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Can a Christian have a demon?” If one were to make a list of “hot” religious questions of our day, would this one be among them? It would depend on whom one asked. Most theologians of whatever stripe would likely respond to this query with blank faces. Even among Evangelicals the relevant demons today are those “principalities and powers” of social evil that one reads about in Sojourners. Yet among a sizable percentage of those Christians involved with the Charismatic movement, the question takes on vital (shall we even say existential?) relevance. We refer of course to the “Deliverance Ministry" and its leaders including Don Basham, Frank and Ida Mae Hammond, and Pat Brooks. These people are quite certain that Christians may be “demonized" (not “possessed,” a term avoided for apologetical reasons), and that many in fact are. Worse yet, they usually don’t suspect it. Worst of all, most don’t want to hear about it! The present discussion will raise three points in connection with this “Deliverance Ministry.” First, what scriptural basis might be claimed for Deliverance? Second, does the repudiation by most Evangelicals and Pentecostals of Deliverance itself have theological significance? Third, what is the psychological utility of such an apparently unpleasant doctrine as Deliverance?


Bible and Belial

Turning first to the scriptural question, we should try to locate just where the Deliverance Ministry becomes exegetically controversial. There is almost universal agreement between Evangelicals that in New Testament times, as represented by the gospel accounts, many unfortunate individuals were demon­-possessed. Claiming to believe the biblical accounts and to accept the world­ view implied therein, most Evangelicals and Pentecostals would agree that such demon affliction can still occur today. But can a regenerate Christian fall prey to such bondage? Here is the point of conflict.

Most would answer in the negative, while the Deliverance advocates, a minority, would respond affirma­tively. Let us note at the outset that the evidence is not completely clear. This is so because demon-possession is treated almost exclusively in descriptive passages of the gospels. The stories of Jesus' victories over Beelzebul and his hordes are told primarily to glorify Jesus. They denote the coming of the Kingdom (Reginald Fuller) and the victory of Jesus over the demonic Powers (Ernst Käsemann). But what do they have to say about regenerate believers, partakers of the Spirit after Pentecost? This remains unclear since it is not the didactic concern of the evangelists. So the question must be dealt with by inference.

On the one hand, most Evangelicals and Pentecostals point out with obvious force that if the coming of the Kingdom denotes freedom from demons, then the "sons of the Kingdom" must have such freedom as their birthright. And surely demon-spirits cannot reside in those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. Would the Holy Spirit share his temple (1 Cor. 6: 19) with devils? Surely not! The issue thus seems settled.

That is, it seems to be settled if we look no further. And in fact one senses in much anti-Deliverance literature that its writers have no intention of looking further. If they did, they might find that the Deliverance ministers do indeed have an exegetical leg to stand on. Deliverance advocates are quick to point out that much of the apparent force of their opponents' objec­tion comes from their characterization of demon-affliction as "possession." In fact no such inference is necessary. The Greek text yields only "demonization." As trivial as the distinction might at first sound, it is important because the anti-Deliverance criticism depends on the spatial imagery: the same body cannot contain demons and the Spirit at the same time. In all fairness, though, it should be noted that demons are often commanded "Come out of him" (e.g., Mk 1:25), implying indwelling.

But all this is perhaps to make too much of imagery. After all, what Christian really thinks Christ's living in one's heart means that he is located in the cardial cavity? The really important question is that of the Christian's "kingdom" right to liberty from demons. And here it is hard to deny that Deliverance ministers have both New Testament and Evangelical theological categories on their side. As Bultmann and others have described it, there is an "indicative-imperative" dialectic in the New Testament, at least in the Pauline literature. The Christian is exhorted to live in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), yet told that he already lives by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). How are the imperative (what the believer must do) and the indicative (what is already true of him) related?

Paradoxically, the Christian must "become what he is." As Bultmann summarizes Paul: "The way the believer becomes what he already is consists... in the constant appropriation of grace by faith" (Theology of the New Testament, p. 332; c£ also his The Old Man and the New Man). This schema is recapitulated in traditional Evangelical theology. Here we find the distinction between "positional" and "experiential" truth. The idea is that certain things are true of a believer by virtue of his position "in Christ," yet the extent to which his experience, his day-to-day life, matches up to the heavenly prototype depends on his success in "appropriating" the positional riches of Christ. For discussions of this distinction see, e. g., Lewis Sperry Chafer's Salvation or Miles J. Stanford's The Green Letters. Certainly Pentecostals ought to be more at home than anyone else with this frame of reference, from their doctrine of the Baptism of the Spirit as subsequent to regeneration. The fullness of the Spirit is the birthright of every believer, yet it will not be experienced until consciously appropriated.

Now what does this have to do with the minority voice among Pentecostals, the Deliverance Ministry? Quite simply, the latter see complete deliverance from demons in the same terms. Though every Christian is entitled to it, this liberation must be consciously claimed. And this may occur at any point after regeneration. Thus, at least temporarily, a believer may find himself demonized until he claims his "deliverance" via exorcism. Seen this way, it is hard to deny a legitimate theological pedigree to the Deliverance Ministry. Advocates may certainly point to precedents both in the New Testament and in Evangelical theology.


Beelzebul and Bultmann

So far our discussion has attempted to mediate the Deliverance debate in terms of the exegetical and doctrinal terms usually employed, but there is another, far more important, theological question implied in all this. This is the question preliminary to the much-debated problem of "demythologizing," the translation of the self-understanding of the New Testament Christians into modern, non-supernatural categories. The position is mostly clearly stated by its chief advocate, Rudolf Bultmann. In his famous essay "New Testament and Mythology," Bultmann claimed that "modern man" does not in fact hold to the worldview of the New Testament, with its supernatural entities and inter­ventions. Evangelical critics have easily been able to reject such an allegation. After all, do they not both live in the twntieth century and accept supernaturalism? Yet this was not quite Bultmann's point. He meant that no one today really lives as though he believed in the miraculous world of the New Testament, and actions speak louder than words. What we are going to argue is that the Deliverance Ministry forms the exception that proves the rule, that at least on the important matter of demons most Evangelicals simply do not share the New Testament worldview.

Let us return momentarily to the exegetical question. Just what is the New Testament view of demon activity? What does demon-possession (or "demonization") mean? This eerie condition might manifest itself in the forms of frenzy (Mk. 9:18), supernatural knowledge (Mk. 1:24), superhuman strength (Lk. 8:29), common illness or handicap (Lk.13:11), or various combinations of these symptoms. Most "Bible-believers" would claim to believe that nothing has changed since New Testament days. Yet there is in fact a curious limitation in their picture of demon activity. While the gospels regard demon-activity as a common cause of serious illness, as most prescientific societies do (see Victor Turner, The Drums of Affliction; I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion), modern Evangelicals by and large do not. Instead, they picture demonization almost exclusively in terms of fits of blasphemous frenzy a la The Exorcist. And instead of the commonplace occurrence of demon affliction we see in the gospels, most Evangelicals expect it to occur only among foreign pagans or occultists in California. In the synoptic gospels it seems like Jesus is thronged by demoniac sufferers on every street corner. But when a middleclass suburban Baptist gets arthritis or pneumonia, will it even occur to him or her to call in an exorcist?

When was the last time you offered your condolences to a neighbor whose son is demon-possessed? Demons are just not encountered in everyday life, contrary to what one would expect if the New Testament worldview still held good. With Deliverance believers, on the other hand, the picture is altogether different. As is well known, they attribute almost any serious problem or sick­ness at least potentially to demons. (See the amazing list of demon-symptoms in the Hammond’s Pigs in the Parlor.) The remedy is exorcism, even self­-exorcism. Once again, the reality of the demonic is encountered in everyday life, in the form of sickness, not just frenzy, and here at home, not just in far­ flung mission-fields. Will the real upholder of the New Testament worldview please stand up?

The seriousness of the question thus posed should not be missed. Evan­gelicals and mainstream Pentecostals do not have much trouble in recognizing fanaticism when they see it in the Deliverance Ministry. Yet it seems to be the latter who adhere more closely to the biblical world-picture! And of course this case is only one of several degrees on a scale. Mainstream Evangelicals have traditionally written off all Pentecostals and Charismatics as fanatics because of their practice of glossolalia and prophecy. The strained rationalizations of the Dispensationalists could not mask the fact that it was Pentecostalism that was closer to the New Testament picture.

Taking it a step further, Liberals have shaken their heads in bemusement (or amusement) at the Evangelical-fundamentalist belief in “the Rapture," the miracles of Christ, etc. All of this they regarded as superstition. In all these cases, the criterion seems to be the same. Basically each group stops short of the next because of its greater or lesser grip on everyday reality as most people experience it. To venture very far away from "normal" reality seems "fanatical,” and some venture farther than others. The difference between the Deliverance Ministry and mainstream Evangelicalism-Pentecostalism raises (or should raise) Bultmann's question with acute clarity. Even to Pentecostal believers, Bultmann's charge has force: do you really believe in the New Testament picture of reality? And if you want to be consistent, which path will you follow--Deliverance, or demythologizing? Finally, let us consider the Deliverance controversy in a more psycho­logical light.


The Firewall

From this perspective, we will ask why anyone would want to embrace a notion so repulsive as that one may himself be demon-possessed and in need of exorcism. Our answer seems to lie in what we would honestly have to call a tradition of elitism within Pentecostalism. In both the Holiness and Pentecostal Revivals, possessors of the "Second Blessing" faced, and notoriously often succumbed to, the temptation of patronizing outsiders as second-class Christians. Among Pentecostals, the gift of tongues might function as much as a badge of elitism as an evidence of the Spirit. This division has recently been repeated in mainline Protestant congregations with the spread of the neo-Pentecostal, or Charismatic, movement. Militant Charismatic prayer cells regard other parishioners as not yet having arrived at the group's own spiritual plane. Now, as if not satisfied with such an elite status, some Charismatics have found a new shibboleth which makes them the elite among the elite. This shibboleth is the ministry of deliverance from demons.

Deliverance advocates feel that they are privy to the devil's best kept secret. Most Christians are being victimized by Satan but are prevented by their doctrinal views from recognizing it! The faithful few have found out the secret and try to warn their fellow Charismatics. But few will listen; thus deliverance advocates become a persecuted, elitist minority. This is very satisfying for some people who seem to thrive on this sort of messianic self­ conception.

The factor of guilt also plays a major role here. As mentioned above, the Deliverance Ministry is only the latest develop­ment in the American Holiness-Pentecostal tradition. This tradition has been one of perfectionism. It has been believed that once one has experienced "entire sanctification" or "the Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” or both, one is responsible for, and capable of, maintaining a largely sin-free life and attitude. To eradicate sinful actions and attitudes, one need only remain faithful in devotional practices and "claim the victory" by appropriating God's power over spiritual and moral problems. The Deliverance Ministry is able to admit that even after the Spirit-filled believer has done all this, some problems and sins seem to remain.

The attribution of particularly stubborn problems to demons allows one to avoid frustration and guilt. To err is no longer human, it is demonic. If the believer has been sanctified, what other culprit is left? If on the other hand he has "backslidden" from his sanctified state, the believer may readily enough admit his guilt and repent. But if he has tried his best without results to deal with a "besetting sin," the appeal to demons can at least get him off the moral hook.

The same dichotomy occurs in the specific case of sickness. Here, too, Pentecostals have been perfectionists. That is, they have often claimed that it is never God’s will for the believer to be ill, but that the believer can "claim his healing" which, like salvation itself, was automatically provided for at Calvary. The healing is readily available if only one’s faith is strong enough. As one might well imagine, this last catch has saved face for the Pentecostal claims only at the cost of great guilt for those seekers who came away without being healed. They had thought their faith was sufficient, but it must not have been after all! Since they weren't healed, what other possibility is there? Once again, Deliverance advocates (and here many other Charismatics as well) step forward with an alternative to guilt. They cheerfully announce that the seeker really was healed! The only reason this is not apparent is that Satan is counterfeiting the symptoms, in order to make the believer doubt! This is a rationalization widely used in Charismatic circles. In short, the devil has again been used as an alternative to human failure, so that one may resort to exorcism instead of feeling guilty. Which was it: a lack of faith, or Satan­ically-counterfeited symptoms? Probably only conscience will tell.

The Deliverance Ministry has been able to supply a shrewd theological device for escaping the frustration that inevitably accompanies perfectionism. Yet how long can the device work? What is the believer to conclude if the demonic sin or problem, or the Satanically "counterfeited" symptoms do not leave when rebuked in Jesus' name? At this point, one suspects, the whole system may backfire. Mustn't the would-be exorcist (or self-exorcist) conclude that his faith in the power of the name, or blood, of Jesus wasn't strong enough? Or maybe even that such a lack of faith is itself demonically-produced?

Believe it or not, something very much like this reasoning has already appeared in Deliverance literature, where Don Basham warns any skeptical reader that stubborn refusal to believe in the Deliverance Ministry is quite possibly caused by demons! Apparently, no Deliverance minister has yet attributed the failure of exorcism to demonic crippling of faith. This would indeed be a vicious circle. One is reminded of the gospel text (Mt. 12:43-45) wherein the expulsion of one demon only results in its return with seven others worse than itself.

In conclusion, our examination of the Deliverance Ministry reveals it to be more than the internecene squabble it is often taken to be. Instead it raises questions crucial to the integrity of Evangelical-Pentecostal religion. Do believers really adhere to the New Testament worldview, as they claim, or are they ready to admit with Liberals that New Testament supernaturalism must be modified? And what about the perfectionism so common to Pentecostal­ Charismatic spirituality? Are its promises realistic, or mustn't something be amiss if believers must fall back on a series of "fail-safe" maneuvers culminating in the Deliverance Ministry? In view of these questions, it seems that the Deliverance controversy is far more theologically important than is commonly supposed.


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