On Spiritual Deliverance (Exorcism)

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an exessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
-C.S. Lewis (Preface to The Screwtape Letters)

When I was in seminary at SMU, I was asked in my Word and Worship Class (we studied liturgy) to prepare two liturgies for my final paper, with a running commentary on each. I thought it would be fun to do something different that would stir the biblical imagination of my professor, so I prepared a liturgy for performing an exorcism. That might sound absurd "this day and age" but (no doubt, partly due to the Pentecostal/Charismatic influences in my own faith journey) I felt then, and still do, that the topic of Spiritual Warfare in general and of exorcism in particular requires new attention among United Methodists, and among Christians more generally. I believe I talked a little bit about this in my post on The Exorcism of Emily Rose way back in September 2005 when I first started blogging. Maybe I should say before going further that I realize the word "exorcism" itself calls up a whole series of images - thanks in large part to Hollywood - that may or may not be helpful, and for this reason the language of spiritual "deliverance" may be more useful.

Now preparing this assigned paper I did not undertake lightly, but did much research, especially examining Anglican/Church of England sources (the 'Exeter Report' and related material I found to be especially useful), since they and the Roman Catholics are the only non-Pentecostal Churches that seem to have given this subject much serious attention during the 20th century.

So, I would like to open a conversation on this subject (that is not getting much treatment in blog-land at the moment, so far as I can tell). I think it is important to come to grips with the reality that Christians do believe in what the Nicene Creed calls "the unseen" elements of creation. Whether it is appropriate to call them "supernatural" is debatable, but they are in some sense beyond the material world (and therefore, most likely beyond the purview of the physical sciences). This is of course the reason why Modernity, as an intellectual perspective, taught us to be so skeptical about the unseen realities. But Modernity's hold upon our imaginations is waning, and we can now with fresh eyes look at these questions.

Of course, the reality of "spiritual forces of wickedness" (to quote the United Methodist baptismal liturgy) is quite plain in the Bible, as the numerous accounts of exorcism do demonstrate. In the ancient Church, because Paul equates idol worship with "communion with demons" in 1 Cor. 10, an exorcism was performed on all converts as part of the baptismal ritual (since they were all converting from Paganism). This exorcism actually still exists in our own United Methodist baptismal liturgy, as I have already noted, when the candidate for baptism is asked to reject the "spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world". So according to both the Bible, and the tradition as it has come to and been passed along by our Church, there are unseen spiritual powers and some of them are set against God and his people (therefore we call them "wicked").

Now I realize that very many people within my Church will nevertheless find this whole conversation to be absurd, even dangerous, because they do not believe in any sort of evil spirits. As I have said, I believe this in large part comes from an uncritical acceptance of certain tenets of Modernity's worldview that ought to be challenged. I am aware of some new interest in "powers and principalities" in mainline circles, however they often seem not to get to the point of admitting the reality of something like personal entities that occupy the unseen realm (rather talking more about 'systems' - though this may be a 'both-and' case). It might be profitable if some of us would ask ourselves "exactly why do I have trouble believing in this?"

I am reminded of a moment at General Conference at which point an African Methodist pastor stated that certain practices were inspired by the devil. The presiding bishop (an American) scolded him for such 'mud-slinging'/unfriendly language and seemed to totally miss the point that a theological claim had just been made, perhaps one that deserved to be examined rather than simply ridiculed and dismissed. (It is quite plain to me that, of course, General Conference is organized in such a fashion to make 'holy conferencing' - in the sense of deep and probing theological discussion - nearly impossible. Such issues will likely need to be explored through other venues).

The question naturally arises then, if these unseen realities (both God-serving and the wicked) do exist - what does this mean for our own spiritual lives? What interaction do we have - knowingly or (scary thought) unknowingly with these spiritual forces or beings? How should it affect the way we pray? All of these questions make me somewhat uncomfortable, and that is why I think I need to look into them a bit more.

As the writers I engaged pointed out, the language of "demonic oppression" is probably more helpful than "demonic possession." Demonic oppression runs a whole spectrum from simple temptation to the more extreme levels of oppression that have in the past been called "demon possession." This gets us past the fruitless question of whether a water-washed and Spirit-born Christian could be 'possessed' by a devil or not. Clearly, in this way of looking at things, all of us experience various levels of demonic oppression in our life as disciples, and should seek to be equipped to deal with it. We may have already done so without realizing it. (This does not mean, however, that anytime we are feeling tempted it therefore follows that we are being attacked by an evil spirit, since some temptations will simply come from within ourselves).

SO, I propose that The United Methodist Church - her bishops, pastors, and theologians (both lay and clergy, both formally and informally trained) ought to investigate these questions with all due seriousness so as to avoid the near total ignorance and discomfort that now holds sway on the one hand, and also to avoid any kind of paranoia or fanaticism that may come from being un-informed on the other hand (there is a disturbing tendency among some to see a demon under every rock and behind every tree; this is surely unhealthy and perhaps a clearer teaching might help bring clearer discernment on these matters). Perhaps a theological guidebook or pamphlet may be prepared by the General Board of Discipleship in connection with the Aldersgate Renewal Ministry? Perhaps it can even be included in the Book of Resolutions as has been done with similar guilde-line pamphlets.

Our own heritage within the Anglican Tradition will no doubt be especially instructive and appropriate for our use. In the Church of England, each diocese has a designated (and properly trained) exorcist who can be called upon to perform or coordinate any services of deliverance and spiritual healing that are found to be necessary, after due consultation with psychological professionals. The deliverance service is closely related to the healing services that are already becoming popular among United Methodists, thanks in large part to the Charismatic movement.

Just so this doesn't sound any more threatening than it already may for many readers, let me point you to some resources for prayer on this subect with which you may already be familiar:

1. The Lord's Prayer. Most of us pray it every week in the liturgy, and perhaps every day as well. The last petition is of course "but deliver us from evil." The NRSV has it in Matthew 6 as "but rescue us from the evil one" - a clear reference to the devil, the chief of these 'fallen angels' or evil spirits or whatever we want to call them. This is, as my Anglican sources pointed out, quite properly understood to be a 'minor' exorcism.

2. The baptismal vows (see The United Methodist Hymnal p. 34), as I've already mentioned, include elements of an exorcism. It involves the renunciation of demonic powers and then a profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and savior. Because "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' but by the Spirit of God" (see 1 Cor. 12:3) the Early Church reasoned that once one had sincerely made these vows, then demonic influences could not at that moment have control over them (or they would not have been able to make the good confession). The language has been retained in Baptismal liturgies since the days of the Early Church.

3. The Great Litany in The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (p. 148-155, a rather long prayer) contains some remarkable prayers for deliverance, including the very second petition:

"From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us!"

4. Many traditional night-time prayers contain petitions for deliverance from spiritual darkness (see, for example #689 in The United Methodist Hymnal) including especially the prayer found in the Order for Compline (again, 1979 BCP) on p. 133:

"Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwill with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

My research suggested that this prayer was also especially appropriated for claiming the reality of the Kingdom in and over places that had been particularly affected by evil spirits (in some instances, we might call them 'haunted' or otherwise 'dark' places, though clearly not all alleged hauntings would fall into this category).

5. The mention of Angels in that last prayer brings up the important point that there are also spiritual forces of goodness that are obedient to the will of God and are seeking to uphold and defend us in various ways. St. Michael the Archangel is viewed as chief among them as a sort of general of the heavenly armies. It is within that framework that the following prayer, popular in the Roman Catholic/Anglo-Catholic tradition, may be used profitably (wording slightly altered to be more congeneal to my Evangelical/Protestant sensibilities):

"May St. Michael the Archangel defend us in the day of battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and may the Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust down to hell Satan and all wicked spirits, who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen"

Now (with much trepidation) I would like to hear what others may think about these things. Has anyone else taken this further than me? Are there already pastors, bishops, and theologians looking into these issues? I saw that Ben Witherington III recommended a book on the subject called The Dark Sacrament, but I've not yet read it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea! I'm so glad that someone else is discussing this topic. I have always been vary careful to acknowledge the unseen world that co-exists with the seen world. 1 Corinthians 12:10 even speaks of the spiritual gift of distinguishing of spirits. Obviously different spirits can show up even when
Christians are gathering and can APPEAR to speak truth.

I am often reminded of that the name Lucifer means shining one or morning star. While theologians debate about whether or not the Isaiah 14:12 scripture from which this name for the Father of Lies is taken is referring to the fall of Satan or just to the fall of the King of Babylon, I think it is important to note that the name is very similar to that of one of the names for the Messiah - "The Bright and Morning Star." It is with this in mind that I exhort my fellow brothers and sisters to be on guard against and aware of the spiritual forces of darkness, particularly if they can come across in a "pretty" light.

If I may suggest two fictional books that address this topic in a well thought out manner, I think you will find the very interesting in your continued ponderings on this subject. The first is a short story by Max Lucado entitled "An Angel's Story" (originally published as "Cosmic Christmas" The events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Christ are told from the point of view of the angel Gabriel. Lucado's premise for the story is based on Rev. 12 where the Red Dragon pursues the woman with child. What if Satan, aware that the birth of Jesus would break his hold on humanity, tried to stop it from occurring?

The second book that I would recommend is "This Present Darkness" by Frank Peretti. In this book, the unseen world collides with the seen world in a small midwest town in the post-modern world. Because of Peretti's Pentecostal background and vivid imaginiation, this book can be quite intense and is not recommended to be read before going to bed.

On the more non-fiction side of things, I have had experiences in my life that have made me completely aware of the unseen world around me - the good and the evil. I take it very seriously, and I worry about congregations whose pastors either ignore the topic completely or preach against believing in evil spirits or Satan. This is dangerous theology that can lead believers into toying with the occult because they have no teaching outside of scripture that would warn them against such practices. I hope discussions such as this will spread to larger discourse.

Thanks for your blog!

P.S. I sang at Coventry Cathedral in 2002 and have that picture of St. Michael and Lucifer in my photo album. It's pretty awesome!

6:50 PM, July 15, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Thanks for the comments MV! I'm glad someone made it all the way through my post!

I have read Cosmic Christmas (actually, someone read it to us at a service in college - I'm unsure if it was the whole book or just some of it), and thought that it was very interesting. I wonder at the idenitification of the woman in Revelation with the Blessed Mother of our Lord since this view is sometimes rejected by Evangelical scholars, though is obviously embraced by Roman Catholicism.

And I'm quite jealous that you've been to Coventry. I would love to see, to worship in, the skeletal walls of the old Cathedral ruins there...

7:19 PM, July 15, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

PS - if anyone would like me to send them the paper that I wrote in seminary, it contains a full exorcism liturgy (adapted from the service of Healing in the Book of Worship) and some annotations as well, and I will make that available to anyone who would like to study it.

10:30 AM, October 22, 2008  
Blogger Terrance Jones said...

Yes, Pastor Hixon, I should like to get a copy of the paper you wrote on this. I am also interested in our faith addressing this area. You may contact me via email at Harlech61@aol.com. Thank you very much for your research already on this subject. In Christian Kindness, Terry Jones

11:59 PM, October 27, 2012  
Blogger Terrance Jones said...

Yes am definitely interested in a copy of the paper. I am of a similar mind on this point. I appreciate your research on this in advance. Thank you.

12:03 AM, October 28, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be interested in seeing the paper you wrote in seminary.

echoinghim AT gmail DOT com


11:10 PM, December 07, 2013  
Anonymous Randy Young said...

Also I am interested in your paper

5:14 PM, January 04, 2017  

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