Does Pentecostal-Charismatic Spiritual Warfare
Doves and snakes,
Loves and holy kisses to you.
Jesus gave the order, "...be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves" (Mt 10:16 HCSB). An innocent heart with a high practical IQ. When it comes to popular Pentecostal-Charismatic "spiritual warfare", however, we have been neither innocent nor wise. Let's talk about it.
Full disclosure first. I believe in and celebrate all the spiritual gifts. I believe in and pray in tongues, and in public, I interpret them as well. I believe in and practice spiritual warfare.
A Time to Kill
The pink elephant in the born-again community, at least here in the West, is that the overwhelming majority of Pentecostal-Charismatic (P-C) spiritual warfare rarely works. Approaching twenty-six years in crossdenominational ministry, I can tell you the word rarely is accurate. Before you get all hypersensitive and anal-retentive with an anti-religious spirit religious spirit (not a typo), calmly think through a few prima facie observations with me.
It Is the Same People Constantly
It is almost always the same people going forward for "deliverance", asking others to pray against their demons, going to deliverance sessions and conferences, watching YouTube videos of preachers in that theological headspace, and yet, years later, after plugging into (and paying for) all the popular Pentecostal-Charismatic-Apostolic-Prophetic-Signs n Wonders solutions, they are still not free indeed, they are still circling the same mountains. Those performing the warfare and deliverances and oiling and handsyness and decreeing and prayer-hollering have creative self-absolving explanations as to why this tormented mass of sheep do not get free.
Demon-Centricity vs Personal Responsibility
Another common sense observation. By putting nearly all attention and blame on demons--the spirit of this and the spirit of that--we push responsibility away from ourselves and our emotional complex, thought structures, choices, daily habits, relationships, and umwelt (one's environment as they perceive it). In P-C churches and ministries coked up on spiritual warfare mania, people are surprised and quietly offended to hear words like sin and idol and your own choices in a way that floodlights their personal responsibility. They will agree with you politely with that fake Christian smile, then pivot quickly right back to demons as the ultimate supervillain.
A Hiding Place for Mental Health Issues
For twenty-six years I have ministered in more churches, ministries, organizations, and groups than I can count, in all the major denominations and movements. It is in the P-C world that I encounter the greatest number of significant mental health issues. This is because certain P-C practices provide a cover or hiding place for mental health problems. Is it really spiritual warfare, holy shaking, spiritual trance...or delirium? Or a psychotic break? Or inverted depression? Or a primal scream rising from simmering trauma? Or group dynamics and mob delirium? If you do not think mob delirium is real, five people died...died!...at the U.S. Capitol invasion because of it. I know from firsthand experiences in private that a high number of P-C spiritual warfare leaders have significant emotional disturbances. Yet, instead of getting the true and authentic healing they need, spiritual warfare alternate realities have become a type of medication for them, a temporary relief, a cover for their deeper disturbances.
We need to stop lying to ourselves. We need to stop lying to each other. We need to come out into the light where the true power of our precious Father can heal every layer of our troubled inner person.
Distortions, Exaggerations, & Falsifications
Spiritual warfare is very real (2Co 10:3,4), but tormented innovators have made a lucrative industry out of distorting, exaggerating, and even falsifying it. Less informed or less discerning Christians see these visible examples, and how exciting and mystical it all seems, and replicate the same deviancies in their own Christian circles.
Ecclesiastes 3:3 says, "A time to kill...a time to tear down..." There is a heartbreaking amount of aberrant spiritual warfare happening in the P-C realm of the church. We will never get to truer supernatural power and more authentic results--God Himself will not let us--unless we kill and tear down wrong warfare philosophies and practices that keep a few people very rich and a great mass of sheep very enslaved.
Three Levels of Demonization
In the Gospels, occasionally we read of the Lord Jesus quickly and authoritatively expelling demons out of people. Then, with a lot of zeal and a lot of assumptions, we run out and try to do the same. We do not also study other New Testament verses pertinent to spiritual warfare, we do not also study the Scripture-wide theology of demonization and deliverance, and we do not also recognize the unique nuances in every individual situation. But, it is sensational and cathartic to holler at demons in front of a gullible crowd. So we just do that and playact like were deliverance virtuosos.
If we study well every detail of the New Testament, and pertinent Old Testament passages as well, a three-tiered delineation emerges into view describing three tiers or levels or zones of demonization: (1) basic attacks (no loss of freewill), (2) footholds, strongholds (partial loss of freewill), and (3) possession (total loss of freewill).
(No Loss of Freewill)
Every born-again person will occasionally experience basic attacks from the demonic world. These come in the form of misinterpretations of reality, tempting suggestions, nagging accusations, oppressive thoughts, emotional compulsions, and so on. These attacks are suggested directly to our minds (2Co 11:3) or manifested on our emotions (Ac 5:3, 1Chr 21:1). Paul called these basic attacks "flaming arrows of the evil one" (Eph 6:16).
Ephesians 6:10-18 Misrepresented & Misapplied
Paul's most famous spiritual warfare passage, Ephesians 6:10-18, is not at all about demon-possession or exorcisms or deliverances. Read these eight verses slowly and thoughtfully. Concentrate on what Paul says and does not say. The entire passage is about preparing ourselves in advance for basic attacks or "flaming arrows" that will come from the demonic world. He tells us to put on God's full armor in advance so we can stand as steel when the moment or season of evil comes (v11). Paul is only referring to the most basic spiritual warfare every Christian will experience, and how to prepare in advance. If you read possession or exorcisms or deliverances into this text you are not being honest or responsible with God's Word. Repent before you go on and ask God to give you hermeneutical integrity with His Word.
Prepare in Advance, Fall before God, Stand like Steel
James reinforces Paul in James 4:7 (Young's Literal Translation, underline mine): Be subject, then, to God; stand up against the devil, and he will flee from you. Many English Bibles say "resist the devil" here, but the literal Greek anthistemi is "stand against" or "anti-stand". James is reiterating Paul verbatim, who used the same Greek word in telling us to stand (histemi) on the evil day.
Can you see these two important verses have nothing to do with possession, exorcisms, or deliverance? That type of language is not even used or implied. Paul and James are addressing how every Christian should manage the basic attacks that occasionally come from satanic spirits: prepare in advance, fall before God, stand like steel.
No Loss of Freewill
Basic attacks or flaming arrows are the lowest level of demonic influence against a Christian. Here, no freewill has been lost. Rather, Paul and James are pleading with us to do what they are saying to safeguard our freewill and freedom.
Footholds & Strongholds
(Partial Loss of Freewill)
When a person practices wrong emotions, wrong thoughts, wrong behaviors, and wrong choices--before or after salvation, with or without demonic prodding--they develop footholds or strongholds of bondage in those areas. A foothold would be a minor bondage (sometimes it wins, sometimes you win) and a stronghold would be a major bondage (most of the time it wins, and negative consequences are imminent).
The foothold concept is derived from the NIV translation of Ephesians 4:27: ...do not give the devil a foothold. The word "foothold" is not an entirely right nor entirely wrong translation of the Greek topos. The word literally means "place" or "spot", but can be used in a variety of ways: geographical place (Mt 12:43), social or political place (Jn 11:48), advantageous place/opportunity (Ac 25:16), spiritual place (1Co 14:16), etc. In Ephesians 4:27, then, Paul is literally saying to not give the/a devil a place or spot, from which he can gain an advantageous position or opportunity or foothold.
A foothold, therefore, is when a devil has established a mild or intermittent level of bondage in a person's life. You can always spot a foothold by the Christian's inconsistent life, by their up-n-down experience in the area in question. The person still has their freewill in this zone, but the demon has some leverage. It has a place, a foothold. Needless to say, this is when you want to get help and get free, before the foothold mutates into a stronghold and you lose more freewill and you accelerate towards consequences.
The stronghold concept is derived from many English translations of 2Corinthians 10:4. The NKJV renders it, For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The word "stronghold" in the Greek is ochyroma, which literally means "castle" or "fortress". At this level the demon(s) no longer has only one square foot in the private corner of your life, but has successfully built a fortified castle on that land. The demon(s) owns and frequents that metaphorical castle freely; it is holding captive significant swaths of your freewill and life.
The stronghold concept is repeated and reworded in 2Timothy 2:26 (NASB): ...they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. Notice the language here is definitively different from the basic attack language in Ephesians 6:10-18 and James 4:7. The words "snare" and "held captive to do Satan's will" describe a more dangerous zone. No basic attacks here, no flaming arrows here, no preparing in advance here, no standing firm here. In this zone the Christian is no longer in a mild skirmish. Rather, they are losing significantly, they are in the snare, they are held captive in a dark castle.
Partial Loss of Freewill
Footholds and strongholds are this middle, increasingly dangerous zone of demonic influence. The person retains varying degrees of their freewill in this zone. In footholds they retain more, in strongholds they retain less and less. 2Timothy 2:26 tells us they retain some of their freewill even in the stronghold zone, because, they can still "come to their senses and escape from the snare".
No Deliverances or Exorcisms Here Either
Many, if not most, Pentecostal-Charismatic deliverances do not work because Paul's get-free solution (in the foothold/stronghold zone) has nothing to do with deliverance (in the exorcism sense). Paul's divinely-inspired get-free solution sounds so very non Pentecostal-Charismatic in 2Timothy 2:24-26. Note the underlined (NIV):
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Beloved P-C brethren, why are you doing deliverances and exorcisms on captives in the foothold/stronghold zone, when 2Timothy 2:24-26 gives you the get-free solution? Captives are to be taught and instructed in the knowledge of the truth, in the manifest power of the Spirit, while you nurture a silent hope and faith that God will grant them repentance so they can come to their senses. Even if they retain only a measly 10% of their freewill, Scripture says here anointed teaching and instruction in the knowledge of the truth, coupled with God granting them repentance, can bring them escape from any snare, any castle fortress, of any devil! Why are you playing abracadabra exorcist and neglecting simple verses on how to minister to foothold and stronghold captives?
Galatians 6:1 is a parallel scripture to 2Timothy 2:24-26. Again Paul is referring to someone in the foothold/stronghold zone ("overtaken in any trespass" YLT) and again he uses pastoral language ("restore gently"), not exorcism or spiritual warfare language.
(Total Loss of Freewill)
If a person continues to cede more and more of themselves to any emotion, thought, behavior, or choice that is against God's nature and Word, eventually they will abdicate their entire freewill to a demon(s). They can no longer choose to repent and take steps to eliminate the demon's original legal right and place; it has totalizing control of the person. Think of the demoniac at Gadara or the slave girl at Philippi or the Antichrist man when Satan or Abaddon possesses him. At this level of demonization God must miraculously empower an outside messenger to expel the demon. Only then can the person use their freewill again to repent and take transformational steps. If a person has been delivered from totalizing possession, and they do not repent and take transformational steps, Jesus said they will lose their window of grace and the possession will return seven times worse (Mt 12:43-45).
Exorcisms & Deliverances Here
Here, at Level 3, is where exorcisms need to happen (what Pentecostals and Charismatics tend to call "deliverance"). Here is where an authentically God-empowered person addresses the demon directly and expels it from a person, the way Jesus, the disciples, and Paul did on occasion. This zone, the zone of total possession, is the only scenario in Scripture where we see a Christian addressing evil spirits directly.
There are serious, dangerous problems with how many P-C Christians philosophize and practice spiritual warfare. Brethren, come back to God's Word! Learn it and obey it!
Regarding demonic activity in the basic attack zone, we are told what to do: prepare in advance, fall into God, stand as steel (Eph 6:10-18, Jas 4:7).
Regarding demonic activity in the foothold/stronghold zone, we are told what to do. If you are ministering: teach, instruct, and pastorally restore in the power of the Spirit, hoping and asking God to grant repentance (2Ti 2:24-26, Gal 6:1). If you are the one captive: repent deeply, burrow into an experiential knowledge of the truths you are needing and lacking, come to your senses, take decisive steps to escape the snare.
Regarding demonic activity in the possession zone, we need to honestly and humbly seek God with fasting to ascertain if He is appointing and empowering us to expel a demon(s). Do not pridefully assume you are just because of scriptures like Luke 10:17-19 or Mark 16:17 or John 14:12-14. These verses, like every verse in the Bible, have to be studied multidimensionally and rightly divided for context and intent. You may be the one God chooses to use to expel a demon, or you may not. Never assume how He will work, or through whom He will work, or when the right timing is for Him to work. This kind of tactical insight is granted only to the most humble and diligent seekers of God. Ignore this and you lay a snare for your own soul.
Revisiting Levels 1 & 2
The vast majority of situations we will come across in ministry and church life today are basic attacks and footholds/strongholds (Levels 1 and 2). There are two strangely practical reasons for this.
One, individuals under total possession have been reinterpreted by the medical community as severely mentally ill only. They are therefore heavily medicated and institutionalized, and consequently, physically distanced from the church (where potential deliverers usually are). Another practical reason is that many under possession are in prison for sociopathic and psychopathic crimes, once again distancing them from the church and potential deliverers. Sheer arithmetic, therefore, tells us the vast majority of demonic situations we will encounter here in the West will be in Levels 1 and 2.
Nonetheless, 2Timothy 3:15-17 tell us the Holy Scriptures make us wise and thoroughly equipped for every good work. Every good work. Whether it is Level 1,2, or 3, it is the Scriptures--rightly interpreted, illuminated, and experientialized by the Holy Spirit--that equip us for whatever good work we have to do to destroy the works of the devil. It was for this the Son of God appeared.