For some time now, I have grappled with how to express my uneasiness with the way ‘deliverance’ has become a catchphrase in the African Christian’s vocabulary. To me, we have become so terribly lopsided that we are in danger of offering nothing more than African traditional religion with a thin veneer of Christianity. I do believe that demons and evil spirits exist. But I want us to be biblically balanced. We need sound, Christ-centred teaching in our churches – not just deliverance.
We are in danger of offering nothing more than African traditional religion with a thin veneer of Christianity.
Ministry Methods – St Paul’s Or Ours?
My aim here is to offer a comparison between the New Testament ministry of Paul and the many newfangled ministries on our continent, especially deliverance. We will consider how Paul handled spiritual issues in contrast with the popular explanations and methods propagated today. I also thought one of the most troubled churches—the church in Corinth—would be a good example. Thus I thought of using the apostle Paul because he dealt with the many issues that arose in Corinth.
I am inspired by a book written by the missionary Roland Allen, at the beginning of the 20th century, titled Missionary Methods—St Paul’s or Ours. He compared the popular missionary methods of his own day to those of the apostles generally and the Paul in particular.
4 Major Issues, 2 Different Approaches
A cursory reading of 1 Corinthians indicates that the church in Corinth had lots of problems. In this article I will work through the first few and compare how the apostle Paul handled them as a pastor par excellence with the way today’s popular preachers in Africa are handling them via “deliverance”.
1. Disunity Over Personalities
The first issue handled in 1 Corinthians is that of disunity in the church. People were aligning themselves with various leaders and preachers (see chapter 1 to 4). The method in vogue on our continent today is to claim that an evil spirit of disunity is dividing the church. So, the cure is an overnight prayer meeting where such a spirit might be exorcised.
the fight over personalities is worldly. In the Christian faith it is God alone who ultimately matters.
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He taught the Christians in Corinth that the fight over personalities is worldly. In the Christian faith it is God alone who ultimately matters. That is foolishness to the world but it is God’s way. So, any spiritual achievement is because God gave the increase by the power of his Spirit. The only true foundation, therefore, is Jesus Christ. He is the yardstick that will test every work. Therefore, no more boasting about men. No more allegiance to powerful leaders. Christ alone is all that matters.
2. Sexual Immorality
The second major issue handled in 1 Corinthians is that of sexual immorality (chapters 5 and 6). The popular method in Africa today is to claim that such a person has a spirit of fornication or adultery. He needs deliverance. As I argued in my article on ‘spirit husbands,’ such an understanding takes away the responsibility of the sin from the individual and locates it in a powerful force. In other words, instead of understanding sin as something wrong we do it is viewed as something inevitable because of supposed evil spirits.
Instead of understanding sin as something wrong we do it is viewed as something inevitable because of supposed evil spirits
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He first rebuked the church for allowing moral standards to stoop so low. He then made it clear that such an individual must be excommunicated at their next meeting. We can assume that the Corinthians had already followed Christ’s directives for discipline in Matthew 18:15-20. This man had been given the opportunity to repent. But the church must expel unrepentant wicked people from its midst. Paul wraps up the matter of sexual immorality by reminding the Christians that their bodies are temples of Christ. And Christ lives in us by his Spirit. Therefore, defiling our bodies defames Christ.
3. Marriage Challenges
The third major issue handled in 1 Corinthians is that of marriage (chapter 7). There were a number of people who were engaged or already married to unbelievers when they became Christians. What should they do? Any prolonged engagement or aggression of an unbelieving spouse today is blamed on spirit husbands and wives. That is the popular understanding today. Behind every problem, including difficult marriage situations, is a spirit. As we have noted, these evil spirits offer excuses for those too stubborn or hard-hearted to identify their own sin and repent of it.
These evil spirits offer excuses for those too stubborn or hard-hearted to identify their own sin and repent of it.
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He taught believers that being married or being single does not affect one’s relationship with God. So, they did not need to change their marital status. What mattered was that in whichever state Christians were, they are able to obey God’s commands fully and serve him whole-heartedly. After all, Christ is the one who purchased them with his own blood. However, anyone needing to change his status was equally welcome.
4. Handling a Weaker Brother
The fourth major issue handled in 1 Corinthians was that of how to handle fellow church members who had religious qualms because of their background and upbringing (chapter 8). No prize for guessing that the popular analysis of such a situation is today. Such people and such items are deemed to be possessed by the spirits of their ancestors. Such people need to be brought before a “man of God” for deliverance.
There is only one God, the Father, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ. All other gods are lies.
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He first called for humility and love among the people of God. He then emphasised the fact that there is only one God, the Father, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ. All other gods are lies. However, due to people’s backgrounds, it will take some longer to grow out of the view that there are other “gods.” Therefore, those who are more knowledgeable than others should reduce their freedom for the sake of the weak.
I could go on and apply the same to the difficulties that arose due to: the abuse of the Lord’s Supper; the misuse of spiritual gifts; and the wrong teachings about the Second Coming of Christ, etc. However, I think that these four examples suffice to demonstrate the great chasm between the popular approaches of many African pastors and the apostle Paul.
We should be wary of diagnoses and approaches that differ so vastly from those of the apostles
Like the church in Corinth, we should not be surprised when spiritual issues arise. But we should be wary of diagnoses and approaches that differ so vastly from those of the apostles.
God’s Word Brings Spiritual Health
Clearly, what we notice is that the apostle Paul was not seeing evil spirits behind every bush. Rather, he spent time teaching the believers the truth. Thus, if we can imagine him ministering at Corinth, the pulpit would have been a place of rich teaching. It was not “an altar” where he was busy laying hands on people until they were writhing on the floor, barely distinguishable from the witchdoctor’s den. It is light from God’s Word that brings spiritual health.
Paul’s approach was all about Christ, arising from rich teaching about His person and work.
We also notice that all the truth was Christo-centric. When he is teaching against disunity in the church, Paul asks the question, “Is Christ divided?” As he teaches against immorality, he points believers to the fact that their bodies are no longer theirs but Christ’s temple. When dealing with marriage situations, Paul reminds believers that they were bought with a price—the death of Christ—and their chief concern should be to serve him. And in handling the weaker brother, Paul exhorts those who are stronger to deny themselves what they consider innocent, rather than destroy those for whom Christ died.
It’s all about Christ; it all arises from rich teaching about His person and work.
A Call for Balance Regarding Evil Spirits
I do believe that demons and evil spirits exist. But I want us to be biblically balanced. Today’s preoccupation with demons, evil spirits, and deliverance is a loss rather than a gain. Sound Christ-centred teaching is missing in our churches and pulpits. Therefore, our churches are spiritually impoverished primarily because of the gross ignorance among believers concerning Christ. So they are also ill-equipped to deal with the struggles that Christians will face.
Sound Christ-centred teaching is missing in our churches and pulpits
So let us get back to the great Pauline approach of teaching believers about what Christ has done for them. This will enable God’s church to see how this applies to the many challenges they face in their marriages, families, churches, work places, and the rest of life.