What is the MB Position on Exorcism? Is this something that we practice or should practice within our churches and ministries?
Thanks, K., for this email. You have asked a question that does not come up often in our church family but is important.
The word “exorcism” (or “deliverance”) is commonly defined as something like this: A ritualized process where a skilled and gifted individual (technically an ‘exorcist’) forcibly commands one or more demonic forces who have taken up ‘residence’ within a person to leave that person. If the process is deemed successful, there would need to be some visible evidence that this has actually happened.
Article 4 of our MB Confession of Faith acknowledges the power of sin and Satan and the universal enslavement of humanity: (Note: several Confession of Faith sentences have been bolded to highlight key points.)
Principalities and Powers
Sin is a power that enslaves humanity. Satan, the adversary, seeks to rule creation and uses sin to corrupt human nature with pride and selfishness. In sin, people turn from God, exchanging the truth about God for a lie, worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. Sin opens individuals and groups to the bondage of demonic principalities and powers. These powers also work through political, economic, social, and even religious systems to turn people away from holiness, justice, and righteousness. Whether in word, deed, thought, or attitude, all humans are under the domination of sin and, on their own, are unable to overcome its power.
To summarize what this means:
There is certainly a reality to spiritual forces that desire to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10).
All humans (and this sentence in the Confession should be understood as “all humans who have NOT been saved/freed by Jesus”) are enslaved to Satan, sin, and death—sometimes willingly and knowingly but most often without even having knowledge of the reality of their situation (cf. John 8:34; Romans 3:9; 6:12-14).
For some humans without Christ, this can grow to the point where they are so overpowered by these spiritual forces of darkness, that it seems like the spiritual forces have taken up “residence” inside that person who seems to have very limited positive influence over their own lives. Most often in the New Testament accounts, the person with an unclean spirit does not even come on their own to Jesus but is brought by others (e.g., Matthew 8:16; Mark 9:17-18).
Article 5 of our MB Confession of Faith describes how the ultimate “exorcism” or “deliverance” from spiritual forces of darkness is done by God in and through the process of conversion and salvation.
Throughout history, God has acted mightily to deliver people from bondage and draw them into a covenant relationship. Through the prophets, God prepared the way of salvation until finally God reconciled the world to Himself by the atoning blood of Jesus. As people place their trust in Christ, they are saved by grace through faith, not of their own doing, but as a gift of God. God forgives them, delivers them from sin’s bondage, makes them new creatures in Christ, empowers them by the Holy Spirit, and seals them for eternal life. When sin and death are finally abolished and the redeemed are gathered in the new heaven and the new earth, God will have completed the plan of salvation.
Though Jesus entered a world ruled by sin, He chose not to submit to its allure and broke its domination. Through His obedient life, His death on the cross, and His glorious resurrection, Christ triumphed over Satan and the powers of sin and death, opening the way for all people to follow. Convicted by the Holy Spirit, people turn from sin, entrust their lives to God, confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and join the family of God. All who receive Christ are born again, and have peace with God, and are called to love one another and live at peace with their neighbour. Those whom God is saving no longer live for themselves, for they have been set free from sin and called to newness of life.
To summarize what this means:
The biggest “defeat,” “deliverance” from, or “exorcism” of the spiritual forces of darkness took place by means of “the cross and resurrection when Jesus drove out the prince of this world (John 12:20-33),” “bound [Satan]…plundered his house (Mark 3:27),” and drove him “from the centre of power (Colossian 2:15; Ephesians 1:20-24)” (BFL 2004 Spiritual Warfare Study Conference Affirmations). This defeat and deliverance becomes a reality in a person’s life when they repent, experience conversion and forgiveness, and welcome the Holy Spirit to take up residence within them (cf. Romans 6:16-23; Galatians 5:24). Jesus’ gospel invitation to freedom from bondage to Satan, sin, and death is what every local church should be proclaiming and offering our world. Every disciple of Jesus then needs to live into the reality of this deliverance by re-orienting one’s life daily to the Holy Spirit through worship, prayer, and so on.
But all of this leaves us with several large questions:
Who exactly are the people described in the Gospels as “demon-possessed” (cf. Matthew 4:24; 8:16,28,33; 9:32) and what is the work of Jesus and the disciples when they “drive out” these demons (cf. Matthew 7:22; 8:16; 9:33; 10:8; 12:27)? The New Testament uses the expressions “demon,” “unclean spirit,” and “evil spirit” interchangeably for spiritual forces who cause significant illness, physical disability, or mental affliction to a person to the point where they have limited if any personal agency to improve their situation. In other cases, the demons give people extraordinary abilities like superhuman strength (Mark 5:3-4) or divination (Acts 16:16). In cases where Jesus encounters people described as “demon-possessed”, we do not see Jesus ever expressing an invitation to the person to come and follow him. When Jesus preaches to crowds, there is an expectation that they can respond but a demon-possessed person seems to lack this level of agency. In these cases, Jesus addresses the demon directly, commands it to leave, and never blames the person for their affliction (For more on this, see Robert Johnston, “Demon Possession and Exorcism in the New Testament,” Journal of Adventist Mission Studies, 2015).
In the Gospels and Acts, driving out the “demon” does not automatically make the person a disciple of Jesus, but it returns the person to the point where they once again have agency to make positive decisions.
If exorcisms happen in the New Testament, should we make room for exorcisms today in our church services and recognize people in our church who have the “gift” of exorcism? We begin with the conviction that disciples of Jesus are not in danger of being “demon-possessed” since they have the Holy Spirit resident within them. Disciples of Jesus are empowered by the Holy Spirit to have agency. The New Testament never describes someone in the church having demons cast out of them, nor does it list this gift in any of the gift lists that show up in the New Testament letters. This is consistent with our conviction that disciples of Jesus experience deliverance and freedom from the bondage to Satan, sin, and death at conversion.
However, it is also clear that at the time of conversion, our freedom from all spiritual forces attacking us is only partial. Even with the Holy Spirit resident in us, our present journey toward complete freedom from Satan, sin, and death is an ongoing one that will only be complete at the point of our death or the return of Jesus. Article 10 recognizes this ongoing spiritual battle: “Disciples are to resist worldly values and systems, the sinful nature, and the devil.” We all will need to take steps to count ourselves dead to sin and not let sin reign in our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 6:11-12). As a result, all of us as disciples of Jesus can undoubtedly benefit from participation in focused and guided steps of prayer, group support/accountability, and proclamation of God’s truth over us that identify, name, and seek freedom from things in our histories that seek to enslave us again (viz., traumatic events, wounds, sinful patterns, thought processes, etc.).
These steps can be both helpful and essential as we face an enemy who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The goal is not to “deliver” believers or “exorcise” satanic or demonic forces as if they “possessed” a disciple of Jesus. Instead, we want to declare that it is the Holy Spirit alone that resides in us and possesses us: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them [every evil spirit], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4, emphasis added). The “one who is in the world” no longer “resides” within disciples of Jesus.
Discipleship is not about seeking ongoing post-conversion “exorcisms” or “deliverances” but about putting on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:11-13) to combat the outside enemy who uses every possible weapon in an attempt to re-enslave us. We do not deny the reality of spiritual forces of darkness and our need to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and fix our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2). A preoccupation with spiritual forces of darkness can encourage people to live in fear rather than in the fruit of the Spirit. Fear itself is a spiritual force that steals, kills, and destroys (cf. 2 Timothy 1:7)—especially in the lives of children. Rather than fear, we want to live into a posture of love, worship, adoration, and praise in the context of our local church community (cf. 1 John 4:18).
We do not live in fear because we know that the final victory is sure: “The Bible is clear that there is a cosmic battle between God and Satan (Eph. 6:12). There is, however, no doubt about its outcome” (Paul Hiebert, “Spiritual Warfare and Worldviews,” Direction [Fall 2000]; 120).
If deliverance or exorcism is not something targeted at disciples of Jesus, should we be offering it as a service to non-Christians? As we have noted above, in a sense we do offer deliverance whenever we invite people to Jesus. Jesus offers freedom from the bondage of Satan, sin, and death to all those who respond to that invitation. The question is whether there are situations where individuals (who are not believers) have such physical, mental, and/or emotional burdens that they have lost all personal agency to even take the step of responding to the invitation. These burdens may be primarily physical and/or psychological and we would want to direct the person toward medical professionals while expressing our willingness to pray with them for healing. This, however, is not specifically deliverance from spiritual forces within them.
But if people come to us (or their friends or family bring them to us), and they or others discern that spiritual forces are at work in them stealing life and flourishing from them, we would be remiss not to be willing to speak truth over them and pray in the name of Jesus to be free from these powers. We have brothers and sisters inside and outside our MB family who are doing exactly this and God is answering these prayers bringing freedom and healing.
However, I would not immediately describe this event as an “exorcism,” nor label anyone in our church family as an “exorcist.” Nor would I rule out that the person should also actively seek medical assistance. Individuals may need to access multiple elements of healing to move them toward a state of agency once again. We are holistic individuals needing holistic healing of body, mind, and spirit.
In every situation we face, we want to listen to the Holy Spirit and respond faithfully out of love to every person who comes our way—wanting them to experience not only freedom from spiritual forces but much more to experience salvation and the fullness of life offered in Jesus.
Thanks again, K., for your challenging question. I hope you will pray for our whole MB family world-wide for wisdom and faithfulness in this area.
– Ken Esau (National Faith & Life Director)