Spiritual Conflict in Biblical Perspective 2

John Christopher Thomas

In the first plenary paper on the biblical text I proposed one way in which the various writings of the NT might be drawn upon in the construction of a NT theology on this topic in order to gain some leverage on the larger question of spiritual warfare.(1) In this paper I seek to extend the study by offering a set of reflections on the implications of the first paper for theology and ministry. My goal is two-fold. First, it is my hope that these reflections will make clearer the way in which this more limited study on origins of illness helps in the understanding of spiritual warfare. Second, it is my hope that these reflections will be received as an invitation to dialogue about this most important topic across a variety of theological disciplines.

The Role of Prayer

Earlier it was suggested that prayer, one might even say fervent prayer, is always an appropriate response to infirmity. This observation is based upon the admonition of James 5 which gives explicit directives to the church when there are those in the community who are ill. It is further supported by Paul’s apparent practice when faced with the thorn in the flesh and the example of Jesus and others within the narratives of the Gospels and Acts. It appears that such prayer should, in most cases, precede any other action, with the possible exception of anointing with oil. (2) The fact that the cause or origin of a specific infirmity may be unknown should result in no hesitancy about whether or not fervent prayer is appropriate. On the basis of a variety of NT texts such prayer, whether offered by a leader, one who possesses the gifts of healings, a group of elders, or other members of the community, should be offered with the full expectation that the infirm person will receive healing. While it is clear that not all are healed in all cases cited in the NT literature, it is difficult to ignore the impression that emerges from reading the texts themselves that in the vast majority of cases the writers (and readers with them) exhibit an extraordinary expectancy with regard to healing.

Although the majority of NT cases suggests that healings were immediate, there is some evidence to suggest that one is to keep praying for healing until one hears from God. Such an idea may appeal for support to Mk 8:22-26 where Jesus twice lays hands upon a blind man before the man receives complete healing. Additional support for this suggestion may be found in Paul’s own approach when faced with the thorn in the flesh. The fact that Paul prayed not once but three times for its removal may imply that the apostle would have kept on praying if he had not heard from God as to its ‘permanent’ nature. Thus, rather than becoming overly discouraged or embarrassed in those cases where the sick are not healed, it appears that individual and community alike are on good grounds to continue in prayer for healing.

The Role of Discernment

The suggestion that one should continue in prayer until the infirmity is removed or one hears from God leads rather naturally to the next major implication of this study. Although it is always appropriate to respond to any infirmity with prayer, it is also clear from this study that discernment plays a crucial role in the ministry of healing especially as it relates to the Devil, disease, and deliverance. Not only do the NT documents indicate that discernment is a part of many situations described, but they also imply that the readers of these documents are to have a place for discernment as an on-going part of their community life. How might such evidence inform theology and ministry?

It goes without saying that discernment is a topic which is very difficult to define, as it at first glance seems to be an almost entirely intuitive process. Yet, despite the unique challenges which such a task presents, it is possible to gain some understanding of the process by identifying the things discerned in the NT and those who are shown discerning them. In order to accomplish this goal, attention is given to the dynamics of the discerning process as it relates to the origins of illness.

The Discernment of Sin

As noted in the first paper, sin is depicted in several NT documents as an origin of illness. Several significant factors emerge from an examination of those contexts. On each occasion (James 5, 1 Cor. 11, and John 5), there is the clear assumption expressed that the individual who suffers an infirmity owing to sin would know of the presence of sin and its nature. Despite the fact that someone else (a leader of some sort) indicates a knowledge of the presence of sin, none of the texts examined suggests that the sufferer would be unaware of the sin or surprised by such an identification. Rather, the individual who bears the infirmity would appear to know full well the nature of the sin and, consequently, would play a crucial role in the discernment process. Thus, the admonitions of James to confess, of Paul to examine, and of Jesus to stop sinning reveal that the first step in discerning the origin of an illness on the part of a believer is an examination of self to discern whether sin may be the origin of a particular infirmity.

Another part of this discernment process is played by leaders in the community. Often in contexts where sin is identified as the origin of an infirmity, the presence of sin is known or alluded to by an individual portrayed as in an authoritative position. In the case of James, the author merely mentions the possibility that sin may lie behind some illness, while Paul, Jesus, and Peter (Acts 5) appear to know of sin’s presence by the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit and/or the supernatural knowledge of Jesus. While the role of leadership in the discernment process is important, it should not be forgotten that in the NT, the discernment by leaders tends to confirm that which should already be known by the individual sufferer. It does not appear that the discernment by leaders ordinarily reveals something otherwise unknown to the believer who is afflicted, although the admonitions of the leader might cause the individual to act upon what he or she knows.

The community itself also plays a role in the discernment process as it relates to sin. Here there appear to be two primary functions. The community offers the context for the discerning judgment for which Paul calls, and the community provides an appropriate context for confession of sin and the resulting intercession. Thus, the community provides the support and balance necessary for the process of discernment.

The Discernment of Divine Chastisement

Closely related to the discernment of sin is the discernment of the hand of God in affliction, for in the vast majority of NT cases there is a clear connection between sin as origin of illness and God as the one who afflicts. If sin as the origin of an infirmity can be discerned by the individual believer, then it follows that the presence of the hand of God in infirmity can also be discerned in those cases. In addition to what has been said about the discernment of sin generally, a few other observations might be offered.

First, on those occasions in the NT where an infirmity is deemed to be the result of sin, the implication is that God stands behind the affliction(s). Interestingly enough, sin does not appear to function as an autonomous force as an origin of illness. Rather, in those cases reference is made in an explicit or implicit way to God and/or his agents. Second, often divine affliction is accompanied by a revelation of its origin. This revelation may come through an angelic visitation, prophetically spoken words, words from Jesus or a Christophanic message from the risen Christ. Third, on occasion the divine origin of an affliction is discerned only after sufficient time has passed to allow for an assessment of the results of the infirmity for the Gospel’s sake, as in the case of Paul’s preaching to the Galatians on account of a weakness in the flesh and the case of the blind man in John 9. In addition, the purpose of Paul’s thorn is discerned by means of a divine word from the risen Christ only after a period of prayerful intercession.

The Discernment of the Demonic

The discernment of a demonic origin of infirmity is also described in the NT documents. For this study, two aspects of the discernment process are most significant. First, it is clear that on certain occasions the discernment of a demonic presence in an infirmity is based primarily upon observation of the person afflicted. For example, when the father of the demon-possessed boy comes to the disciples and then Jesus for help, it is the father who informs of the boy’s condition. From the text it is apparent that the father’s assessment is based upon the convulsions which endanger the boy’s life. Other similar diagnoses of the demonic origin of certain illness in the NT are probably best viewed as in line with the case of this father. However, it is also clear that the same kind of infirmity could be attributed to the demonic on one occasion, God on another occasion, and treated in a rather neutral fashion on still another occasion. Thus, while the observation of various phenomena may be a part of the discernment process with regard to the demonic, it is certainly not the whole process.

The second aspect of the discernment process with regard to the demonic includes what might be called an intuitive dimension. This dimension has special reference to those immediate diagnoses on the part of Jesus and others where an infirmity is attributed without delay to the demonic. Such discernment is the result of a special or supernatural knowledge which appears to be attributable to the Holy Spirit’s activity. This ability to discern, as with the ability to discern sin as an origin of illness, is primarily confined to those who are regarded as leaders in a given community. Perhaps the Pauline ‘gift of discernment’ is the means by which the discernment of demonic afflictions is possible (cf. 1 Cor. 12:10). If so, then others in the community would be able to operate in this fashion, while the need for this gift among leaders would be especially crucial.


The role of discernment in the healing ministry of the church is crucial and should work to supplement the prayer of the believing community. Although there may be occasions where the Holy Spirit instantaneously reveals the origin and/or purpose of a given infirmity, ordinarily it appears that the process of discernment may take some time to operate. The NT picture suggests that discernment requires a communal context, the involvement of the individual sufferer (except perhaps in the case of certain infirmities brought on by demon possession), as well as the leaders of the believing community. There is also a role for other believers to play a part in this process, particularly those with the gift of discernment.

The Role of Confession

When an infirmity is the result of sin in the life of a believer, the appropriate response is confession. Such confession is to be made to the believing community in order that intercession might be made on behalf of the one who has sinned. It appears that in some NT communities public confession was practised. The fact that there is no place for such confession in many contemporary churches is more an indication of the church’s superficiality and fragmentation than it is a sign of the early church’s naiveté or lack of sophistication. Part of the problem with appropriating such a practice today is that in some parts of the world churches are no longer communities, but rather collections of individuals. It would appear that the church has paid the price for failing to provide an opportunity for confession as a regular and on-going part of the community’s worship. Confession on the NT order where community does not exist would, no doubt, prove to be foolhardy. Therefore, the challenge facing us is not to give up forever on this vital dimension of community life, but rather to work for the construction of communities where believers are loved and nurtured in a familial fashion. Perhaps a first step in the reappropriation of regular confession (in places where it is no longer practised) would be to make a place for the practice of footwashing, given its prominent emphasis on forgiveness and the community’s involvement in the act. (3)

The Role of Exorcism, Deliverance, and Sanctification

Given the current preoccupation with exorcism and deliverance in some circles, it is especially important to make clear any implications of this study for this dimension of theology and ministry. The following observations are tentatively offered:

First, in the light of the fact that in the NT only a small percentage (perhaps 10%) of infirmities are attributed to the demonic, it would seem wise to avoid the temptation of assuming that in most cases an infirmity is caused by Satan and/or demons. Such a realization and in some cases adjustment in thinking could serve to bring a degree of moderation through biblical critique to an area that has been and continues to be sorely abused. As the NT texts are not guilty of indiscriminate attributions of infirmities to the demonic, ministers of healing would seem obliged to show a similar restraint and caution in the attribution of origins of illness.

Second, the fact that in the NT there is no evidence that exorcisms took place within the church but rather seem to have occurred outside the church in evangelistic contexts suggests that the current specialization in exorcisms by some in the church is misdirected at the least. This statement should not be taken to mean that exorcisms have no place in the church at all, but to point out that the current practice of many is at odds to some extent with the Scriptures, texts which most practitioners treat as authoritative guides in their theology and ministry.

Third, even though the NT gives some evidence that believers may suffer from infirmities in which Satan or demons are involved, these texts give no evidence that believers may be demon possessed or oppressed to an extent where the sufferer loses control of his/her faculties. Speaking to this issue is complicated by the ambiguity which surrounds the meaning of the word Christian in many contexts today. If one wishes to include within the category of believer ‘nominal’ Christians or those who may no longer consider themselves to be believers but are part of traditions which still regard them as Christian, owing to a previous profession of faith or baptism, then perhaps one can argue for the domination of such ‘Christians’ by demons. However, such modern ways of defining the term Christian do not take seriously enough the lines of demarcation which the NT draws between believers and unbelievers. Thus, while the NT makes clear the reality of the demonic, and perhaps few participants at this consultation would wish to dispute this reality, there is precious little evidence in the NT to support many of the claims that come from those in the ‘deliverance ministry’. In point of fact, the very NT texts that might be appealed to as support for the view that it is theoretically possible for Christians to suffer an infirmity brought by a demon do not even hint that such believers are in need of exorcism but either treat the removal of the infirmity as an ‘ordinary’ healing or indicate that the infirmity is to remain, in accordance with the divine will.

Fourth, numbers of believers have long had an appreciation for the fact that the Christian journey includes a struggle against the flesh. In fact, it has not been uncommon for phrases like ‘the Devil has a hold’ on a particular individual to describe the extent of the struggle. However, even where such language has been employed there has been little or no suggestion that the person was possessed by the Devil or a demon. Rather, these battles were understood in the context of the pursuit of holiness of life. Perhaps one way forward is for theologians and practitioners to give consideration to the (re)appropriation of the doctrine and practice of sanctification. Such a (re)appropriation might accomplish at least two things: 1) It would provide an opportunity for serious self examination which acknowledges the reality of the struggle against the Devil, sin, and flesh but in a way that is much more at home with the biblical texts. 2) It would facilitate an appropriate use of exorcism language by restricting its usage to those occasions where demon possession is clearly present.

Fifth, it appears that part of the confusion over exorcism and deliverance has resulted from an uncritical application of exorcism language to describe the spiritual and Scriptural experience of sanctification. Since exorcism (often called deliverance) has become for many the paradigm for dealing with any number of spiritual problems, it is not surprising that similar expected phenomena have accompanied times of `deliverance’. If sanctification again finds a place in the vocabulary and life of the church’s spirituality, perhaps those in the tradition may find a way past this current controversial impasse.

The Role of Doctors

It might not be unwise to conclude this second plenary paper with a final observation about the implications of this study for the use of medicine and doctors. Given the fact that in the Pastorals the medicinal use of wine can be prescribed for Timothy’s stomach problems, a total rejection of the use of doctors appears to outdistance the NT teaching and thus may do much to harm rather than help.

1. This paper is a slightly revised version of J.C. Thomas, The Devil, Disease, and Deliverance: Origins of Illness in New Testament Thought (JPTS 13; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 310-19.

2. The practice of anointing with oil was apparently instituted by Jesus (Mk 6:13), practised by the church (James 5:14), and tied through healing to the atonement (Mt 8:17).

3. Cf. J.C. Thomas, Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community (JSNTS 61; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991).

Date: 22 Aug 2000

Gathering: 2000 Nairobi


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