Has the Church sought out Demonic Power to Further the Gospel?
Kyle Strobel has been a friend of mine since we were classmates in the M.A. Philosophy program at Talbot in the early 2000s. Now we are both professors at Biola (he's at Talbot Theological Seminary and I am in the Christian Apologetics program). Kyle has a recent book that, in all honesty, is going to stir some people up. He didn't write it just to provoke, but because he really believes the church today has co-opted some non-biblical ideas that radically undermine the gospel.
And I tend to agree. If Kyle is right, then we the church need to seriously rethink how we approach ministry. I hope you will genuinely wrestle with his responses to my questions in this interview, but even more importantly, get a copy of his book The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that has Abandoned It. You can follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleStrobel or on his website www.metamopha.com
SEAN MCDOWELL: You make a pretty provocative claim that the church has made use of demonic power in spreading the gospel. Can you explain?
KYLE STROBEL: When my best-friend Jamin Goggin and I started to explore the question of Christian power for our new book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, this was the reality that really knocked us on our backs. We came to see that the church has adopted a power system that is destroying it. I certainly think that the vast majority of people in ministry have good ends in mind – they long for people to know Jesus, they want to be faithful, and they genuinely desire to adhere to the truth. But we can’t underestimate how easy it is to allow our good motivations to blind us to the kinds of power we use to further Christ’s kingdom, and how certain forms of power are antithetical to the way of Jesus.
To use language from Galatians 6, we are always tempted to try to sow to the flesh and still try to reap in the Spirit. Regardless of our motivations, if we are sowing to the flesh we will reap in the flesh, that is biblically axiomatic. But more often than not, we think that “sowing in the flesh” is simply sinning – as if the flesh merely named bad behavior. In Scripture it is much more nuanced. Our flesh includes the power system we have adopted, the way we seek to be powerful in our lives, and that is where most of us are tempted in ministry. We can seek to use evil power to further the kingdom, and when we do it slowly destroys us from within.
MCDOWELL: When you talk about “evil power” or “demonic power,” what are you referring to?
STROBEL: In James 3 we discover that the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil are interconnected (James 3:15). This is not simply the way of deceit, murder, and lust, but is much more “mundane” than we might expect. James claims that this way of evil is characterized by “jealousy and selfish ambition,” and where these characteristics exist, “there is disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:16). This means that even with good motivations and ends in mind, we can employ the same power that fuels the demonic. I see jealousy and selfish ambition in pastors who see each other as competition, in people who use ministry for their own grandiosity, and in those who grow in knowledge but not in wisdom. There are good motives behind these desires – to be faithful, to be good at what we do, to be knowledgeable – but they too often seek these things through a power system that is of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and not of Christ. This is how certain forms of preaching actually make the cross “void” (1 Cor. 1:17), rather than cohering with the cruciform power of Christ’s kingdom.
MCDOWELL: If you could narrow it down, what are the key elements of kingdom power over worldly power? How do they differ?
STROBEL: While Scripture gives lists of the virtues of kingdom power (Gal. 5:22-23, James 3:17-18), perhaps the best way to think about kingdom power is in Jesus’ words to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). True kingdom power is power in weakness for love, whereas worldly power always seeks for power in strength for control. Too often I see folks trying to utilize their strength for the sake of the Gospel – and this can be true in preaching, in evangelism, in apologetics, and in discipleship – and, if I’m honest, too often I see this temptation in me. The problem is that we hear this call and, quite simply, we don’t think it will work. We are still convinced that the only way for Christ’s kingdom to come is through our savvy, ability, and strength. Unfortunately, this way is sowing to our flesh and trying to reap in the Spirit, and in the end we will always reap what we have sown.
MCDOWELL: What do you think has caused the church, and Christians in general, to be tempted by worldly power over kingdom power?
STROBEL: In general, I don’t find Christians making the distinctions the Bible makes concerning this issue. We have overly-simplified the notion of power, so that we basically accept that worldly power is the only kind of power there is. This is why love, self-giving, and even, for many, the church, feel powerless. We come to think that weakness is just that, weakness, rather than being the location of Christ’s strength. When our worldview gives us a definition of power that is ultimately worldly, we have no hope of seeing how the way of Christ is truly powerful. So we try to take the message of Jesus and force it into a framework that ultimately destroys it.
The question we have to grapple with, all of us, is that if Christ’s power is known in weakness, are we embracing our weakness or trying to destroy it? Can we utter Paul’s words, “Therefore I am well content with my weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10)? I don’t know about you, but I struggle to say this. I am not content with my weaknesses, let alone insults, persecutions, etc. But for Paul, the power of God was in such places of content. That is what, deep down, I struggle to have the faith to embrace. But this is our calling.
MCDOWELL: On a more personal note, why did you chose to go into studying spiritual growth and being a professor?
STROBEL: I have always been gripped by questions about the Christian life and faithfulness. In many ways it is my own struggle with faithfulness, and probably even more so my struggle with faithlessness, that has driven me to wrestle with these things. For me, this has always been a deeply existential quest. I am not a pure academic where these questions are just academically interesting to me. My study and teaching is a longing to understand the nature of our life with God and what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit. Too often, I think, we have left these questions off of our academic study of theology, but they are at the heart of what the theologian does. So this is how I see my role as a professor – guiding students into deep questions about living with God who is always with us.
MCDOWELL: I can't help asking because, as you know, I can relate! What was it like for you having "rock-star" apologist Lee Strobel as your father? How has being the son of Lee Strobel shaped you?
STROBEL: One of the great gifts of growing up in a household that was oriented around apologetics is that questions were not scary. When asking questions is a virtue, you don’t have to be afraid of where they take you. My own calling, unlike my father’s, is not in the area of evangelism or apologetics, but in Christian living and theology. But just as my father’s questions as an atheist led him to the Lord, my own questions as a young Christian led me into deeper study of theology, spiritual growth, and life in the Spirit.
But there is another virtue he passed on to me that is a bit more unusual. My father has always had academic questions, but he took those questions back into the church. This desire to serve the church, and to help folks in the church answer difficult questions, has really driven his ministry over the years. As an academic, sadly, I could easily avoid this, even as a Christian academic. But I have a similar drive to take my academic study and bring it back into the church. This has become a central part of my own ministry as a theologian. In a sense, a true theologian is never in service to the academy, but always ultimately to the church. This is something I hope to embody in my own ministry.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.