Spiritual warfare has been a feature of the Christian faith since Pentecost.
The term is used firstly to describe the battle between good and evil, and — more specifically — God’s overruling and conquest of the influence of evil in the world.
Secondly, it is used of the proclamation of the gospel and the opposition which this provokes. In New Testament times, the casting out of demons was an adjunct to the task of world evangelisation (Mark 16:17).
Thirdly, the term refers to the battle which all Christians experience daily in their souls and spirits — the battle against indwelling sin which is an integral part of sanctification.
However, in Charismatic circles during the 1800s and 1900s, the term began to be used to designate more specific practices, called ‘binding the devil’, ‘rebuking the devil’, and so on.
In the 1980s, a new trend gathered momentum, finding fertile ground in Charismatic ‘house churches’ and prayer-networks, such as the Lydia Fellowship. Such practices as ‘breaking ley-lines’, ‘taking the high places’, and ‘prayer marches’ were embraced enthusiastically by many.
These practices share the assumption of ‘territoriality’ — that there is a specific category of high-ranking demons who control territorial regions delegated to them.
At that time, the pastor of a Charismatic Baptist church commissioned me to write a booklet against the notion of breaking ley-lines. (The term ‘ley-lines’ refers to the alleged deliberate alignment across Britain of ancient sites — including Stone Circles, Standing Stones, Long Barrows, Cairns, Burial Mounds and Churches).
It seemed evident that the next ‘big thing’ would be open teaching on the idea of ‘territorial spirits’, so I included an appendix on this topic. Not long afterwards, books edited or written by C. Peter Wagner promoting this concept started to appear.
This idea was embraced particularly by missionaries and ex-missionaries who thought that world evangelisation was failing because of the hitherto-unrecognised activity of these ‘territorial spirits’.
Speaking in tongues
The need was to ‘deactivate’ the spirits by means of aggressive spiritual warfare. Wagner, who was introduced to these ideas by Cindy Jacobs in the late 1980s, dignified his concepts with the name ‘Strategic-level spiritual warfare’ (SLSW). The popularity of SLSW peaked in the 1990s.
The evil spirits in question were provoked to manifest themselves by ‘warfare prayer’ (aggressive or violent prayer), which usually involved addressing the demons by ‘speaking in tongues’. Only after the manifestation occurred could they be commanded to relinquish part of their domain.
This type of ‘warfare-prayer’ gradually metamorphosed into the more acceptable concept of ‘strategic-level intercession’, though without any significant change in underlying philosophy.
All aspects of SLSW are based on experience, interpreted according to a framework only loosely related to the Bible. This is one reason why Wagner and others insisted that Western Christians needed to undergo a fundamental paradigm-shift.
However, there is no biblical warrant for the idea of ‘territorial spirits’, and all the non-biblical evidence invoked to support it can be interpreted in terms of traditional Christian categories.
Furthermore, there is no biblical warrant for confronting demons in the way advocated by SLSW.
Biblical spiritual warfare
The biblical approach to advancing Christ’s kingdom involves prayer and the proclamation of the gospel message in the power of the Holy Spirit. Failure can arise from defective content in the proclamation — either through fear of opposition or ignorance of what the true content should be.
Another major reason for failure is the lack of power of the Holy Spirit accompanying the proclamation. This is a particular problem among churches which consider themselves ‘sound’ as far as the content of their proclamation is concerned.
The declaration of the message leads inevitably to spiritual opposition and thus warfare. However, the book of Acts makes it clear that head-on confrontation with the enemy is never primary — that is, intentional on the part of the church — but always secondary, consequential to the proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Spirit.
As SLSW ideas became entrenched in Charismatic intercessory circles, a practice known as ‘identificational repentance’ (IR) started to appear. Groups of Christians, engaging in walks, would halt at various points to apologise to representatives of oppressed people-groups — for example, for past atrocities or to Muslims for the Crusades, and so forth.
The assumption was that these Christians could act in a representative capacity and repent on behalf of others for past national sins.
So in some Charismatic meetings, people of Anglo-Saxon origin apologised to Celts. Visiting Scandinavians apologised for the behaviour of Vikings — all to the exhilarating accompaniment of lively Irish reels!
The failure of aristocrats to attend these meetings presumably accounted for the absence of apologies for past Norman brutality! Certainly, with my ethnic background, I was left wondering which part of me should apologise to which other part — and for what!
IR is modelled on the practice of old covenant prophets who identified with the people of Israel and confessed national sins to God. However, while there is a place for Christians to apologise for past public sins — for example those in which their own local church had a share — Christians are not old covenant prophets. They form a new spiritual nation.
Citizens are not really in a position to apologise for the past sins of their governments — unless they happen to be government leaders. For real repentance to take place, there must be a turning from such sins. Only when we are in a position to turn from a sin are we in a position to repent of it.
Secondly, the prophets’ words were not repentance as such, but rather involved a confession of national sins before God, pleading with him for forgiveness. Because repentance involves a pledge to give up particular sins, the one repenting can do that only on his own behalf.
Otherwise, it is not repentance at all, but merely remorse — which accomplishes nothing in real spiritual terms. Certainly it cannot further world evangelisation.
Although we cannot repent of sins we did not commit, it is worth keeping in mind that vocally disassociating oneself from others’ malpractice can sometimes be helpful in evangelism. This is one way in which we can demolish some of the stereotyping that blocks the reception of our message.
A passing fad?
Unfortunately, SLSW concepts currently show no sign of being abandoned. This has led Dr Michael Reid, pastor of a Pentecostal church in Essex, to conduct seminars exposing the fallacy of SLSW. His observation is pertinent here:
‘Pastors or church leaders … in the author’s experience are generally difficult to convince that they may have imbibed the wrong doctrine. In particular, pride and insecurity may conspire to prevent them from publicly acknowledging their error’.
Constantly the younger generations are being bombarded with videos and attractively-covered books promoting these ideas. A visit to almost any sizeable Christian bookshop will confirm this.
Some of the churches which promote these ideas most aggressively are led by African people who have, in turn, been influenced by North Americans.
It is important that our response be measured and reasoned. Many who believe and promote these things are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They must be treated with due respect.
We need to think through our own position and keep it firmly in mind. However, our aim should not be to attack people or ridicule them, but rather to reason with them in love and encourage them to question unbiblical thinking. We should be thinking in terms of a rescue operation.
As far as our own thinking and practice is concerned, there are writings available to help us. For those wanting an introductory deconstruction of the ‘territorial spirits’ idea, I would suggest my own book, Do demons rule your town?
For those wanting a more thorough overview, and also a practical guide, I would recommend Chuck Lowe’s work, Territorial Spirits and world evangelisation.
1. Michael S. B. Reid, Strategic level spiritual warfare: A modern mythology? A detailed evaluation of the biblical, theological and historical basis of spiritual warfare in contemporary thought (Xulon Press, Fairfax, VA, 2002), p.350.
2. Mike R. Taylor, Do demons rule your town? An examination of the Territorial Spirits’ theory (Grace Publications, London, 1993. Distributed by Evangelical Press).
3. Chuck Lowe, Territorial Spirits and world evangelisation: A biblical, historical and missiological critique of ‘strategic-level spiritual warfare’ (Mentor/OMF, Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, 1998).