Powers and Principalities

Evangelical theology views the conflict between Jesus and his adversary as a conflict between two kingdoms. Casting out evil spirits was part of the conflict, but so was preaching in the synagogues (Mark 1:39). Preaching the good news, healing, and exorcism were all signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20, where exorcism is viewed as a sign of the kingdom).

The Tension of Two Kingdoms
In evangelical theology, this points to the reality of a hostile realm in conflict with the Kingdom of God. This hostile realm has several dimensions or fronts, including what Scott Moreau1 calls the systemic front, where the agenda is warfare against the domination systems that make up our cultures and societies.

As citizens of this kingdom we are part of the new
creation. Nevertheless, we see the impact of evil all
around us in the form of violence, poverty, crime, etc. 

These systems (cultural, economic, political, religious) are manifestations of what John calls “the world” (kosmos: “the whole world is under the control of the evil one”; 1 John 5:19). This concept of kingdoms in conflict is also illustrated by Satan’s claim of dominion when he offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8-9). The point is that even though God ultimately is the sovereign king of heaven and earth, Satan does exercise significant influence over kosmos and its power structures.

The conflict is evidenced in a tension between the two, often overlapping, kingdoms. Our allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. As citizens of this kingdom we are part of the new creation. Nevertheless, we see the impact of evil all around us in the form of violence, poverty, crime, racism, ethnic strife, betrayal, and brokenness.

This way of looking at the kingdoms in conflict was central to the Reformation. Try to sing the battle hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress Is our God,” and one will realise that the leitmotif is the battle between God’s kingdom and Satan, not just in an internal, personal manner, but on a cosmic scale and in the midst of society and as an attack on the Church.

For Martin Luther, the truth that “God is for us” implies that “the devil is against us.” If this Reformation understanding is left out, the entire gospel of incarnation, justification, and forgiveness is reduced to vague ideas rather than experiences of faith.

We should perceive of evil and spiritual warfare in a broad way. It has to do with the common struggle as Christians, and it touches every area of our lives—family, relationships, neighbours, communities, work. All these areas are battlegrounds for the kingdoms in conflict. At various levels, we recognise that the biblical worldview corresponds to a reality of Auschwitz, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan—or the reality of a drug culture, a divorce culture, a culture of ethnic and racist strife, and the devastating effects of a globalised culture marginalising major parts of the world.

The Attack on Societal and Cultural Levels
Satan exerts influence on societal and cultural levels. This influence may come through idolatry and occult practises and beliefs (e.g., Acts 13 about the magician Elymas). Or it may come through what Sherwood Lingenfelter calls “prisons of disobedience” found in all cultures.2 In a sense, every culture and system may be used by the evil one to hold us in bondage by entangling us into a life of conformity to shared values and beliefs that are fundamentally contrary to God’s purpose and will for humanity. Thus, Satan has worked on a corporate level, says Lingenfelter, to blind people to the gospel.

How the bondage is experienced will vary greatly from culture to culture. In some parts of the world, there is great fear of the spirits, and the gospel is heard as the good news of deliverance from these spirits. In other places, there is evidence of powerful occult undercurrents with overt demonic activity.

In some Latin American countries major parts of the population are caught up in witchcraft, voodoo, and magic. Likewise in Hindu cultures there is a pervasive fear of the spirit world. In the West, discarding Christianity has taken off the lid of the ancient jungle of religiosity. As the animals of the jungle reappear, we call them new (New Age), even though they are as old as the fall of humanity. However, the main bondage most people in “the westernized world” experience is the desire for affluence. The globalised culture has allowed the pursuit of the good life to shape its perspective, values, and psychology so profoundly that Leslie Newbigin is right in viewing the Western culture as the most non-Christian culture ever.

In the kingdom conflict we are, Paul says (Ephesians 6:10-20), confronted by principalities (archai), authorities (exousiai), world rulers (kosmokratores), and spiritual forces (pneumatika). Among evangelicals, these terms are usually understood to refer to satanic forces. Paul’s focus is on the day-to-day struggle of the believer in the midst of culture and society, not on territorial spirits. Neither do the terms seem to describe a hierarchy of spirits.

Domination Systems
Walter Wink talks about domination systems. When an entire network of powers integrates around idolatrous values, we get a domination system. The domination system is the system of the powers. Here are a few examples:

  • A farming family in Bangladesh loses everything to crafty lawyers and hired guns, being forced into the city slums which have no labour, high crime, high prostitution, and starvation. Nearly sixteen million people die from starvation and poverty-related diseases every year.
  • Blacks struggle against an apartheid system as a demonic system.
  • Consumer sickness of wealthy societies is fuelled by belief in endless progress and by a commercialised information society saying less and less to more and more.
  • The sick combination of violence and sexual perversion available for all ages on the internet and video, thus crippling the minds of both older and younger people.

The domination system is characterised by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.3

The basic structure of this system has persisted since the rise of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. At that time, the horse and the wheel together made conquest lucrative, and plunder and conquest included females as slaves, concubines, and wives, resulting in female subordination and a system of patriarchy. Wife-beating and child-beating developed as a male right. Evil was blamed on women. In addition, plunder and conquest gave rise to new classes of aristocrats and priests—people producing nothing, but dominating others through a spiral of violence.

And to uphold the domination system, a myth of redemptive violence comes into being, a myth that lifts high the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, and that might makes right. Violence in this way becomes the nature of things.

The Weapon: The Liberating Message of Jesus
The primary weapon against the powers has always been and will always remain the liberating message of Jesus. That small word or testimony is sufficient to bring down the whole army of powers and principalities. The gospel is the most powerful antidote for domination the world has ever known. It was that antidote that inspired the abolition of slavery; the women’s movement; the non-violence movement; the civil rights movement; the human rights movement; the fall of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism; and the breakup of apartheid.

In our fight against the domination system, we shall lift up the biblical focus on servanthood and servant leadership (Luke 22:22-27) not just as a principle, but because the central core of the gospel is the slave or servant of the Lord who took upon himself our transgressions. The consequence of this gospel truth is the repudiation of the right of some to lord it over others by means of power, wealth, shaming, or titles. The man on a donkey is the master of God’s people in their fight against powers and principalities in this world.

The cross challenges the entire domination system. The cross reveals the delusions and deceptions and reveals that death does not have the final word. Jesus entered darkness and death and made it the darkness of God. It is now possible to enter any darkness and trust God to wrest from it resurrection. And the cross proves that truth cannot be killed. The mighty forces of deception and lie cannot ever kill the truth.

The primary task of the Church with reference to powers and principalities is to unmask their idolatrous pretensions, to identify their dehumanising values, to strip from them the mantle and credibility, and to set their victims free. This includes the testimony to the crucified—to the rulers and powers. It does not include a commission to create a new society; rather, we are, in the midst of society, to call the powers’ bluff, to de-legitimate and ridicule the domination system.

(Editor’s note: The full version of this article is found in 2002. Deliver Us From Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission. Eds. A. Scott Moreau, Tokunboh Adeyemo, David Burnett, Bryant Myers, and Hwa Yung. Monrovia, California, USA: MARC.)


1. 1997. Essentials of Spiritual Warfare. Wheaton, Illinois, USA: Harold Shaw Publishers, 18.

2. 1992. Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker.

3. Wink, Walter. 1998. When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 59.

Dr. Knud Jørgensen is dean of Tao Fong Shan in Hong Kong and associate professor at the Norwegian School of Theology.