Deliverance and demonization: a biblical understanding

Written by Clive Burnard.

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Postmodern British people are leaving the Church in droves; and yet they are not turning their backs on ‘spirituality’. In many cases they have thrown off the assumptions of rationalism, and there is a rapidly expanding interest in occultism and neo-paganism. With this increasing fascination for the occult in its many guises, there are likely to be many who come under demonic influence through activities as apparently harmless as attending a séance or ‘channelling’ an angel.

Consequently an increasing number seek the churches’ help in the aftermath of damaging curiosity; and we must be equipped and prepared to bring the healing and restoration of Christ where vulnerable human beings have been wounded and frightened.  

But when we are confronted with an otherwise apparently sane individual behaving in a way reminiscent of demoniacs described in the pages of the gospels, and we know we are inexperienced in this area, what are we to do?


There is no shortage of sincere but sensationalist literature around which, at first sight, may seem to be plausibly harmonious with the wonderfully liberating ministry of Jesus and the early disciples (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 11:14; 10:17; Acts 8:4-8). However, the pastoral counselling of people with such problems needs a sensitive and careful approach if we are to avoid inflicting worse problems upon a highly vulnerable person.  Nevertheless, the right response to misuse of a God-given ministry is not disuse but correct use. As Roy Clements has said, 'As New Age ideas permeate Western culture, the spirit-world is being accorded a far greater degree of plausibility. A window of opportunity is thus being provided for Christians to demonstrate a biblical balance and confidence in handling demonic aspects of human experience.'

Here indeed is a challenge to respond to!


Facing the challenge  

Having read Scripture with Martin (not his real name), I was unprepared for what took place as I began to pray for this man in his thirties.

I had felt that words of encouragement and advice would be sufficient for him to be lifted out of the feelings of discouragement and depression which had beset him.  But my prayer to ask God to encourage Martin with his ‘still small voice’ met with a striking reaction. Martin, an ex-spiritualist ‘medium’ and ‘healer’ before his conversion, discipleship and baptism, fell backwards against a wall. His left arm began to thrash around, apparently involuntarily. He then slid to the floor with a bump and made no visible effort to break his fall. Once on the floor, his whole body became rigid to such an extent that his back and legs were arching and lifting off the floor.

Not a little shocked by what had taken place in less than a minute, I prayed for God’s peace to fill Martin. As I prayed in Jesus’ name, his arms locked straight in a rigid position by his side, causing so much pain and discomfort that, for the first time since beginning to pray, he cried out: asking me to do something as he felt his arms would break. I could not release the intense pressure personally but ‘instinctively’ sensed the need to pray for him to be released in the authority of Jesus. This brought an immediate freedom, but new, intense pain in Martin’s stomach. As I had just laid hands upon his arms to pray, I now placed my hands upon his upper abdomen. The pain transferred to his chest and, as I moved my hands there, continuing to pray, the pain was experienced in his throat; and, finally, around his jaw. As I continued to pray, a dramatic expulsion of air seemed to bring with it a complete and final release of all the agonising tension Martin had been experiencing in various parts of his body. It certainly seemed that some unseen entity had left him in peace as it had been commanded to do so, whilst putting up some apparently real and very uncomfortable resistance.  I was aware during this time of a subjective but very real sense that Martin had, as a spiritualist healer, placed his own hands upon those he ‘prayed’ with in a way similar to the position his arms had been in when the earlier painful phenomena took place. This was later confirmed by Martin who had believed, according to his parents’ lifelong teaching and that of his spiritualist group, that he was able to ‘channel’ spirits which could bring healing to others through him.

The process of pastoral follow-up with Martin needed to be thorough, and necessitated him developing a biblical worldview to account for what lay behind what had taken place that morning. After repentance and renunciation of his involvement with these occult practices, there were further, unexpected and unsolicited ‘deliverances’, not involving me. This proved an unsettling and painful time for myself as both Martin and his wife, members of the church where I am minister, received lengthy input from other respected sources, which implied that all that had taken place was inappropriate. This inspired deep theological reflection and much soul-searching on my part, and led to a great deal of further study. Meanwhile Martin and his wife, through ongoing dialogue and teaching, remained active and vital members of the church, and are now part of the leadership of a burgeoning church plant. At the time of writing, Martin is studying for a degree in theology.

And then there was Jane.  An experienced Christian counsellor had spent much time helping Jane (name changed) to come to terms with traumatic and damaging experiences from her childhood and youth. Having reached an impasse, and upon encountering strange reactions to prayer, the counsellor requested further assistance form the college tutors where Jane was training for full-time Christian ministry and who were responsible for recommending her ministry. Together they concluded that a fully integrated approach to her continued healing would necessitate some kind of deliverance ministry, and they approached me for help.

In the light of some of the painful experiences described above, which were still being worked through, there was reluctance on my part to make myself vulnerable again. There were also concerns within my own mind about the appropriateness or even safety of such ministry as was felt to be necessary by the college and the counsellor. However, given that this young mother needed sensitive and compassionate help in an area that my relatively meagre experience apparently ‘qualified’ me for, I agreed to assist, praying that the confidence placed in me was not misguided. The counsellor had worked in harmony with medical agencies to help Jane, and ongoing pastoral care, support and prayer were in place.

So with the prior agreement of Jane and her husband, I joined her counsellor and tutor during a time of prayer. My intentions were very clearly to listen, observe and pray, unless it became evident that God wanted something more of me in this situation. It became apparent fairly quickly that the latter option was to be the way forward. Gentle discussion with Jane revealed how far they had come together in bringing the peace of God into very disturbed areas of her life and experience. At an appropriate moment, there was prayer for more of God’s healing in areas where unresolved conflicts still robbed Jane of peace of mind and a real sense of wholeness. As Jane’s counsellor led in prayer, unusual phenomena, which had been experienced on a previous occasion, were repeated. A detached vacancy of demeanour was very evident, as if Jane were not even with us. She was closed off so completely that she could not acknowledge any input in terms of questions asked of her or words of comfort and support offered. It was as if she was emotionally ‘frozen’, generally numb, beyond human contact in some way.

Then as I offered a simple prayer for freedom, much stranger things transpired. Jane was thrown from her chair to the ground and rolled rapidly around the floor, bumping into objects such as pot plants, which were knocked to the floor. After regaining composure, further prayers were offered in as non-emotive a way as possible, with the remarkable consequence that Jane entered into a completely unblinking ‘trance-like’ state. This response appeared to be a deeper degree of the earlier detachment phenomenon. As further prayer was offered in the name of Jesus, violent reactions (such as rapid rolling away from the person praying, and kicking out) were exhibited. Further authoritative prayer, including scriptural references to the victory of Christ at the cross and his capacity to set people free, brought clear signs of at least partial release and a return to a more peaceful state.

After careful encouragement, affirmation and pastoral follow-up with Jane and her husband, it was agreed that a further time should be arranged to see how things might have improved for Jane following what had taken place. This appointment resulted in Jane, at the outset, handing over scalpel blades, which she had been secretly using to damage herself. Further discussion was now much easier and more fruitful, in terms of Jane’s willingness to disclose issues she had deeply buried and refused to address with her doctor or counsellor. Similar unusual reactions to prayer were encountered on this occasion but with much reduced intensity. There were, at one point, clear signs of what can only be described as a great ‘release’ for Jane. She reported feeling very different about herself, her life and the future; and particularly about the effects and consequences of her very painful past. Further counselling brought ongoing stability, though some medication to alleviate depression was still required. She completed her studies, as did her husband; she is now an active mother who has undertaken further training in counselling, which is equipping her to become accredited for this ministry. Jane is also an active and vital member of the pastoral ministry team of a thriving local church.


Agents of oppression  

'There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive interest in them.' This oft-cited observation of C.S.Lewis usefully depicts the unhelpful extremes of viewpoint held within the Western church. But in an increasingly occult-ridden society, Christian leaders in this land will need to be equipped to care for the demonically afflicted in both an evangelistic and pastoral context. It is arguable that much damage to the Church in the West has already occurred through our misinterpretation and ignorance.

There should be no doubting the existence of these dark forces, ‘evil spirits’ and ‘spiritual forces of evil’ in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:10-20 and Luke 8:1-2; Mark 16:9, 15ff). Unbelief regarding the reality of demonic affliction would be met with surprise in much of the church throughout the rest of the world.  We have no scientific evidence whatsoever to deny that demons exist, nor that they have always oppressed and attacked human beings in various ways and will continue to do so until Christ returns to this earth and brings about their final demise. The new testament makes clear that, however chaotic, unstructured or disorganised they might be, there are ‘powers and principalities’ arranged within a kingdom of darkness (Eph 6:12), which attempt to oppose and diminish the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ in this world. Jesus describes these fallen powers as ‘the devil and all his angels’ (Matt 25:41). Demons are fallen angels who, with Satan, were thrown out of heaven (Rev 12:4, 7-9).

The Great Deliverer was of course Jesus himself (1 John 3:8b, Luke 4:18-21 and Mark 9:14-32)! In giving the disciples what we have come to call the `Great Commission’, Jesus told them that he had been given ‘All authority in heaven and on earth’ (Mt 28:18). John the apostle tells us that ‘The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1 Jn 3:8b). Jesus saw his messianic ministry as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Lk 4:18-21): he was the one who came not only to preach good news to the poor, but was also ‘anointed’ to ‘proclaim freedom to the prisoners’ and to ‘release the oppressed’. This freedom and release was not only for all who are bound by sin but also for those who are bound by Satan.

Thus in Mark’s gospel we see Jesus depicted as the great deliverer who sets a man free in a synagogue in Capernaum (1:21-28), and releases another from a most terrible example of demonic affliction in the region of the Gerasenes (5:1-20). He releases Mary Magdalene from seven demons (16:9), drives out many demons whilst preaching throughout Galilee, and then commissions the 12 to preach the gospel of the Kingdom whilst healing people who were sick and delivering demonized people (6:7-13 and 16:15ff). Clearly faith is very important here, and human as well as spiritual opposition accompanies such ministry: when Jesus ministered in his home town of Nazareth, ‘he was amazed’ at the people’s ‘lack of faith’ (6:6); and ‘He could not do any miracles there except lay hands on a few sick people and heal them’ (6:5). The Lord rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith in this area of ministry, when they failed to heal a boy who was troubled by an evil spirit (9:19). Jesus responded to the boy’s pleading father, who had asked if Jesus could set his son free, by saying, ‘everything is possible for him who believes’ (9:23). The father exclaimed that he did believe; but, he humbly requested help to overcome his unbelief (9:24). If we believe then we can be delivered - and our faith for helping others is vital too. But the point is that faith must have a focus; and the focus of our faith must be Jesus Christ, the great deliverer.

In setting this boy in particular free, and in answering the disciples’ questions afterwards, Jesus revealed that:

  • faith is vital in such ministry (19)
  • clear signs of demonic activity, including various manifestations, may sometimes be present when a person is demonised (17-18, 20, 26)
  • the spirit was a ‘deaf and mute spirit’ (25)
  • that particular 'kind can only come out by prayer' (and fasting, according to some manuscripts, 29). It seems that this is an ongoing spiritual lifestyle issue, in terms of being prepared and close to God.    
  • demons can attempt to kill people thus seeking to destroy someone made in God’s image (22)
  • Jesus was and is ‘The Great Deliverer’! 
  • A further and vital point here is that discernment must be accurate.  Jesus healed another deaf and mute individual with similar presenting problems, but he did not cast any spirits out of that person (Mk 7:31-37).

As we declare Jesus to be the great deliverer, we must also remember that the greatest deliverance is our salvation (Gal 3:6-14, Col 2:9-15, Matt 12:43-45). Through believing in him we can be delivered from sin and the consequent separation from God our heavenly Father that sin causes; and we can be set free from death - the wages and consequence of sin - and from the kingdom of darkness, that we might enter the Kingdom of God. For those who believe the blessing comes ‘through Christ Jesus, so that by faithwe might receive the promise of the Spirit’ (Gal 3:14); if you believe you can be delivered! Until faith in Christ and repentance comes, we are ‘dead in our transgressions and sins’ and, if we are not following Jesus, we are described in Scripture as following ‘the ways of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Eph 2:1-3). But when we ‘were dead in our sins’ Jesus set us free and released us even as he decisively defeated the ‘powers and authorities’ and ‘made a public spectacle of them triumphing over them by the cross’ (Col 2:13-15). Jesus taught that when an evil spirit is driven out it will seek to return to its ‘home’ unless that house is occupied, taking other spirits with it. Thus ‘the final condition of (a) man is worse than the first’ (Mt 12:43-45). Setting captives free without introducing them to their saviour and deliverer is, ultimately, to let them down. We must encourage those who are set free to surrender the ‘house’ of their lives fully to the Great Deliverer, so that he might fill them with his Holy Spirit.

For full freedom, then, people need a ‘truth encounter’ as well as a ‘power encounter’ (John 8:31-36, Gal 5:1; 4:8-9; 3:1-5, Rom 12:1-3). If they are to be truly set free and to stay free, they must hear, understand and continue to respond to the truth of God’s Word! When they come to believe they can indeed be delivered: from the presence of evil spirits, yes, but also from the polluting and corrupting influences of sin and wrong thinking. ‘Footholds’ given to the devil (Eph 4:27) can be turned into ‘strongholds’ of Satan (2 Cor 10:4); and so people who were enslaved to the ‘basic principles’ (or ‘elemental spirits’ – see Gal 4:8-9; 5:1) of this world need to be set free and to continue to walk in that freedom that Christ brings.

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6) and he said to the Jews who had believed in him that ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:31-32). He added that those who by faith in Christ are sons of God, will not be enslaved to sin because ‘if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed’ (Jn 8:34-36). The apostle Paul said that we should ‘offer our bodies as living sacrifices’ and not ‘conform any longer to the pattern of this world but betransformed by the renewing of (our) minds’ (Rom 12:1-2). This transformation comes through an ongoing ‘truth encounter’ with God’s written Word and through the transforming power of God’s ‘Living Word’, Jesus Christ (Jn 1:1-3).

However, any devaluing of the conversion process, through preaching an inadequate gospel or failing to stress the need for fully abandoning the old life, might result in residual demonic strongholds remaining undetected or unchallenged. It is my opinion that this is often exactly what transpires. That could certainly account for Martin and Jane’s ongoing problems, most clearly in Martin’s case. His lifelong involvement with the occult, through mediumistic trances, channelling of spirits and seances, was not initially renounced or formally repented of, even as part of his baptism, which was carried out on the very night he professed faith in Christ. (A key question for us might well be, does our integration and acceptance of newcomers to the Church adequately liberate them from a pagan past, and prepare them for a future of true Christian discipleship and spiritual growth? Serious questions need to be asked about how, as far as is humanly possible, we ensure that an individual is truly the possession of Christ.  Nigel Wright notes that 'ancient and some modern baptismal practices make place for clear and deliberate renunciation of the devil and all his works as part of the baptismal experience. Perhaps we need to return to this and to see the power of baptism in a new light.') I believe that this failure, in part, resulted in Martin’s needing to have subsequent deliverance ministry, involving repentance and renunciation, in order to free him from the influence of the evil spirits which he had previously invited into his life.

The apostle Paul makes it clear that some believers who were slipping in this process were in danger of 'turning back to those weak and miserable principles' (‘elemental spirits’) and becoming ‘enslaved by them all over again’ (Gal 4:9).  He reminded the same Galatian Christians that it was for ‘freedom that Christ (had) set (them) free’ and urged them to ‘stand firm and not let (themselves) be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Gal 5:1).  A Western mindset, at times, even sadly amongst the Church, makes no allowance for the reality of our battles being ‘not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Eph 6:12).

At the same time ‘footholds of fear’, which are turned through ignorance into ‘strongholds of fear’, can themselves require deliverance, but more through a ‘truth encounter’ than deliverance ministry, which involves a ‘power encounter’. For instance, the fear of having been ‘cursed’ has been scientifically demonstrated to have the potential to result in very real damage and sickness.


Ministry to the oppressed: setting the captives free

(Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-9, 17-21, Acts 10: 38, 19:11-20)

Oppressed people need to be set free, and belief in Christ can bring about that freedom and deliverance. I am not using the word 'possessed' here: this word never appears in passages of Scripture where Jesus and the Apostles are casting out demons. Despite the common rendering "demon possessed", there is never a Greek word which stands behind it. What is behind these unhelpful translations is the single Greek word daimonizomai. The original text has an absence of words such as huparcho, echo, katecho, ktaomai or peripoieo, which all speak of possession or ownership in new testament Greek. The pervasive influence of the King James Version of the Scriptures ensured that its own 'mistranslation' was utilised in most other modern versions, hence a more accurate and meaningful use of the English word 'demonised' was neglected.  

The technical expression then is to "have a demon" (daimonion echo) or to "be demonised" (daimonizomai). Nigel Wright confirms the current thinking of many practitioners that 'to refer to “demonisation”… is more biblically accurate and more suitable pastorally in that it indicates the imprecise nature of much demonic interference.' Demonisation describes the process whereby an individual has come under an influence of one or more evil spirits (demons), which goes beyond temptation, persecution, deception, and external physical attack. Thus a 'demonised' person needs to be 'delivered' from the effects of these dark forces through some kind of 'deliverance ministry'.


Alternative possibilities and resources

It must be acknowledged that modern medical and psychiatric insights may be seen to suggest that biblical deliverances could be explained in terms of mental health problems. Schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, dissociative hysteria, catatonic hysteria, depressive psychosis, organic psychosis or epilepsy have been suggested as alternative explanations and a way of demythologising the gospel accounts. Psychiatrists even use diagnostic terms such as Trance Disorder, Possession Disorder and Possession Syndrome. These do involve a temporary loss of both the sense of personal identity and awareness of surroundings.  Deliverance,edited by Michael Perry, includes a whole additional chapter on this issue and warns that 'no Christian should attempt to cast out a demon from a person unless he has good reason to believe that he is not confronted by a case of projection and possession syndrome'. 'Dissociative disorders', which are a consequence of unresolved or insoluble problems causing massive amounts of stress and trauma (often in early childhood), can readily result in a misdiagnosis of demonic oppression, as they can carry symptoms of bizarre or symbolic acting out. Sufferers often complain of being tormented by the mental images or insistent voices of demons, as well as feelings of guilt or being punished by God. These types of phenomena make diagnosis very complex indeed, and the appropriate treatment is usually prescribed medication (to control the false perceptions brought about by altered mental states) and psychiatric care, plus, perhaps, what Christian counsellors have called 'healing of the memories' or 'inner healing'.  However, such conditions are only so classified where it is strictly observed that these states are not self-induced but rather genuinely involuntary. But these explanations seem to provide inadequate descriptions of what took place with Martin and Jane; it seems unreasonable to deduce that they experienced some self-induced Possession State.

It is also evident that some people seeking deliverance may be consciously or sub-consciously avoiding personal responsibility. If anti-supernaturalist interpretations of human behaviour are too ready to blame upbringing and environmental and societal factors, rather than personal sin and the influence of evil forces; then hyper-supernaturalists are in real danger of attributing too much responsibility to demonic activity. The outcome can be the same, whereby an individual’s behaviour is projected either on to demons or society thus denying personal responsibility and accountability. Montague Barker, a consultant psychiatrist and practising Christian, illustrates the former position, having reviewed twenty young patients who claimed to be possessed (a number of whom had had the idea suggested to them): 'The attraction of the occult and possession as an explanation of individual difficulties would appear to be that in this way the search for solutions can be given up and responsibility handed over to the demons and the exorcist. All further conflict and distress can then be looked upon as the fault of the demon.'

A particularly disconcerting and challenging alternative explanation is that past or recent experience, teaching, and projected expectations might in themselves have elicited aberrant behaviour. At its worst this could come about as a consequence of a person or group of people projecting ideas onto an individual who becomes a ‘scapegoat’, believing himself to be evil and feeling 'possessed' as a consequence of experiencing the projections of others. This is a particularly sad and dangerous side effect of excessive interest and focus on the demonic by some individuals, groups or churches. Clearly, any attempt at deliverance in such a case would merely enforce the delusion rather than gently exposing the influence of the projections. Instead, some overzealous deliverance practitioners point to strange 'manifestations' as a confirmation of their decision to minister. They should be aware of the power of projection and fear to so shape mental processes that dramatic behavioural manifestations are an almost inevitable consequence. Shaking, trembling, fainting, vomiting, convulsions, tensions, muscle cramps or rigidity, shrieking or screaming, pallor (and consequent bodily temperature changes), are all as likely to result from a dramatic fear response as they are from the effects of an inhabiting evil spirit resisting expulsion. Powlison suggests three possible explanations for the sort of dramatic ‘manifestations’ which accompanied Martin and Jane’s response to prayer: firstly, highly charged expectations; secondly, satanic co-operation with erroneous practice to promote confirming ‘special effects’; and thirdly, an invocation of demonic activity by creating 'hypnotic effects in troubled and suggestible counselees.'

This latter consideration raises a crucial challenge regarding the possibility of sincere but misguided and dangerous practice. Sadly, medical literature contains ample evidence of patients whose conditions were made worse not better by unhelpful exorcism rituals. The mere suggestion of `demonic possession’ or ‘demonization’ could easily produce extreme added anxiety, thus exacerbating an existing condition. A recent Health Education Authority report is a landmark document in affirming the value and role of Judeo-Christian healing, but it clearly warns of the dangers as well as the potential helpfulness of deliverance ministry: `An emphasis on demons and demon possession can be very damaging to people who are vulnerable... At the same time, some hold that a deliverance ministry is an important part of their belief in prayer and some people have found exorcism and similar approaches helpful` (Promoting Mental Health: The Role of Faith Communities, p.14).

Clearly, as Shuster writes, if we attempt deliverance we should not 'assume that the worst that can happen is nothing. On the contrary, serious psychological damage can be done by ill-advised exorcisms.'  Some parachurch groups have set up centres for healing and deliverance with very little accountability to anyone outside their own sphere of influence, which gives cause for concern. ‘Clients’ or those in ‘training’ may often attend and receive ministry with little or no reference to the home church of the individuals concerned. This allows for very little meaningful continuity of the pastoral care which could ensure support, discipleship and teaching needed to undergird any deliverance. In responding to ‘horror stories’ and sensationalist media reports, justified or unjustified, improvements have been put in place by some of these agencies; there is still a danger, however, of relatively inexperienced individuals, sometimes even as part of their own ‘hands on’ training, being released to ‘minister’ to very vulnerable and impressionable people.  Sadly, some people may be suffering mental health problems, who have not been helped at all by those well-intentioned believers who rashly attempted to release them from the influence of imagined or 'misdiagnosed' demonic influence.

Nevertheless, the equally disturbing possibility remains that potentially large numbers of individuals are experiencing ongoing mental health problems, where deliverance ministry could bring a cure. Physical suffering also, according to New Testament teaching, can be caused by demonic affliction (Lk 13:10-17); Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons (Mk 1:32-34; Lk 6:17-19) instructing and commissioning disciples to do the same (Matt 17:14-21; Lk 9:1-2; 10:1-20; Mk 3:13-15). Deliverance ministry, then, does have a role in healing physical and psychological sickness, and we should expect to see those trained and experienced in deliverance ministry working in close, holistic partnership with others with medical, psychiatric and counselling skills.

Hearing of these issues may be enough to paralyse us with fear of acting in case the outcome is just one more 'casualty'. This author experienced just such a temptation after receiving the personal pressures outlined at the outset of this feature. As time went on both Martin and Jane required a sensitive pastoral framework and ongoing pastoral care and discipleship; they also required, before and after deliverance ministry, wise counselling and support from the church and medical practitioners. But in the situations I described above, my own sense of inadequacy and inexperience could not stand in the way of dealing with a very pressing and immediate need. Ideally, however, those who require deliverance ministry need to receive experienced help in a context of holistic ongoing support, which must include encouragement to individuals to take personal responsibility for their lives and to live in close fellowship with Christ and his people. This is why deliverance ministry is best set in the context of the local church.

What is clear is that we must be sure to utilise the best help available from medical and psychological practitioners. So for example the 'Panel for Deliverance' of the Church of England's Winchester Diocese involves eight people, including a psychiatrist and a family GP, and  exorcisms may only take place after the vicar involved has consulted with a member of the panel together with a psychiatrist and GP. This framework ensures accountability, with maximum caution applied to diagnosing the need for deliverance ministry. It is to be welcomed in emphasising a holistic healing ministry as part of normal, ongoing, sound pastoral practice within the life of the local church. Churches from other denominations might do well to consider developing regional teams of this kind.

Christians have been promised that the Holy Spirit will equip the Body of Christ with divine insight, wisdom and revelation regarding exactly what sort of 'spirits' may be at work in different situations. God gives spiritual 'intuition' to some people or in some circumstances, in order that they might understand how to minister. Nevertheless, there is a 'need for corporate discernment in this ministry', and even experienced practitioners should recognise their individual fallibility. As Hart writes, diagnosis 'is usually a matter of eliminating the obvious causes of the problem first .…by ensuring that other professionals also examine the person to be certain that no obvious cause of the problem is being overlooked. If all natural explanations are exhausted and several of the symptoms [see below] are present, then the pastor may wish to proceed with such a diagnosis [of demonic involvement].'



In general, then, deliverance ministry should not be considered until accurate diagnosis has taken place, as far as is possible; and this should be done using a team with these different abilities wherever practical. What then are possible signs of demonization that we may consider within such a partnership?

The following may be possible signs of conditions ranging from mild to severe demonization. Not all may be present. The greater the number of symptoms evident, the more convincing the diagnosis will be.

  • Personality changes, including in intelligence, moral character, demeanour, appearance.      
  • Physical changes: preternatural strength (see Acts 19:16 and Mark 5:1-5), epileptic convulsions or foaming (where no biomedical cause is evident, see Mark 9:17-29); catatonic symptoms, falling; clouding of consciousness, anaesthesia to pain; compulsions and addictions; experiencing the grip of unspecific fear; changed countenance and/or voice; mocking laughter; violent struggles; bodily odours, marked temperature changes (for the individual or in the counselling room); and objection to or obstruction of the Word of God.    
  • Mental/psychological changes: bizarre behaviour; unknown tongues as a spiritual counterfeit (where this has not been received from God in a Christian context, and has brought blessing previously); understanding of unknown languages; preternatural knowledge; psychic and occult powers (eg clairvoyance, telepathy, prediction – counterfeiting spiritual gifts of revelation)
  • Spiritual changes: reaction to and fear of Jesus Christ (see Mark 1:23-25); blasphemous utterances (sometimes with regret as in depression); unusual reactions to prayer

Other factors we can consider include:

  • Evidences from case history/family history, including chronic sickness; disturbed family history; evidence of ‘curses’ being placed on the individual
  • Past/present involvement with the occult and witchcraft: including possession of occultic paraphernalia.      
  • Paranormal phenomena associated with the individual's presence: poltergeist phenomena; fear-reactions of others, etc.    
  • The individual's own awareness of demonic activity: sense of oppression, hearing voices, terrible dreams, unbreakable compulsions and/or fears. (NB caution must be exercised here not to fail to recognise a psychiatric condition.)  
  • Reaction to the name of Jesus, to communion, to the Bible, to preaching, to prayer, to entering a church building or sanctuary, or to the presence of a Christian leader or other disciple.  
  • Use of the gift of discerning spirits (1 Cor 12:10).

Both Martin and Jane exhibited a number of the symptoms above. I also experienced a strong inner conviction, which was shared by those others present, that deliverance was necessary. In each case, there was a sense of being led by the Holy Spirit of God. I am of the opinion that this 'leading' by Jesus himself is essential for effective deliverance ministry.


Setting the captives free

Advance preparation and pastoral follow-up are as vital as the content and context of the ministry itself. There must be an insistence upon thorough preparation of those ministering, and the person receiving deliverance. Teams should operate with additional prayer support, and under clear guidelines including an insistence on gender-appropriate ministry. One other vital consideration to ensure effectiveness and to safeguard all involved is that anyone who practises this ministry should do so under the proper authority established in their church.

Those ministering should have spent time in prayer (and, some would add, fasting), confession (repentance), and Bible reading; particularly using Scriptures which affirm Christ's victory over the powers of darkness, and stress the protection and authority of believers. This should also be the case for any Christians who are receiving ministry. Non-Christians should be sensitively given every opportunity to accept Christ as Saviour and Lord. Whatever their spiritual standing, a case study should be prepared with detailed notes being taken to aid those ministering in understanding how to pray. Adequate pastoral care backup and support should, ideally and wherever possible, be put in place in advance of any ministry, with the full prior agreement of the demonized person; and an experienced team (not too large; and not necessarily the same people as those from the diagnostic team) should carry out the ministry (bearing in mind gender issues).

The person being helped should have their confidence, in God and the team, built up in advance of the meeting; and this should take place somewhere where confidentiality and lack of distractions or disturbances is assured. Many would regard a church sanctuary as ideal. Emotive language and high-volume, confrontational prayers or commands are neither helpful nor necessary. Time parameters should be broadly agreed in advance of the ministry session, and breaks should be taken to avoid fatigue for all concerned. There is no reason for overlong sessions of ministry.

No set pattern for deliverance exists, and indeed a prescriptive 'methodology' could result in practitioners learning from and leaning on techniques, rather than on the One who is the deliverer. But the following aspects (based on Russ Parker’s book The Occult) may provide a helpful framework for effective ministry.

Recognition – diagnosis and discernment of demonic activity in an individual’s life, bearing in mind a number of possible factors as discussed above

Repentance of unconfessed sin, accompanied by a clear desire to turn to Christ and to receive his forgiveness; decisive turning away from sinful, rebellious patterns and practices.

Regeneration or rededication – Declaring Christ to be Lord for the first time or through returning to him as Lord: conversion, salvation, recommitment

Renunciation by the sufferer of any and all involvement in sinful, evil or occult practices, thus denying demonic forces any further hold over their lives; decisive turning away from the occult, etc.

Release – through authoritative prayer to bind the power of demonic forces and to drive them out in the Name of Jesus

Renewal – full after-care and support and building up in discipleship. Deliverance should be an ongoing process, with continued growth in grace and as part of a holistic approach to Christ-centred healing.

At each and every stage FAITH is vitally important in the Great Deliverer, Jesus. If you believe, you, and others, can be delivered!

If deliverance has been effective there will be clear evidence establishing this in the coming days, if not immediately. Dickason summarizes helpfully what the Scriptures indicate might be expected: demonic reactions during the deliverance session followed by clear cessation of the same or an obvious departure of spiritual entities (Matt 8:32; Mk 1:24-6; Lk 4:35; Mk 9:25-6; Acts 8:7); physical cures effected (Matt 9:32-3; 12:22; Lk 13:10-13); a loss of psychic or occult powers (Acts 16:16-18); the restoration of normal bodily/mental faculties and functions (Mk 9:17-29; Lk 13:11-17; 9:38-42); the restoration of social integration and acceptance (Lk 8:35); the healthy redirection of and new sense of purpose in life (Lk 13:13; Mk 5:18-20). Other accompanying benefits should include freedom for spiritual growth, with an increased sense of love, joy and peace, and a new dimension of faith, gratitude to God and deeper reverence and worship of Christ; greater ease in decision making; healthier self-worth; reduction or absence of previously experienced depression and/or self-destructive thought patterns. Both Martin and Jane enjoyed a number of these 'post-deliverance-benefits' in clear measure; and their new level of freedom brought great joy to those who, under Christ, helped them in this way.


‘Victims or Victors’: More than Conquerors through Christ

We must constantly remind ourselves that ‘the one who is in (us) is greater than the one who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4), and that ‘we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom.8:27). We are called to be victors, not victims. We are called to bring his victory to those who are still victims of oppression.

We have received a commission from Christ, the one who was victorious over sin, sickness, Satan, death and all the powers of darkness. The weapons of our warfare have divine power to demolish strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). They are not carnal, like the weapons of this world, but include:

  • Prayer (Eph 6:18-20)
  • The ‘sword of the Spirit’, which is the Word of God (Eph 6:17 and Heb 4:12)
  • The ‘blood of the Lamb’ and the ‘word of our testimony’ (Rev 12:11)
  • The ‘anointing’ of God (Acts 10:38) and the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5-8 and 1:8)
  • Standing firm and the full ‘armour of God’ (Eph 6:10-16); and, resisting the devil (James 4:6-10 and 1 Peter 5:8-11)
  • Binding and loosing (Matt 16:18-19), and casting or driving out of oppressing spirits (Mark 1:21-28; 5:6-13; 3:22-27)
  • Proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel of Christ: spiritual and social transformation, preaching and being Good News (Mk 16:15ff).

We must understand and proclaim that ‘If you believe, you can be delivered’! We must also be agents of deliverance for those who are oppressed. This is our responsibility, our God-given mandate and our right; and it is a pressing need in our fallen world, until the Great Deliverer himself returns!



Clive Burnard.

Clive Burnard is senior pastor of Andover Baptist Church.



It is important to distinguish between the different terms that are commonly used in this context. Some are biblical, but others are extra-biblical or even utilised in an entirely unbiblical way. Scholars such as Grudem have recognised the unfortunate mistranslation of Greek words in the new testament that have been interpreted by Bible translators as 'demon possession' or 'possessed with the devil'. Some writers depict a kind of sliding scale of demonic influence, whereby all Christians are subject to temptation and an intense level of temptation may become a demonic obsession; obsession may further intensify until it becomes oppression; and the most extreme level of influence (involving a situation where as Michael Perry puts it 'the person's will is taken over by an intruding alien entity') is described as possession.   Dickason, however, writes: 'Some writers refer to four stages of demon control: (1) simple subjection, (2) demonization, (3) obsession, (4) demon possession by an indwelling spirit. The Bible knows no such differentiation; it merely classifies the demon's working as either external or internal. If it is internal, it is demonization, the proper term for the commonly misused “demon possession".'  When we ask, then, what is meant by demonization, our simplest response should be to say that it describes the process whereby an individual has come under an influence of one or more evil spirits which goes beyond the levels of spiritual conflict (eg temptation, persecution, deception, external physical attack) to which all Christians are prone  (see 1 Peter 5:8-11; James 4:7-10; Ephesians 6:10-18). Thus a 'demonized' person is one who needs to be 'delivered' from the deeper effects of these dark forces through some kind of 'deliverance ministry', as was employed to help Jane and Martin.

I do believe that great caution must be exercised in use of this terminology, particularly in a practical pastoral context, and that we must beware of attaching the term 'demonized' to individuals whose condition is much less severe than that of demoniacs described in scripture.  As Nigel Wright observes,  'it becomes dangerous and pastorally irresponsible in the extreme to suggest to people (who may be very open to suggestion) that they have a demon problem'.

It may also seem unusual that we are not using here the term 'exorcism' (the act of driving or casting out evil spirits from a person).  But the ministry of 'exorcists' is found only in Acts 19:13 in its root form, and certainly not describing the ministry of Christian disciples. There are a number of reasons for preferring to focus on the term 'deliverance ministry' rather than exorcism. The term is drawn from a biblical expression, but the roots of it are unfortunate in terms of describing Christian deliverance ministry. To describe someone as an exorcist carries with it the concept of making pacts or oaths in order to set people free. It implies some utilisation of spells, magic formulae or shamanistic invocations. Therefore, many object to use of the term, preferring to use deliverance. Another reason for avoiding the term ‘exorcism’ is that non-Christian 'exorcism' is not uncommon and has been witnessed in the African context and various other cultures and societies throughout history. Mediumistic and magical or ritualistic approaches are well documented in anthropological and sociological studies of different cultures. We must all be aware of the dangers inherent in developing a pattern and form of deliverance ministry which depends more on ritual than upon faith in the Name and power of the One who actually sets people free. (Nigel Wright even warns us fairly strongly against a sacramental approach to deliverance ministry; he frowns on 'the use of holy water, crosses, sacred objects, communion wine, anointing oil or the Lord's Prayer in this context’. Whilst one can understand his concerns regarding 'the use of physical means in a quasi-magical way’, the point is perhaps overstated in light of certain potentially affirming scriptures (see Mk.6:13 and James 5:14).) Equally, we must not surrender a valid ministry of deliverance into the hands of those who would practice some non-Christian counterfeit and who are only too readily, willing and available to exercise a ministry of 'exorcism', by whatever name they call it. We should not surrender wounded and vulnerable people to the clutches of those who might lead them deeper into confusion and bondage, rather than into a full and liberating relationship with God through Jesus Christ.


© Clive Burnard.