Since the time of earliest Christianity there has been a belief that the church is under attack from a figure we know as Satan. Probably extending from the stories of Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, and perhaps as far back as the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Genesis narrative, this belief is found in other parts of the New Testament literature and is often referred to as spiritual warfare. While we must take the existence of evil seriously, I often wonder if the church is only the target of Satan’s attacks, or whether the church is more often a participant in the wiles of the figure we call the Devil.
I have to admit that I am not one who necessarily believes in a mythical figure known as Satan. I more readily accept that this is a personification given by the ancients to what they perceived as the struggle to choose between doing good and doing evil. I am definitely not denying the existence of evil, and I am not setting out to disprove the reality of Satan, but I have trouble with using a mythical figure as a scapegoat for the evil and sin we choose to do as humans, as if we can say, in the words of the comedian Flip Wilson, “the Devil made me do it.”
But let me put aside my own beliefs about the non existence of Satan and presume that the Devil is real. In doing so, I want to return to the question about what Satan may be up to in relation to the church. The traditional and popular understanding of the actions of Satan suggests that the Devil attacks the church whenever the church seeks to do what God wants her to do. I most certainly don’t disagree with this belief, but I do believe that if we limit our understanding only to this, then we may be deceived into thinking that the church is only the enemy of Satan and not, as may be the case, an unwitting ally of the Devil.
It is the popular understanding about Satan and his actions that we find mostly in conservative churches that pride themselves on so-called correct theology and Bible believing faith. Yet, so-called correct theology and Bible believing faith can be deceptive, if Satan or our own ignorance and prejudices cloud our understanding of the message of the scriptures.
There are, in my view, some significant lies that Satan has fed the church that the so-called Bible believing church often does not recognize. While this is not an exhaustive list, it is certainly one that should be brought to the forefront if we want to have any honest conversations about the deceptive tactics of the figure we refer to as the Devil.
The first lie is one that suggests that inequality is biblical. While many churches would not admit to practicing inequality, when we prevent certain people from holding leadership roles in the church because of gender, marital status, race, or other form of social classification, then we practice inequality. To say that a female cannot be a pastor, minister, or deacon, is to practice inequality. To say that a divorced person cannot take on a church leadership position is inequality. And to prevent a person of a different race from leadership, whether intentional or not, is to practice inequality. But the gospel is about equality and the tearing down of barriers that divide humanity.
The second lie follows from the first. Exclusion grows out of our practice of inequality. We see the other as not only different, but also as unequal to us, and thus we exclude them. Whether we exclude people based on their race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, or theological beliefs, exclusion is a sin and is one of the great lies Satan has told the church. But the gospel is inclusive, open to all who believe and choose to follow Jesus.
Finally there is the lie of ignorance. It becomes easier for the church to practice inequality and exclusion when we remain ignorant and resort to statements like, “the Bible says it, so that settles it.” While as followers of Christ we must take seriously the message Christ preaches and exemplifies, and we should work to become more biblically literate, if we read the stories of violence, prejudice, and exclusion that we find in some of the biblical material with a view toward making them theologically and ethically relevant for the church today, then we have bought into one of Satan’s biggest lies. Holding onto ignorance cloaked in religious truth only feeds the prejudices that lead to our seeing people as unequal and results in our excluding them. This process is completely contrary to the gospel Jesus preached, lived, and ultimately died to fulfill.
While we play victim to an attacker we call Satan, the real deceit we practice is in not admitting that we are very often participants in the evil promulgated by the Devil. History shows that the church has committed its own share of evil in the world. And, in very subtle ways, masked by a perception of truth, the Devil continues to entrap the church in his snare and to use the witness of the church to prevent people from believing in a God who shows no partiality, who is inclusive, and who welcomes all into the full participation of the church.