In 1985, the Bishop of Olympia, Robert Cochran, appointed me the official exorcists of the Diocese. He told me that traditionally the bishop was the exorcist of the Diocese but that he delegated this to clergy who he trusted. He told me that his concern was that the priest who did this could discern the difference between psychological issues and demonic affliction. He also shared with me that this work had increased when he moved to the Pacific Northwest because of the number of cults located there. Finally, he shared that when clergy in the Diocese had a concern, he would refer them to me.
What did I learn in doing this ministry? First, I learned that there was a greater need for both the discernment and the ministry. Second, I learned most clergy who experienced an evil manifestation were overwhelmed when forced to deal with this. Third, I learned that most clergy had been either poorly trained or not trained at all to do this work. Interestingly, I did little of this work directly because I would coach my fellow clergy in both discernment and what to do when they discovered the present of evil.
Readers will note that I titled this blog with a phrase from the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. I did this because the phrase “cast away” captured my most common experience in this area. This work demanded an energetic, powerful, and positive response to the phenomenon of evil. I think the phrase is better than the term exorcism with its loaded imagery compounded by books and movies of the past 30 years.
Let me give an example of this kind of work. A priest called me because parishioners had complained to him that they kept experiencing strange events in their new home. It seems at moments pieces of furniture and other objects would just move. So, I asked the priest, “Do you believe them?” “No, I didn’t” he responded, “till I went to visit them.” He explained that while he was sitting in their living room trying to reason with them about why such things don’t really happen, a side table lamp suddenly flew across the room and smashed against the wall.
He went on to tell of other similar experiences when visiting with them. The family would always react to such unusual things with “See, we told you! What causes this?” So, he asked me, “Do you have any idea what is going on?” I responded, “sure.” At that point, he became very excited and said, “I can’t believe that I am asking this, but is this possibly something evil?” “Of course," I responded.” Then he said, “How do you know?” and repeated “How do you know it is evil?” My simple response was, “I can hear it in your voice. You're afraid.” “I am” he said, “I’ve never experienced anything like this before and I don’t know what to do.” I directed him in what to do. A week later, he called me and said, “It’s gone.”
Let me pause because this series is about evangelism and its relationship to our understanding of the Atonement. What did I know that my friend did not? And how was I able to respond to his situation calmly and without fear?
What I knew were two things that came from my past experiences and my belief in the Atonement which is center on what Gustaf Aulen taught in his classic work “Christus Victor.” In a time when most fellow reformed and evangelical clergy believed almost entirely in the substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement, Aulen carefully documented from scripture what he termed “the Classical Doctrine of the Atonement.” This teaching of Christ the Victor straightforwardly says, “the reason the son of God came into the world was to defeat the power of evil.” Verse by verse, Aulen reminded his fellow protestants that as Paul said, “On the cross Jesus defeated the principalities and powers of this world.” So, the Christ proclaims at the end of his crucifixion, “It is finished” which in the Greek means “the battle won.”
Of course, this was not original to Aulen. It is throughout the teachings and preaching in the New Testament and was the dominate doctrine held by the early church and the Church Fathers. It is why the Apostles including Paul continued Jesus’ work of casting out demons and liberating new believers from the power of evil. It is why Christianity made such headway in a superstitious culture that constantly sought relief from the power of darkness. This doctrine of the Atonement is about power, liberation, and freedom from the power of sin, evil, and death. And as I had learned, it is the dominate doctrine of the Atonement held by most Asian and African Anglicans!
So, I shared with my priest friend what I had learned from them. As one Ugandan Evangelist said to me as he “caste out an evil presence” in a person. “No fear Fr. Kevin, No fear!” Later he debriefed the experience with me by saying, “You are a priest, a baptized Christian, no matter how they manifest or how they resist, in the name of Jesus and the power of his Spirit, they MUST leave!”
Many people who believe in this doctrine also believe in the Apostolic practice of healing. “If there is any among you sick, let them call upon the elders of the Church who will lay hands upon them and the prayer of faith will heal them.” I am an advocate of the Church’s healing ministry and have practiced this for almost 35 years. Again, this is the power of the Spirit to heal.
For me as an Episcopalian/Anglican, I appreciate all the theories of the Atonement and recognize that each has a truth. All should be taught, and the ignoring of any diminishes what Christ accomplished in his ministry and work on the Cross. I do believe for the Church to be fully Apostolic; the foundation of our work must be Christus Victor. This is the power and light of God to work in the brokenness and darkness of our world. Let me add these two observations.
First, demonic possession as in the man “Legend” living among the tombs is a very rare situation. However, demonic affliction, demonized is the meaning of the Greek word, is more common than we Westerners want to admit. We need more priests to be sensitive to this issue.
Second is that the secularization of our society is not necessarily the triumph of reason. It is also the opening of our society to a re-paganization often passing as religious experimentation. Not all of it is good and therefore the reality of Christus Victor will be of growing concern for the Church in the days ahead. Just check out the growing number of cable television programs dealing with the paranormal and the growing audience of younger generations attracted to these.
Let me close by reminding you that if you or your church is going to do evangelism, you had better sort out what you believe about the Atonement and find ways to present this to an increasingly non-Christian society. And if you have never read Aulen’s book, it is a very helpful tool.