by Gailyn Van Rheenen
Missionaries and church leaders often stress power because the worldviews of the cultures where they minister are power-focused.
Missionaries and house church leaders often stress power because the worldviews of the cultures where they minister are power-focused. In many contexts the cognitive structures of the worldview are multi-layered. Formal religion (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism) gives perspectives about ultimate meaning and purpose in life; folk religion offers answers to immediate problems; and science furnishes order to “human relationships and control of nature” (Hiebert, Shaw, and Tienou 1999, 74).
Folk religious heritages, which emphasize animism, are based upon manipulation and coercion of spiritual powers. Spiritual beings are propitiated, coerced and placated. Rituals are used to influence impersonal spiritual forces and personal spiritual beings. Shamans reveal to clients the source of powers influencing their lives. Through divination they determine which powers cause misfortune or illness and what other power(s) must be employed to counter such negative power. Modern westerners and those trained by them exclude this realm because it is not concurrent with their worldview (Hiebert 1982).
Many missionaries and church leaders typically respond to folk religious practices by using power methodologies to defeat Satan’s powers. Often Christian ministry is reduced to spiritual warfare: the powers of God defeat the powers of Satan, thus enabling the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Kraft wrote, “Power-oriented people require power proof, not simply reasoning, if they are to be convinced” (2000, 775). God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity by defeating the gods of the land (Exod. 12:12) and the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:16-40) are biblical examples of power encounter. The rhetoric and tone of Christianity’s encounter with other religions is thus confrontational.
Traditional discussions about power, however, have left many unanswered questions: What is the essence of God’s power? Are God’s power and Satan’s power identical? When a pagan practitioner becomes a Christian leader, should his or her perceptions and practice of power change? To what degree and in what ways should missionaries among animists focus on power?
How does God use ministers as mediators of divine power?
This article describes perspectives toward divine power to help missionaries and church leaders answer these questions.
THE NATURE OF DIVINE POWER
God is our sovereign Lord. The Bible says God is all-powerful, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. God is El Shaddai, “God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1), “who created and sustains all things by his power, defeats the principalities and powers by the sacrifice of his son Jesus, and brings all things into subjection to himself” (adapted from Hiebert, Shaw, and Tienou 1999, 374). The kingdom or sovereignty of God is like a “scarlet thread” interwoven “through the biblical testimonies” (Moltmann 1981, 95).
Two central Old Testament metaphors graphically depict divine power. First, God is the Creator who made everything from nothing. From the beginning, God, who created the world, is seen ruling over his creation. Humans must consequently see themselves as “his people, the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3). Second, God is the liberator who brought his covenant people into relationship to him. The Jewish confessional declares God’s mighty acts of deliverance:
We cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. (Deut. 26:7-8)
The Exodus narrative testifies to God’s mighty acts of deliverance. Moses was God’s messenger who declared to both the Israelites and Pharaoh what God was about to do. The mission succeeded by the mighty hand of God, not by any human initiative.
God’s power is manifest in divine relationship. These metaphors demonstrate that God’s power is conveyed in divine relationship. God sees human lostness, listens to his people, feels their pain and compassionately responds. God’s relationship with his creation is seen after Adam and Eve commit the first sin. Rather than merely punishing them, God in his great compassion walked in the Garden searching for Adam and Eve, calling, “Where are you?” The question is not one of location. All-wise God knew where they were. The question denotes a loving God calling fallen humankind back to himself. When humans sin, God does not merely exercise his power to punish. He seeks to re-establish an intimate relationship with his creation. God’s searching reveals his basic qualities: love, holiness and faithfulness.
God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity was covenant deliverance: God redeemed from oppression those with whom he had developed a relationship. God had promised Abraham that he would become a great nation and that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through [him]” (Gen. 12:1-3). When the Israelites in Egypt groaned because of their slavery and cried out to God, he “remembered” this covenant and “was concerned about them” (Exod. 2:23-25). Through ten mighty plagues, Jehovah defeated the gods of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:12) and delivered the Israelites. Moses then acknowledged God’s superiority: “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exod. 15:11).
This mighty God of power then formed a special covenant with the people of Israel: They were to be his “treasured possession” and “kingdom of priests” to all nations (Exod. 19:5-6). The Ten Commandments are predicated upon the covenant deliverance: Because God brought them out of slavery, they were not to have other gods, make for themselves any idol, or misuse the name of the Lord their God (Exod. 20:1-7).
God’s power is demonstrated in weakness. For example, Joseph was sold into Egyptian captivity, unjustly imprisoned and forgotten by those who promised help. Only in retrospect were God’s purposes and power evident. Joseph testified to his brothers that they “intended to harm” him, but “God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Likewise, Paul suffered a “thorn in [his] flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [him]” (2 Cor. 12:7). God allowed this so that Paul would not become overly conceited because of his many revelations (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Paul prayed that the thorn be removed. The answer, however, was not healing but rather grasping that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The ultimate example of strength in weakness is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his response to Satan’s temptations for earthly power, and his sacrificial death for our sins.
God’s power is not always apparent in a world largely controlled by Satan (1 John 5:19). Followers of God ask, “Why do you hide your face?” (Ps. 44:24) or “God my Rock, why have you forgotten me?” (Ps. 42:9). Christians participating in the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 4:13) cry out in anguish, pleading for God to intervene (Rev. 6:9-11). During these times of suffering, however, Christians must stand in faith, acknowledging God’s ultimate sovereignty.
God’s power is toned by love. From a biblical perspective a great difference exists between God’s power and that of Satan. Not only is God’s power greater, its quality is vastly different. Satan’s power is debasing, corrupting those who follow the cravings of their own sinful nature (Eph. 2:3). God’s power, based on his great love, raises believers above these earthly cravings into heavenly realms (Eph. 2:4-6).
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 interweaves God’s power and his great love. Paul prays that the Ephesian Christians, “being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (3:17-18; italics added). This four-dimensional love enables Christians to discern the unknowable: “To know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:19). Clinton Arnold writes, “Christ roots and establishes the believer in his own love and strengthens the believer to follow the pattern of that love” (1989, 100).
Paul’s prayer does not say that Christianity is rooted and grounded in power but rather in love. He succinctly contrasts Christian perspectives of power and love with those of pagan Ephesus:
In magic, many of the recipes and spells were used for the purpose of gaining advantage over people winning a chariot race, attracting a lover, winning at dice, etc. God’s power enables the believer to love after the pattern of Christ. The seemingly impossible demands of this kind of love require divine enablement in order for them to be fulfilled. (Arnold 1989, 100)
The world, which is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), does not easily put together the words “power” and “love.” Only an all-powerful and all-loving God, and those who follow him, can intertwine the two.
APPLICATIONS TO MINISTRY
Humans often misuse God’s power and contort it for their own selfish, egocentric purposes. The Willowbank Report says, “Power in human hands is always dangerous… The recurring theme of Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians is that God’s power, seen in the cross of Christ, operates through human weakness (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5; 2 Cor. 4:7; 12:9, 10). Worldly people worship power; Christians who have it know its perils” (Stott and Coote 1980, 327). The power of God must never be used to glorify human personalities or human institutions. Ultimate power is of God. Its use in defeating Satan must give glory only to God.
Human ego obstructs effective missions. Ministers with vast talent and creativity founder when they rely on their own power. To accomplish his purposes, God generally uses less-talented missionaries who look to him to empower their ministry. These missionaries realize they have the light of the gospel in “jars of clay,” illustrating that the “all-surpassing power is from God and not from [them]” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Four cautions are necessary when relating power and Christian ministry.
1. Many in the Christian world have been taught to look to human personalities as the dispensers of God’s power. Some charismatic preachers, motivated by selfishness, draw followers by projecting themselves as the conduit of God’s power. In the early centuries of the church, however, Christians recognized that the common believer was able to trust in and pray to God to cast out demons (Skarsaune and Engelsviken 2000, 69). The consultation statement from the Lausanne meeting on spiritual warfare, entitled Deliver Us From Evil (DUFE), affirms the need and essence of spiritual warfare but adds this caution:
Engaging the Evil One is not the work of heroic individuals… We were saddened by stories of people, emboldened by self-assured certainty and money, who come from outside, overwhelm local Christians and carry out hit-and-run ministries of spiritual conflict that (1) presume superior knowledge of the local reality, (2) treat local Christians as inferior or unaware, (3) claim credit for things that local Christians have been praying and working toward for years and (4) leave uneven results and sometimes, pain, alienation and even persecution of the local church, while claiming great victory.” (Moreau 2000, xxiii)
Juliet Thomas of India asserts that Westerners come to her country regarding themselves as “experts in spiritual warfare” but “have only recently come in contact with this dimension of the powers of darkness… Their language and approach have often been very offensive to people of other faiths. Their attitude has been arrogant and triumphalistic” (2000, 146-147). She says that intercessors from the West stand in front of temples and mosques praying that God will pull down the strongholds of the gods who are worshipped there. Multilingual Indians hearing these overtly militant prayers feel hostility because they believe that these Christian visitors are desecrating and cursing their holy places (2000, 149).
2. God’s power cannot be reduced to power phrases or coerced by magical formulas, such as “in the name of Jesus,” which connotes relationship with God in Jesus rather than being a mantra of exorcism. The DUFE Consultation concluded:
We call for discernment concerning magical uses of Christian terms and caution practitioners to avoid making spiritual conflict into Christian magic. Any suggestion that a particular technique or method or spiritual ministry ensures success is a magical, sub-Christian understanding of God’s workings. (Moreau 2000, xxiv)
Scott Moreau cautions:
The emphasis on discerning and naming demons before we can have power over them is approaching a form of Christian animism. The idea of needing the names to have power over spirits is found in magical thinking around the world. An Indian friend of mine who has long been involved in spiritual warfare on a personal and corporate level has told me that one of the most difficult problems he faces in sharing the claims of Christ with his Hindu friends has come after they see well-intentioned Christians engaging in what they believe to be simple magical practices. (2000, 266)
3. Animistic power should never be equated with divine power. Such a comparison was made by one presenter at Lausanne’s DUFE consultation. He suggested that when people become Christians only a change of power occurs. Although the forms and practitioners of religion may not necessarily change, the source of power does. Power that was under the dominion of Satan before conversion comes under the sovereignty of God when these people turn to God. Christian activities, such as healing, dedicating and blessing, look much like those of animists except that the power’s source is God rather than Satan (Kraft 2000, 295-297). The reality, however, is that this type of thinking leads to syncretism. Pagan understandings of power continue to exist in Christianity.
Such was the case of Simon of Samaria, a powerful traditional practitioner taught by Philip (Acts 8:9-13). Drawn by the demonstration of power that accompanied Philip’s message, Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). Simon, as new Christian, could not refrain from seeking power and equating God’s power with the power of his animistic heritage. Simon, therefore, approached the apostles about buying the power of the “laying on of the apostles’ hands” (Acts 8:18-19). Although he probably had received apostolic gifts through Peter and John’s laying on of hands (Acts 8:14-17), he now wanted the power to dispense these gifts. Peter was straightforward in teaching this converted practitioner that seeking a relationship with God was more important than being a dispenser of power.
4. These theological perspectives on power should guide the Christian’s understanding of both prayer and spiritual warfare. Prayer should not be viewed as a power tool but as a means of relating to God, the source of all power. The difference is significant. When prayer is viewed as power, certain words or rituals are deemed necessary to access the power; however, prayer, like conversion, is a turning to God, a trusting in him to act. Thus Christians wait for God to work according to his will and timing. Moreau writes:
Prayer is not intended to be a vehicle of violence, but a means of fellowship, growth and strength. One danger of an attitude of “spiritual violence” is that we may become the very thing we are fighting against. (2000, 267)
These understandings also help us comprehend the nature of spiritual warfare. It is not about fighting Satan; he has been defeated by Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and triumphal resurrection. Spiritual warfare, rather, is standing firm in Christ’s mighty power. It is accepting by faith God’s victory through Christ and allowing God’s redemptive power to work through Christ. Using the concepts and wording of Ephesians 6:10-18, I would, therefore, define spiritual warfare as “standing in prayer with God against the principalities and powers to defeat Satan through truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the Word of God” (Van Rheenen 2003).
At times Christian ministers must speak forcefully about animistic practices as did Moses in Deuteronomy 18:9-15, as Jeremiah did in Jeremiah 10:1-11, and as Paul did in Ephesians 6:10-20. More often, however, the Christian message is presented in such a way that God is proclaimed with little direct mention of the powers. Paul does this when he teaches that the fullness of deity is in Christ alone, that Christians should live in the heavenlies far above the principalities and powers and that all Christians must “wait on the Lord.”
As Moreau puts it:
Our goal should be to give Satan and demons a selectively appropriate inattention. Do not let the flaw of the excluded middle become the flaw of the expanded middle; major on God and minor on demons, not the other way around.” (2000, 270)
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Hiebert, Paul G. 1982. “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” Missiology 10 (January): 35-47.
______, R., Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou. 1999. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Kraft, Charles H. 2000. “Contextualization and Spiritual Power.” In Deliver Us From Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission, eds. A. Scott Moreau, Tokunboh Adeyemo, David G. Burnett, Bryant L. Myers and Hwa Yung, 290-308. Monrovia, Calif.: World Vision International.
______. 2000. “Power Encounter.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. A Scott Moreau, 774-775. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Moltmann, Jurgen. 1981. The Trinity and the Kingdom. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Moreau, A. Scott, et al, eds. 2002. Deliver Us from Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission. Monrovia, Calif.: World Vision International.
______. 2002. “Gaining Perspective on Territorial Spirits.” In Deliver Us From Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission, eds. A. Scott Moreau, Tokunboh Adeyemo, David G. Burnett, Bryant L. Myers and Hwa Yung, 258-75. Monrovia, Calif.: World Vision International.
______, ed. 2000. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Skarsaune, Oskar and Tormod Engelsviken. 2000. “Possession and Exorcism in the History of the Church.” In Deliver Us From Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission, eds. A. Scott Moreau, Tokunboh Adeyemo, David G. Burnett, Bryant L. Myers and Hwa Yung, 65-87. Monrovia, Calif.: World Vision International.
Stott, J.R.W., and R. Coote, eds. 1980. Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Thomas, Juliet. 2000. “Issues from the Indian Perspective.” In Deliver Us From Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission, eds. A. Scott Moreau, Tokunboh Adeyemo, David G. Burnett, Bryant L. Myers and Hwa Yung, 146-51. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC: World Vision International.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 2003. “Spiritual Warfare.” Missions Dictionary.
Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, author of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, edits missiology.org and is director of Mission Alive www.missionalive.org
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 32-38. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.