I know the title above must be quite confusing. I have wrestled with how best to title this blog post and cannot do any better. For some time now, I have grappled with how best to express my uneasiness with the way “deliverance” has become the catch phrase in our Christian vocabulary in Africa in the recent past. To me, we have become so terribly lopsided that our faith is in danger of becoming nothing more than African traditional religion under a thin veneer of Christianity.
A few days ago, I think I finally found a way. It was to compare how one of the apostles handled spiritual issues with the popular way in which we are handling them today. I thought one of the most troubled churches—the church in Corinth—would be a good example. Thus I thought of using the apostle Paul because he dealt with the many issues that arose in Corinth.
The title of this post is a slight twist on a book that was written at the beginning of the 20th Century entitled Missionary Methods—St Paul’s or Ours, in which a seasoned missionary (Roland Allen) compared the popular missionary methods of his own day to those of the apostles generally and of the apostle Paul in particular. The book is a classic! You can well understand why I found this title so appropriate for my blog post.
Okay, let us look at 1 Corinthians now. As you know, the church in Corinth had a lot of problems. In this blog post, I want to go through the first few in order to compare how the apostle Paul handled them as a pastor par excellence with the way today’s popular preachers in Africa are handling them via “deliverance”.
Disunity over personalities
The first issue handled in 1 Corinthians is that of disunity in the church due to people aligning themselves to various leaders and preachers within the church (chapter 1 to 4). The method in vogue in Africa today is to say that there has been an evil spirit of disunity unleashed by the devil upon the church. So, the cure is an overnight prayer meeting at which such a spirit would be exorcised.
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He taught the Christians in Corinth that the fight over personalities is totally worldly. In the Christian faith it is God alone who ultimately matters. That is foolishness to the world but it is God’s way. So, any spiritual achievement is because God gave the increase by the power of his Spirit. The only true foundation, therefore, is Jesus Christ, and that yardstick will test every work. So, no more boasting about men: Christ alone is all that matters!
The second major issue handled in 1 Corinthians is that of sexual immorality in the church (chapters 5 and 6). The method in vogue in Africa today is to say that such a person has a spirit of fornication or adultery. He needs deliverance. As I have argued before, such an understanding takes away the responsibility of the sin from the individual and puts it on a powerful force that makes him do wrong.
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He first rebuked the church for allowing moral standards to reach such low levels. He then made it clear that such an individual must be excommunicated at their next meeting. The church must expel wicked people from its midst. He urged members not to take each other to court but rather to deal with interpersonal clashes among Christians within the church itself. He wraps up the matter of sexual immorality by reminding the Christians that their bodies are temples of Christ, who lives in them by his Spirit.
The third major issue handled in 1 Corinthians is that of marriage (chapter 7). There were a number of people who became Christians while they were engaged or were already married to unbelievers. How were they to handle this? Any prolonged engagement or animosity by an unbelieving spouse today would be blamed on spiritual husbands and wives. That is the popular understanding today, as you will have noted from the reactions to my recent blog post.
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He taught believers that being married or being single did not in itself affect one’s relationship with God. So, they did not need to change their marital status. What mattered was that in whichever state Christians were, they are able to obey God’s commands fully and serve him whole-heartedly. After all, Christ is the one who purchased them with his own blood. However, anyone needing to change his status was equally welcome.
Handling a weaker brother
The fourth major issue handled in 1 Corinthians was that of how to handle fellow church members who had religious qualms because of their background (chapter 8). No prize for guessing that the popular analysis of such a situation today is that such people and such items are possessed by the spirits of their ancestors. Such people need to be brought before a “man of God” for deliverance.
How did the apostle Paul handle this? He first called for humility and love among the people of God. He then emphasised the fact that there was only one God, the Father, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ. All others were lies. However, due to people’s backgrounds, it may take some people long to grow out of the view that there are other “gods”. Therefore, those who are more knowledgeable than others should reduce their freedom for the sake of the weak.
Some pertinent over-arching lessons
I could go on and apply the same to the difficulties that arose due to the abuse of the Lord’s Supper, the misuse of spiritual gifts, and the wrong teachings about the Second Coming of Christ. However, I think that these four examples should suffice to show the great chasm between the growing popular approaches of pastors here in Africa to spiritual issues and the approach of the apostle Paul, who is a representative sample of the other first century apostles.
Clearly, what we notice is that the apostle Paul was not seeing demons under every shrub that moved! Rather, he spent time teaching the believers the truth. Thus, if we can imagine him ministering in the church in Corinth, the pulpit would have been a place of rich teaching rather than “an altar” where he was busy laying hands on people until they were writhing on the floor, as if they were in a witchdoctor’s den. It is light from God’s Word that brings spiritual health!
We also notice that all the truth was Christo-centric. When he taught against disunity in the church, he asked the question, “Is Christ divided?” When he taught against immorality, he pointed believers to the fact that their bodies were no longer theirs but Christ’s temple. When dealing with marriage situations, he reminded believers that they were bought with a price—the death of Christ—and their chief concern should be to serve him. And in handling the weaker brother, Paul exhorted those who were stronger to deny themselves what they considered innocent rather than destroy those for whom Christ died. It was all about Christ, arising from rich teaching about the person and work of Christ.
So, whereas I believe that demons and evil spirits exist, I want us to be biblically balanced. Today’s preoccupation with demons, spirits, and deliverance is a loss rather than a gain. Sound Christ-centred teaching is missing in our churches. Instead, our churches are spiritually impoverished primarily because of the gross ignorance among believers concerning the person and work of Christ.
Instead of seeing demons under anything that moves, let us get back to the great Pauline approach of teaching believers about what Christ has done for them. They will then be enabled to see how this applies to the many challenges they face in their marriages, families, churches, work places, etc. This is all I ask for!