The Assemblies of God (AoG), the biggest Pentecostal denomination in the US, has famously argued that it is impossible for Christians to be possessed; no one who has received the Holy Spirit, they say, can be overtaken by demonic forces. This differs from the view shared by many neo-Pentecostals, charismatics, Catholics as well as many Pentecostals in the majority world (Asia, Africa and Latin America), who all say that Christians might actually become demonized.
When John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement, was asked if he believed that Christians could have demons, he provokingly replied “Well yeah, I’ve cast them out of pastors!” His wife Carol wrote in her biography about her husband something like: “When we encountered a demon, we simply cast it out – without checking baptismal records. What else could we do? Wait until they become Hindus and then cast them out?”
Now, AoG-folks and like-minded may object that such allegorical evidence does not mean much compared to arguments from Scripture. Which is generally true, although in this particular case the usual claim concerning extra-Biblical supernatural phenomena – it’s a demonic deception! – is quite counterproductive. But the Bible is always important in theological matters, so let’s have a look.
In AoG’s position paper on the topic, their arguments can be boiled down to two categories: 1) The Bible never specifically says that Christians are or can be possessed, and 2) The Bible does state that God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13) and that “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4), meaning that because of the Holy Spirit’s presence in born-again believers, demonic possession is impossible.
To 1) I would respond that there are examples of faithful believers in God and Jesus who have some pretty serious problems with demons; the woman who had been disabled by a spirit in 18 years was described by Jesus as “a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years”. Being a child of Abraham is not so much about ethnicity, as it is about faith (Gal 3:7). Jesus clearly stated that his closest disciple Peter was briefly overtaken by Satan (Mt 16:23), and even though Judas clearly wasn’t a very good disciple, I think it’s very reasonable to say that he did join Jesus’ team because he actually wanted to follow Jesus radically, since Satan came and possessed him the same day he betrayed his Lord (Lk 22:3-4).
The 2) argument is even weaker: the same reasoning could be applied to sin with quite absurd consequences. God has rescued us from darkness and His Spirit within us is more powerful than the devil – therefore no Christian can sin. Most Christians would agree that it is true that God has rescued us from darkness and that no evil is within the Holy Spirit while it is equally true that we continuously fail to live up to God’s standards and fall in sin.
There is neither sin nor devils in the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit has not 100% control of us yet – that’s why we sin and that’s why some pastors can be demonized. While Christians won’t have the same amount of total possessions as some witch doctors can have – something that the Wimbers observed – we aren’t totally immune to demons unless we make sure that we are constantly sanctified through prayer and fasting.
I tend to believe that Christians can be ‘afflicted’ by the demonic but not ‘possessed’. I think that is the way Wimber etc looked at it. Unfortunately the arguments you present dont really convince – the ‘daughter of Abraham’ primarily reflects her status as a devout Jew. And Peter’s ‘overtaken’ is clearly not the same as possessed. But the main difference between these examples and today is of course that the Holy Spirit did not ‘reside in’ these individuals until after pentecost, fulfilling Joel’s prophecy. All Christians have the Spirit living inside them in some weird and wonderful way, and it is therefore impossible for an ‘unclean’ spirit to reside there too, hence no possession. When Jesus mentioned a demonic spirit leaving a person and looking around for somewhere else to live, and returning to that same person, He was not thinking that the spirit could live in a person where the Holy Spirit already resides. I think the demonic is real, but we should be careful how we describe the workings of it, particularly in the life of Jesus’ followers.
I think that the strength of Wimbers position (also shared by e.g. Francis MacNutt) was nuance. The word possession indicates total control over somebody, a phenomena Wimber understood as being very rare indeed. Thus he did never say that a Christian can be possessed by a demon.
Exegetically He argued the the word demonized should be borrowed from the Greek, precisely because it can mean a whole range of varying degrees of demonic influence: Afflicted from without or from within the body of the victim.
As for the AoG position statement, one have better remember the historical context that produced it. During the Healing revival after WW2 there was an abundance of weird teachings about the demonic. W Branham, J Coe, A A Allen, T L Osborn and O Roberts all taught that every sickness was the result of a demon, and that thus every healing in its core was a deliverance from a demonic spirit.
One can also look at the teaching of at least Derek Prince and Don Basham. (I have not studied the rest of the Fort Lauderdale five on this topic.) They tended as well to see demons everywhere, encourage bizarre deliverence practices (puking!), etc.
Thus the question boils down to this: Can a Christian, who is a new creation in Christ and has the Holy Spirit living inside, have a demonic afflicting presence within the body, even though that Spirit does not have total control of the believer? Thus, is it possible for a Christian to be in need of having a demon “cast out” and not merely “cast away”?
Anecdotal evidence would indicate that the answer is yes.
Exegetically there are text that lend some support to the notion, but not one text that is clear cut.
(1) Pre-pentecost salvation is different from post-pentecost salvation.
(2) However, it can very much be argued that the three synoptic evangelists used the stories from Jesus ministry also to instruct their contemporary readers. Thus the “daughter of Abraham” was somebody that those readers (hearers) were supposed to identify themselves with.
(3) There also are no texts that specifically speaks against the idea that a Christian can have a demon “inside” the body. All texts that are being used as proof texts for such an idea are simply too vague.
The first Christians did not believe that evil spirits left the converted in virtue of them being born again and baptised. Separate deliverance prayers were offered before the actual act of baptism, and sometimes also after their baptism. Thus the early church comes down on the side of Wimber.
On the level of systematic theology I would say that it boils down to this question. Can two spiritual entities share the same physical space? Is the Spirit of God spatially seperated from demons in the room-time continuum?
I would say that this is patently absurd once you have given further thougfht to the issue. God is omni-present. Thus there is no place what so ever for a demon to be, where God is not!
God may manifest his presence in such a way as to make demons flee, that is correct. But no matter how abundantly we have such an experience, until Christ returns we will still have our “flesh”. Thus sinfulness can indeed in some ways coexist with the Spirit of the Lord within the same physical boundaries. Thus, saying that “light and darkness do not mix” or using similar thought categories is not an effective argument against the Wimber-position. What is totally incompatible ethically, may still be in proximity spatially.
Thank you so much for your response, Lars! May I post your comment as a guest blog?
Let me get back to you with an expanded text in a few days
Read “Two Hours To Freedom” by Charles Kraft along with many other books by this author. Christians can absolutely have demonic attachments. Experienced it first hand myself a few times. Charles Kraft explains the position of “possession” perfectly in my opinion.
Christians that believe that they cannot have demonic attachments is proof in of itself that they can! A perfect lie from the enemy right?!
To argue that ‘Christians that believe they cannot have demonic attachments is proof in itself that they can’ is a false argument. They could be correct. Or they could be incorrect. Satan’s lies are irrelevant. You should remember that Satan can also speak the truth, eg in his temptations of Jesus. He will do whatever suits him. It should be noted that in most if not all of Jesus’ dealings with the demonic, it was obvious what He was dealing with, due to their often ‘strange’ behaviour, such as living among tombs (their like of death?). Its a question of balance – dont see demons everywhere (as I suspect many like Kraft tend to), but dont overlook them.
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