Is Spiritual Warfare Important in Missionary Training?

Making the Case in Favor of

My topic is the relationship between spiritual conflict/inner healing and missionary training. After 30 years of full-time missionary service, I believe that biblical, contextualized teaching on demonization and deliverance ministry is essential to preparing candidates for cross-cultural Christian service. It is necessary for missionaries to have an introductory knowledge of differing cultural attitudes towards spiritual conflict. Western reductionary perspectives on the influence of evil spirits on earthly life have limited the focus of missionary service, which contemporary candidates need to be aware of. 

My focus here will be deliverance ministry for Christians, which brings up the question of who can and cannot be demonized. I draw from Jesus’ own ministry to support the argument that Christians can have demons. Those who came to Jesus for help with physical and spiritual bondage were exercising faith in doing so. Someone who comes to Christ believing that He can set them free is what I understand to be a “believer” or “Christian” (Kraft 2010). I will not go into detail regarding the level of demonic influence or the difference between possession and oppression. The level of demonic access definitely differs between those who have and have not been regenerated in Christ.  My premise is that Christians can suffer a level of demonic influence that varies from light to extreme, whether or not we categorize this as possession or oppression.  If the term “possession” were used, I would mean “he possesses” a demon, not “he is possessed’, i.e., completely dominated by a demon. 

By stating that a Christian can be demonized, I do not intend to cast any doubt on their salvation. Rather, I distinguish between the believer’s spirit – which cannot be inhabited by a demon – and the will, body, mind, and emotions, which apparently can. Experienced deliverance ministry practitioners attest to this. Every human being’s spirit is the part of them that died through Adam’s sin, in which the Enemy can dwell until we are born again in Christ. When Christ moves in, we become filled with His life, and any evil spirits present till then must leave (Kraft 2010). 

But the problem of sin continues to be a reality in a Christian’s life after regeneration, and some sins give the enemy a foothold to continue to oppress. The Christian must recognize any opening he is leaving available to demons, such as the sins of unforgiveness, unbelief, and unrighteous judgement. In addition, believers should be vigilant of deception and wounding that leaves them vulnerable to demonic influence. The power of sin continues to be a reality every believer contends with until the final glorification of our bodies in the fullness of Christ’s kingdom. Demonic harassment is an unfortunate possibility in the life of Christians who unwittingly allow it. 

So, to repeat, this paper will address specifically how missionaries can engage spiritual conflict in the life of believers. And until Satan’s access to a Christian’s life has been shut, simply casing him out in Jesus’ name is ineffective. There is also much to be said regarding spiritual warfare on the corporate level, involving the mobilization of prayer warriors that storm the gates of hell in intercession. However, this paper focuses on dealing with spiritual conflict on the individual level. Certainly the Holy Spirit also direct His servants to cast demons out of unbelievers who are truly possessed and living in miserable subjection. But as already stated, my reading of the New Testament is that most deliverance ministry is to individuals who had faith in Jesus and a desire for His salvation, i.e., believers. 

Having clarified the ministry demographic to be emphasized here, I return to its relevance to contemporary missions. Why do we need a greater emphasis on spiritual conflict and deliverance ministry in missionary training today? The modern missionary movement sought to hold together, “on one hand, fidelity to the command of Jesus Christ to disciple the nations in his name and, on the other, a commitment to modernity” (Shenk  1992).  The conflict between the universal rationality of the Enlightenment and the universal scope of Christ’s kingdom resulted in “the emergence of indigenous movements in most of the colonies” and a “growing movement of religious independence, usually in reaction to Western missions” (Shenk 1992).  The types of Christianity that have boomed in the global South have been “very different from what many Europeans and North Americans consider mainstream (…) far more enthusiastic, much more centrally concerned with the immediate workings of the supernatural” (Jenkins 2011). Omitting spiritual conflict in missionary training is to ignore a foundational aspect of contemporary global Christianity. Leslie Newbigin (1995) summarizes: 

We are forced to do something that the Western churches have never had to do since the days of their own birth – to discover the form and substance of a missionary church in terms that are valid in a world that has rejected the power and the influence of the Western nations. Missions will no longer work along the stream of expanding Western power. They have to learn to go against the stream. And in this situation we shall find that the New Testament speaks to us much more directly than does the nineteenth century as we learn afresh what it means to bear witness to the gospel from a position not of strength but of weakness. (p. 86) 

If the church is to go against the stream of Western power, it must train missionaries to deal with spiritual conflict. Newbigin (1995) states starkly that “The world of religions is the world of the demonic”, which the cross-cultural minister must enter “with complete exposure (…) in order to bear faithful witness to Christ. The reality of spiritual conflict is intimidating enough for a missionary who has been prepared to face this reality and can be completely overwhelming for one who enters the battle unaware and naïve. Those whose evangelism simply seeks to catechize people into correct doctrinal positions without addressing the reality of spiritual conflict preach a deficient gospel. As stated earlier, I believe that Christians are not immune to demonic oppression after conversion. New converts should not be told they will never experience demonic influence hence forth. Such a denial of the spirit world is also offensive and condescending towards majority world cultures. Demonic activity is a fundamental reality of the both majority world and the world the Bible describes. 

Effects of Contemporary Views of Spiritual Conflict

As cited earlier, missiologists use the term Global South to refer to a transition of the center of worldwide Christian leadership. The present and future source of Christian influence and growth is moving from Europe and North America to Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. However, the influence of Western thought upon missiology and theology is still predominant, which also affects understandings of spiritual conflict and deliverance ministry. Western seminaries tend to teach leaders to answer ultimate questions in theistic terms and to deal with the empirical world in naturalistic terms (Hiebert 1982). This is particularly detrimental to missionaries – Western or not – who go to the field believing that curses, demon possession, witchcraft, and shamanism belong to the world of fairies and other mythological beings. 

What has been omitted from much Western missionary leadership training is emphasis on the “middle level of supernatural but this-worldly beings and forces” (Hiebert 1982). As a result, ministries like exorcism receive little attention. It is uncommon for demonic causes to be considered for problems such as sickness or poverty. This two-tier world understanding emerged in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries under the influence of platonic dualism (Bufford 1981). As a result, emphasis on the middle level in theological studies began to die out. As long as Western theological education neglects questions regarding the middle level, a gaping hole exists in the worldview of contemporary missionaries (Hiebert 1982). In the two-tiered worldview, God is limited to the supernatural, and the natural world – for all intents and purposes – operates according to autonomous scientific laws. If this is the church’s predominant worldview, Christian missions will be a “secularizing force” in the world (Hiebert 1982). The missionary leaders of today need a holistic theology that recognizes God’s intervention in history – even in the mundane details of individual’s lives. This approach will keep missionaries relevant to the value systems of the majority world, by addressing the needs these cultures prioritize. 

So far, I have been speaking of neglecting the middle level spiritual conflict: that which pertains to the earthly life of a believer. In this I express the continuationist position which acknowledges the continued expression of charismata such as healing and deliverance ministry. In contrast, cessationism holds that expressions of charismata are limited in their need and use, albeit on different presuppositions. For the cessationist, the charismata “was needed during the writing of the New Testament and its usefulness ceased when the books were completed’ (Ryrie 1980). The cessationists positions holds that “miracles or ordinary charismata were terminated at or near the end of the apostolic age” (Kärkkäinen 2002).  Cessationism claims that “since demons were restricted to a different world after the cross, there is no need for deliverance” (Dumitrescu 2015). 

The reason I cite these opposing theological positions is that many continuationist Evangelicals today are functional or experiential cecassionists (Sappington 2022). Contemporary missionary work that omits spiritual conflict is in stark contrast to Jesus’ and the apostle’s ministries. In the gospels and the book of Acts, we frequently see evil spirits being confronted and defeated as a manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. The forces of evil had diverse capacities to attack the material world, including the human body, mind, and emotions. Continuationist Evangelicals profess belief that God has continued to intervene supernaturally to meet the temporal needs of His church throughout its history. However, the way functionally cessationist Evangelicals address matters like physical sickness, relational conflict, and mental disorders tells a different story. These Evangelicals are quick to use medical and psychological resources to treat people’s bondage and reluctant to use biblical tools of spiritual warfare. 

Misunderstandings of Demonization and Deliverance in Missionary Training

The multitudes who witnessed Jesus’ and the apostle’s ministry of signs and wonders showed no sign of surprise or offense at these phenomena. In its context, the supernatural aspect of Jesus’ ministry was seen as an essential realization of the prophet’s predictions regarding the Messiah (Sappington 2023b). Jesus was aware of these prophecies, but He also exceeded them by ministering physical healing and spiritual deliverance indicating that His work was expansive. In other words, Christ showed that the scope of His Kingdom would extend into new places and needs in history (Sappington 2023b). 

Missionaries today need not limit spiritual warfare and deliverance ministry to that which is identical to Jesus’ and the apostles’ ministries. In the gospels, phases of Jesus’ ministry are bookended with summary statements of the supernatural works He performed. However, these recapitulations are not intended to restrict the ministry of the Kingdom to the works recorded there (Sappington 2023). Rather, the ministry of the New Testament reflected the needs of the people at that time. Today, for example, prevalent needs would include depression, panic attacks, eating disorders, sexual addictions, and gender dysphoria. Certainly, the church today suffers for lack of openness to possible spiritual causes of suffering and bondage. 

            Most of my own missionary service has been in pastoral and teaching ministry. Regardless of my gifting, I have always sought to heed Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (New International Version, 2011, II Timothy 4:5). However, I feel the Lord has called me primarily to train and disciple believers. And in this capacity, I have often been reluctant to confront demonic presence and activity. The primary cause of hesitation is the fear of having my lack of spiritual authority exposed. The messianic power of Jesus was demonstrated by His authority over demons. When Jesus rebuked demons publicly, He was aware of what this demonstrated. It is intimidating for a missionary to attempt to rebuke demons with the same boldness we see Jesus and the apostles doing in the New Testament. If the demon does not obey our command, we may deduce this is because of our own sin, or deficient prayer and fasting, or inadequate intimacy with God. If we decide to become more verbally emphatic, subsequent failure to cast a demon out becomes even more embarrassing. I empathize with many cross-cultural ministers who avoid confronting demons as the flock watches on. 

But this is a false dilemma because there are recourses when a demon doesn’t obey, even when rebuked in the name of Jesus. The person praying can pause and ask the Holy Spirit for discernment. Perhaps we need to change our approach. The person manifesting demonization may have other underlying issues that need to be addressed. The kingdom of darkness is “sterile and cannot create something from nothing”, it can only “take advantage of conditions that already exist” (Kraft 2010). As we have seen, the enemy seeks to find weaknesses he can exploit, like the garbage rats feed upon. If there are demons, there is “deep-level damage that needs to be healed (…) and it is this garbage, not any ‘rats’ attached, that is the major problem” (Kraft 2010). Many experienced deliverance ministry practitioners testify to the fact that once these underlying issues are dealt with, the demons leave with little resistance. 

The Effective Use of Spiritual Authority and How to Grow in it

Jesus calls His children to live in freedom and victory, unfortunately many are unaware of this and choose to simply bear the attacks of the enemy (Kraft 2010). After Peter betrayed Jesus, the enemy could end the disciple’s ministry through condemnation. But Jesus’ plan for Peter was restoration, which happened when the Master gave His disciple the opportunity to confess sin. Then Peter could receive forgiveness and grace for a renewed commission to ministry (Kraft 2010). 

Victory in Christ over physical illness also depends on holistic restoration, not just partial intervention. Missionaries often neglect the task of seeking to deal with the underlying issues in people’s lives. As a result, prayers for physical healing often see only temporary results, or none. This of course is a misrepresentation of the will of Jesus in healing – to heal both surface and deeper-level issues (Kraft 2010). These deeper areas of healing often relate to a believer’s relationship with God, others, and themselves. 

            The Master’s way of addressing sin was to lead people gently on the path to forgiveness. Like Jesus, we are called to minister love and restoration rather than heaping on guilt (Kraft 2010). It is important to address the underlying issues in our brothers’ and sisters’ lives, including sin. However, we should not probe too aggressively during ministry sessions. Convicting people of their sins is the Holy Spirit’s job, and if we choose to take this responsibility upon ourselves, we do harm. To exercise spiritual authority, it is important to understand what sin is and how it leads to bondage. For example, temptation is not sin, and many people condemn themselves without cause in this area. The roots of demonic oppression are often attributed to “big” sins such as witchcraft and sexual sin. But sins such as covetousness and unforgiveness are just as likely to be causes of demonic access. 

            The spiritual roots of deep-level problems in people’s lives include sin, neglect of relationship with God, wrong view of God, anger at God, satanic harassment, demonization, generational spirits, and curses (Kraft 2010). Therefore, some types of bondage have to do with an individual’s choices. Other struggles, however,  are rooted in circumstances that are beyond a person’s control – even pre-natal events. Through wise questions and patient listening, we can uncover underlying issues, but nothing can replace the need for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. 

            Lastly, for us to grow in the use of our authority in Christ, we must always remember where it comes from. As Christians, we already have spiritual authority, but we need to recognize it and use it for the glory of God. Our authority in Christ does not increase with experience, we already have all we need to minister effectively. What experience does give us is help in understanding how to use our authority (Sappington 2023c: 3). 

A Balanced Approach to the Three Sources of Spiritual Conflict

The Bible describes three sources of spiritual conflict – the devil, the world, and the flesh. In training for cross-cultural Christian service, we must provide tools for dealing with every threat. The term “devil” refers to Satan as well as the subordinate evil spirits that serve under his authority (Sappington 2023d). The expressed aim of the kingdom of darkness is to thwart God’s work and take away from His glory. The devil seeks to keep people from being “rescued us from the dominion of darkness” and being “brought (…) into the kingdom of the Son” (New International Version, 2011, Colossians 1:13). Scripture warns against willful ignorance of demonic strategies that cause us to be “outwitted” by Satan (New International Version, 2011, II Corinthians 2:10). The enemy is aggressive and takes the initiative. But we can also give our adversary an opportunity through wrong beliefs, bitterness, and sin. 

            The prologue of the book of Acts indicates that Jesus continued to do His ministry through the apostles, a ministry characterized by physical healing and deliverance from evil spirits. Therefore, if missionaries are trained in a way that underemphasizes spiritual conflict, they will not minister faithfully to the New Testament model (Sappington 2023e). 

            As stated earlier, sin creates an opportunity for demonic attack. But missionaries need training on how to seek the Spirit’s discernment on the roots of these assault. For example, sexual promiscuity may be linked to a desire to escape by someone who experienced abuse in their childhood (Kraft 2010). Unless these root issues are dealt with, the door for demonic influence remains open and the person will continue to suffer. These infected wounds contaminate the person, plaguing them with feelings of shame, anger, abandonment, and rejection. 

            As missionaries are trained for cross-cultural service, they also need preparation for differing forms of the second source of spiritual conflict – the world. The system of beliefs that exist in opposition to the vision of Christ’s kingdom exists in every culture. However, each fallen human society embodies this wicked system in a unique way. Missionaries need to be trained to recognize the positive, neutral, and negative aspects of a culture in relation to the kingdom of God. Some features of culture should be retained, and others rejected outright (Sappington 2023d). A missionary must help their constituency prayerfully examine their culture and discern what comes from God and what comes from the world (Sappington 2023d). Unfortunately, the history of missions is full of situations where errors were committed in what cultural aspects were denounced as well as what were approved. 

            Differing interpretations exist in relation to the third source of spiritual conflict, the flesh. Some understand it as a tendency towards sinfulness inherited from Adam, while others see it as the continued existence of temptation, even in the lives of the redeemed. Either way, a key to victory over the flesh is comprehending the authority we have in Christ to say no to its appeals. A balanced approach will recognize Christ’s victory over and the persisting reality of temptation. Only on the day of ultimate glorification will the Christian be definitively freed from all influence of the flesh. 

            One aspect of the old self that missionaries need to be familiar with is spiritual inheritance. It is not surprising that western individualism downplays the influence of ancestral context as it relates to one’s spiritual life. However, in collectivist majority world contexts the individual is seen as intimately connected to their ancestors. If the old self represents sinful tendencies, then the question is whether our lineage has anything to do with the proclivities towards sin that we experience. Those who deal with deliverance ministry regularly testify that bondage of deception and vice are passed down through the generations (Kraft 2010). 

Memories trauma are also part of the old self that the Lord wants to free people from (Kraft 2010). Faith picturing is a useful tool for helping people retrieve painful memories and be healed of them. In Scripture we see God revealing truth through images, and Jesus Himself often used word pictures in His teaching. Faith picturing is “the use of our God-given ability to picture under the leading and power of God” (Kraft 2010). The counselor invites a person to close their eyes and return to a moment when they suffered emotional damage. The next step is to help the person understand that Jesus was present in their moment of trauma (Kraft 2010). It is important not to tell the person what they should see but to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal and heal in the way He desires. 

How to Diagnose the Source of Strongholds

Missionaries in training need to know that one key to determining the source of a stronghold is looking for unforgiveness in a person’s life. Indeed, lack of forgiveness is considered by specialists in deliverance ministry to be “the greatest block to receiving healing at the deepest level” (Kraft 2010). Simply put, when people refuse to forgive, “both they and the person they are angry with remain captives”, but when they surrender their right to revenge, “both people go free” (Kraft 2010). Missionaries must recognize that people need to be held responsible for wounding people.  But much of people’s bondage results from ungodly judgements they have made against others, themselves, and even God (Sappington 2008). A general rule of thumb in deliverance ministry is that more important than the events are a person’s reaction to them. A person’s healing is not dependent on understanding why they got hurt or to what extent their reactions exacerbated the damage. The painful events of the past cannot be erased, but a person’s responses to them can be redeemed, substituting guilt and shame with forgiveness (Kraft 2010). The roots of strongholds can be memories from as early as the womb.  Experience in deliverance ministry helps us to determine the types of wounding that occur in different phases of life (Kraft 2010). 

            Missionaries need to research the field where they will be serving to determine what attitudes towards the demonic are prevalent. In some cultures, people actively seek demonic possession to gain the power of that entity, which is often accompanied by physical effects such as sickness and convulsions (Bennett 2013). Some communities put so much emphasis on venerating spirits in connection with their ancestors that they build them dwellings more expensive than their own homes (Bennett 2013). Some Western candidates for missionary service in the majority world may find it inappropriate to seek a contest between Christ and the local deities of the communities they are sent to. However, it should be recognized that in many cases the demonstration of the superior power of Jesus in curing sickness, delivering from demonic possession, etc. have often been missionaries’ key evangelistic tools in animistic settings (Cole 2023). 

Ministering to Deceptions in Cross-cultural Settings

The last area of spiritual conflict and deliverance ministry I will treat in this paper as it relates to missionary training is deception. In the primordial text of the 10 commandments, we find that in some way sin is transferred through generations. Yahweh is a jealous God, “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (New International Version, 2011, Exodus 20:5). For example, an evil mindset – such as a father who influences his son to despise all women – can be inherited by children from their parents (Sappington 2008). It could also be something more subtle, such as the implicit values that a child observes in their parents, such as the idolatry of materialism (Sappington 2023f). 

            Another way deception enters a person’s life is through trauma, but we can help free people from deception by explaining that God can use painful events to grow closer to Him (Sappington 2008). As a result of trauma, some common deceptions people develop are those directed towards our view of God, ourselves, and others (Sappington 2023f). 

            Missionaries need to know that one of the most prevalent and profound forms of deception lies in the judgement of others. This process can be described in terms of the sowing of a seed, crystallization, and snowballing (Sappington 2008). Something causes the judgmental attitude to form towards a person or group, then at some point that judgement becomes articulated more clearly, and ultimately it shapes the persons expectations in general.

            Missionaries must consider the fact that the impact of deception takes on general characteristics in specific communities and cultures. For example, the general religious perspective in Thailand is a mixture of Buddhism’s affirmation that neither God nor ultimate spirituality exist, and animistic belief that the powers of many deities are concentrated in sacred objects (Dierck 2023). The predominant experience of local church leaders in that context has been that the Thai religious mindset is not automatically transformed at conversion (Dierck 2023). Much teaching is needed on the nature and character of God, merely praying deliverance prayers without this is to little affect. 


At this phase of my ministry, I endeavor to transition into dedicating most of my time to training the next generation of missionaries. I realize that my generation received the baton from men and women of faith that left us with an inspiring inheritance of doctrine and practice.  However, I also see the need for innovation. As I attend missons conferences around the world, I hear many needs vying for our attention. Needs such as improved financial sustainability, organizational structure, and communication are definitely vital to the relevance of missions in the twenty-first century. But I wonder if what is most needed today is a new emphasis on addressing our spiritual enemy, the one who has warred against our efforts since the birth of the church.  


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Sappington, T. (2023b). The Theme of Promise and Fulfillment in relation to Healing and Deliverance in the Synoptic Gospels (Unpublished manuscript). Biola University, 1

Sappington, T. (2023c). Knowing and Using Your Authority in Christ. In T. Sappington (Ed.), ISCL 722 Spiritual Conflicts in Cross-cultural Context (p. 3). Biola University. 

Sappington, T. (2023d). Understanding the Enemy. In T. Sappington (Ed.), ISCL 722 Spiritual Conflicts in Cross-cultural Context (p. 4, 1, 2). Biola University. 

Sappington, T. (2023e). Demonization and Deliverance in the Acts of the Apostles. In T. Sappington (Ed.), ISCL 722 Spiritual Conflicts in Cross-cultural Context (p. 6). Biola University. 

Sappington, T. (2023f). Deceptions that Hold us Captive. In T. Sappington (Ed.), ISCL 722 Spiritual Conflicts in Cross-cultural Context (p. 1, 2). Biola University. 

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