In spiritual warfare, believers exercise their authority in Christ over supernatural evil which is believed to impede human progress and flourishing. This article explores the intersection between spiritual warfare and Christian mission from an African perspective.
In the African context, generally, there is a strong belief in mystical causality, the worldview on which spiritual warfare activity is founded. Although our main examples come from the West African country of Ghana, what we discuss is present within most African cultural contexts in varying degrees. The relationship between spiritual warfare and the mission of the church is partly evident in the popularity of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in particular.
These movements consciously integrate spiritual warfare into Christian ministry as a form of pastoral care.
These movements, on account of their strong belief in the power of the Holy Spirit, consciously integrate spiritual warfare into Christian ministry as a form of pastoral care. Exponents of spiritual warfare assume the role of charismatic prophets and create ritual context for dealing with the existential problems of life. Thus, problems related to education, marriage, international travel, promotion, and much else may all be seen in terms of supernatural activity. Witchcraft, in particular, may be blamed for both personal and communal problems.
In my Ghanaian tradition, sources of supernatural evil include witchcraft and malevolent spirits believed to afflict victims with disabilities and setbacks in life. It not uncommon for Ghanaians to explain alcoholism, for example, as the result of the wickedness of family witches who seek to bring victims to ruin. Mental health and human reproductive problems are similarly explained as due to the work of evil spirits.
In the Ghanaian Pentecostal traditions, unless deliverance occurs through warfare prayers, the influences of evil are believed to continue until people’s lives are completely wrecked. Given the fact that the Bible talks about supernatural evil and that the African context is itself one in which belief in mystical causality is very prevalent, the relationship between spiritual warfare and Christian mission is not difficult to appreciate.
The theology of spiritual interventionism is anchored in the general Pentecostal belief that Christians have been given the power to engage in spiritual warfare.
The expression ‘spiritual warfare’ is derived from Paul’s admonishment to the Ephesians:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:10-12).
The expression ‘our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood’ is critical. According to Pentecostalism, in spiritual warfare, spirit-empowered Christians subjugate the ‘rulers’, ‘authorities’ and ‘cosmic powers’ or ‘principalities and powers’ by dealing with them through prayer and fasting. It encompasses exorcistic practices including healing and deliverance for the restoration of persons and communities to proper functioning order. Spiritual warfare is influenced by the ministries of Jesus, the Apostles, and the writings of Paul.
After the preaching of the Word, Jesus followed with healing of diseases and casting out of demons, which resulted thus:
His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him in Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan (Matt 4:23-25).
In Mark 5, the Gerasene demoniac was subdued by Jesus who exorcised the legion of evil spirits out of him. The result was a dramatic picture of complete restoration (Mark 5:14-15). Successful spiritual warfare episodes generate faith and discipleship such as we find in Acts 8:4-8 where as a result of expelling demons, the ministry of Philip in Samaria was considered successful:
The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying out with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in the city (Acts 8:6-8).
Although not their exclusive hermeneutic position, Pentecostals in particular understand the enduement with power in Acts 1:8 as a means of not just preaching the Word but also dealing with the powers of evil. Ghanaian theologian Esther Acolatse has discussed the polarized positions of the West and Africa in her book Powers, Principalities and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa and the West. She points out that the biblical world was very conscious of the existence of supernatural evil, noting that the Ephesians ‘believed in a world teeming with personal spiritual forces accounted for by the language Paul used in his admonition and encouragement to the church’ and that ‘an invitation for alertness, and a strategy for ensuring victory in the war against the devil are what stand out most in these verses.’ In other words, when it comes to spiritual causality in terms of evil, there seems to be some coherence between the biblical and African worlds.
The resonance of spiritual warfare discourses and traditional beliefs about evil in my Ghanaian tradition means that virtually all the churches take the theology of evil very seriously. People are even taught to believe that sometimes resistance to the gospel in the course of mission is instigated by agents of Satan, which in this case would include the malevolent spirits associated with indigenous religions. Satan’s agents, it is believed, blind potential converts to the truth and also bring them to ruin by instigating all sorts of wrong moral choices in their lives including drinking, smoking, and sexual perversions.
In addition, Ghanaian spiritual warfare discourses identify ‘territorial demons’ whose activities include influencing whole communities negatively. The ability of Pentecostal churches to deal with supernatural evil accounts in part for the growth of independent Pentecostal churches in Africa.
The subjugation of supernatural evil is believed to pave the way for human wellbeing and prosperity. Satan, it is believed, works through various agents of evil and uses strategies and tricks to work out his plan. However, Christians, spiritual warfare discourse declares, must have confidence that they are empowered by God to stand against those schemes or strategies (1 Pet 5:8-9). Testimonies abound among members of Pentecostal/charismatic churches who attribute their membership to such episodes of deliverance from the demonic. This is partly the reason why African Pentecostal evangelistic crusades, for example, are often advertised as ‘healing and deliverance’ gatherings. The signs of spiritual warfare that occur in these places have often been cited by victims of spiritual affliction as an important reason for converting to Christ.
When Peter refers to ‘your enemy the devil prowling around like a roaring lion’ (1 Pet 5:8; Acts 8:4-8), African exponents of spiritual warfare would normally understand this to include how the devil functions through various evil spirits. In Ghana, proponents of spiritual warfare have developed sets of general principles and discourses to support the practices of exorcism, healing, and deliverance:
Jesus said, ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10). In spiritual warfare discourses, the belief is that when deliverance comes, as we see from this statement of Jesus, abundance occurs.
Spiritual warfare is a global phenomenon. It is a theme that has not yet been fully explored in the study of world Christianity. Although African belief systems have played a role in popularizing it in places such as Ghana, even here, part of the influence has come from a particular wave of global Pentecostalism including the ministries of Peter Wagner and Derek Prince. In their own way, the writings of Walter Wink have also had an international impact in terms of the nature of structural/systemic evil in relation to the biblical categories of spiritual warfare.
One of the best-known works of the late John Wimber of the Vineyard churches is Power Evangelism. It has been available throughout the evangelical Christian world since it was published in the mid-1990s. Wimber advocated the idea of God ‘as an empowering transformer who creates, redeems and renews via the unequivocal disposal of various forms of power’.
Power Evangelism articulates the basic Pentecostal/charismatic view of healing, exorcism, and deliverance as a means of evangelizing people and therefore doing mission. Even though there are many African Pentecostal/charismatic preachers who have large spiritual warfare ministries, we still receive quite a number of international guests who visit to hold evangelistic crusades that focus on warfare activities.
One of the downsides of spiritual warfare teaching is its inability to get people to be personally responsible for their actions.
One of the downsides of spiritual warfare teaching, as I have experienced it in Ghanaian churches, is its inability to get people to be personally responsible for their actions. Warfare discourses usually blame every conceivable problem on external spiritual agents.
That, however, does not detract from the fact that spiritual warfare is an important Christian ministry. Indeed, as we have pointed out, one of the reasons for the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism, especially in Africa is the fact that this stream takes spiritual warfare ministry seriously. This ministry of warfare, as we note above, is usually justified based on readings of specific incidents in the Bible and also on the fact that indigenous cultural beliefs, experiences, and worldviews demonstrate affinities or continuities with the biblical material on supernatural evil and how to deal with it.
If we seek to do mission in the spirit of Christ, then his activities of exorcism and deliverance ought to be understood as implications to preaching the gospel. The way to respond to the abuses that have characterized spiritual warfare is not to reject it altogether, but rather, to accept its worldview as biblically and culturally valid and articulate more balanced responses to it. One way to do this is to nurture the graces of those so gifted by the Spirit in the ministries of healing and deliverance so that they can help deal with problems that are of supernatural provenance.
Photo by Dugba Cauley-Hushie on Unsplash
J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, PhD is Baëta-Grau Professor of African Christianity and Pentecostal/charismatic theology at the Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon, Ghana. He is also the President of the Seminary.