South Bend, Indiana
Although mainstream religious groups tend to discount or minimize belief in the devil and evil spirits, fundamentalists, charismatics, shepherding/discipleship groups, and Bible-based cults do not. Indeed, in some groups, an emphasis on the devil and/or evil spirits becomes a tool for the manipulation of consciences. In the People of Praise, which this article uses as an example, a heightened fear of the devil or evil spirits can be used to (a) put pressure on wavering members to stay in the group, (b) elevate the importance of the group and its leaders, (c) enhance the leaders’ control of the membership by reinforcing the notion that Satan can even work through good people and only the leaders can discern his designs, and (d) undermine members’ confidence in their own judgment, especially about spiritual development. The fears inculcated in members can cause considerable psychological distress when they ultimately leave their groups.
I never knew I was a sexual pervert-not until the leader of our covenant community and his wife prayed with me for deliverance. During this prayer in our living room the leader discerned that for most of my life I had been unknowingly oppressed by an evil spirit, a spirit of sexual perversion. I had never acted perversely. But our leader identified this demon, which was crippling my life in the Holy Spirit and interfering with my ability to live and to love. When he cast the demon out, then its hitherto undetected baneful influence was gone from my life. Like every other member of our covenant community, I was made dramatically and intimately aware of the deceptions and power of the devil to ruin my Christian life.
Belief in the reality of the devil and of evil spirits dates from the very beginnings of Christianity, but is now largely forgotten among Western Christians. Christians today rarely hear their parish priest or minister refer to the devil or to spiritual combat with him. Many regard evil spirits as little more than vestiges of a more primitive, unenlightened Christianity. In fundamentalist circles, on the other hand, as well as in charismatic movements within both Catholic and Protestant churches, firm belief in the reality of and dangers represented by evil spirits persists. And in Bible-based cults, shepherding/discipleship groups, and covenant communities this emphasis-or rather one form of this emphasis-has become a tool for the manipulation of consciences.
In the wake of a powerful conversion experience, belief in the devil often becomes part and parcel of a newfound faith in Christianity as a religion of the supernatural and the miraculous. With this comes a certain mistrust of the institutional Church, which should have taught about the devil but did not. A defect of faith is thus seen in the home parish. The pastor has nothing to say about the devil; therefore, I must learn from someone else who knows and understands. Charismatic leaders purport to provide much expertise, which institutional leaders lack.
Classically, the work of Satan has been understood-from the early Church Fathers to C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters–to consist of temptations to sin. The devil’s principal activity is not to ruin our plans and frustrate our desires but to induce us to sin. It matters not whether the sin be a spectacular one of mass murder or a quiet one of pride. The devil tempts to sin. In the light of this, Christian teachers have recommended certain antidotes to the devil’s work: frequent examination of conscience and repentance for sins, confession, self-denial and fasting, and prayer.
The church also recognizes that on occasion devils can interfere in the material order, especially by “possessing” certain persons. This phenomenon is rare, and the Church has always treated it as such. Thus, in the Catholic Church an exorcism of evil spirits may be undertaken only with the permission of the local Bishop and then only after a sober investigation has ruled out all other possible causes of the aberrant behavior in question.
In reading the testimonies and accounts of cults, covenant communities, and shepherding/discipleship groups from the Moonies to the Branch Davidians to the Sword of the Spirit, we discover a strong and consistent emphasis on evil spirits. It is an emphasis that differs significantly from that in traditional Christianity, and it becomes an important tool for control of the lives of the members of these groups. In what follows, we will outline the “demonology” typically used by the covenant communities.
Covenant communities are highly organized and committed groups of Christians who take among themselves a solemn agreement or covenant, according to which they agree to share their whole lives with each other under the authority of strong charismatic leadership. Many such groups stress submission to community leaders in all aspects of life. They characteristically emphasize a sharp distinction between roles of men and women. While not separatists, they do keep a certain distance from the life of the surrounding culture and the local Church. They consider their mutual relationships within the group to be the most important in their lives. Many are ecumenical, although even in these the majority of members are Catholic. This article analyzes the role and significance of the belief in evil spirits in covenant communities arising from the Catholic charismatic renewal. It will point out the distinctive and decisive role that the belief in Satan plays for the psychological control of members.
The devil is the enemy of God, and as such he opposes everything that God tries to accomplish. Most covenant communities regard the rebuilding of his people by means of such communities as one of God’s most important works. This means that these communities directly thwart Satan’s own plans of dividing God’s people. Thus, these groups purportedly threaten the devil’s hegemony. His central strategy must necessarily be to destroy these communities which so seriously threaten to restore the reign of God.
Some comments of People of Praise leader, Kevin Ranaghan, illustrate this well. In the late 1970s a sizable group of members left this covenant community, among them many who had made the group’s solemn commitment or covenant. Ranaghan explained that because God was (purportedly) beginning a major work of healing and salvation through the community, Satan was attacking it. His strategy was to undercut the factor that made the community strong, namely its covenantal unity. By attacking the covenant he hoped to render the community divided and uncommitted. Thus, he had sent a “quitting spirit” to sow mistrust and disloyalty. The response to this, therefore, must be that each member renew his commitment and resist every temptation to question his covenant relationship. Even to think about leaving or to question the group’s authority was to fall into Satan’s devious plot.
Of course, such a position presumes that the group is tremendously important. It is not claimed simply that since this community is good, the devil will oppose it. Any group can claim this. Rather the community makes the stronger claim to hold a unique and distinctive place in God’s plan, a decisive role on which the salvation of men and the restoration of all God’s people depends.
According to traditional Christian teaching, the devil works by tempting people to sin. If he works in this world, it is primarily by inspiring weak humans to sin. According to these groups, however, the devil is fully capable of working his plans through good people who are doing good things. Thus when a Catholic bishop decided to investigate one covenant community in the Midwest, the impression spread through the group that the devil was using him as a pawn to undo the good God was doing through their community. This is a dramatic and serious claim. It was not alleged that the bishop was morally wrong or corrupt; he was admittedly within the bounds of his episcopal authority. But even then, he was playing Satan’s game, because he did not know Satan’s plan. Satan is so devious and deceptive that one can be free of his designs only by following those who have discerned his true plans. These, of course, are the leaders of the community.
Because any member can fall unwittingly into the devil’s traps and because the influence of evil spirits is supposed to be so pervasive, most of these communities require new members to submit to the “prayer of deliverance” during the early weeks of membership. “Being prayed with for deliverance” is, in fact, a major spiritual event, a turning point in the new member’s life. This prayer originated among the nondenominational pastors of the Gulf Coast Fellowship in the early 1970s, and they taught it to some Catholic charismatic leaders. The very existence of covenant communities is attributed to the discovery of this prayer. Addressing an audience of covenant community leaders from around the country in August 1977, Kevin Ranaghan commented that without deliverance “we would have been just a happy little Holy Spirit group.”
The prayer of deliverance assumes a kind of demonic intervention midway between ordinary temptation and outright possession. This is a kind of oppression or obsession by which demons lay siege to a particular area of a person’s life. So, for example, a young man may be oppressed by a spirit of lust, which constantly urges him to lustful acts and desires. The victim may well believe that he suffers from a particular character weakness, whereas in fact he is being constantly harassed by demons.
The effects of this obsession need not correspond directly to the sinful area represented by the obsession. The spirit may work “negatively.” For example, the spirit of lust may cause his victim to be reluctant to relate to members of the opposite sex. A spirit of anger might not inspire outbursts of anger but instead cripple his victim’s capacity to confront evil. Thus, there are no unequivocal signs of demonic obsession. A seemingly virtuous life can still mask the workings of a host of evil spirits.
The prayer for deliverance depends neither on some kind of analysis nor on confession. (Indeed, the person undergoing deliverance may have no pertinent sins on his conscience.) Rather a prayer team attempts to discern on its own in prayer what evil spirits may be at work. The Pastoral Guidelines of the People of Praise states:
Normally within the first year of being underway each member of the community is prayed with for deliverance. Normally this is done in a general deliverance session.
It is also normal for people to be prayed with again for deliverance if they and their head feel it would be beneficial for them. (Lk. 10:19-20) … The team does not “interrogate the spirits,” but rather discerns their presence and prays against them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The person being prayed with is to renounce any spirits that are named.
The method here is significant. The “victim” plays a passive role in his or her deliverance. In the early days of covenant communities, the spirits were interrogated, and this gave the victim a more active role. At the prompting of the prayer leader, the victim was to respond for the spirits, trusting that the Holy Spirit would ensure that the evil spirits involved would be honest. This “discernment” might run something like this:
Leader: I sense the presence of a spirit having to do with money. (To the victim, gently) Just respond with the first thing that comes to mind. (To the demon, sharply) I command you evil spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, to tell us your name!
Victim: I have a sense of claws, maybe something grasping?
Leader: Good! I command you, you grasping spirit, you spirit of greed, to come out in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and return to hell and never to oppress this child of God again.
Although it rejects the practice for its public deliverance sessions, the People of Praise continues to endorse such interrogation of spirits during private deliverance prayers. In public or “general” services, the prayer team members discuss among themselves what “leadings,” “senses,” and “discernments” they may have. Those leading the prayer include the person’s “head,” who represents the community’s authority in the victim’s life. This person (usually male) is normally regarded as the most reliable voice of God in the community member’s life. Other members of the prayer team are drawn from the leadership of the community. Their “discernment” consists of the first thing that comes to mind as they pray. (This is taken to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.) The discernment will run like this:
Leader: Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what evil spirits are at work in this sister. Lord, give us the gift of discernment and reveal what demons are at work here….
Team member: The word resentment keeps coming to mind, and I have an image of a child who is very angry about a toy her sister has.
Leader: That sounds right. Let’s cast out the spirit of resentment.
And they all proceed to cast the resentful spirit into hell in the name of the Lord. The victim’s job is simply to renounce the demon.
On the face of it, this seems fairly harmless. No attempt is made to psychoanalyze the one receiving prayer. Neither are accusations of wrongdoing made nor confessions required. The victim is seen as being delivered from malevolent evil beings which are crippling his life in Christ. All he need do is pray and renounce this evil.
In fact, the entire procedure is fraught with psychological traps. One of the most serious is the opportunity for manipulation of conscience. Frequently when a member expresses reservations about some aspect of community life or criticizes community leaders, those who pray with her will discern a “critical spirit.” If the head has been encouraging a particular course of action (e.g., that a woman accept a particular marriage proposal) which the member has resisted, then the prayer team will likely discern a “spirit of rebellion.” Once the “demon” has been cast out by the team and renounced by the victim, then the matter is not put to rest. Rather, in the future when the member begins to criticize or rebel, her head will remind her that the critical or rebellious spirits have been cast out; she must continue to renounce them and claim her deliverance. To revert to the demon-inspired behavior is to risk falling back into the devilish trap that Christ had delivered her from. Deliverance from evil spirits can thus easily become a means for controlling behavior and manipulation of consciences.
In trying to understand the power of this process, it is important to interpret the prayer of deliverance according to the member’s conceptual framework, not one’s own. The member knows he is not expert in spiritual matters, and he has learned to trust his leaders, who claim to be such. What may seem silly to some readers is a conviction to members. Leaders gain in power by exploiting the profound fear that comes from this conviction.
When a Catholic goes to confession, he must prepare beforehand by examining his conscience. In so doing, not only must he identify general areas of moral weakness, but he must recall specific incidents of wrongdoing to confess. A wise confessor may well lead the penitent not only to a deeper repentance, but also to a clearer identification of general tendencies toward sin. However, the penitent is not bound by his analysis. In the prayer for deliverance, on the other hand, intimate aspects of the soul’s life are apparently revealed, aspects that the subject may have been quite unaware of. Thoughts that simply “come to mind” during the prayer become decisive points for the future moral and spiritual development of the community member. You thought your main spiritual problem was the habit of lying, which you have been confessing for two months; thanks to this prayer, you learn that it is a spirit of greed-a greed you may never have felt nor manifested.
An important psychological effect of the deliverance prayer is the loss of confidence in one’s own judgment, especially about spiritual development. Any doubt, any criticism – no matter how rational or well founded-may very well be an “attack from the enemy.” So devious are the hidden workings of Satan that the victim may well remain unaware of them, until others “discern” these workings. Thus, one becomes radically dependent on the pastoral structure of the community.
Before leaving the subject of deliverance, we do well to note two additional dangers with this practice. The first is that traditional Christian remedies for the work of the devil are devalued. If the deliverance prayer is a genuine spiritual need, the Church does not offer it. What the Church does offer seems to be too little. The second problem is that Satan and his real work are falsified. The member is led to believe that the covenant community and its leaders have real authority over evil spirits, an authority that goes beyond that which, according to Christian doctrine, all of us have to resist the devil.
It can and often does happen that a community member may no longer find life in the community fruitful. Typically after about two years as a member, the experience of vibrant new life fades and a sense of spiritual dryness sets in. As this happens, many members begin to consider leaving the group. It is in this that an especially significant appeal is made to the works of evil spirits. The problem becomes acute and can be summarized:
If Satan does actually exist and if his means and aims are as the community describes, then to leave the covenant community is to cooperate with his plans and to fall into his hands.
One of the principal fears members have as they leave-a fear that community leaders appeal to-is that by leaving they will fall victim to the devil. They will lose their faith, their marriage will fall apart, their children turn to drugs, and so on. The community offers a “covering,” a protection from Satan, which one is ill advised to forsake. This is a powerful belief that actually does prevent many members from taking the necessary steps toward freedom from the group’s demands.
Speaking as a Roman Catholic, I believe that a strong case can be made that since the Vatican Council many Church leaders have erred by neglecting the reality of the evil spirits. Their rediscovery by charismatic groups could count as a real grace for the Church. However, it has happened that this rediscovery has given the devil more than his due. It has made possible a particularly powerful means of psychological and social control. We must add here that the literature on cults and abusive religious organizations is full of exactly parallel accounts. Whether one belongs to the Sword of the Spirit or the People of Praise or to the Moonies or The Way International, whether one joins a Bible-based discipleship church or an ultra-traditionalist Tridentine schismatic group or the Mormons, that person lives in a spiritual world in which evil spirits allegedly infiltrate the Church, other religious groups, the counseling professions, and even the person’s own soul. It is a world in which safety from Satan can only be found in submission to enlightened leaders who claim a special power from God to discern the true workings of the devil. It is a world in which a person loses psychological control of his or her own life.
Adrian J. Reimers, Ph.D., is a Catholic philosopher. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the Internationale Akademie für Philosophie in 1989 in Liechtenstein. For almost 14 years Reimers and his wife, Marie, belonged to the People of Praise, a covenant community that arose out of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. Both were dismissed from the community in 1985 for declining to submit to the leaders’ guidance. In 1990, along with another couple, the Reimers formed Free Again in Christ to help others to leave the People of Praise.