In the days when chiefs gathered at the palace in a village in Ghana, it was customary that the paramount chief would be given wine to pour libation. He would then invoke the supreme creator of the world, deceased ancestors, gods of the land, waters, and air, and other spiritual powers to be present at the deliberations to ensure a successful meeting.
Traditionally, Africans believes unseen powers have an effect on everyday life.
Spiritual Powers & Everyday African Life
Now imagine a Christian community at a village where diviners, fetish priests, and herbalists are trusted to deal with immediate health issues. The nearest hospital is twenty-seven kilometres away, yet health problems such as snakebites, convulsions, and complications of childbirth need quick help. Imagine a society in which the cause of death is investigated not by clinical autopsy but by soothsaying, often leading to harsh treatment of those accused of being responsible for killing the deceased.
These situations reflect the experience of many Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The traditional African view of the world believes unseen powers have an effect on everyday life. For example, these forces may provide a bumper harvest, guard properties from theft, or inflict undesirable consequences.
Traditional African Worldviews
Traditionally, African cultures may believe in a supreme creator of the world (god), ancestral spirits, household gods, patron deities for rural communities, or any combination of these. A part of this worldview is the belief that evil spiritual powers, witches, voodoo practitioners, and deities are capable of inflicting disease, death, and other forms of evil.
In most traditional worldviews, misfortune is believed to have spiritual causes.
In most traditional worldviews, misfortune is believed to have spiritual causes. Many gods and spirits are said to cause barrenness, miscarriages, accidents, diseases, and death. It is quite common for non-Christians to wear amulets, rings, or talismans representing different gods. The source of protection does not matter.
Satan or The Evil Spirit
A principal agent causes evil practices. This dreadful spirit (i.e. Satan) is known as Sasabonsam among the Akans of Ghana. He is Shetani in Swahili or Eshu among the Yoruba of Nigeria. Eshu, who works either directly or through other spirits, is the arch-enemy of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes the concept of an evil spirit matches with the biblical concept of Satan.
Sometimes our concept of an evil spirit matches with the biblical concept of Satan, and sometimes it does not. In the Bible, Satan is a fallen angel who influenced other fallen angels to follow him. He is the enemy of God, but also a member of God’s creation and is constrained by God’s power.
Witches and Witchcraft
One traditional African concept of witchcraft believes an evil spirit in a person leaves the body during sleep hours to participate in activities with other witches and returns to the body before the person awakens. These “witches” may or may not be aware of the spiritual powers they possess. They may also have the ability to recognise other people who are witches.
Fear of witches is common and affects the attitude and outlook of many Africans.
Some traditionalists believe witches do not look different from regular people. Others believe that witches have certain physical characteristics – for example, one culture believes witches have reddened eyes. A husband may never know his wife is a witch and vice versa. Fear of witches is common and affects the attitude and outlook of many Africans in significant ways.
Many Christians Fear Spiritual Powers
Converts to Christianity are often keenly aware of this, often have had personal experiences of these evil spiritual powers and seek to find their protection in God through the work of Christ.
Fear of evil spirits and the desire to triumph over demonic forces can be prominent themes.
Many Christians still fear malicious spiritual influences on their daily lives. As a result, fear of evil spirits and the desire to triumph over demonic forces can be prominent themes in songs, prayers, and sermons. The act of praying against evil (by one or more people) or performing an exorcism (casting out devils in the name of Jesus) is often referred to as “deliverance” from evil spirits.
The Dangers of Overemphasising Demonic Activity
The Bible teaches that an unbeliever can be possessed by an evil spirit (Mark 5:2), but it is not easy to discern whether the real problem is demonic activity or a psychological or mental disorder. Much damage has been done to people and their loved ones who needed psychological help in this area.
Some “spiritual churches” see demons impacting many aspects of life. Such beliefs increase the fear of evil spirits among their members. Sometimes a mother or grandmother is falsely accused of being a witch responsible for someone’s failings, illness, or death. Practitioners of “deliverance ministries” often believe there are demonic activities in people for whom pastoral or professional counselling would be more beneficial.
Dread of evil spirits tempts African Christians to believe in a Jesus “stripped of power” over demonic forces.
The dread of evil spirits poses challenges to African Christians who are tempted to believe in a Jesus “stripped of power” over demonic forces. Some Christians seek protection from spiritual specialists or spiritual beings due to a lack of understanding or faith in the sufficiency of the power of Christ to meet their spiritual needs. This form of syncretism (a blending of Christianity with other religions) borrows from the practices of worshipping many gods in African traditional religions.
So how may the Bible’s teaching help such Christians?
What Does The Bible Say?
Jesus lived in a society where exorcisms and supernatural healings were commonplace. He was led by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by Satan (Luke 4), he cast out demons himself (Mark 5:1-20), and he commissioned his disciples to drive out demons (Matthew 10:8). Jesus even taught his disciples to pray that God may deliver them from the “evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Luke writes of many miraculous healings, exorcisms, and people raised from the dead in the gospel of Luke and Acts. Peter says the devil is like a “roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
The battle against evil requires sound biblical teaching, prayer, and personal morality to maintain a firm standing with God
Deliverance Is Not The Answer
But while the New Testament talks about “casting out” demons from non-believers, we do not find anything that suggests believers need to have demons cast out of them. Paul does not recommend this kind of ‘deliverance’ for Christians. Instead, he strongly advises resisting diabolic forces by grasping the true nature of one’s identity in Christ; by developing a godly mind-set (2 Corinthians 10:3-5); and by establishing oneself in a firm standing with God (Ephesians 6:10-17).
Paul does not recommend ‘deliverance’ for Christians
For believers, the battle against unseen forces of evil requires sound biblical teaching, prayer, and personal morality to maintain a firm standing with God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Ephesians 6:10-20). The devil is very deceptive and may convince individuals, or those close to them, that they are possessed. However, what they need is not deliverance from demon possession but deliverance from ignorance, deception and the activities of the devil. This is something that good pastors can assist with. Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Dealing With Spiritual Powers in Ephesians
Paul’s experiences in Ephesus (Acts 18:19-21; 19:1-10) lead to clear teaching on dealing with principalities and powers. We read in Acts 19 that many were converted from paganism, that magical books were burned, and an attempted exorcism by the sons of Sceva (Jews) was not successful. In his letter to the Ephesians, more than any other letter, Paul teaches about the believer’s status in relation to spiritual beings.
Christ has power over principalities and powers that they had previously feared.
Paul reminds converts about their redemption through the “blood of Christ”. For Christ has power over principalities and powers that they had previously feared (Ephesians 1). Before becoming Christians, the Ephesians were subject to the control of “the commander of the powers in the unseen world” (Ephesians 2:2-4). When we become Christians, we receive total deliverance from demons. Why? Because we have a personal relationship with God and security in Jesus.
Spiritual Attack Is Still A Threat
However, attacks by spiritual forces remain a constant threat to a Christian’s well-being. For example, moral failure or prolonged anger may become a doorway for the devil into Christians’ lives (Ephesians 4:27). Because of this, they must be strong “in the Lord and in his mighty power”. Ephesians 6:10-20 calls the believer to “stand firm” and resist demonic influence by truth and righteousness in the spirit of prayer. A Christian is free from demonic possession but not immune to oppressive attacks.
A Christian is free from demonic possession but not immune to oppressive attacks.
Unbelievers may need deliverance from demonic possession, or other problems from exposure to evil spirits. However, Christians do not need to live in fear of demonic spirits. They are secure as long as they maintain a good standing with God. Faith in Jesus Christ is sufficient. The Bible tells us not to consult with a diviner or village shaman (Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 2 Chronicles 33:6).
Love Your Neighbour
Christians must not call anyone a witch because of his or her birth or looks (albinos, twins, etc.). A Christian should stand against the harassment, torture, and even murder of people accused of being witches or demoniacs. Jesus came to set such people free by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:1-10). As John puts it, “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
Christians must show love and genuine pastoral care instead of being eager to find and cast out devils where there are none.
Christians in Africa, however, ought to condemn communities that kill, harass, or torture alleged witches.
Points to Remember
- Belief in evil spirits and witchcraft: There are many references to evil spirits and their activities in the Bible – especially in the New Testament. Christians in Africa, however, ought to condemn communities that kill, harass, or torture alleged witches. Such people need to experience God’s love, grace, and power that is able to set them free (Ephesians 2:1-6). Colossians and Ephesians contain clear teaching about some of the specific issues relating to deliverance from spiritual powers and witchcraft.
- Sufficiency of Christ: Christ is superior to all evil spirits. He is able to provide for all the spiritual needs of a Christian.
- Deliverance in the church: “Demon-hunting” among Christians is not biblical. The Bible mentions that only an unbeliever can be possessed by an evil spirit.
- Christians may experience spiritual attacks: Such attacks can come in the form of illness, physical attacks through nature (Job 1:13-22), or other forms. Even the apostle Peter was used by Satan (Mark 8:31-33). Paul warns us that we fight against “evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world”. But we have the armour of God to fight such attacks (Ephesians 6:11-17).