Mission Briefing: Ideas that shape world mission outreach today

Excluded Middle or Expanded Middle?

In Screwtape Letters, author C.S. Lewis, who also wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, expressed disapproval of two polar opposite views on demons and evil spirits:

Christian missionaries have sometimes gravitated toward one or the other of those views. That's sad since neither position really reflects what Scripture says.

Missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert said that the first view demons don't exist has created a "flaw of the excluded middle." Hiebert noted that believers heavily influenced by rationalistic worldviews generally acknowledge only two kinds of reality:

As a result, things in between or in the "middle" such as ancestral spirits, the evil eye, magical forces, astrology, local demons and ghosts are excluded from being "real" in people's minds. Thus, people's fears of evil spirits are simply dismissed rather than the power of Christ over them being proclaimed. Dismissing things in that middle as not real, said Hiebert, makes it difficult to minister to people feeling beset by invisible spiritual forces.

Missionary to India and noted theologian Leslie Newbigin further argued that denying the existence of middle domain supernatural forces actually turns missionaries into a secularizing force in the lives of the very people they are trying to serve.

Actually, the Bible does not give us any wiggle room to argue against the objective reality of the spirit world. On the other hand, it needs to be said that passages in Mark's Gospel, Romans and 1 Corinthians make clear that there are definite limits to what such powers can do.

In terms of the second view denounced by Lewis attributing most negative things in life to demons that view leads to an expanded rather than an excluded middle. This "expanded middle" is especially evident when people attribute their own behavior to a "demon of discouragement" or a "demon of procrastination" or when they veer off into promoting the idea of "territorial spirits."

If C. S. Lewis was right -- and I believe he was -- the challenge for expatriate missionaries today is to refrain from forcing Scripture to conform to one of the two extreme views. If we truly allow Scripture to shape our world view, we will avoid those extremes of:

  1. Debunking spiritual forces
  2. Cowering in fear at the demons we believe are under every chair.

I like my Haitian friends' approach to the "middle" domain. They acknowledge that there are evil spiritual forces active in the world. Many of them testify to deliverance from those forces when they converted from voodoo to Christianity. They know clearly from personal experience that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is far more powerful than any other force out there. That seems a very biblically-shaped approach that, in Hiebert's way of speaking. neither excludes or expands the "middle" category of reality.

    -- Howard Culbertson

This 500-word mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene.

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