact that Christianity’s center is moving from the developed world to the developing one. At the same time, however, we can become a bit starry-eyed about this growth at times and fail to remember that, e.g., African Christianity has its own particular problems, some of which we have exported to its shores and some of which, as you note, emerge from traditional sources. Thanks again for the insights.

  18. I’ve struggled with the topic of “spiritual warfare” for a long time and am pleased to see this discussed. Sometimes I wonder if “Satan ‘R Us.” The comment made by K. Bryan describing the cartoon (“I’m not sure man need’s the help”) reminds me of articles I’ve read on the Jewish view of Satan. Please see


    and –

    “In the Tanakh, the holy Hebrew bible, ha-Satan (=the Satan) is an angel whom God uses to test man for various reasons usually dealing with his level of piety. The Satan is good, known as the figure in the book of Job who challenged the integrity of Job. In Judaism ha-Satan is the angel-accuser, a prosecuting attorney or adversary, the spiritual force alias the evil inclination, and he is totally under the command and control of God, as any other angel is. Therefore ha-Satan is a title rather than a name of an angel. This concept of Satan is not accepted by the Christian faiths, as they came to the conclusion that ha-Satan had rebelled against God, however this conclusion is unsupported in holy Hebrew scripture. In Jewish faith and tradition, free, even ‘rebellious’ will, the freedom of choice, is only a concept that relates to man, not to angels. And while Ha-Shem (=God) is a holy ‘light’, there can only be ‘light’, as there is no place or space, where God is not. It is said God is transcendental. Judaism has no concept of an ‘unholy darkness’ which is an opposing force or even an embodiment of evil.”

    If the Jewish view has always been that Satan is God’s messenger and can only carry out God’s directions (as illustrated in the book of Job) and since Jesus was raised as a Jew, wouldn’t He have had this view as well? I am not Jewish, but a Christian who believes in the Jewish heritage of Jesus and the Jewish view of Satan makes the most sense to me right now. Didn’t many of our current views and myths about devils and demons develop from ancient pagan gods and also in the Middle Ages?

    I don’t need any help or encouragement to be tempted by the “Seven Deadly” or any other sins. My daily battles are with my own mind and will, warfare with my own spirit. I wonder how “out of the mainstream” and politically incorrect my views are. Maybe my doubts and questions are a form of spiritual warfare itself.

    • FollowerOfHim says


      While my own views aren’t precisely those you described, I can assure you that, no, you are not alone. Learning a bit more (but far from enough so far!) about the Jewish views of these matters has been helpful to me personally.

  19. Thanks to all of the “gangstas” for their responses.

    Father Ernesto wrote, “Before we baptize someone, we do three exorcisms on a person (or baby) and they are clearly called exorcisms.” The only thing that bothers me about the baptisms on babies (and I am Catholic, so we do that) is that it seems to indicate that UNbaptized babies are under the influence of the devil and thus, if they were to die unbaptized, the parents would be left to wonder if their beloved child is with God or…elsewhere. I may not be able to support my belief with scripture (except for one sentence that Jesus made about small children and the Kingdom) but I am going to choose to believe that until childen are old enough to make conscious decisions regarding right and wrong, they are under God’s protection. Do you think, Father Ernesto, that I am “wrong” to do that? I am not challenging you at all. I just really want to know how to view this. Thank you for your time.

    • Because the Orthodox do not have an Augustinian view of original sin–which we call original guilt–we do not have the problem of explaining how unbaptized babies can make it into the Kingdom. Neither do we claim that temptation is equivalent to sin. But the exorcisms are a recognition that from the beginning of someone’s life, Satan (and those who are his) is trying to influence them no to trust, not to believe, not to follow. It is also the recognition that as a result of Adam’s sin, Satan has a certain claim on all human life, a claim that was broken by Jesus, but that is made active in the sacrament of baptism.

      • OK, Father Ernesto, I like that very much. Baptism for children, then, is like a “protection” for them and a pouring of God’s grace into them, but young children who die without baptism will still be in God’s Kingdom. I can assent to this understanding with great happiness! Thank you for your time.