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Critical look at a new "key" to evangelization
A new theology of the unseen world is making a huge impact on strategies for world missions and evangelization. Popularised by Frank Peretti's novels, it has been given respectability by a number of books and given a very wide public platform through the AD2000 and Beyond movement. With this new theology has come a new vocabulary that unfolds what it is all about:
Territorial spirits a hierarchy of demons (authorities and powers, etc.) that have been assigned to specific geographical areas. The main proof text is Daniel 10, which refers to the "Prince of Persia" and the "Prince of Greece".
Strategic-level spiritual warfare a certain kind of intercession. According to C. Peter Wagner, ground-level spiritual warfare refers to the casting out of demons from people, occult-level spiritual warfare deals with
"shamans, New Age channelers, occult practitioners, witches and warlocks, Satanist priests, fortune-tellers and the like",
and strategic-level spiritual warfare contends with
"an even more ominous concentration of demonic power: territorial spirits."
Spiritual mapping a new way of saying
"research and spiritual discernment an attempt to see a city or a nation or the world as it really is, not as it appears to be".
It includes discovering where demons are most active and powerful, why they are able to hold onto those powers, and also what their names are.
"Accurate spiritual mapping is based on quality historical research,"
The 10/40 window the spiritually barren nations between the latitudes of 10 and 40 degrees north. However, George Otis goes further and implies spiritual significance to the area as the last shrinking bastion of demonic possession. Noting that the garden of Eden (Iran and Iraq) is at the "geographical bull's eye" of the window, he notes that of the many ideas on the subject of how God might intend to wind down the historical process and bring closure to world evangelization, one of the more interesting is the theory that the armies of the Lord are currently being vectored toward Eden. In fact the only thing necessary for this theory to become reality is for the evangelistic forces currently surrounding the window to continue their inward advance at a more or less uniform pace.
Various other concepts spin off this theology: remitting (or making atonement for) the sins of nations as part of the prayer strategy against demonic influence in a nation; the demonisation of a nation, the assumption that demons take over nations, cultures, religions, and societies as well as people.
This new theology of intercession and missions raises many questions. Because it has become a central plank of the AD2000 and Beyond Movement, it is essential to examine its foundations. There are clearly some positive benefits:
l. The emphasis on prayer and intercession for the nations, and the enthusiasm that has been stirred by the whole movement and its literature.
2. The renewed missions focus on the 10/40 window, which encompasses a high percentage of the least evangelised peoples in the world.
3. Results coming from the prayer emphasis and focus. Even if our theologies of prayer are perhaps not altogether correct, God surely hears and answers sincere and committed intercession.
4. It has harnessed the power of the imagination to assist intercession.
5. It has given a clear and manageable strategy for evangelization and prayer, providing for direction and purpose in approaching cities, areas, and countries.
6. It has excited a high degree of anticipation, expectation, and faith. More heat perhaps than light, but real heat nevertheless. The literature on this teaching is replete with examples of its success, often drawn from Latin America and Africa, as evidence of the truth of its teaching, and it is right to hesitate before criticizing a teaching which appears to work when put to the test. However, the end does not justify the means, and truth, rather than success, is our most valuable asset. If we surrender truth for a pragmatic moment of enthusiasm, which catches the public's imagination, we will have a short-term gain and a long-term setback. This concern leads me to express the following reservations about the movement, its theology, and its literature.
1. It is a new theology, not rooted in historical understanding or scholarship. Wagner expresses surprise that, out of all the books on angelology or demonology in the Fuller Seminary library, he could find only five that
"made any reference at all to territories, and of the five only three discussed the issues a bit, but clearly in a secondary way".
After 2,000 years of theological scholarship, that fact alone should make us question the emphasis that this teaching is now receiving. Wagner does say that he suspects this teaching must have historical roots, but they are as yet unclear. If these amazing things have lain in Scripture for all these years, why has no one seen them?
"Bringing down territorial spirits identified with specific geographical areas is a fairly new concept,"
admits Steven Lawson.
2. There is very little biblical evidence of this world view. Even its advocates admit that there is little biblical teaching on the subject of the territoriality of a demonic hierarchy. Most of the teaching is therefore drawn from the experiences of missionaries and Christian workers and not from the Bible. Wagner admits that his conclusions are sometimes personal guesswork:"Nothing in this verse itself (Eph. 6:12) indicates that one or more of these categories would necessarily fit the description of territorial spirits, but many, including myself, feel it is highly probable." 
David Pawson says:
Though Scriptures are now claimed to support the method, its origins did not lie in the rediscovery of the biblical nature of mission. When examined in the light of Scripture, the evidence is meagre. There are only two verses in the whole Bible that explicitly describe "territorial spirit' (Daniel 10:13, 20). Even then, it is not entirely clear whether the "princes" of Persia and Greece are human or demonic, though most scholars assume the latter. There is certainly no trace of starting missions in any new place by binding the local demonic ruler, no hint that Paul sought to identify and bind the spirits of Athens or Corinth before preaching there. Were this an essential prerequisite for releasing a situation, it would surely have been specifically included in the ascending Lord's missionary mandate. There is no apostolic precedent, either in precept or practice. Neither is there any command for believers to "bind" the devil.
Apart from Daniel 10, some other biblical evidence is offered for the territorial nature of demonic activity: the King of Tyre (Ezek. 28:12), the spirit of Babylon (Rev. 17:3-5), Bel in Babylon (Jer. 51:44), Baal-Zebub of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2, 3), and Apollyon of the underworld (Rev. 9:11). But these are small shreds of evidence on which to build a comprehensive view of a demonic hierarchy.
It is quite widely admitted that
"the examples of territorial spirits in the New Testament are limited".
harlot of Revelation 17
"is the most explicit example I have found of a demonic spirit controlling nations and people".
Given the many other interpretations of the harlot in Revelation 17, that is a clear way of saying that New Testament evidence is extremely thin. It seems very risky to build such a doctrine on so little evidence.
In contrast to the teaching on territorial spirits, the New Testament seems to indicate that demons need people (and on occasion animals) in which to dwell, rather than regions, houses, or territories. In Matthew 12:43-46 the unclean spirit finds no rest as he wanders through waterless places. "Then he says, "I will return to my house from which I came." Just as God in the New Testament makes our bodies his temple, so it appears that demons need a human body for their home on earth.
A major emphasis of the teaching is that it is not only people who are demonised, but
"social structures such as governments or industries".
"Social structures are not, in themselves, demonic, but they can be and often are demonized by some extremely pernicious and dominating demonic personalities, which I call territorial spirits."
No biblical evidence is offered for this belief, and it appears to be one of the areas that actually goes against biblical revelation.
The apostle Paul says some extraordinarily nice things about governments and the ruling powers and our need to be in subjection to them, as they are appointed by God sometimes a difficult teaching perhaps, but not to be ignored, especially as he wrote under the rule of the Roman emperors (Rom. 13: 1-7). Peter says something similar (1 Pet. 2:13-17), and Paul commands us to pray for "kings and all who are in high positions" (1 Tim. 2:2).
3. There is a lot of excellent research and sound biblical truth mixed with spectacular leaps into imagination and fantasy. Wagner and Otis have gone into a lot of detailed research and study and much of what they teach is excellent and useful material. Suddenly they leap, without a warning, into wild and fantastic speculation and exercises of spectacular imagination.
For example: In Engaging the Enemy, after an excellent introduction on principles of spiritual warfare and prayer, Wagner moves without warning away from biblical foundations and into imaginative descriptions of the demonic hierarchy that rules the earth.
"identifies four levels of territorial warfare: (1) Principalities. These are individual demon spirits. (2) Powers. This group includes the captains of teams of spirits (such as Legion in Mark 5:9). (3) Rulers of darkness. This group includes regional spirits. (4) Strongmen. These dominate wickedness in high places and oversee the other levels of demonic activity."
Where did he get that picture of the demonic hierarchy? There is no suggestion that it is founded on imaginative guesswork. In fairness to Wagner, he does admit that this is more guesswork than biblical truth.
"New Testament scholars cannot find a strict hierarchical order in Ephesians 6:12 since the same Greek terms are used with different meanings and interchangeably in other parts of Scripture."
George Otis similarly intersperses good research with dramatic speculation and spectacular leaps of his lively imagination. Much of it makes for great reading, but bears little relation to revealed truth. Here is one example among many:
While Adam and Eve's moral breakdown led to their banishment from Eden, there is no indication in Scripture that the serpent went with them. Instead, there is striking evidence that the serpent of Eden has established a global command and control center atop the oily residue of the garden's once flourishin vegetation and animal life.
Some exegesis of Scripture is very biased to the assumed world view and quite unsound. For example, the interpretation of the "strongman" who is to be bound (Matt. 12:29). This passage is not a call to spiritual warfare with a high-ranking demon. Jesus is answering the criticism that he is casting out demons by the power of "Beelzebul, the prince of demons."
First, Jesus equates Beelzebul with Satan (v. 26) and not with some territorial spirit. Second, he tells a parable about a strong man. (The word is the normal adjective meaning "strong", i.e. a tough guy, a strong person, and not the title of a senior demon.) There is no command to us to "bind." The parable illustrates the need to deal with the enemy in a person's life before the Spirit of God may take up residence. This parable and its vocabulary is grossly overused and its meaning distorted in the current movement.
4. This world view owes more to Frank Peretti than to Scripture. All the books I have read acknowledge their debt to Frank Peretti. Peter Wagner says:
Undoubtedly, the single most influential event that has stimulated interest in strategic-level spiritual warfare among American Christians was the publication of Frank Peretti's two novels, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Many Christians who had scarcely given a thought to the possibility that events shaping human society could have a relationship to struggles among powerful supernatural beings are now openly talking about the likelihood. In fact, even though they know better, many find themselves reading This Present Darkness as a documentary rather than as somewhat fanciful fiction.
Peretti's books project a fantasy-land where good and bad angels fight it out on more or less equal terms, and the really nice people never get hurt. It is great fun, sensational and exciting, but not a faithful reflection of real life nor of the unseen world as the Bible reveals it. The theology of territorial spirits, spiritual mapping, and strategic-level spiritual warfare is also exciting, sensational (especially Otis's more dramatic projections!) and quite spectacular. It carries many of the weaknesses of Peretti's fantasies.
5. The movement opens the door to endless varieties of even wilder excess, exaggeration, and extremism. Once the basic criterion of scriptural truth has been replaced by the extra-biblical basis of personal experience, imagination, and feeling, the sky is the limit as to where this teaching could take excitable people.
Dean Sherman suggests that one reason we need to do spiritual mapping is that Satan has already done his mapping.
"Like any good general, Satan's plans to rule the earth have begun with good maps. Satan knows his battleground."
Sherman's experience bears this out.
It would be better if Scripture agreed.
Wagner says that it is very important and helpful to find out the names of the territorial spirits.
Dick Bernal, one of the pioneers of contemporary strategic-level spiritual warfare, says:
"I cannot be too emphatic. In dealing with the princes and rulers of the heavenlies, they must be identified."
One can imagine the chaos and confusion this is going to cause, and the absurd, if not dangerous, results of excitable and enthusiastic people desperate to identify the "angel of their city" or the demonic "strongmen" that supposedly rule their patch of the earth.
6. The arguments are based on very limited and carefully selected experiences. Wagner admits in Warfare Prayer that he draws most of his illustrations from Argentina. Why? (a) Because he has a lot of experience of Argentina; (b) because an Argentinian evangelist, Carlos Annacondia, has been practicing this method of prayer, based on this kind of world view, with considerable success; and (c) because Argentina is a success story at the present time. What Wagner does not do is (a) give any examples of those who have practiced this world view and method without visible success, and (b) give examples of those who have seen great success, revival, people movements, and church growth with totally different methods and world view.
Further, he fails to give adequate attention to the likely alternative reasons why there is great church growth in Argentina and in other places where through history the church has grown. He also fails to mention why other churches and evangelists are seeing similar response in Argentina without practicing strategic-level spiritual warfare. That is not to decry the methods of Carlos Annacondia, but it is vital to see the whole picture if you are drawing theological conclusions from it.
7. There is no New Testament precedent for prayer warfare against demons, except at a personal level. David Pawson says,
One striking feature of engagement with demons by Jesus and others in the New Testament is that they never took the initiative. They never went looking for them. Only when demons manifested themselves were they confronted and banished and even then not always immediately, as if their interference was a distraction (Acts 16:18).
Referring to the passage in Daniel 10, which is the only place where spiritual beings are referred to in relation to specified territories, Pawson says:
What needs to be noted is that Daniel did not directly engage them, nor was he commanded to do so. They were dealt with by angelic intervention.
Direct confrontation with demons in the New Testament is always at a personal level, when and as they manifest themselves in a person. The Bible does not command us to go looking for demons, demonic activity, or "strongholds". Ephesians 6 tells us to put on the whole armour of God because of the reality and threat of the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. It does not tell us to go looking for that source of evil or to engage them in battle. The exhortation is to be strong, protected, and equipped.
When the apostle Paul came into a heathen city he did not go around "mapping it", looking for the centres of evil, or even praying down the strongholds. He took his spiritual sword and preached the gospel. His weapon against evil was his sword, the Word of God, and an open statement of the truth. Prayer without preaching is not envisaged.
8. The danger of grasping for quick and easy answers to old problems. Everyone involved in evangelism is looking for the "keys" to quick and guaranteed success. When a certain method meets with some success, books inevitably follow that outline the methods. For example, we have had the Don Richardson Peace Child method, the Bangladesh "contextualisation" method, the Korean prayer mountain method, the John Wimber "Signs and Wonders" method, and many more. There is much to be learned from them all, but it is essential to recognize in them all: (a) God is sovereign, and he uses one way to reach people in one place and another way to reach people in another area the Korean model may not work in Taiwan, any more than the Bangladesh method works in the Philippines; (b) there is much to be learned from them all, but the touchstone of usefulness must be biblical truth.
9. This teaching gives an inadequate view of the fall of man, and hence an inadequate emphasis to human responsibility. Otis states,
"Because all human peoples belong to God initially by right of fatherhood, Satan has no automatic control over them. Unless individuals give themselves over to the rulership of Satan willingly, they will remain under the tender influence of the Holy Spirit. Satan's objective, then, is to gain control over the lives of human beings by dominating the systems political, economic and religious that they have created."
The ensuing argument is obvious once satanic control has been broken men will want to listen to the Holy Spirit and will turn to Christ. However, this is not a biblical view of man's evil, stubborn, and rebellious heart. (a) It underrates the results of man's rebellion at the fall and the consequences of being descendants of Adam. (b) It gives inadequate emphasis to the deceitfulness of the human heart, pride, the weakness of the flesh, etc. (c) It delivers man of his responsibility for sin and for refusing to submit to Christ.
The Bible states that "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4). The "god of this world" could indeed be referring to demonic activity. It could equally well be referring to the "cares and riches and pleasure of life" (Luke 8:14) that choke the seed of the word. The apostle did not blame demons for man's blindness, nor attempt to "bind" them or rebuke them. The whole passage is about "the open statement of the truth" and the preaching of "Jesus Christ as Lord". Man carries responsibility for rejecting "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ".
We fall into error when we forget that the enemies of the gospel are not only the devil, but also the world and the flesh, and the call to sinners is to repent and believe. The lust of the flesh, the deceitfulness of the heart, the attractiveness of the world, the power of the old man, the nature of Adam all are allies of the devil, and man is responsible for his condition. It is an error to blame demons for man's stubborn rebellion, and naive to believe that man is just waiting to respond to the truth once the demons have been "bound".
10. It presents a wholly distorted teaching on the biblical nature of prayer. Wagner says:
One of the reasons we need to exercise caution at this point is that we have no biblical examples of the 12 apostles or any other first-century Christian leaders who challenged the devil to a direct power encounter as Jesus did. What happens when Christians today shout, "I bind you, Satan!"? Perhaps not as much as we would hope. Satan will eventually be bound for l,000 years, but it will be an angel who does it, not a human being.
Apart from direct encounters with demons at the moment of exorcism, there is no teaching, example, or exhortation in Scripture to address prayer to the devil or demons. But this is the emphasis of the movement a new way to pray. Walter Wink writes,
This new element in prayer the resistance of the Powers to God's will marks a decisive break with the notion that God is the cause of all that happens. Prayer changes us, but it also changes what is possible for God.
That appears to be an extraordinarily arrogant undermining of God's sovereignty.
A whole range of dramatic vocabulary is being built up around the "warfare prayer" concept, including "casting down strongholds," "binding the strongman", having a "power encounter" with the devil, "evicting the ruler of the city", "taking dominion (or authority) over an area in Jesus' name", "storming the gates of hell", and so on. What all this really means is sometimes hard to discern, except that it all has to do with giving direct attention to the devil and demons, which is something the Bible has not commanded us to do. In fact, it could be quite dangerous.
Prayer in the Scriptures is addressed to the Father, in the Spirit, and in Jesus' name. Christ purchased a complete victory over Satan. He never commanded us to fight the devil on his behalf. Our business is with God, not Satan. We do not need to destroy Satan's kingdom to build God's kingdom here on earth.
11. This teaching gives unhealthy attention to the devil and demonic activity. It underemphasises the finished work of the cross, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit and angels. There is no doubt that the central focus of "strategic-level spiritual warfare", as well as spiritual mapping, and all that proceeds from this teaching, is the demonic. It gives sharp attention to demons and the strategies of the devil, how to find them, name them, engage them, take dominion over them, attack them, bind them, resist them, etc. But this is not the focus of the Scriptures, nor should it be that of the Christian.
What is missing? (a) A clear belief in the sovereignty and the centrality of God is missing, as is also the presence of the risen Christ with "all authority in heaven and on earth". (b) The activity and supremacy of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, in his prayer life, and in evangelism is understated. So also is the ministry of angels (are they supposedly territorially confined also?) (c) The total, finished accomplishment of the cross, central to the New Testament, is relegated to ( i) the means by which prayer is effective in "binding" demons; (ii) the means by which we know that the devil will finally be overcome; and (iii) the means by which we are saved. The cross has infinitely more meaning in the life of the believer than this.
All of this does great discredit to God and glory of the gospel, and gives much credit to man and the importance and power of his prayers.
Colossians 2:15 states: "Christ disarmed (divested himself of, discarded like a garment) the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it (the cross)". Dick Lucas comments on this verse:
There is no call for the believing Christian to make too much of the "strong man" and his armour, since "one stronger than he" has already appeared to overcome him and take away the weapons in which he trusts. Freedom from demonic forces is no second or subsequent work of grace to be sought at the hand of God. It is, simply, the gospel privilege for all.
Satan and his demonic assistants must never be allowed to take centre stage in our theology or our practice. It is Jesus who has "all authority on earth" (Matt. 28:18). He reigns "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come" (Eph. 1:21).
This article first appeared in Evangelical Missions Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 2.
Mike Wakely has been involved in Christian ministry in South Asia for the last 35 years.
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