Contextualization and Spiritual Power

Charles H. Kraft

May 2000

[Prepublication Version, Not to be Quoted Without the Author’s Permission, Comments Welcome]

Most of the world is heavily involved in enslavement to and manipulation of spiritual powers. In addition, once one is attuned to this fact, even a casual observation of the world Christian scene leads to a recognition that a large percentage of the world’s Christians participate in what I have called “dual allegiance.” That is, since they find within Christianity little or none of the spiritual power they crave for the meeting of their needs for healing, blessing, guidance, even deliverance from demons, they continue their preChristian practice of going to shamans, priests, diviners, temples, shrines and the like for spiritual power. They may attend church faithfully and be truly committed to Christ on Sundays. But, if they wake up ill on Monday, off they go to the shaman, since they know there’s no healing in the church and the hospital is too slow and expensive.

This being so, it seems strange that we find virtually no discussion of spiritual power in publications concerning contextualization. Missionaries, development workers and others who seek to help cross-culturally, since they come largely from the West have ignored this facet of biblical teaching and social concern. Perhaps the same western worldview blindness that dominated missionaries working in areas saturated with consciousness of the spirit world has affected our theorizing about contextualization. And just as that blindness kept the missionaries from ever learning to deal adequately with the problems raised, so it keeps us from addressing them in our theoretical treatments. Nor do we give the attention we should to the great need to help Christian converts to deal with spirit world problems in ways that are both biblically and culturally appropriate.

Where are the discussions concerning biblically legitimate and culturally appropriate approaches to such areas of Christian experience as warfare prayer, deliverance from demons, healing, blessing and cursing, dedications, visions, dreams, concepts of the territoriality of spirits, angels, demons and the like? Shouldn’t we be discussing the contextualizing of spiritual warfare? What are the scriptural principles applicable to every cultural situation and what are the cultural variables in this important area? Something as important to nonwestern and, increasingly, to western Christians needs to be discussed and dealt with.

The Biblical Validity of Dealing With Spiritual Power

Though the concept has been questioned by ivory tower theoreticians, spiritual warfare is an important biblical reality and, for those of us who are practitioners, a continual existential reality. Jesus treated Satan and demonic forces as real foes, frequently casting out demons and thus setting free people he called “captives” and “oppressed” (Lk 4:18). Such language is warfare language. Furthermore, He calls Satan “the ruler of this world” (Jn 14:30). In a similar vein, Paul refers to Satan as “the evil god of this world” who blinds people to God’s Good News (2 Cor 4:4) and John says, “the whole world is under the rule of the Evil One” (1 Jn 5:19).

Like most of the world today, biblical peoples saw the world as populated by enemy spirits that could cause trouble if they were not properly dealt with. Unfortunately, through most of its history, the people of Israel chose to deal with these spirits as the animistic peoples around them did rather than as God commanded them to. So God is constantly warning His people against worshiping the gods of the nations around them and punishing them when they disobey. We know that our God is a patient God. He has demonstrated this countless times in his dealings with human beings. But there are areas of life, especially those dealing with the counterfeiting of his power-oriented activities in which He has made it clear that there is to be no compromise. This has to be factored in at every point in any discussion of contextualization in relation to spiritual power.

Note, as one of many examples, what God said to Solomon in 1 Kings 11 (esp. vv 9-13) concerning the penalty he would have to pay for disobeying Him by turning to other gods. God was angry with Solomon and took the kingdom away from his son because of his idolatry. In Acts 5, then, Peter asks Ananias why he “let Satan take control” of him (v 3) that he should lie to the Holy Spirit about the price of the property he had sold. And in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 we are warned against eating what has been offered to demons. This warning, then, is given even more sternly in Revelation 2:14 and 20.

But Jesus came “to destroy what the Devil had done” (1 Jn 3:8) and gives his followers “power and authority to drive out all demons … to heal the sick” (Lk 9:1,2) and to do the works that he himself did while on earth (Jn 14:12). We can’t be either biblical or relevant without a solid approach to spiritual power.

A Personal Failure

“What can we do about evil spirits?” This was a burning question for the Nigerian leaders I was attempting to guide. But I, their missionary, knew virtually nothing about the subject. My three volume seminary theology textbook only had two references to Satan and none to demons. And that’s about all I had learned about the enemy kingdom and its activities, in spite of the prominence of that subject in Scripture. So my Nigerian friends were on their own. I couldn’t help them.

But now, forty years later, God has led me into regular and frequent open conflict with demonic “rats” with the aim of setting captives free. I deeply regret that I didn’t know in the late 50s what I know now. In that setting, I contributed to the growth of a dual allegiance church. That memory plus my present experience has led me to commit myself to raise this issue wherever possible in missiological circles in hopes that coming generations will be better able to deal with spiritual power than I was.

The Danger of Overcontextualization

I use the term “overcontextualization” to signify situations in which people have come to practice at least parts of their Christianity, and in this case techniques relating to spiritual power, in ways that fit in with the surrounding culture but fail to measure up to biblical standards. Appropriate Christianity balances cultural appropriateness with scriptural appropriateness. An overcontextualized Christianity loses that appropriateness at the scriptural end, though it may serve well the culturally inculcated desires of any given society.

Though it is of great importance to see the use of spiritual power contextualized, it is also of great importance not to overdo it. By this I mean that there are several ways in which people have gotten into spiritual power and carried their emphasis too far. One of the perversions that is widespread in America is the so-called “Name it, claim it” or “Word faith” heresy. Advocates of this approach teach that if we generate enough faith and with it claim anything we might happen to want, we can manipulate God into doing our will. We can thus gain material things, healing or whatever strikes our fancy. God wants us to be prosperous, they say, so all we have to do is to produce the faith and He will grant us our desires. This is overcontextualization because it makes God captive to the American ideal of prosperity for everyone.

Another perversion is the one that holds that since God can heal without the use of medicine, we should not use medicine. There are, unfortunately, several deaths every year in the United States as a result of people denying themselves or their children medical assistance on this premise. They fail to see that it is God who heals through medicine and doctors as well as apart from them.

The opposite is also an overcontextualization. Many Christians have so secularized their understandings of healing that they place all their faith in medicine and doctors and little or none in God. If someone is ill or experiencing emotional problems, their only thought is to get them to medical or psychological help, perhaps with a perfunctory prayer that God will lead the secular professional. If they pray at all in earnest concerning healing it is only after all secular means have failed.

In many societies, Christian healers use the methods of shamans rather uncritically. In Korea, for example, an unfortunately large number of pastors who seek to bring about physical healing and deliverance, do so by using violence, loudness and other very unChristlike dramatic techniques in their ministries. Both in Korea and in Africa I have heard of people being beaten in attempts to free them from demons. Certain American healers are also given to dramatic displays that make good drama but are quite unlikely to be methods Jesus would endorse.

Three Crucial Dimensions

In any discussion of contextualization in relation to spiritual power, we need to keep our focus balanced. For spiritual power in Scripture, though prominent, is never an end in and of itself. It must always be balanced by other, often more important concerns. When Jesus’ followers came back from a power-filled excursion into the towns and villages of Galilee reporting with excitement that “even the demons obeyed us when we gave them a command in your name” (Lk 10:17), Jesus cautioned them and pointed them to something more important. That more important thing is our relationship with the God who provides the power. This relationship, resulting in our names being written in heaven (Lk 10:20) should, according to Jesus, be a greater cause of rejoicing than even our power over demons.

So, as crucial as the power issue is both scripturally and contextually, the relationship issue is even more important. As evangelicals, of course, we’ve recognized the importance of emphasizing the need of a commitment to Christ resulting in a freeing and saving relationship with Him. In focusing on spiritual power, we must be careful not to de-emphasize or neglect all the love and other fruits of the Spirit that that relationship entails.

Nor dare we neglect the issue of truth. Jesus spent most of His time teaching, demonstrating and leading His followers into truth. In keeping with the implications of the Greek word for truth, this is to be an experienced truth, not simply intellectual truth. For John 8:32 should read, “you will experience the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That continual experiencing of the truth, then, leads to ever deepening understanding both of the truth dimension of Christianity and also of the power and relationship dimensions.

For this truth dimension is, according to John 8:31, based on obedience to Jesus within the relationship and all bearing of fruit, including the fruit of spiritual power, is dependent, according to John 15:1-17, on our abiding in Christ.

So, the three crucial dimensions of our Christian experience are our relationship to Christ with all the love and obedience that entails, the understanding that comes from continually experiencing His truth and the spiritual power Jesus gives us in love to use as He used it to express His love to others. We are, then, to encounter people and the enemy in contextually appropriate ways with a balance of allegiance, truth and power encounters (see Kraft 1991). Any approach to Christianity that neglects or ignores any of these three dimensions is an incomplete and unbalanced Christianity.

Evangelical Christianity has usually been deficient in that it has ignored the power dimension. It has, however, been strong on the truth dimension and focused to some extent on allegiance and relationship, though this has in practice often been treated largely as a byproduct of truth and knowledge. Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity have often been more relevant to the peoples of the nonwestern world through their emphasis on spiritual power, but have often compromised their strength through overemphasis on tongues and emotion and/or a negative attitude toward the cultures of the receptor peoples.

When we look at these three dimensions in relation to western evangelical missionary work, we come up with a chart such as the following:

TRADITIONAL RELIGION WrongAllegiance CounterfeitTruth Satanic Power
WESTERNCHRISTIANITY True Allegiance God’s Truth
BIBLICALCHRISTIANITY True Allegiance God’s Truth God’s Power

Since the power dimension has not been dealt with by the advocates of (western) Christianity, the people continue to go to their traditional sources of power, even though they have pledged allegiance to Christ and are learning biblical truth. Any attempt to rectify this situation must apply biblical emphasis and guidelines to the missing dimension.

Secularization or a Bridge From Power to Power?

Western witness, having largely ignored spiritual power issues, has tended to unwittingly recommend secularization as the antidote to traditional approaches to obtaining spiritual power. Western secular medicine and hospitals, for example, are offered as the answer to health problems, secularizing schools as the right way to deal with what westerners perceived as ignorance, secular agricultural techniques, even secular approaches to church management and leadership, not to mention insights into culture and communication that largely leave out the activity of the Holy Spirit.

With this approach, is it any wonder that mission-planted churches around the world are deeply involved in secularizing their members? I believe it was Lesslie Newbigen who said that Christian missions have been the greatest secularizing force in all of history. Without intending it, then, our strategy has been to secularize in order to christianize.

What this approach has produced, is secular churches (like most of those we have in the home countries), able only to avail themselves of the power of secular techniques and structures to replace traditional methods of blessing, healing, teaching and organizing. There is, of course, a certain amount of power in these techniques. But it is stronger on human and/or naturalistic power than on spiritual power, even though it often replaces what people have traditionally sought in spiritual ways. For example, for most of the traditional peoples of the world, healing was/is a spiritual matter, not a secular one. So is agriculture and human and animal fertility.

Though Doug Pennoyer (1990) makes a case for the use of secularization on the way to Christianity, I’m afraid secularization has for many peoples clouded rather than assisted much of what a scriptural approach to conversion should engender. For it has changed the subject from what ought to have been a change of spiritual power sources to a change from spiritual to secular answers to what traditional peoples have always regarded as spiritual problems.

Simply moving from a pagan power source to the true God as the

Source is, I believe, the shortest bridge for power-oriented people since it involves little or no conversion from spiritual power to secular power. The conversion is, rather, from one power to another Power, as it was for Abraham. The cultural results of an approach that focuses on such change of power source are likely to be forms of Christianity that look very similar to their pagan predecessors but with a different Power Source. The Christian practitioners would look very like native shamans and other healers, but would work only in ways appropriate to biblical Christianity and only under the power of the true God. The places of worship and the ways in which worship and other rituals are conducted would look as much like their pagan predecessors as the places and rituals Abraham captured for the true God looked like their predecessors.

As with Israel, the practices and personnel would undoubtedly change over time to be less like their pagan models, especially where the models involved prohibited practices such as divination. But they would have started at points familiar to the people rather than with foreign practices that give the impression that God’s whole system has to be imported. And when prohibited practices in the spiritual power area are substituted for, let the substitution be a spiritual power substitution, not a secular one.

I will speak below more specifically about such substitutions.

Animism vs God-Given Authority

Most of the world, including most of the adherents of “world religions” practice what anthropologists and missiologists call “animism.” This is the belief and the practices that go with it that the world is full of spirits that can hurt us unless we are careful to appease them. Animists may or may not believe in a high god. When they do, he is usually seen as benign and thus in little if any need of attention. All animists agree, however, that the spirits need to be watched and kept happy, lest the spirits hurt them. In addition, most animists believe that evil spirits can inhabit material objects and places such as certain mountains (e.g. OT high places), trees, statues (e.g. idols), rocks (e.g. the Ka’aba in Mecca), rivers (e.g. the Ganges), territories, fetishes, charms and any other thing or place that is dedicated to the spirits. Animists also believe in magic and the ability of at least certain people to convey power via curses, blessings, spells and the like.

One of the major problems we have as we consider the contextualizing of God’s power is that much of what the Bible teaches concerning spiritual power both recognizes the validity of the power and the power techniques practiced by animists and teaches us to use similar techniques based on similar principles but with the true God as our Source of power. The deceptive thing is that much of what God does and endorses looks on the surface like what animists do. There is a reason, but those without experience and understanding of what’s going on in the interaction between the spirit world and the human world can easily miss it as Priest and his coauthors did in their attack on myself and others (see Priest 1995).

The reason why animism and Christianity look so similar is that the basic difference between them and us is not at the surface level. It is in the source of power. In areas such as healing, dedicating and blessing, for example, we and animists do essentially the same things but the source of their power is Satan, the Source of ours is God. We learn both from Scripture and from practical experience that many, if not all of the rules that apply to God’s interactions with humans also apply to the ways the enemy interacts with us (see Kraft, ed. 1994, chapter 2). For example, obedience to God in prayer, worship, sacrifice and service enables Him to carry out His purposes in the world. On the other side, when people obey Satan in these same ways, he is enabled to accomplish his purposes. The importance of obedience and the fact that this is a warfare issue are thus underlined.

For example, animists believe that objects such as idols or implements used in religious rituals may be dedicated to gods or spirits and thus contain spiritual power. The Bible shows that objects can be dedicated to our God and thus convey His power (e.g. Paul’s handkerchiefs, the Ark of the Covenant). On the surface, containing and conveying power look the same, especially since what animists believe to be power contained in objects is in reality satanic power conveyed by them.

For another example, animist diviners, shamans, priests, etc. can heal with the power of Satan. So can God. The fact that satanic healing leads sooner or later to captivity and misery is not immediately apparent to the one healed. More immediately obvious is the fact that God’s healing leads to freedom and peace. But at first, both types of healing look the same and people who seek healing rather than the Healer are easily deceived, especially since demons seem often to work faster than God does.

Our authority as Christians versus the authority Satan can give his followers is an important issue at this point. Priest and his colleagues, not knowing the difference between God-given authority to work in spiritual power and what animists do, accused us of practicing “Christian animism.” But when we exercise the power and authority Jesus gives us to do things animists do, such as healing, casting out demons, blessing people and objects, dedicating buildings, praying for rain or against floods, we are not animists because we are working in God’s power, not Satan’s. We are simply exercising the authority Jesus gave His disciples (Lk 9:1) and told them to teach to their followers (Mt 28:19).

We may summarize some of the major issues in this discussion by means of the following chart designed to show many of the contrasts between animism and God-given authority. Note again that the primary expressions of each of these areas will look very similar at the surface level. It is in the underlying power and motivations that they differ.

POWER Believed to be contained in people & objects God conveys His power through people & objects
NEED (in order to utilize spiritual power) Felt need to learn how to manipulate spirit power through magic or authority over spirits We are to submit to God & learn to work with Him in the exercise of power & authority from Him
ONTOLOGY (what is really going on) Power from Satan: He is the one who manipulates Power from God: He empowers & uses us
GOD God is good but distant, therefore ignore Him God is good, therefore relate to Him. He is close and involved with us
SPIRITS Fearful & can hurt us, therefore appease them They are defeated, therefore assert God’s authority over them
PEOPLE Victims of capricious spirits who never escape from being victims They are captives, but we can assert Jesus’ authority to free them
COST Those who receive power from Satan suffer great tragedy later Those who work with God experience love and power throughout life
HOPE No hope We win

Satan is very good at protecting himself from what he knows to be a power much greater than his. He knows that God has infinitely more power than he has and that Jesus passed this power on to us. His primary strategy, therefore, is to keep God’s people ignorant and deceived so that we cannot use God’s power against him.

A very important first step in contextualizing spiritual power, therefore, is to help people to know who they are scripturally and how this is to be expressed culturally. Scripturally, we are the children of God, made in His image, redeemed by Jesus Christ to be heirs of God and joint heirs with Him (Rom 8:17). This gives us all the power and authority Jesus gave His followers to cast out demons and cure diseases (Lk 9:1), to do the works Jesus Himself did (Jn 14:12), to be in the world what Jesus was (Jn 20:21) and to crush the enemy under our feet (Rom 16:20). Scripturally, then, we need to follow Jesus’ example, always using His power to show His love.

Christians in other societies, like we in the West, then, will be accountable to God to resist traditional cultural models for the exercise of power in favor of models that will be interpreted by cultural insiders as consonant with Scripture. But what are appropriate ways of exercising power in love in their cultural contexts may look quite different from the appropriate expressions in western societies, and certainly different from the perversions we often see in western lands (or in nonwestern lands). For many Euroamericans set a poor example of scriptural contextualization in this area, often showing cultural (and/or personal) captivity and even deviance in their approaches rather than scripturally appropriate use and modification of custom.

Relationship Between Spirit and Human Worlds

In dealing with spiritual power crossculturally, there are a variety of basic principles to be made explicit. Among them is the scriptural fact that there is a close relationship between what goes on in human life and what goes on in the spirit realm. We learn from the discussion between God and Satan in Job 1 and again from Jesus’ statement that Satan wanted to sift the apostles like wheat (Lk 22:31-32) that Satan is anxious to assert himself to disrupt our lives. We learn from Daniel 10:13 (an answer to prayer delayed by a demonic being) and 2 Corinthians 4:4 (Satan blinding unbelievers) that the enemy can sometimes be successful in thwarting God’s plans. And we learn from the ministries of Jesus and His disciples that we can thwart at least some of the enemy’s plans by casting demons out of people. In addition, the angels and, presumably demons as well, are watching us as we carry out our activities (Eph 3:10;1 Tim 5:21; 1 Pet 1:12).

Satan, the Contextualizer

Satan is an excellent contextualizer. He does an expert job at meeting people at the point of their felt needs in culturally appropriate ways. The fact that he often does so through deceit is not usually recognized. I am told that there’s a Japanese volcano where people have erected signs imploring the spirits not to allow it to erupt again. There are also shrines and a temple there at which visitors can add their petitions to those of decades worth of earlier visitors. Satan’s ability to deceive in Japan in contextually appropriate ways is enhanced by the fact that the language shows no adequate distinction between spirits of whatever level and a high God. All are called kami and generally considered to be of the same nature and capriciousness. Attempting to appease the kami of the volcanic mountain is, therefore, not seen as essentially different from what Christians do on Sundays, except by the handful of Christians who have gone deeply enough into biblical Christianity to understand the difference.

In addition, our enemy has duped a large percentage of the world’s population into believing that ancestors continue to participate in human affairs. All he needs to do now to be culturally relevant is to assign demons to impersonate those who have died. With regard to reincarnation, likewise, he has long since convinced people of the logic of the recycling of persons. All he has to do in this matter is to assign demons to recount for people the details of the lives of real people who lived in the past, as if these lives were their former lives. Very convincing, and very contextualized. And, since people have such a felt need for spiritual power, how better to gain control of them than by giving certain of them (e.g. shamans) that power. Shamans, however, know that in repayment for the use of that power during their lifetimes they will die a horrible death. But they consider it worth the cost for the power and prestige they have been given.

In addition to these larger areas of satanic contextualization, demonic beings are quite skilled at providing for “smaller” felt needs for such things as money, position, fame, control, revenge, even security and wantedness. But all with an eventual price tag attached. I read a letter once from a woman who made a pact with the Devil, bargaining for power, prestige and wealth. She promised him in writing that if he would give her these things, she would give him her first son and every first son from then on in the families of her descendents. The report I heard was that it can be shown now, about three generations later that each of the first sons in her family have suffered major problems of one sort or another–problems of the kind that lead one to suspect that the lady’s pact with the Devil is in effect.

Satan’s Predictability

A principle that becomes apparent when we study the enemy is that the ways in which he works are quite predictable. I believe we can deduce from Scripture that angels are sterile and uncreative. So, instead of originating things or ideas, Satan and his hosts spend their time counterfeiting and damaging those things that God has brought into existence. They can, however, influence people who are creative and thus, through deceit, gain some ability to originate. Whatever creativity Satan has, therefore, comes from the humans he deceives.

Though he depends on this stealing of human talents, his activities tend to be easily recognizable by those who understand the ways in which he works. For example, I have often been able to figure out how a demon has been functioning by simply asking myself the question, “If I were a demon (or Satan), what would I do in this situation?”

Perhaps this is what Paul was getting at in 2 Corinthians 2:11 when he stated that “we know what [Satan’s] plans [or devices or schemes] are.” It is fairly obvious, for example, that he works in terms of human constants such as pride and the desire for prestige, position and power. He is active in promising such things, allowing good to happen for a time and then “closing in” on people, making them pay for whatever he has given them. It is predictable that he will deceive people into believing his promises and accepting his gifts. He does this more often by telling partial and twisted truths than by lying. His gifts, however, counterfeit the things God gives, since he has nothing of his own making to give. Thus, he counterfeits healing (even deliverance) gifts and gifts of prophecy, knowledge, wisdom, even tongues.

He counterfeits spiritual reality by producing religious systems (biblical faith is not intended to be a religion) that are quite logical once people believe the basic lie or deceit underlying them. What is more logical than to believe that people get recycled through reincarnation once one has accepted ideas such as that one life is not enough to accomplish all that we’re meant to accomplish or that because baby looks like dead grandpa, he is a reincarnation of grandpa? And how logical it is to worship something inside or outside of human beings, once one has concluded that whatever lies beyond the grave is unknowable. It is also logical to assume that negative things that happen today are the result of revenge taken by dissatisfied ancestors, once one has believed that ancestors remain a part of the living community after death. We note, however, how predictable it is that our enemy will always in some way direct attention to humans, spirits or created objects under his control as the objects of worship, never to the Creator of all.

And doctrinally, the counterfeit systems of faith are disturbingly similar to what God has revealed in Judeo-Christianity. Advocating righteousness, truth, peace, gentleness, the Ten Commandments and other admirable virtues seems so much like what Jesus taught. How can those systems be wrong merely because they leave out the need for a relationship with Jesus? And what, many people ask, is the difference between the Christian belief that God became one of us in incarnation and the similar concept in Hinduism? Just about every Christian doctrine and ritual has its parallels in the religions of the world, contextualized to make sense and to imitate the truth. And animistic systems are amazingly similar worldwide, leading us to suspect that there is a single mind behind them.

Since Satan’s objective is to counter God and disrupt His creation, it is predictable that he will attempt to turn good things into bad (or at least unattractive), make bad things worse and to get people who insist on pursuing good things to go after them in exaggerated ways. In tempting, then, he seldom simply opposes things, choosing rather to raise questions about rightness, fairness and the like, as he did in the Garden of Eden.

Another satanic predictability, playing off a human vulnerability, is that, once a lie is planted, he seems to “train” humans to perpetuate the lie themselves. Thus, such lies as those on which reincarnation and ancestor cults are based get perpetuated within the human community generation after generation, probably without much help from satanic beings themselves. And, since meanings are difficult to change (see below), the staying power of such lies is great.

So, in looking at Satan’s activities crossculturally, we need to look for many quite predictable things. We need to recognize, however, that these predictabilities will be in terms of the ways of thinking and behaving of the receptor society, whether or not they fit our logic. That is, Satan contextualizes his deceit. In western societies, for example, where people are quite unaware of spiritual reality, Satan likes to capture people through apparently innocent games such as Dungeons and Dragons, through membership in apparently constructive organizations such as Freemasonry, through philosophical or psychological ideas that appear erudite and innocent. In nonwestern, family-oriented societies what could be more logical than the satanic lie that one’s ancestors are still alive and participating in the lives of their descendents? Or that it would be better to be with my ancestors when I die, even if they are in hell, than to go to heaven? Or that people reincarnate after they die?

Crosscultural Constants

As in all of life, beyond the differences in cultural understandings and expression, there are basic things that are the same crossculturally. In working for God there are basics such as obedience to him, preceded by listening to him and following his leading whether in life in general or in bringing freedom to captives. With regard to Satan’s kingdom, there are basics relating to how Satan attracts people, how he influences and/or enters them and the kind of strategies he uses to keep them under his influence. In addition to these basics concerning God and Satan, there are certain basics of humanbeingness relating to such things as how we use our wills, our capability for relating to the spirit world, our vulnerability to temptation and deceit and the like.

That both God and Satan work in partnership with people in terms of their culture is a constant we can expect to find in every cultural context. Underlying this fact is the fact that both God and Satan have plans for any given people and their culture and work with human will to seek to accomplish those plans. Though it is apparent that Satan is having great influence on the human scene, we learn from Scripture, especially the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, that God is working out his own purposes in the background and that Satan’s ultimate defeat is certain. We, therefore, can expect to find both Satan and God working in every cultural context. Satan, of course, has his human representatives working hard to expand his kingdom. We believe, however, that God is not inactive in any cultural situation. According to Romans 1:16-2:16, God is working in conscience and culture so that, whatever excuses those who choose Satan’s way may give, they are accountable to God for their disobedience.

Person and Culture

In dealing with culture, it is always important to distinguish cultural structure from the persons who operate that structuring. Contextualization studies usually focus on the structuring, leaving implicit the fact that it is people who produce and operate that structuring. Culture does not run itself. Culture simply lies there, like the roads we drive on or, to change the metaphor, like the script of a play, memorized but regularly altered by the actors for a variety of reasons, some good, some bad.

In dealing with spiritual reality, it is important to recognize that we have both human persons and spirit beings involved in the way cultural structuring is used. Most cultural structuring is capable of being used either for good or for evil. Such things as status and prestige, for example, provided by a society on the basis of birth and/or achievement, can be used by those who have it either to help others or to hurt them. The fact that given people have status and the power that goes with it is not in and of itself a bad thing. Satan, however, entices people to use their status to hurt others while God gently prods His people to use their status and the authority and power that goes with it to assist the powerless.

But in each case, the spiritual being (God or Satan) works with people, and in terms of the cultural structuring in which the people are involved. In dealing with spiritual warfare, as with all studies of contextualization, our focus needs to be on people within culture, not simply on culture itself.

The important place of human habit must, however, be recognized. Culture seems to have power over people because people follow cultural guidelines through force of habit. That is, the apparent power of culture is in reality the power of human habit. Thus, any attempts to change culture are really attempts to change human habits. The structuring is a function of the script produced by and followed, for the most part, fairly closely by the actors out of habit (once they have memorized it). It is, however, often creatively changed by them, either because they forgot, or because something didn’t go as planned, or simply because they chose to change the script. When we find enemy influence contextualized within sociocultural patterns and habitually followed, we appeal for people to change their habits so that they use either their present cultural patterns or changed ones for godly purposes. The point is, our appeal is always to people to change habits, with or without a change in structure. We cannot appeal to an impersonal thing like a cultural structure or pattern.

Forms, Meanings and Empowerment

A very important issue in any discussion of contextualization is the difference between cultural forms and their meanings. By “forms” we mean all of the customs and structures, visible and invisible that make up a culture. By “meanings” we mean the personal interpretations that yield a people’s understandings of these forms. The forms are the parts of culture. The meanings exist, not in the forms themselves, but in the people who use the forms. Meanings are attached by people, according to the agreements of their group concerning what the forms signify.

By virtue of the fact that people participating in the same sociocultural group agree with each other what significance to attach to each cultural form, they can communicate with each other. If they did not agree, they could not communicate. This is the problem with people who speak different languages. Though the members of each language group use essentially the same sounds, they organize them differently so that members of another language group cannot even interpret accurately words that sound familiar to them, since they are not in on the agreements of the speakers of that language. Though they have been taught to agree with the members of their language group what particular combinations of sounds mean, they do not know what the agreements of the other group are unless they learn that language. Language learning, like all culture learning, is a matter of learning the agreements concerning meanings that the new group habitually attaches to the sound forms they use in speaking to each other.

A major problem in contextualization is the problem of changing the meanings of familiar forms. In seeking to assist people to accept and practice Christianity in terms of their own cultural forms, we are assisting them to use those forms for new purposes and, therefore, to attach new or modified meanings to them. When John the Baptist began to use baptism within the Jewish community to initiate people into his renewal movement, he was reinterpreting a form that was well known as a way of initiating Gentile converts into Judaism. This cultural form was also used by Greek mystery religions as an initiation ceremony. When the Church decided to use it to signify initiation into the Church, they were largely following John’s lead, since the early Christians assumed that Christianity was to remain within Judaism. When the Church used baptism in Gentile territory, then, the meaning was more in keeping with that signified by its use in the initiation of Gentiles into Judaism. In either case the meaning was in part the same as that of previous practice and in part a modification of that meaning. Jesus, then, took the Jewish Passover meal and reinterpreted it as what we call the Lord’s Supper. In addition to these cultural forms, the Early Church reinterpreted words such as theos (God), ekklesia (church), kurios (Lord), agape (love) and a host of other Greek words.

But cultural forms can also be empowered. God regularly flows his power through words such as “in Jesus’ Name” and the commands we give to demons. When such words are conveying God’s power, we call them “empowered language forms.” James recommends that we use anointing oil to bring healing to the sick (Jas 5:14). If the oil is to be effective, it needs to be dedicated in the name of Jesus and thus empowered. The elements used in the Lord’s Supper can (and should) also be dedicated for specific purposes such as blessing and healing and thus empowered. Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons were empowered so that people received healing through them (Ac 19:12). Likewise, with Jesus’ robe (Lk 8:43-48).

In many nonChristian societies, it is the usual thing for at least certain people to dedicate the things they make to spirits or gods, especially if those things are to be used for religious purposes or in dangerous pursuits. In the South Pacific, for example, those who made the large canoes used for fishing and/or for warfare regularly dedicated them to their gods. I suspect they still do, even if they call themselves Christians. When such things are dedicated to satanic spirits, they are empowered by those spirits. Many a missionary and traveler who bought dedicated things and took them home has experienced difficulties related to the fact that by putting those objects in his home, he has unwittingly invited enemy spirits into the home.

Nevertheless, breaking the power of such objects is usually not difficult. Since we have infinitely more power in Jesus Christ than such objects can contain, we simply have to claim his power to break the enemy’s power in the object. I usually, then, go on to bless the object in the name of Jesus. The problem with satanic empowerment is not having the power to break it but overcoming our ignorance so that we know when it is there and what to do to break it.

In contextualizating the power of Christ, it is important to disempower whatever has been empowered with satanic power before attempting to use it. Satanic power can, however, be broken over rituals, buildings, carvings, songs and almost any other custom or artifact a people wants to capture for God’s use. Despite the fact that many counsel us to refuse to use whatever the enemy has used, I believe we are to capture cultural forms, not reject them merely because our enemy has been using them. But we shouldn’t try to use them until the power is broken. That would be unwise in the extreme.

The bigger problem is, however, the meaning problem. It may take two or three generations before the preChristian meanings associated in people’s minds with a given object can be fully replaced. People often want to throw away every vestige of their culture that reminds them of their old involvement with shamans, rituals and evil spirits. In their place, however, they tend to borrow foreign stuff to which they often attach dubious meanings (such as sacredness simply because it is not understood) and which signals that God wants them to be foreigners in their own country rather than to capture their traditions for Christ. But, since we westerners have so poorly understood the spiritual power dimensions of our movement, we have often gone along with and even encouraged the people’s desire to dissimulate. And this has enabled them to produce a Christianity that is as powerless as ours in the West and, thus, unattractive to most of the people of their lands except as it has provided such things as human status, prestige and power.

We should not, however, give up, especially since the danger posed by secularization is so great. Though we have not, perhaps, learned very well how to build the short bridge between animism and Christianity, we should have learned by now that a secularized Christianity (the usual form in most missionized lands) is a long way from the Bible in the area of spiritual power. When people have learned to depend on secular medicine without the power of God, rather than either medicine as a gift from God or direct healing through prayer, they have moved away from the spirituality of the Scriptures and it is difficult to reindoctrinate them.

Levels of Warfare

I theorize that spiritual warfare has to be waged on at least two levels. The lower level is what I call “ground-level warfare.” The upper level, then, is ordinarily known as “cosmic-level warfare” (called “strategic-level warfare” by Wagner). I have had a lot of experience with ground-level demons, very little with cosmic-level. This gives me a good bit of security in theorizing concerning ground level, a good bit less concerning cosmic level.

Ground-level warfare involves dealing with spirits (demons) that inhabit persons. Personal spirits or demons may be of at least three kinds: family, occult and “ordinary.”

Ground-Level Spirits (in people)
1. Family Spirits (representing dedications to family gods)
2. Occult Spirits (representing occult allegiances)
3. “Ordinary” Spirits (attached to sinful attitudes and emotions)

Family and occult demons usually seem to be stronger than the “ordinary” demons, but dealing with them is essentially the same as dealing with ordinary demons. Family and occult spirits (including the spirits of nonChristian religions) gain their power through conscious or unconscious dedication to them. They, then, are passed down from generation to generation as long as the practice of dedication continues. “Ordinary” spirits are those that empower emotions such as fear, shame and anger, plus problems such as lust, suicide, rebellion and many others. In each case, demons can only inhabit people by legal right. Rights are given through such means as dedications and wallowing in sinful emotions. In each case there is a human cause that gives the spirits access.

At cosmic level we are dealing with at least five kinds of higher-level spirits that I have labeled territorial, institutional, vice, nature and ancestral.

Cosmic-Level Spirits (in the air, Eph 2:2)
1. Territorial Spirits such as those over nations mentioned in Daniel 10:13 and 21 (called “Prince of Persia” and “Prince of Greece”), spirits over regions and spirits over cities
2. Institutional Spirits such as those assigned to churches, governments, educational institutions, occult organizations (e.g. Scientology, Freemasonry, Mormonism), nonChristian religions (e.g. the gods of Hinduism, Buddhism, animism), temples, shrines
3. Vice Spirits such as those assigned to oversee and encourage special functions including vices such as prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, gambling, pornography, war, music, cults and the like
4. Nature, Household and Cultural Item Spirits such as those residing in trees, rivers, homes and cultural items such as dedicated work implements, music, rituals, artifacts used in religious worship and the like
5. Ancestor Spirits, believed by many peoples to be their physically dead ancestors who still participate in the activities of the living community

Cosmic-level spirits are apparently in charge of ground-level spirits, assigning them to people and supervising them as they carry out their assignments in people or do their tempting and harassing of people from outside of them.

Jesus, of course, frequently encountered and cast out ground-level demons. The evidence that He dealt with higher level spirits is, however, slim except in his encounter with Satan himself (Lk 4:1-13). I suspect, though, that in confronting and defeating Satan in his own territory (i.e. the wilderness was considered the property of Satan) at this time, Jesus broke much of Satan’s power over at least that part of Palestine. And some have suggested that the demons afflicting the Gerasene demoniac (Lk 8:26-33) were territorial spirits. If so, they were concentrated in one man, like ground-level demons and dealt with in the same way Jesus dealt with those whose assignment was purely ground level.

Discussions of the contextualization of biblical understandings of the spirit world and spiritual warfare need to take into account these levels of spirits and what to do about them. See the following sections.


An important issue to deal with in every society is ground-level demonization. There will always be a high percentage of people who are hosting demons, especially in societies where babies are dedicated to spirits or gods. In such societies, we can expect the percentage of demonized people to be nearly 100%, since such dedication invites the demons to inhabit the children. How demons behave in any given society and how what they do and don’t do differs from society to society are fitting subjects for research in this area.

At ground level, the casting out of demons by the authority of Jesus Christ appears to be a crossculturally valid approach. Though I have seldom been able to simply command them out as the Gospels seem to show Jesus doing, I have been successful in confronting and defeating them in Jesus’ name in several different cultural contexts.

My experience in ministering to demonized people of other societies leads me to conclude that the basic principle of dual causation is crossculturally valid. The analogy I use is to say that demons are like rats and rats live where there is garbage.

Demonic “rats” gain their rights and their strength from the human spiritual, mental and emotional “garbage” in the life of the persons they inhabit. Whether that garbage is spiritual, such as dedication to spirits, mental such as believing lies or emotional such as wallowing in fear, anger, shame, hatred, lust or the like, it is the garbage that gives demons entrance, allows them to stay and gives them power.

Whether in the West or crossculturally, therefore, dealing with the garbage in people is the most important aspect of the process of fighting demons at ground level. Demons must have legal rights to inhabit people. Those rights are a function of the garbage. The garbage, therefore, is much more important to deal with than the demons. When the garbage is dealt with first, the demons are weakened and go quietly when they are challenged (see Kraft 1992). They seldom, if ever, leave on their own, though. We will see below that this rats and garbage principle also applies to cosmic-level spirits.

As already mentioned, our enemy is good at contextualizing. He will adapt his approach to the problems and concerns most prominent in any given society. A major part of his strategy is, however, to be able to do his work without being noticed, especially in areas where there might be Christians who know how to combat demonization. The practice of making negative things worse and getting people to go overboard on positive things is another of his preferred ways of working. Yet the things he pushes in each society will differ for maximum effectiveness in Satan’s attempts to deceive and disrupt.

In Asian societies, for example, where the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is a difficult one, demons will often be active in pushing mothers-in-law to be oppressive and daughters-in-law to hate them. In African societies where fear of the unknown is endemic, demons will push all the buttons they can to increase the fear and the practice of going to diviners (where demonic influence is increased) for relief. In Latin America, Asia and Europe, where male domination of women and children is culturally inculcated, the enemy kingdom is very active in increasing the abuse and the pain felt by women and children. And we can speak of satanic enhancement of racism and social class oppression in many parts of the world. The thing that all such examples have in common is that the seed from which Satan works to produce harmful fruit is always culturally appropriate.

With regard to techniques people use for dealing with demons, then, the enemy is also active in seeing to it that culturally appropriate excesses are regular occurrences. In Korea and Africa, for example, it is common to hear of deliverance sessions that involve the same kind of abusive beating that frequently occurs between husbands and wives, fathers and children, not to mention in pagan attempts to deal with demonization. Contextualized attempts at deliverance may thus be orchestrated by Satan himself. It is not unknown for people to be killed when such methods are used, thus fulfilling a demon’s intent to destroy those he inhabits.

The appropriate and proper approach to getting people free from demons in any society seems, however, to always be the same: deal with the spiritual and emotional garbage to weaken the demons, then kick them out. Fighting physically with them is never a good idea. And even when it is necessary to physically restrain a demonized person, it is God’s power wielded through words, not that wielded through physical force, that gets the demons out.

I have found this approach to be cross-culturally valid. The major problems in the approach usually stem from the reluctance of persons of many societies (e.g. Asian societies) to admit things that they have done or said that have given rights to the demons. Since God is a God of truth, however, no matter what the culture, it is necessary for people to “come clean” with the things they have done, no matter how culturally strange this might be. As in the West, this especially involves their reactions to things done to them, in order that the heavy emotional loads (Mt 11:28) they produce may be brought to Christ and laid at his feet. When these things are brought to Christ, the demons have nothing more to cling to and are easily banished.

Dealing With Family Spirits

I was recently working to bring “inner healing,” including freedom from some demons, to a 50ish Chinese Christian woman missionary. In addition to the fairly “normal” problems to which demons were attached, such as hate and anger, she was carrying “family” demons that she had inherited from her parents. These, then, had been strengthened at times when her parents dedicated her at a temple soon after her birth and when they took her to a temple as a child for healing. She was also carrying demons who entered when she was involved in practicing Chinese martial arts under a “master” who, without her awareness, dedicated all he did to demonic spirits. But she had no idea that these things that had happened long ago could be responsible for the daily (and nightly) torment she experienced. She believed in demons but had until recently been believing the lie that demons could not live in Christians (especially dedicated ones such as those who served as missionaries).

Fortunately, unlike others who had tried to deliver her, I have worked with enough Chinese (and Koreans and Japanese) to know that just about every Chinese child born into nonChristian families and even many born into Christian families are dedicated at a temple by some relative. Such dedications both empower the inherited family spirits and add spirits. The name and exact date of the baby’s birth (even, often, the time of day) is written down and taken to a priest to be registered with the gods of the temple. Though many Chinese families claim not to believe in spirits anymore, often this is done “just in case.”

It is usually easy to break the power even of long standing family demons, since the power of Jesus is so great. We simply claim Jesus’ authority over the vows, curses, dedications, sins and any other ways in which rights have been given to demons by ancestors. This I have done numerous times. The issues that remain, then, relate to the canceling of all permission the person him or herself or anyone in authority over the person has given in any of the same ways during his/her lifetime. This usually involves dealing with demons attached to emotional reactions such as anger, hatred, unforgiveness, fear and the like. Once each of the areas of such permission has been dealt with, the demons go quietly at our command.

Cosmic-Level Spirits

Most of the world believes there are specific spirits attached to nations, regions, mountains, rivers and other geographical features. We find this understanding in the Old Testament, where the Baal gods were considered to have control of the plains while Yahweh was supposed to be merely a mountain god. In the events recorded in 1 Kings 20:23-30, we see Yahweh angered at this belief on the part of the Syrians and, therefore, giving Israel a victory on the plains.

One of the spinoffs of the belief in territorial spirits is the understanding that when a person enters the territory of a given god, he needs to show respect to that god. In the Old Testament we continually find Israel honored the Baals and other gods when they were in territory they believed to belong to these gods. See, for example, Hosea 2:8 where Israel attributed their prosperity in the area in which they lived to the Baal gods. Solomon, then, in order to cement relationships with the surrounding countries, both married wives from Ammon, Moab, Edom and other places and erected altars to their gods to show honor to their countries. In this way he kept peace with these countries by keeping the wives and their relatives happy (1 Ki 11:1-10). But he sacrificed the favor of Yahweh.

Westerners tend to feel that such beliefs need not be taken seriously since, we believe, these so-called gods are not gods at all but imaginary beings empowered only by superstition. The Bible, however, shows God and His people taking such spirits seriously, though we are warned against giving them honor or fearing them, since the true God is greater and more powerful than these servants of Satan. And, if we are properly related to the true God, we have the authority to protect ourselves from other gods and to confront and defeat them when necessary.

It is my position, though, that people who have been under the sway of territorial spirits for generations have a great deal of understanding of what territory the spirits have influence over and what the results of this influence. Any approach to Christianity in such areas, therefore, will need to recognize the reality of the spirits over the area and gain understanding of their assignments. We will then have to deal with them by taking away their rights as we work with the true God to retake territory that is rightfully His. See Wagner (1991) for case studies dealing with territorial spirits.

Experiments going on in Argentina and elsewhere in the world suggest that a direct approach to warring against cosmic-level spirits can be successful. Just as with ground-level warfare, it is more important to deal with the spiritual “garbage,” so at cosmic level, issues of confession of sin, repentance, reconciliation and unity (“corporate garbage”) are the first order of business if our praying against territorial bondage is to be successful. The chapter in my book Behind Enemy Lines (1994) by Ed Silvoso reports on the success of such an approach in Resistencia, Argentina where he led a three year comprehensive spiritual attack aimed at breaking the power of the territorial spirits over the city and opening the people up for evangelism. That approach involved getting the pastors (the spiritual “gatekeepers”) to repent of their sins and their disunity and to unite, training pastors and lay church leaders in spiritual warfare praying, repentance, reconciliation and prayer marching and, after two years of such preparation, all-out evangelism. The results have been spectacular.

Some have criticized such efforts to wage war at the cosmic

Date: 22 May 2000

Gathering: 2000 Nairobi

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