July 16, 2018

Spiritual Warfare and Missionary Praxis

(This is a paper that I wrote for my Missionary Methods and Problems class this past semester. My topic on spiritual warfare as well as conversations with friends caused me to wrestle with how I look at spiritual warfare. I hope this paper will help you to wrestle with the topic yourself. If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you! Just leave a comment below.)

As Christians we are taught that we are participants in a spiritual battle. It is a cosmic battle that is not fought with physical weapons, and we fight an enemy we cannot see. Ephesians 6:12 tell us, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Growing up in the West predisposed me to a perspective that, until recently, I hadn’t thought much about. As I have been learning, disagreements exist between Christians around the world regarding what spiritual warfare is and what fighting the powers of darkness looks like.  Eugene Peterson has said well that, “There is a spiritual war in progress, and an all-out moral battle. There is evil and cruelty, unhappiness and illness. There is superstition and ignorance, brutality and pain. God is in continuous and energetic battle against all of it. God is for life and against death. God is for love and against hate. God is for hope and against despair. God is for heaven and against hell. There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square foot of space is contested.”

What I am going to address are the different beliefs regarding how spiritual warfare manifests itself  in the physical world and how Christians, especially missionaries, should engage in spiritual warfare.
I have learned that my North American Reformed Christianity has tended towards a perspective that separates the physical and spiritual realms. Paul Hiebert in his own writings calls this separation the “excluded middle.” He explains how those who fall into this trap do not see any interaction between the physical and spiritual worlds. Things such as logic and science are distinct from the supernatural and miraculous which are  often experienced in other cultures. Nam Shin Park in his article Hermeneutics and Spiritual Warfare summarizes Paul Hiebert’s viewpoint on what contributed to the change in perspective of the Church. He writes, “ …the viewpoint of the Church regarding spiritual warfare was dramatically changed by the influences of the Enlightenment and modern dualism, which brought separation between the supernatural or spiritual world and the natural world… These two realms are quite distinct and are not involved with each other.”

Philip Jenkins discusses how North American Christians often view Eph. 6:12 as “superstition and irrelevant” but he says, “However superstitious and irrelevant it appears to mainstream Northern Christians, the passage makes wonderful sense in most of Africa as it does for believers in Latin America or East Asia.” My own perspective has tended toward viewing spiritual warfare as an internal struggle and fight and has excluded how demonic warfare against God is manifested in the physical world.
Problems arise when missionaries from a Western context with a perspective like mine travel to other cultural contexts and are confronted with the reality of supernatural powers at work through systems, false religions, and demonization. Because of their perspective they have no way of understanding or explaining what is happening. More often than not, these missionaries will explain these instances away as being imagined or happenstance. Michael Pocock summarizes this well, “The orientation of Western missionaries was less supernatural than the worldview of those they were trying to reach… They believed that all difficulties stemming from what they regarded as either wrong belief and practice or possibly demons, would disappear when new converts realized they were fearful of forces that did not exist or played a minor role in life.”

Critiques from the non-western world can help teach and broaden the Western understanding of spiritual warfare. Here I will look at and analyze two contrasting views which critique the Western and majority world perspective on spiritual warfare. This will demonstrate ways other Christians believe spiritual warfare is manifested and engaged. The first perspective that I want to examine is that of Nabeel T. Jabbour, an Egyptian Christian. In his work entitled, An Unseen Reality, Jabbour discusses five instances in which Satan has influence in the world. These include demonization, cultures, laws and basic beliefs, structures of power, and thought life. Before discussing these, Jabbour emphasises the fact that the devil has already been defeated by Christ Jesus and will be completely destroyed at Christ’s second coming. This is important to keep in mind as we look at what I think are three of the most important instances which Jabbour brings out. These are Satan’s work through demonization, cultures, and laws and basic beliefs.

A summary of Jabbour’s thoughts regarding demonization is that he believes in the casting out of demons, but he emphasizes “power with truth encounters” in which the glory of God is demonstrated through the event and the purpose is not the amazement of the people around. An overview of his position regarding Satan’s work in cultures is that, “This is what the Devil is set on doing—slowly polluting every culture until humanity is destroyed without its realization or resistance.” His suggestions for Christians is that we be circumspect and watchful, but not to the point that we become incapacitated by fear and ineffective to reach our culture. Finally, Satan’s third influence in the world is that laws, which should be good boundaries to protect us, can be inadequate as well as formed because of evil intentions.

Jabbour concludes all of this by encouraging Christians to take seriously the schemes and plots of the devil, but as we do, to keep our eyes focused on Jesus, because he has given us the power to overcome the evil one. At the end of the article, he charges Christians to “be careful to put on the whole armor of God and close firmly every door and window against our enemy.” He also encourages Christians saying, “As you read your Bible, underline the passages that help you to gaze at God and only glance at the Devil.”

A second perspective I am going to look at is that of false religions as a form of spiritual warfare that Satan uses to keep humanity captive. One example of this is folk Islam. Rick Love states that, “More than three-fourths of the Muslim world, of approximately 800 million people, are folk Muslims, who are doctrinally Muslim but in practice are animists. Folk Muslims confess Allah, but worship spirits. They are more concerned with magic then they are about Muhammad.” Millions of people are ensnared in fear to pagan ritualist practices. Love observes that, “Because they live in a world of magic and miracles, they are not always awestruck by demonstrations of God’s power. On the other hand, if we demonstrate no power they are even less impressed!” In this instance of Folk Islam, Richard Love suggests that power encounters are necessary in evangelism, not solely truth encounters. Rick Love defines a power encounter as, “the demonstration of God’s power, through God’s servants, over the work of Satan and demons, based on the work of Christ, the Great Commission and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, resulting in the salvation of the lost, the upbuilding of the Body and the glory of God.” Love deliberately mentions that he does not believe that power encounters are the key to winning the Folk Muslims to Christ, but he most certainly believes that these demonstrations of power, especially through healing and exorcism, should be practiced in evangelization. Rick Love concludes his discussion by saying, “Power encounter is not the only key to reaching the hearts of Folk Muslims, but it needs to be an essential factor to effectively evangelize Folk Muslims and plant the Church of Jesus Christ in their midst.”

Both of these positions challenge me to expand my Reformed perspective that miracles are not performed today and that the devil and his demons are inactive in our world today. I do not agree with everything both authors have to offer, but I can glean and grow from their understanding. I agree with much of Jabbour’s perspective because of his emphasis on Christ’s victory over the devil and the ultimate goal of the glory of God. I am reminded of Colossians 2:15, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Although Jesus has conquered Satan, we experience the “now and not yet” of this truth. Satan knows he will ultimately be conquered, but the effects of mankind’s fall have not yet been completely eradicated and will not be until Jesus returns again. Until then, the devil, “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” As Christians we are called to wage war against the devil and push back the kingdom of darkness. Paul urges the church at Ephesus to, Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” These positions have helped me see the deficiencies of my own tradition: that God is not able to work powerfully through his people, my tendency toward self-reliance rather than dependence on God to work in and through me, and that Satan is at work both in overt and subtle ways.


I have learned that the despite the Western tendency to think of the spiritual world as superstitious, non-existent, or irrelevant, the Bible says a lot about this realm and how we are to engage in this spiritual battle. It started in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The serpent tempted Eve and after she and Adam fell, God cursed all of them. In Genesis 3:15 God curses the serpent saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring, he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Adam and Eve had disobeyed God and then tried to shift the blame off of themselves. They were not deserving of any favor from God and yet, even in his curse of the serpent, he gave a promise to Adam and Eve. God said there would be antagonism and animosity between the offspring of Even and the serpent, but despite being struck by the serpent, the seed of Eve would ultimately crush and destroy the serpent, the devil. Hebrews 2 deals with Jesus being the founder of salvation by bearing our death for us. Hebrews 2:14 continues by saying, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” This verse shows us how Jesus became a human and experienced the same things we experience. He did all of this so that, in His death, He could destroy and conquer the devil. When Jesus came and died on the cross, it appeared as though Satan has won. But when Jesus was raised from the dead, he conquered sin, death, and the devil. This gives us hope in resisting the devil because we know that he is already defeated and that with Christ we are victorious. Also, because we are in Christ, he has given us the Holy Spirit who enables us  to resist sin and overcome Satan.


One thing we know for sure is that “though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” Paul gives us insight into what our armor and weapons are in Ephesians 6 when he charges us to, “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” We engage in spiritual warfare with truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer. As Paul concludes the book and chapter 6 of Ephesians by exhorting the church the stand firm, but to do so not in their own strength, but the Lord’s. All of these weapons that Paul lists in the passage are God-centered and therefore require constant dependence upon God. The views held by Nabeel T. Jabbour and Rick Love demonstrate this dependence. Christians have applied these truths in different ways throughout church history, but what we all can learn is that the discussion and engagement in spiritual warfare is something that can only be engaged and overcome by the power of God.

The lack of knowledge and understanding Western missionaries have of the spiritual battles they are stepping into must be addressed. If it is not, they will not be able to adequately provide the answers the gospel gives to the questions of evil, pain, and suffering local people are asking. There are a variety of approaches that missionaries can and will use upon encountering these problems. The first is that they will write these encounters off as non-existent spirits and therefore not declare Jesus Christ as the one who is victorious and more powerful than the forces of darkness. As a result people will return to their former way of life to solve their problems. Another possible response is “Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare” which Scott Moreau defines as, “praying against territorial spirits, seeking to ‘map’ their strategies over given locations by discerning their names and what they use to keep people in bondage, and then binding them so that evangelism may go unhindered.” This response does not have much biblical support. It focuses on actively finding, mapping, and naming demons and engaging them through prayer and power encounter when there are no biblical examples of these activities for Christians to follow. Rather we are called to “stand firm” under the attacks of the evil one not seek out and engage. To do so is presumptuous of the power that demons possess. Craig Keener offers another response for a way to engage saying, “If by spiritual warfare we mean particular prayer practices such as “casting down” heavenly powers, we have little biblical warrant. If, however, we mean by spiritual warfare what the image means in the New Testament, missions and the Christian life are spiritual warfare. This spiritual battle includes but is not limited to prayer.” Keener is saying that power encounters are not the only form of spiritual warfare. Rather, he is saying spiritual warfare takes place in the everyday life of the believer as well as the extraordinary.

As much as Christians would like there to be a one-size-fits-all answer regarding what to believe about spiritual warfare, there is none. Despite this, we can see that spiritual warfare is real, and it’s important to consider all that the Bible says on the subject and to be prepared for the battle. Missionaries need to be aware of the culture they are entering and what that culture believes in regards to the spiritual realm. They should prayerfully evaluate their own positions regarding the topic and be teachable. The scripture plays a huge role as missionaries approach this topic of spiritual warfare. The Bible teaches us who God is and how we are to to live, as well as how how to engage the world in a gospel-driven way. This issue is one in which it’s easy to gain a lot of head knowledge, but that is more difficult to internalize. It requires the grace of God to teach and grow us as does all of our Christian life. May we be ever teachable in this area and in every area. 

Resources:

  1. Hiebert, Paul. Spiritual Warfare and Worldview. Web. Nov 13, 2015.
  2. Hiebert, Paul G. “The Flaw Of the Excluded Middle.” Missiology 10.1 (1982): 43.ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 4. 2015.
  3. Shin Park. 2011. “Hermeneutics and Spiritual Warfare” Didaskalia (Otlerburne, Man.(2011): 85-103. ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serials. Web. 4 Nov 2015.
  4. Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. 2002.New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Pocock, Michael. The Changing Face of World Missions Chapter 7. (197) (Grand Rapids:Baker Academic, 2005)
  6. Jabbour, Nabeel T. The Unseen Reality: A panoramic View of Spiritual Warfare (20-59) (Singapore: Navpres, 1995)
  7. Jabbour, Nabeel T. The Unseen Reality: A panoramic View of Spiritual Warfare (33) (Singapore: Navpres, 1995)
  8. Jabbour, Nabeel T. The Unseen Reality: A panoramic View of Spiritual Warfare (40-41) (Singapore: Navpres, 1995)
  9. Jabbour, Nabeel T. The Unseen Reality: A panoramic View of Spiritual Warfare (67) (Singapore: Navpres, 1995)
  10. Love, Rick “Power Encounter Among Folk Muslims: An Essential Key of the Kingdom,” International Journal of Frontier Missions (193) (1996).
  11. Love, Rick “Power Encounter Among Folk Muslims: An Essential Key of the Kingdom,” International Journal of Frontier Missions (194) (1996).
  12. Love, Rick. Muslims, Magic and the Kingdom of God: Church Planting Among Folk Muslims. (113). (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2000) Web. Dec. 03, 2015.
  13. Love, Rick “Power Encounter Among Folk Muslims: An Essential Key of the Kingdom,” International Journal of Frontier Missions (195) (1996).
  14. 1 Peter 5:8, ESV
  15. Ephesians 6:11, ESV
  16. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, ESV
  17. Lawless, Chuck. Spiritual Warfare and Missions. (37) Web. Nov. 13, 2015.
  18. Keener, Craig. Paul’s Missionary Method. (107) Web. Dec. 06, 2015. Site: http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/files/2013/02/Keener-chapter-from-Pauls-Missionary-Methods-2.pdf

 

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