If you’ve strolled beyond your own compound in Africa, you will notice church signposts that feature weekly programs on them. Most notable among these are: overnight services – typically on Fridays – weekly Bible studies and the so called “deliverance service.” In my experience, the last of these – deliverance services – is the most prominent fixture in the majority of churches. In this article I will argue that deliverance services are one of the most misleading and dangerous teachings making its way around our continent.
A Dangerous Half-Truth
These well meaning deliverance services are premised on a half-truth. They claim that if you are a Christian, you have to apply yourself to certain special sessions, processes, even rituals. If you do, you can completely overcome all the difficulties in your life. These difficulties are often tied back to your past as well as previous generations. Terminology such as “demon casting,” “family-curse breaking,” “family cleansing,” “overcoming,” and “breakthroughs,” are readily employed in these sessions. But from my observations, they more closely resemble ancestral worship than Christianity.
Exorcists propagating this “deliverance theology” appeal to Jesus’ own exorcisms in the Gospels. But they also ignore the goal of exorcisms, signs and wonders – this being to point us to the ultimate goal: the inauguration of God’s Kingdom on earth (John 12:27; Matthew 12:39). New Testament signs and wonders were not an end in themselves. Yet the cross-examination of family histories and identification of so-called generational curses shape most deliverance sessions.
Deliverance services more closely resemble ancestral worship than Christianity
Both tragically and tellingly, these services feature more prominently in many weekly church schedules than Bible study. Though the Gospel is often mentioned, the onus is placed on the believer’s ability to recall everything in their past that needs “breaking” or “binding.” The Bible is rarely cited, meaning the cross is barely sighted. Indeed, the work of Christ pales in comparison to the mighty works of deliverance promised. The pastor sets the agenda, while fear gathers the people.
Driven By Fear
Many adherents to deliverance services are afraid. They fear what their parents may have placed under their skin when they were young. The noises made by cats and owls frighten them. They fear witchcraft; the past failings of their family or ancestors haunt them. They live in fear.
Deliverance services play on this fear. Sermons in these services are sprinkled with dramatic episodes recounting how ‘possessed’ Christians were ‘delivered.’ But little explanation is offered. How a demon can possess someone in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit is never considered. As Paul asked in 2 Corinthians 6:16, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” The apostle John said, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). Yet fear is the dominant factor in these forms of legalistic – even idolatrous – ministries. Furthermore, the theology is loose and ignores biblical truths about the Spirit.
Enslaved by Falsehood
We could go on, for deliverance ministries come in many forms. Alongside the prosperity gospel, deliverance teachings enslave believers across Africa. Both of these falsehoods hoodwink believers. They undermine genuine faith with man-made inventions and idolatry. Coupled with this deceit is their woefully low view of God. He is bereft of sovereign power and unreliable concerning his promises. Many out there have learnt about a Jesus who needs to be supplemented with some “generational curse breaking” and “exorcism.” Many are told, shortly after coming to Christ, how they still need to break a certain hidden spirit.
Deliverance from So-Called ‘Spirits’
At some point someone told me that extended singleness results from a specific division of ‘spirits.’ These spirits, I was promised, can be ‘interrupted by the power of Jesus’ blood.’ Only then, it was claimed, will you be released from the ‘bachelor curse’ of your longtime unmarried uncle or auntie. But this is not all. If things turn out well before the altar and you get engaged, you must cleanse your prospective marriage of potential curses. In other words, part of the pre-marital journey involves necessary ‘deliverance,’ and the pursuit of a ‘cleansed spouse.’ And when things get messed up in marriage, the solution is – you guessed it – investigate the ‘spirit’ behind your difficulties. The whole project is absurd.
There is no end to the abuses and related woes of this false teaching
There is no end to the abuses and related woes of this false teaching. Childless wives are burdened and wearied by the possibility of a ‘family curse.’ Teenagers build their self-perception exclusively on what happened to them in the past. Unemployed husbands are haunted by tales of family ‘poverty spirits’ and related curses. In the case of mental illness, for example schizophrenia, a spirit is supposedly behind that too. And like the rest, it can be dealt with at a ‘deliverance service.’
‘Deliverance Theology’ Denies the Gospel
All of this ultimately reviles the Gospel of Christ. For the Gospel simply says this: Jesus died for our sins, once and for all. No other sacrifice for sins remains (Hebrews 10:1-18), nor is one necessary. Deliverance has already taken place. Our new birth is a work of God (John 3:8) whereby the Spirit begets spirit (John 3:6). This transforms our spiritual reality and situation forever. Therefore our past physical experiences, although consequential, do not threaten our union to Christ. The Gospel says Christians are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
No earthly event can “separate us from the love of God, neither life, death, sword” (Romans 8:38-39). In this Gospel, God made him – Christ – who had no sin, to become sin so we may become the righteous through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Therefore curses have no hold on us. Demons cannot dwell within God’s temple. It was “for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
Our past physical experiences, although consequential, do not threaten our union to Christ
The pseudo-Christian religious antics of those who claim to offer additional ‘deliverance’ to Christians may operate on a worthy impulse. But it all begins to crumble when we see that it promises a new identity beyond what is already ours in the glorious Gospel of grace. Thus ‘deliverance ministries’ make promises that pale in comparison to God’s. Furthermore, they also promise things that God has not.
Deliverance Overshadows Christ
In ‘deliverance services,’ Jesus and his finished work are ignored realities. The Spirit’s work of sanctification is also diminished. For it is presented as an instant work rather than progress in holiness (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Romans 8:4; Galatians 5:5, 16-26). We know from Scripture that the future benefits of the Gospel are presently enjoyed, but not in their entirety. In this life, until the kingdom finally arrives, we will battle affliction (2 Corinthians 4:17), disease (1 Timothy 5:23), and remaining sin (Romans 7:15). This promise of a trouble free life, which draws many to deliverance ministries, is not a Christian guarantee. What God does say is this: “be of good cheer”! For Jesus has “overcome the world,” in spite of the many troubles we face (John 16:33).
As God’s renewed children we must discern between the trustworthy promises of God and paltry inventions of man
God has acted to rid us of the sin disease (Isaiah 53:5). His Son offered himself in our place, as our substitute. This means that through faith we will be spared God’s judgment. Now, in the present, the Spirit gradually works with us to help us overcome sin, Satan and the world. So do not get caught up in the “spirit-of-this-spirit-of-that” jumble. Salvation is won. Deliverance is already ours. Do not let half-truths, empty promises and false teaching distract you from God’s wonderful promises. These promises are enjoyed currently and will be ours totally, in glory. This life will present numerous challenges. For we do not yet inhabit the renewed creation. But as God’s renewed children we must discern between the trustworthy promises of God and paltry inventions of man.
“Look to Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2)
To everyone that may have wrestled with this kind of teaching prevalent in the African church there is good news. It’s God’s Gospel. So now you must “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Yet remember that it is “God who works in you to will and to do according to his purposes” (Philippians 2:13). Cling, as Paul did, to God. Depend entirely on Him. “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:9).
Therefore Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Church in Ephesians 1:18 is for us too. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.” This is a reality no human scheme can supplement. Our status before God cannot be threatened or taken from us. These so-called spirits have no power where the Spirit dwells and reigns. Therefore, beware those who promise deliverance.