The Greek word that is usually translated “demon-possessed” in the Gospels is demonizomai, which literally means “to be rendered passive toward a demon.” It’s unfortunate, in my view, that the term is usually translated “demon possession.” “Possession” implies complete ownership whereas the concept of being rendered passive toward a demon can be reflective of many degrees of passivity. A person can be a little passive or completely passive toward a demon. And a person can have one area or many areas of their life rendered passive toward a demon. But “possession makes it sound like demonization is an all-or-nothing thing. For this reason I prefer to simply transliterate demonizomai as “demonized.”
This point is of some importance, for the question of whether or not a Christian can be “demon possessed” is at stake. One school of thought cites numerous examples throughout church history of Christians who have needed, and benefited from, exorcism. On this basis they argue that Christians can be “demon-possessed. The other school of thought argues that this is impossible, for Christians are owned and indwelt by God, a fact that rules out the possibility that they’re also owned by Satan and indwelt by demons (1 Cor 6:19-20, 1 Jn 4:4).
In my view, there’s truth to both sides. Christians can be, in varying degrees, demonized. They can have areas of their life rendered passive with regards to a demon. Despite the fact that we are owned and indwelt by God, we can give the devil a “foothold” and can have demonic “strongholds” in our life (Eph 4:27; 2 Cor 10:4). This demonization may, on occasion, be strong enough that it leads to a person manifesting bizarre behavior—the sort often associated with exorcisms—when the stronghold is being confronted.
At the same time, however, I think the other school of though is correct in maintaining the impossibility of a person being simultaneously owned by God and owned by demons. A person whose life is authentically surrendered to God may continue to have significant strongholds, but they cannot have every area of their life rendered completely passive toward a demon. In other words, Christians can be demonized, but not demon possessed.
And when Christians are significantly demonized, it’s appropriate, and sometimes necessary, to engage in deliverance prayer (exorcism) on their behalf.
Image by Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography via Flickr