In it’s March issue, Christianity Today reported on Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s recent missiology conference and its focus on how to respond to accusations of witchcraft on the mission field. The article heavily referenced Professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies and Director of the Doctor of Philosophy in Intercultural Studies Program Dr. Robert Priest.
An entire track of the annual missiology conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School this February was devoted to witchcraft, a topic usually neglected by the field.
“We had thought this was a phenomenon that would die out,” said Robert Priest, professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity. “Instead we are finding that the conditions of modernity—urbanization and social differentiation under capitalism—are contributing to accusations getting stronger and stronger.”
Missionaries have commonly responded in two ways, said Priest. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.
The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”
Priest says the approach is unbiblical. “Nowhere in Scripture do we find anyone attributing affliction or death to a human third party acting through evil occult means,” he said. “We’re not questioning Satan’s power; we’re questioning the diagnostic system that blames another person.”
“Missiologists have not yet done an adequate job of wisely engaging these realities,” said Priest. “We have a solemn responsibility to mobilize the effort to rethink our role in this.”