By Angel Manuel Rodríguez
QUESTION: Is there a ministry, or gift, of exorcism in the Bible?
To answer your question I will deal with the larger issue of the casting out of demons, which is part of the ministerial work of some of our pastors in different parts of the world. In general, one of the challenges Adventists face is to address it biblically, without allowing the practices of other Christians to determine how demons are to be cast out.
1. Some Terminology: The term “exorcism” comes from the Greek nounexorkistes, and designates a person who drives out evil spirits. The verbal form,exorkizo, means “to put someone under oath,” “to adjure” (Matt. 26:63). It came to express the idea of compelling someone to do something by invoking a supernatural power (“to exorcise”). In the New Testament the verb is not used to refer to exorcism, and the noun is applied only once to Jewish exorcists (Acts 19:13). The New Testament uses the verb “to cast out” (ekballo) demons rather than “to exorcise.” This may have something to do with the fact that exorcism was associated with magic, theperformance of certain rituals, and the use ofspecific religious formulas. This is not what we find in the New Testament.
2. Demonic Possession: In the Scriptures demonic possession is a reality taken very seriously. Possessed individuals are characterized variously by aggressive behavior (Matt. 8:28); attempts at self-destruction (Matt. 17:15); the inability to speak (Matt. 9:32), to hear (Mark 9:25), or to see (Matt. 12:22). In general, demonic possession is distinguished from diseases (e.g., Matt. 4:24; Mark 1:32). One of the most controversial aspects of demon possession is that in almost all cases it is difficult to distinguish it from epilepsy, other physical diseases, or a mental illness. This implies that demonic possession has an impact on the mind and body similar to those conditions. But it is usually accompanied by elements of clairvoyance, supernatural phenomena, even levitation of objects. Since in many cases it would be difficult to distinguish it from a natural disease, whenever possible we should seek advice from physicians and other qualified people.
3. Biblical Approach: The casting out of demons was common in Jesus’ ministry, but He did not provide the disciples with a particular procedure. He simply cast out evil spirits by the power of His word, without the performance of any rituals or the use of traditional formulas (Matt. 8:16). He ordered them to leave and they obeyed (Luke 9:49, 50; 10:17). There were no long, time-consuming exercises, no shouting that we know about, no physical involvement of Jesus with the possessed person. In fact, He never touched a demoniac, and only once did He enter into a dialogue with one (Mark 5:7-10). Jesus simply had authority over evil powers, and they could not resist Him.
Jesus shared with His disciples that same authority (Matt. 10:8; Mark 3:15; Luke 9:1). The way they probably cast out demons is illustrated in the book of Acts. The apostles called upon Jesus’ name to free people from demons. The formula is a simple one: “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out…” (Acts 16:18, NIV). It was Christ who freed the person; the apostle called upon Him to intervene. There was no protracted struggle with the demon or dialogue with it. Christ’s power was effective through the word of the disciples.
4. Exorcism and Spiritual Gifts: Now to your question: In the New Testament exorcism is not listed among the spiritual gifts. No one was called by Jesus to establish a ministry of exorcism. He gave His disciples power and authority over demons, but not once did He suggest that would be their primary role. Their responsibility was the proclamation of the kingdom of God, the good news of salvation. He explicitly said: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, … drive out demons” (Matt. 10:7, 8, NIV; cf. Mark 6:12; Luke 9:2). The proclamation of the kingdom of God is the mission of each believer. When in the fulfillment of that mission we confront demoniacs, we have been empowered by Christ to face them. But our primary call is to proclaim the gospel of redemption through Christ.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez is director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.