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  • Writer's pictureRon Heisey

Let's talk about Spiritual Warfare part three- A History


When reviewing spiritual warfare throughout church history, we start in the first century church. Historians tell us that in the Roman Empire people routinely practiced magic and called upon the spirit realm. We are told by historian C.E. Arnold :

“In the Roman era, magic was a set of rituals and practices that enabled people to coerce the gods and spirit powers to accomplish whatever they might ask. Fundamental to magic is an animistic worldview. Spirits are everywhere and involved in everything. Spirit beings are associated with the sun, moon, stars and planets; they populate the underworld; they are involved with animal life, plants and the elements. The magical papyri ostensibly provide the directions for managing the spirit realm as it touches on every facet of daily life.”

This was especially prevalent in Ephesus, which had developed a reputation as a center of magic, and was known for its proverbial “Ephesian Letters”. These “letters” constituted written magical spells and are well attested in the literature. The first mention of these six Ephesian Letters occurs as early as the fourth century B.C. in a Cretan tablet. The letters (or names) seem to be laden with power in the warding off of evil demons. They could be used either as written amulets or spoken charms. Anaxilas makes reference to those wearing fine Ephesian charms in little sewed bags. The words were also used in superstitious ways to provide help on special occasions. When Paul evangelized Ephesus he encountered evil spirits and was able to exorcise them with as little as a touch (Acts chapter 19). As many became believers, they were moved to make a clean break from their former spiritism: “And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value and found it to be 50,000 pieces of silver. In this way the Lord’s message flourished and prevailed.” Acts 19:18-20.

The takeaway from these accounts is twofold:

1. Paul and other church leaders in the first century church had the power and authority to exorcise evil spirits from people.

2. When people became believers, they recognized the need to make a complete break from any practices or materials that had any connection to their previous practices of spiritism and magic.


In the Middle Ages church members relied on their leaders or “saints” for not just spiritual guidance, but for physical healing, which was often closely related to exorcism of demons. The church took spiritual warfare quite seriously. In practicing exorcism, a saint was also involved in the general struggle against Satan. It was commonly supposed that any number of physical ailments had demonic possession as an underlying cause. The body of a possessed formed a sort of a battlefield between the forces of heaven and hell. Every single act of exorcism performed by a saint, then, was a part of the eternal struggle between Satan and God. Indeed most historical accounts of the church during this period mention exorcism as a fact of daily church life.

In their fight against demons the saints mainly used three most common means of miraculous healing: the cross, the prayer and, less commonly, laying of hands on the victim. In addition, they used holy water, wine or bread. On single occasions some more drastic means were used, such as beating the demoniac, whereas the blows were of course addressed to the demon. Holy water was another common means in fighting against demons. Every saint used it to the best of his abilities.


The arrival of the Protestant Reformation ushered in changes in the views on spiritual warfare. Interestingly, Martin Luther in 1526 added infant exorcism to Protestant baptismal rites. Nevertheless, though the Catholic Church continued to practice exorcism as a weapon of spiritual warfare, the Protestant world saw a gradual decline in its use throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. the 1800s also saw a rise in evangelicalism: a term applied to Protestants who practiced strict adherence to the Bible, being “born again,” the need to convert other people, and that the crucifixion of Jesus will lead to the salvation of humanity, thus reducing the perceived impact of spiritual warfare.


The early 20th century saw the rise of the Pentecostal movement, and with it a renewed emphasis on the Holy Spirit, including speaking in tongues, faith healing, miracles and exorcism. Spiritual warfare was once again a popular topic. Moving into the later 1900’s, some mainstream denominations began to adopt some of the charismatic worship themes, including exorcism.


So today we find ourselves at a unique crossroads. One’s viewpoint about spiritual warfare is likely colored by the religion in which we grew up or in which we currently find ourselves. If we worship at a non-denominational church, our viewpoint will likely be determined by the amount of time/energy that is being spent discussing spiritual warfare. If it’s not talked about, we likely don’t give it much thought, unless we have experienced it personally.


During the following two blogs we will present an argument that choosing to ignore the reality of spiritual warfare can be a dangerous way to live.


See you next week!

Ron

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