Myths and Misunderstandings about Demons

The 45 college-aged students were stunned and frightened. Some were weeping, and others were so angry they balled up their fists and held their breath. They looked around as if they were about to be the next victim in a Hallowe’en movie. “Jumpy” describes their mood. Some of them reported weeks later they had not had a good night’s sleep since that horrific weekend.

Was this a murder mystery experience? Did they just do a horror movie marathon? Or did they really experience a supernatural phenomenon?

Actually, none of those things happened. They went on a college-and-career church retreat with their church. They invited a group of seniors from a local Bible College to come and do some teaching and direction for their weekend.

“It will be fun”, they thought.

“It will be instructive”, they hoped.

“It will be the most chaotic moment of our lives”, imagined none of them.

The worst part was…I was one of the teachers that weekend. I and my fellow college students were zealous and ignorant–a very toxic combination.

It was the late 1970s, and the doctrines concerning angels, demons, principalities, powers, and the New Age forces were dominating all the late night gab sessions in the dorm. Armed with some of the stupidest books every produced in Christianity, and fueled by theological speculation and rumor, we headed out to that retreat, ready to enlighten these young people about the realities of how the demonic realm was about to destroy each of their lives if it wasn’t already.

We tortured these retreat participants with one theory about demons after another. By the end of those two days, students and teachers were looking for demons under every rock. So much damage; so little accurate teaching.

I was an easy dupe for all this talk of demons. My mother had been a spiritist. Seeking to follow in the footsteps of Edgar Cayce, she did sleep-reading, channeling insights from the spirit realm for other people. When she decided to pull away from that world, she had a mess of problems with spiritual forces. I won’t try to prove that to you, but it was dramatic and I saw it.

After years of indoctrination from the Cayce teachings, I was convinced the spirit realm existed and was dangerous.

Then, I became a Christian and joined the Jesus People movement. Many of these fine people had experienced the “anything goes” spiritual climate of the late 1960s. A good percentage of them had become wary of anything which could be construed as divination, witchcraft, or spiritism. Though they were instrumental in helping me see some great Bible truths, they also filled my head with strange ideas about the unseen forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

In other words, I was in the perfect spot to buy into any spiritual speculation. And in the 1970s, the Christian bookstores had plenty of authors writing about the dangers of demons and principalities.

Leading the authors were some old-school preachers. Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, and Jack Coe were producing new books every year concerning the demonic realm. Jack Chick was just starting to put out his cartoon “tracts”, whose purpose was to show a demon around every corner and scare every person into the loving arms of the Fundamentalist Jesus.

Here is the cover of one of Chick’s most famous tracts, “Party Girl”

In its grotesquely drawn pages, this little booklet tells about how some 20-somethings are planning to go to a rock concert that weekend. Then, the pamphlet “shows” the demonic realm, where demons and Satan are planning how to ruin the lives and completely possess these young people. Their plan would have worked except for a courageous grandmother who comes to the rock party and casts the demons out. She convinces the young people to come back to Jesus before they are possessed by the demons of rock-and-roll, cheap condoms(?), drugs, and loose clothing.

However, the most sensational author who focused on the demonic realm was an ex-rock-and-roller by the name of Bob Larson.

Through his book, “The Day Music Died” youth groups around the country–and quite a few adult groups as well–learned that all rock music was demonic and would ruin a person’s life. As a result, churches all over North America burned records and tapes of any and all rock music. Larson had theories that the beat of rock and roll correlated to demonic wavelengths and could take over your brain in seconds.

Unfortunately, not only was he speculating about the demonic realm with no hard evidence, Larson was a white supremacist. He believed and taught that rock music was a plot by the black races to take over the minds and spirits of good white kids. He even called rock music that “African demon beat music.

Of course, there was no way to prove or disprove any of these theories about demons, rock music, etc., which made it perfect fodder for speculators and teachers wanting to fashion a following out of impressionable students.

By the late 70s, because of Larson, Chick, et al, almost every major evangelical bible teacher felt compelled to say something about demons. Even teachers who had more conservative roots were joining in. Don Basham, Bob Mumford, and Billy Graham were all talking about the demonic realm and what kind of “evil” activities could influence people. Graham biographers note that in the late 70s, Billy began including references to demonic forces of evil into his crusade sermons.

Even though some of these more careful preachers had good things to say, it just served to pique the interest of the Christian reading public and open the door to even more speculation.

From those crazy days of the 1970s came even stranger teachings of the 1980s about demons. More and more books came out sharing personal stories from people who believed they had been demonized and wanted to share how it happened. Dr. Rebecca Brown published two books where she told the story of a woman who was possessed and who shared a house with her. Even though the books were later shown to be patently false, her followers still maintain they are actually true.

The 1980s and 90s writers focused on how to cast these demons out of your body, your church, and even your town. One of those books “Taking Our Cities for God” even advised intercessory prayer people to get up on high places above their cities and towns and command the forces of darkness to leave. [Note: The author of that book has since repudiated that approach. See his book “Healing America’s Wounds” for a much better explanation of how to address geographical justice issues].

One pastoral colleague claims to have catalogued over 2000 published books which focus on the demonic realm. The irony is how little the Bible actually says about demons. And because we don’t live in the days of the Bible, we are reading these few things with the eyes of a completely different cosmology.

By the time we hosted our disastrous college and career retreat, we had ventured beyond sanity and into the realm of the macabre. We pulled Bible verses out of context and wildly speculated on things the Bible only hints at. We assumed we understood the cosmology of the Bible, and we also assumed the Bible writers were completely right about everything they did say.

Since those disastrous 1970s, I have examined and studied as much as I can from legitimate scholars and researchers. Two things I know for sure. First, much of what is taught by Christians about the spirit realm is speculation and rumor. Second, the whole issue is sensational and frightening enough to make even hard-core intellectuals abandon common sense.

You may not be aware of it, but most of what you were told about the demonic does not come from the Bible. Consider the following “myths” about demons that many people just assume are true.

Myth #1: We  know what demons are.

A lot of people teach demons are fallen angels. But are they? We have no idea. No passage of the Bible connects demons and angels. There are separate verses which speak of each, and people have made that assumption for centuries. The idea that demons are fallen angels doesn’t come from the Bible, and it doesn’t even come from the days when the Bible was written. As far as scholars can trace it, this idea comes from the Middle Ages. Dante’s classic work of fiction “Inferno” is one such source, but there were many others.

There actually is a source which reveals a possible explanation of the nature of demons from the days of the Bible. But it is not the Bible. It is a document written during the period between the Old and New Testaments. It is the document called “The Book(s) of Enoch”. This was a very influential book during the time the New Testament was being written. Events in that book are quoted by both 2 Peter and Jude. There is every indication that at least two of Jesus’ parables are influenced by Enoch.

The Book of Enoch states that demons are disembodied spirits who used to have bodies before the Flood. They are actually the children born from the sexual union between fallen angels and human women. (Cf. Genesis 6 and the Nephilim).

Was Enoch right? We have no way of knowing. So, when you read any book which speculates or states anything about the origin and nature of demons, you can mentally note the person may not be correct. It is healthy to be skeptical.

Myth #2:  All involvement with demons results in possession.

Here is the really weird part. The Bible says almost nothing about how demons interact with people. The main thing we are told is that some people are possessed by them. 1 Timothy 4:1 also says there are such things as “doctrines of demons”. The writer of 1 Timothy never says what these are and only hints a few verses later that they relate to some kind of Jewish legalism.

In addition, 1 Corinthians 10:18-22 talks about how those people who go to temples and offer up sacrifices to the gods are actually offering sacrifices to demons. He then goes on to compare the Eucharist cup with the offering to these idols and calls those offerings “the cup of demons”. His clear meaning is that a person who follows Christ should not be involved with offering sacrifices to idols. Somehow, demons are involved with this process. We are left to guess at how this works. And guesswork is always a dangerous business.

That is literally all the Bible says about the activity of demons. Nowhere does it say that demons tempt us, or even speak to us.

Myth #3: Satan/Lucifer is in charge of demons.

This belief has been held for a long time. But is it true? We have no idea for certain. After casting out demons one time, Jesus was accused of being in charge of them. They then likened him to Beelzebul, who is known as the Prince of Demons.

Is this Satan? Some people believe so, but there are many scholars who disagree. Archeologists say the first reference in antiquity to Beelzebul mentions it as a pagan Philistine god worshiped in the ancient Philistine city of Ekron. Other documents mention Beelzebul in the pantheon of fallen angels, but very few of them identify it with Satan. Almost every mention of Beelzebul says it can fly and has some level of authority over the spirit realm.

Once again, we have no idea who is in charge of demons, or even what that would mean. We just know that the Bible tells us Jesus is not Beelzebul.

We don’t even know if Beelzebul is real or not.

Myth #4: We know how a person can be possessed.

This is where the most rampant speculation is made about the demonic realm. People are always writing books and claiming they know how people come to have a demon.

In fact, the Bible never once says how any person is demonized.

I once made a list of all the ways I have read which state how a person may be possessed/controlled by a demon. Some of these ways seem obvious: hallucinogenic drugs, satanic practices, hypnotism, cult activity, offering oneself to a demon, ouija boards.

However, other ways seem much stranger. I have heard that listening to music by Black Sabbath can cause it, sleeping with more than three people as a single person, having sex with a satanist, using weed, going to a Pentecostal church and speaking in tongues, watching the show “Sex and the City”, performing yoga poses, going to a rock concert, playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading Science Fiction, attending a Mormon church, having an abortion, being a member of the Democratic Party, taking oaths in the Masonic Lodge, being involved with Native American sweat lodges, being slain in the Spirit, going to a Baptist church, smoking cigarettes, swearing at one’s parents, not forgiving people, getting baptized as an infant, venerating Jesus’ mother Mary, visiting San Francisco…etc.

I am not making any of this up. I have literally heard every one of those as possible causes for demon possession. If you have spent any time with people who believe in demons, I guarantee you have at least heard hints of some of these. Several of these come from books by famous authors.

How does one become demonized? We don’t know. At least, the Bible does not help us understand it.

It is curious however, that not all Bible authors agree on demons. It is possible the Apostle John when he wrote his Gospel much later than the other Gospel writers might have disagreed with his colleagues. We do not see any mention of demonized people in John’s Gospel, though demoniacs are quite common in the other three Gospels. By the time John wrote his Gospel, the Gnostics were speculating on many different spiritual entities and their possible role in the Gospel story. Many NT scholars hypothesize that John was trying to downplay the role that demons played in the life of Jesus.

In addition, Jesus is often accused by the Pharisees of being demon-possessed in John. There is no question in my mind that John looked at the spirit realm differently than the other Gospel writers. It is possible that John’s cosmology had changed since the other writers wrote their stories of Jesus. But like most things regarding the spirit realm and the Bible…we just don’t know.

Myth #5 – Demons are Everywhere

I have no idea how this idea started, but it seems to be quite common. In some intercessory prayer circles, every person is being attacked by demons, spoken to by demons, affected by demons. There is absolutely no evidence this is true, either from the Bible or common sense. Demons are not God; they are not omnipresent. Nowhere in the Bible or in literature are we given any clues as to how many demons there are.

What if there is a small, limited number of demons? What if most of the things we ascribe to demons are actually man-made psychological phenomena? We just don’t know and we have no way of knowing.


I can anticipate someone saying “yeah, we don’t know these things for sure, but can we afford to ignore demons?” This is the attitude that most cultures adopt regarding the spirit realm: Because we don’t know much about the spirit realm, we have to be extra-careful and paranoid when approaching anything spiritual.

I would rather adopt a hands-off approach to things I don’t understand. Even the cosmology of the Bible now has to be redefined by stripping away elements that came from other cultures of the Ancient Near East.

Be careful out there.

How to Hang with God When you don’t want Church any more.

[Trigger Warning: This article contains references to child sexual abuse, religious abuse, church discipline, and bad treatment of members of the LGBTQ community which may trigger some readers].

She revealed to her Associate Pastor’s wife she was gay and hoped to find a female life partner. Within days, she was called before a meeting of the Elders. They demanded she repent from her wickedness.

She reminded them that she had just identified/admitted to herself that she was only attracted to women. She had not had sex and had not even kissed a girl.

Yet she was told it was time to repent or face church discipline. She told them she could not in good conscience pretend to be heterosexual. Days later, they informed her that the following would happen:

  • She was suspended from membership pending a time when she would publicly repent.
  • The Elders would read the notice of her suspension from the pulpit.
  • All members of the congregation–including her family members–would be told if they saw her or spoke to her they could only bring up the issue of her sin. They could not be friends with her or talk casually with her.
  • If she repented, she would never be allowed to do children’s or teen ministry. This was to prevent her from influencing young children toward lesbianism in the future.

She got angry at the church, God, and her family–who indeed shunned her–and vowed to never go to a church again. That was seven years ago. She has kept part of her bargain. She does not go to any church. She only speaks to her older brother, the only non-Christian in her family.

But after several years of getting angry at God she has changed her mind. She has read several books on alternative understandings of LGBTQ theology. She has talked to many believers who do not feel the same way as her church about these issues, regardless of whether they are Affirming. She now believes God probably doesn’t endorse the way she has been treated.

But after being away from God for seven years, she doesn’t know how to re-establish connection and a relationship with God.

She struggles because she has jettisoned a literal reading of the Bible, a Christian code of ethics and sexuality, evangelical political and cultural norms, and most of her parents’ beliefs on heaven, hell, and authority.

But she still believes in a Creator-God and she still believes Jesus is the savior.

She is one of many who have asked how they can reconnect with God after throwing out evangelicalism and organized church. This is not an easy thing to do, as everyone who has tried it can testify.

Some people walk away from the church because they were abused by a pastor or church leader.

Some run away because when that leader was confronted, the church rallied around the leader and laid more grief on the victim.

Others saw hypocrisy, hatred, alt-right political positions, spousal violence, xenophobia, gun violence, and Complementarianism either taught outright or winked at.

There are also conscientious theologians in churches who see the circular logic of Inerrancy, or who cannot stomach the disconnect between Science and the Bible as their church taught it, or see a permanent distance between a God of love and the God of Eternal Conscious Torment.

People leave church–and people leave Christianity.

The author Anne Rice, a Catholic, wrote this several years ago:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

For whatever reason people leave the Church and/or Christianity, there are some who do not leave God. But because they learned God from Christianity, it is hard to separate God out enough from his proponents to form a meaningful relationship. Some do not.

Some cannot bring themselves to believe in God because their entire church anguish is irrevocably tied up with God.

To help understand that, listen to one victim of child sexual abuse. Though this is not about God, it draws a parallel emotional picture with someone struggling with abuse in church, and whether to believe in God:

“I was dragged weekly down to the basement of our house where I was molested, beaten, and even raped. I have done a lot of work to not hate my Dad. I have done even more work to be able to finally function as a healthy adult. But damn it, don’t tell me I have to have anything to do with my mother who let the whole thing happen.”

For many, God is that parent who let the whole thing happen.

This article is not telling anyone they have to have a relationship with God. But if, after all the struggles, you still believe in God and want to re-connect somehow, what can you do?

This is not a definitive list. But it probably will help get the reader unstuck.

1. Get it all out.

You can’t reconnect with God if you keep pretending you are not angry with God. Spend some time, maybe a lot of time, telling God how you feel. Anger is only part of it. Add your disappointments, your fears, your confusion, your sense of injustice. Perhaps write it down or put it on a recording of some kind. There are some who have used art, poetry, and podcasts to empty out the feelings.

Like Forrest Gump who, after his grief, ran and ran until he was tired, keep getting it all out until you’re tired of doing that. Then you know it is done. It doesn’t matter how long this part takes. Do whatever you want with all of it: Collect it, distribute it, burn it, read it over–it doesn’t matter. It’s yours.

2. Tell someone else as much of your story, or as little as you like.

If you do this step, make sure the person you first tell is as safe as you can find, and that they know ahead of time what is expected. You don’t want them to fix you, agree with you, disagree with you, defend God, attack God, or any other reaction of that type. You want them only to understand what you’re saying. When you do this, find another person with whom to do it again. Then again. And again. Some become writers to do this.

Last year, Jennifer Fox wrote a mini-series called “The Tale” which stars Laura Dern, and has been hailed as a masterpiece of television. It is a story of how when Fox was 13, her equestrian coach and the coach’s boyfriend embroiled her in a bizarre sexual assault.

Fox describes the series as more than just cathartic. It resulted in the ability to get to know her own self better. Even though the television story is a little different than her real story, it is not dissimilar. She was abused by trusted adults.

So why did she write it? In her words, it was to discover her 13-year-old self:

One day, I woke up and realized I actually didn’t know who I was at 13. I lost touch with her and didn’t know what she would say to me today or why she did what she did.

After writing the script, she admits to forming a deeper understanding and appreciation of who she was and what she had endured. This is the key to telling your story. The more your story of church, abuse, discouragement, etc. is told, the less power it has. And the more you will understand about what really happened.

3. Read what others have found.

Once you have written down–or divulged the pain in another creative stream–and told others about this pain, it might be time to let it go. You don’t ever have to. It is your choice. But it is a heavy weight to carry on one’s soul. Some people may have to negotiate with that part of you which never wants to forget what happened. You might start slowly until you feel comfortable letting some elements go. Some of these elements relate to God, so you might need help with that part.

This is the stage I suggest reading the books, blogs, essays, and songs of those who have returned to God after being away awhile. I hesitate to give the titles for you at this juncture. There are many to choose from and I don’t want to completely direct your path. You can ask others on social media who relate to this re-connecting who they found helpful. Take it slowly. Through this stage, you may see what others did to find the God of their youth, the God who wasn’t always scary.

Unfortunately, for some of you, the God you were taught was always scary and you may need to purge that God out of your system before checking out the God of peace, gentleness, and love.

One book I do suggest trying is Kevin Butcher’s book “Choose + Choose Again.” It can be cathartic and releasing, though some have found it to be too triggering.

I also find all the writings of Anne Lamott helpful for the person returning to God. Listen to this wisdom:

“This is the most profound spiritual truth I know; That even when we’re most sure that love cannot conquer all, it seems to anyway.”

4. Back into Spirituality–And God.

I never recommend a particular spiritual discipline at this point, but neither am I that guy who believes that all spiritual disciplines except bible meditation lead to demonization. I think it depends on the state of your soul. If you are seeking God, you are not going to find a snake.

Meditation, yoga, contemplation, tai-chi, mindfulness, grounding, running with spiritual purpose, speaking in tongues, dancing, energy work, and a host of other spiritual disciplines can at least open up the possibility that you can be connected to God the Spirit. John 4:24 says that God is Spirit and those who worship God should worship in spirit and in truth. Romans 8:16 says “The Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are God’s beloved children.” There is a lot going on deep in our spirit-selves that we do not tap into. Before knowing God again, know your own spirit and how it works.

If the path you go down spiritually is leading you away from God, stop going that way. If it is leading you to yearn for more of your Creator’s presence, then keep going. I’m not worried for you. You’ll figure it out.

5. Start talking again–but this time, let it be a conversation.

Jesus told his disciples that he wouldn’t leave them as orphans; he would come to them. By this he meant the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is the only member of the God-trinity we will ever experience directly in this plane of existence. The Spirit of God talks deeply inside our spirit. So have a conversation. Enjoy questions and answers.

One of my clients was working through the pain of being separated from her mother at age 10. She blamed God for taking her away. As we did the memory work, we found that a part of her had decided she didn’t want to ever be close to anyone again or love anyone again. But that part of her would take over later in life and force her to cut off new people whom she really did want to know and love. She felt stuck.

We went back into this 10-year old memory together. We faced that part of her that wanted to cut off love. This part would not budge. It would not let the core of her be in relationship with anyone other than superficially.

So I asked this question to the part that didn’t want love: “Would you like to see if God’s Spirit has anything to say to you?” Surprisingly, that part really did want to hear what God had to say. Within a short time, God showed this part that even though people would be imperfect and selfish with their love, God promised never to do that. This part didn’t quite believe God, but it was willing to give God a try.

That began a two-month trial period. This “I don’t want love” part would have conversations with God’s Spirit. By the end of two months, it allowed her core to begin receiving love from God.

By the end of that year, she began to receive love from other people too.

Not everyone’s story is that neat and tidy. But talking again to God, as much or as little as you like, can bring a new appreciation for what God sounds like when the voice of the pulpit and the voices of the pew-sitters are not speaking for God.

How Parent Teen Exchanges Work

A mother called me one afternoon all angry and confused. She got my name from her friend, one of my counseling clients. She agreed to meet me so she could discuss how to handle a disagreement between she and her daughter.

“Mike, I went into my daughter’s room and looked through all of her drawers. When she figured out I had done this, she became livid and won’t talk to me. It seems all year we’ve had this deteriorating relationship. I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Maria, can I ask you some questions to help you work this through?”

“Sure”.

“Why were you looking through your daughter’s private dresser?”

“Well, first, I don’t consider her dresser as her private space. I bought it, I brought it home, I own the house, I set the rules.” I let this one slip for the moment. She continued.

“But the real reason I was doing it was because her best friend Nicole’s mom called me concerned the girls were doing Ecstasy at a party last week. I wanted to find out if she was hiding drugs in her room.”

“To your knowledge, has your daughter ever used recreational drugs?”

“I smelled pot on her earlier this year, but she denied it.” I also wanted to bring up the issue of acting upon unwarranted suspicions without having dialogue first, but I left that issue to another time.

“I didn’t find any drugs, but there was some stuff that really scared me. I found condoms in the bottom drawer. I found “Fifty Shades of Grey” in there as well. It just makes me sick to think about it.”

“Do you and your husband own your house outright or do you have a mortgage?”

“I don’t know why that’s important, but yes, we have a mortgage.”

“And Maria, if the bank sent over tellers and loan officers and began ransacking your house, looking through your financial statements and searching in all your drawers, how would you react?”

“Listen Mike, I know where you’re going with this. It’s not the same thing. My house is still mine, even if I have a mortgage. I’m protected by basic rights.”

“Of course you are. But don’t you think the attitude should be the same even if the laws governing our teens does not explicitly recognize their rights to the space they call their own? Shouldn’t we afford them certain levels of respect and dignity?”

Maria didn’t know what to say to this, so I continued.

“Maria, the basic idea behind Respectful Parenting is that teens must be afforded the same level of respect we give other adults. And it teaches that they must be allowed to make mistakes and be held accountable for those mistakes without parents always jumping in to save them or head off the problems. Most of that overseer attitude is reserved for the time before children become teens. As they reach age 11 or 12, we must change the rules and recognize their rights as adults.”

This was a lot for Maria to take in. Since she had never really recognized her daughter’s adult status, she was still operating as if she was a taller more mouthy child. The daughter however was aware of this and resented it. And the daughter was correct in resenting it. It is not appropriate.

If you treat a teen as an adult, there is a greater chance they will act like an adult sooner than their peers. And if they don’t, they were never going to act that way in the first place.

“Mike, what should I have done?”

“First, you start with some agreements between you and your daughter. I call these agreements “Exchanges” because they are not really rules. They are negotiated understandings and both sides have input on how they are to be worked out. In the case of your daughter’s room, an Exchange might look like this:

1. The room is her space even though you own the house

2. The room is locked but parents have permission to enter it if they feel it is warranted.

3. If the teen does not keep the room to a minimum level of tidiness, there would be consequences (these must be negotiated and agreed upon).

4. The only exception to this is if a teen has a weapon in the room or if the parent suspects the teen is in trouble or is hurting themselves. If these exceptions occur then the parent must tell the teen either right before going in or immediately after.

I asked Maria if she could live with this kind of Exchange. She thought about it for awhile and said there were a few modifications she would like, but that it sounded fair. She brought it home to her daughter who made a few more modifications than Maria and I had worked out. By the end, they were both satisfied it was a workable Exchange.

The next time we met, Maria and I went into the deeper issue. I asked her why the condoms and the copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” upset her so much.

“She’s only 17. She shouldn’t be sexually active yet. And I certainly don’t think she should be fooling around with that Bondage crap!” Maria’s complexion was a deeply disturbed umber by this point.

“Tell me about your discussions with your daughter about sex.”

Maria shared that they had talked twice about sex and sexuality. The first time she had reviewed the basics of her daughter’s monthly cycle and how to care for that part of her life. The second time, she explained how intercourse worked and how petting almost always led up to it. That conversation took place two years before and they had not talked about sex since.

“Then Maria, I don’t think you should be surprised your daughter has decided to find out more about sexuality without consulting you. I am not trying to make you feel bad, but the information you gave your daughter, though moderately helpful, is less than minimal. Think about this; you found condoms in her drawer. What information do you deduce from the condoms?”

“That she is sexually active.”

“Not necessarily. She may be, or she may just want to make sure she’s prepared if she does have sex. She owns these condoms herself, which may mean she is not relying on a boyfriend to have them. She is taking responsibility for her own life. If you had been having these conversations regularly, you would know her motivation for having the condom.” I wasn’t trying to make Maria feel badly. I wanted her to wake up to the most important aspect of Respectful Parenting: There must be continual dialogue over issues both parties feel strongly about.

In the end, Maria went home and began the first of many discussions about sexuality with her daughter. She and her daughter read through several chapters of Fifty Shades and talked over what it meant. In the end, the daughter concluded on her own that this was not that interesting to her. And mom and daughter talked more about their own ideas of sexuality and what it implied to them.

Lo and behold, they stopped fighting.

It’s not rocket science.

In this article, I am outlining how any parents and teens can get to this place. It is all facilitated by Exchanges. An Exchange is an agreement a parent and teen enter into on a specific subject where certain compromises are made by both sides until everyone is satisfied about the issue.

To arrive at a successful Exchange, these are the basic understandings:

1. This is not a contest. It is not a win-lose zero sum game. Either both parties get enough of what they want or you keep working at it.

2. This is about compromise. Everyone needs to give up something. That is why it is called an Exchange

3. This is negotiated. Parents can’t unilaterally determine all the parameters of the exchange. Neither can the teen.

4. An Exchange is always open to change if it is not working for everyone concerned.

With these guidelines up front as the basis, let’s look at 8 common Exchanges and how a parent and teen can arrive at them.

Schoolwork Exchange

This is very complex concept. How well someone does in high school often determines what they will do with the rest of their lives. Parents often understand this better than teens. So parents come at the issue more intensely than their teens. Unfortunately, for teens, high school is a complex tangle of relationships, changing goals, victories and defeats, pressures, and competing allegiances. It is not as simple as just getting good grades.

A parent wants a teen to work hard. That is reasonable to expect. In a schoolwork exchange, the parent and the teen must decide what is expected by both parties. Most teens want their parents to give advice about school, provide resources, guidance and help. But they really resent being harped upon, criticized for doing poorly, checked up on, punished for bad grades. I have told parents that good grades should be discussed but not rewarded. Bad grades should be discussed but not punished. It is a very difficult thing to negotiate.

But in this exchange, clearly spell out what a teen is responsible for and what the discussions will look like if the teen does not live up to their agreements. The teen may want the parent to do certain things to help them. Teens with learning disabilities may want parents to attend 504 hearings or IEP meetings. Or the teen may want the parent to withdraw from scoping their grades for a quarter, just to see if the teen can manage it themselves. In the end, the agreement must be revisited regularly to see if it is working.

Parents should always avoid immediately jumping in to help their teen. When the teen has a serious problem—especially one resulting from their actions—and they come to you for help, practice benign neglect. A parent might say, “that really is a hard one. What do you think you are going to do about it?” When they express confusion about what to do, tell them sincerely you hope they come up with an answer to it. By doing this, you are emphasizing to them their life is their own and the sooner they solve their problems the faster they will grow up.

I warn parents that the teen ultimately has to care about achieving some success in schoolwork without being pushed. No one is going to push them when they’re at college or in the workforce, so teen years are a good place to start with self-motivation.

Future Predictions Exchange

The second most common complaint I hear from teens in counseling is their parents make continual dire predictions about their future. If they experiment with marijuana, parents assume the teens are on the road to addiction. If the teen is sexually active they are going to get STD’s, AIDS, pregnant or will be living on the streets soon. If they get bad grades, they will have to work at Walmart.

The teen already fears an unknown future. They don’t need a parent to add gloom and doom to the picture.

In this Exchange, the parent and the teen must negotiate how a parent can express concern about current actions. How much is the parent allowed to express their fears and how deeply can they analyze the current trends. Teens need to specify what issues can be discussed and which ones are off-limits.

In the end, all parties need to be satisfied they have not given up more than they are comfortable with.

Solutions Exchange

Teens have problems. By definition, teens are beginning to face issues that never came up when they were children. And, they lack enough experience as adults to know how to act in every situation. For example, teens don’t know how to manage money very well. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally they don’t spend money wisely. This often means they don’t have the money they need when they need it.

In this exchange, the parents and teens decide when and how a parent will enter into a problem the teen is having. This exchange must cover when parents must stay out and when they can enter in. However, I always recommend parents not enter a problem too early. Let the teen sweat it out and try out some potential solutions.

I have friends whose son had extremely bad body odor. They asked me if they should say something. I told them only one of them should approach this issue and should give solutions like showers, deodorant and laundry hampers. Unfortunately, dad went beyond these and constantly lectured his son every time the smell was slightly off. Dad and son reached a point of yelling because of this.

I helped them draw up an exchange about how often parents could suggest solutions to their son. On his side, the son agreed to ask more often (at least once a week) if his body odor was offensive. All sides agreed that parents would help by buying whatever the son needed to smell better.

After agreeing upon this, there was no more yelling. And even though the smells did not get hugely better, they were tolerable.

Talking Exchange

We had a rule in our house “Nothing is not an answer”. We made that rule because two of our teens loved to give that as an answer to most questions. “What happened in your life today?” “Nothing”. “What’s bothering you?” “Nothing”. Is there anything you want to talk about?” “Nothing”.

Because we are seeking to parent with respect, we must respect the teen’s right to their own information. But the teen must also stretch and realize that a certain level of communication with others in the household is also respectful.

In this exchange, parents and teens decide on some simple guidelines. A teen is allowed to say “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” But if they say that, the parent has a right to ask “Why” and “Can you give me a time we can talk about it?” In this exchange, parents and teens spell out exactly how to handle situations where teens want to keep some information to themselves. But in the Exchange it should be spelled out the teen should come back to some of these issues when they’re ready.

Personal Space Exchange

This is the one we mentioned above. Every teen needs to have a space they can call their own. This is not just to protect the emotional center of their lives. They also need a break from younger siblings and nosy parents. We all need that. They need a place they can crash and contemplate where their life is going. If they choose to use that place as a storage unit and the mess offends others, they must be responsible for that. Just as the owner of a house is allowed, with notice, to inspect their house when renters are present, so too a parent needs to specify in the contract how often inspections will be done.

Consequences for messy bedrooms and toxic waste should be spelled out. For the most part, parents are often concerned about drugs and alcohol in the room. This must be written into the exchange as well. Leave nothing out of the agreement. Though many parents are alarmed by my approach to drugs and alcohol in this exchange, I have a radical solution. If they persist in smoking weed or drinking, tell them you will not allow it in your house. And if they get in trouble, you will not bail them out. Parents have yelled into my face saying when their kid comes home drunk or gets into a horrible accident, they will be camped on my doorstep to punch me out.

I tell them the teens will do these things regardless of how stern the parents are. But if you start early talking about many things, the teen will adopt many of the values of the parents at some point. Talking always comes long before rules.

At the very least, the teen’s room should have a lock on the door. They must have a key and so should the parent. But the parent must agree only to use it in the most dire situations.

Trust Exchanges

Few things hurt as badly as being accused of lying. We want our loved ones to trust us and when they do not, it causes us to doubt their love. At the same time, we all fail. And when we fail, it is harder for others to trust us. This conundrum is experienced often between parents and teens.

Teens often complain their parents do not believe them. Teens hate being told “you’re lying to me”. Frequently, I have proposed an Exchange to solve this. In this agreement, the parent says they will not use the phrase “you’re lying”. Rather, they must tell the teen, “I have trouble believing that, and here is why.” The parent needs to take ownership of their skepticism without immediately jumping to a conclusion.

At the same time, the teen should not demand a parent believe everything they say. There must be a certain level of skepticism by all parties. At the heart of this Exchange is the agreement that no one will call anyone else a liar. It is no coincidence that in the British Parliamentary system, you can call other members of Parliament just about any name you want as long as it isn’t “Liar”.

Interrogation Exchange

Teens also want parents to leave an issue alone when all has been said. Most often, this doesn’t need to have a full Exchange. Parents and teens should just allow each other to say “we’ve talked about this enough. Let’s leave it alone”.

Russ and his girlfriend had unprotected sex and she thought she might be pregnant. At 7 weeks gestation, she miscarried. But they had both told their parents about the pregnancy. During those early weeks, Russ’s parents had mercilessly lectured Russ on his irresponsible actions. A week before his girlfriend lost the baby, Russ ran away from home. They didn’t see him for five years.

I know the parents very well and we have dissected all that happened. I have talked to Russ about it and asked him what would have helped in the situation. All of them agreed the best solution would have been to set a limit on how much discussion they could have on the issue. Russ needed a time-out from being interrogated. From the first discussion, he knew how foolish he had been to have unprotected sex. But mom and dad would not drop the issue. They saw it as a microcosm of all his other failures. Soon, they were no longer talking about sex, but about grades, smoking, laziness and dire future predictions. This one issue became the lightning rod for all their frustration.

In this Exchange, all parties have the right to say “You have ten more minutes to make your point and then we’re done for at least a _______ (a specified period of time). It is always appropriate to negotiate how long a time has to pass before discussing the issue again. At one point, all parties have to have the right to say “enough is enough” on certain issues.

One more thing about Exchanges. Write them down and have all parties agree to them and sign their names. My kids didn’t think this was funny…when they signed their names to our Exchanges, they also looked dead serious. i believe they knew I was both treating them like adults but also expecting they would now act like adults.

Reviewing the Introduction of Jay Adams’ “Competent to Counsel”

As a sophomore studying theology in 1975, I read the textbook for my Pastoral Counseling class and was shocked. Though at that stage in my life I had taken no psychology courses–that would come several years later–I knew enough about the basic philosophy of psychology to suspect this textbook was not accurate.

Little did I know that book would sell millions of copies and affect the viewpoints on psychology for an entire generation. The book is called “Competent To Counsel” written by Jay Adams. The book, and Adams are the cornerstone of an entire counseling methodology called “Nouthetic” or “Biblical” Counseling.

Though the Nouthetic group (referred to now as the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors ) has many other resources they lay claim to, none is more influential than this book.

I do not like this book. I can state that up-front. I also do not agree with its premise: All psychology is humanism and must be rejected.

He teaches that all mental illness and every counseling situation is, at its heart, either a sin problem or a difficulty understanding or living out biblical truth. The answer is always the same: Bring the truth of the Bible to bear on a situation, help the counselee to see that truth, and encourage them to start living it.

The Nouthetic counselor believes if the counselee does this, the mental illness will be cured.

I completely disagree. Mental illness has dozens of causes, many of which we have not yet fully discovered. Here is my difficulty with the premise that the Bible can solve all mental illness: Even the Bible says it is not the answer book for all of life’s problems. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, its primary purpose is to train people in righteous living, theological knowledge, and the understanding of God. It never claimed to be an expert on all other subjects.

Christians have practiced using the Bible as the only authority on all subjects for a number of reasons. A primary reason is to control others through manipulative interpretations of the Bible, causing this Book to say things it doesn’t say about subjects it makes only passing reference to.

Therefore, for Nouthetic Counseling to state that the Bible can solve all mental illness is beyond what the Bible itself lays claim to.

During this next month, I am going to review the book “Competent to Counsel” chapter by chapter. Admittedly, this is a harshly critical review. I do not like anything about Nouthetic Counseling, and I have seen it hurt the lives of many people. I will share some of those testimonies. If the Nouthetic group does not like my analysis, they can do their own.

Here is my take on the Introduction of the Book.


It is important to establish Jay Adams’ credentials to speak on the issues of counseling, psychology and psychiatry. What are his bona fides?

He took a course in Pastoral Counseling in his first undergraduate degree. He took a few more in his Masters degree in Theology. In addition, he spent a summer internship helping out Hobart Mowrer, author of “The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion”. Adams claims to have observed several group therapy sessions with Mowrer in state psychiatric hospitals in Illinois.

This 3-month internship was literally the complete extent of Jay Adam’s professional training in psychology at the time he wrote this book. And he spent it with a man whose work is especially critical of all things  related to psychotherapy. Dr. Mowrer is considered by most psychologists to be an outlier in the field of counseling, with little academic achievements to his credit to establish his theories.

To summarize, Adams has no background in Psychology, Psychiatry, or any related field. He did an internship for 3 months with a man whose work has never been proven by the scientific method.

Those are his credentials for claiming to be able to tell the world how all mental illness can be cured. To be fair, he is proud of not having any background in psychology. Here is how he puts it in the Introduction:

“My conclusions in this book are not based on scientific findings.”

and

“I do not wish to disregard science, but rather I welcome it as a useful adjunct for the purposes of illustrating, filling in generalizations with specifics, and challenging wrong human interpretations of Scripture, thereby forcing the student to restudy the Scriptures.”

In other words, Science is only good for stories, better naming of things, and as examples for stupid ideas that conflict with the Bible.

In the Introduction, Adams lays out his primary problem with psychiatry. (Note: He doesn’t understand psychology and lumps psychology and psychiatry together as if they speak with one voice). He contends that all psychiatry is Freudian or Rogerian (Sigmund Freud or Carl Rogers), and as such should be rejected because of their non-Christian belief system.

In the introduction, he rejects Mowrer as well because he is not a Christian and then, startlingly, William Glasser.

Glasser was a very strong Christian and espoused a biblical worldview. I have no idea why Adams would lump him in, except Glasser was not an Evangelical. Actually, that is probably why he felt he was not a Christian.

He took one course in psychology. He learned about Freud’s and Rogers’ theories and concluded:

“I found it ludicrous to nod and grunt acceptingly in detachment without offering biblical directives. I decided I was wasting valuable time.”

Later in the Introduction, he continues,

“I found myself asking, “Is much of what is called mental illness, illness at all?” This question arose primarily from noticing that while the Bible describes homosexuality and drunkenness as sin, most of the mental health literature calls them sicknesses or diseases…could the books be wrong in similarly misclassifying other problems like depression, or neurosis or psychosis as sickness?”

Adams is teaching right up front that there is no such thing as mental illness. All mental illness is really just sin. A person sinned and that is why they’re depressed. A person sins and that is why they hear voices in their head. A person sinned and that is why they stay up for 7 straight days with manic episodes.

Though in this introduction, and indeed in the entire book, Adams gives no real evidentiary proof that his methods work, he claims they are true by virtue of his ability to read the Bible and find counseling advice inside of it. He wonders in several places why everyone has not found this to be true. He attributes the church’s lack of bible use in counseling to its adherence to the demonic secularism attacking the church.

In this introduction, Adams creates an convenient Straw Dog and then tries to tear it down. The Straw Dog is the idea that the “Medical Model” of mental illness is accepted by all of psychology and has been proven by the Bible to be wrong.

First, even in 1970 when he wrote “Competent to Counsel” the majority of psychologists did not believe all mental illness was a disease. Though some certainly did, many more non-psychologists taught it. Take for instance the field of addiction. The idea that alcoholism was a disease comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, not psychology.

Since 1970, the majority of psychologists have a nuanced view of illness as it relates to mental difficulties. Therein lies the strength of the Scientific Method. Science is not always right. But at its core, Science is always re-examining its beliefs and principles, challenging them to see if they can stand up to scrutiny. The hypotheses that cannot stand are discarded for better ideas. Psychology is always doing that. Theology lacks that feature and thus remains relatively static.

But in seeking to tear this Straw Dog down, Adams says that the Bible is the proof that no problems exist apart from sin.  Adams is claiming that all problems can be reduced to just a simple formula–with attending simple solutions. He states it very clearly:

“From my protracted involvement [note: 3 months of internship…that is his protracted involvement] with the inmates of the mental institutions at Kankakee and Galesburg, I was convinced that most of them were there, as I said, not because they were sick, but because they were sinful. In counseling sessions, we discovered with astonishing consistency that the main problems people were having were of their own making.”

If he thinks he came up with that observation, I have to object strenuously. This is one of the biggest contentions of psychiatry and psychology since its inception: All people are responsible for what they believe. It is the cornerstone of all memory re-processing therapies, EMDR, Choice Theory and dozens of other therapies.

Adams shows his complete ignorance of the field of psychology right from the start.

It only gets worse as one goes through the book.

Conflating The Preacher with Expertise

experts 2

He stood in his pulpit and looked intently at the 500 people attending. Then he made his pronouncement:

“All mental illness at some level is the result of sin in a person’s life.”

He went on to explain how depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, mania, PTSD, eating disorders, OCD, and a host of other disorders were caused by combinations of unrepentant sin, lack of faith, demonic activity, curses, and lack of knowledge of the Bible.

At one point, he claimed that all schizophrenia is demonic possession and the only cure is exorcism.

At the time, he had not written any books or appeared on television. Now, he has books, television and social media outlets, invitations to speak around the globe. Though he has downplayed some of his previous views on mental illness, in several interviews he has reiterated his global stance.

From the pulpit, preachers take similar approaches to other areas of “expertise”:

  • City Planning
  • Medicine
  • Law
  • Immigration policy
  • Monetary policy
  • Drug and alcohol treatment
  • Business practices
  • Investment strategies
  • Reproduction
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Physical Exercise
  • Law Enforcement
  • Education (both grade school and college)

…on and on.

In our world, we rightfully acknowledge some people have attained levels of expertise in all these areas. Over the centuries, we have come to define the Experts by looking at their education, experience, what they teach, how accurate their assessments and proposed strategies have played out, how respected they are among their peers.

That is how we can identify an expert.

When members of the NRA spoke out against a doctor who criticized their position on gun ownership by telling him to “stay in his lane”, the medical profession hit back. What they said was extremely valid: those who are wounded by gunfire are treated by doctors and nurses. This is our lane!

Society would be foolish not to rely upon experts who are renowned and published in their fields. We would never want someone who has no expertise doing surgery, building a skyscraper, or flying an airplane.

Yet we allow preachers to make bold statements on subjects for which they have no expertise. Not only do they often disagree with the experts, but they demand congregations accept them as the Experts instead.

Why do preachers do this? And why do we allow it? Continue reading “Conflating The Preacher with Expertise”

Why Pastors Make Poor Allies

It was 1992. The church I attended was heavily invested in the pro-life cause. Many of its members marched in front of the only abortion clinic in our town, shaming women who entered, and calling for strict change of law to make abortions almost impossible to get. There were prayer meetings in the church to defeat the “powers of darkness” surrounding the abortion industry.

One of the members was involved in a commission to help re-write some of the state’s laws on abortion. Another member had been thrown in jail twice for marching against abortion. We had our “pro-life credentials” well established.

No one knew the reservations I had about the pro-life movement. As a counselor, I knew that dozens of women in our church had abortions in the past. Some of them were the most vehement opponents of abortion. Some of them lived shamed lives, hoping no one ever found out about them.

I had doubts the movement was from God. I had researched the pro-life movement’s political roots, and knew I could not support any of the principal players. I searched in vain for any mention of abortion in the Bible. Even the few verses which spoke about God calling someone from their mother’s womb were found in poetic writings which are hardly substantial fodder for theological positions.

In short, I had my doubts about all the marching going on.

The worst part was the work of the Holy Spirit inside of me. The Spirit of God was convicting me of my hatred and judgment toward women who made the decision to terminate their pregnancies. God would not allow me just to ignore those hateful attitudes. In prayer one day, God directed me to publicly apologize for my attitudes and to make amends. I started to prepare a teaching but God showed me it wasn’t enough. Continue reading “Why Pastors Make Poor Allies”

Explaining my Exvangelical Status

He was my mentor. He was ordained in a conservative evangelical church. He had been meeting with me for several years as I sought to reconcile what I believed about God and the Bible with the huge discrepancies I saw in the church. It was good to bounce my frustrations off his mind. I think I would have left Evangelicalism for good if he had not helped me cope with the hypocritical practices of the church.

That’s when he dropped a bombshell. He had been attending some evening meetings at a local charismatic group. We both believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still given to people in the Church today. We also believe that there are proper and ridiculous ways those gifts can be practiced.

Here was his bomb. The night before, he claimed he saw gold dust appear on people’s hands during worship. Someone else said God gave them a gold filling during the prayer time which replaced their regular filling. My mentor was full of thanksgiving to God for these miracles. I asked him if he could confirm the gold dust or the gold tooth. Could he say with full assurance that it was really gold and not just some glitter or sweat from dancing in worship?

He was really angry with me for asking that question. He warned me not to criticize what might be the work of the Holy Spirit in case I was blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

At that moment, I decided I was mentally done with the Evangelical movement.

I wish I could give you the entire delineated journey of the previous 28 years up to that point. I have written about some elements of the journey in my books, articles, and blog entries. But with this essay, I want to explain to my friends and readers–and perhaps to those in my denomination looking for a reason to disqualify me–why I am not part of that tribe any more.

And I need to explain the parameters of what I left behind. Continue reading “Explaining my Exvangelical Status”