Evangelical Protestants, who generate many of American religion's notable innovations, are at war over one of them, known as "spiritual warfare."
This expanding movement believes Christians regularly become captive to in dwelling demons, which are often said to specialize in particular sins, geographic locations, objects or age groups.
The believer is taught to rebuke the demon and command its departure in Jesus' name, sort of a do-it-yourself exorcism.
The practice is followed especially among Pentecostal and Charismatic Protestants, who are also known for such "gifts of the Holy Spirit" as faith healing, speaking in tongues and prophecies.
Spiritual warfare proponents include the international Cleansing Stream Ministries at the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., and such evangelical writers as Stormie Omartian, Bob Larson and Neil Anderson.
Anderson makes the remarkable claim that 85 percent of evangelical Christians are afflicted with some level of satanic bondage.
This movement is now being attacked by the Christian Research Institute of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., a conservative evangelical organization that counters what it regards as doctrinal errors in Christian and non-Christian groups.
Instead of the "deliverance model" to resist temptation and sin, the institute advocates what it calls Christianity's traditional "discipleship model."
The two approaches are depicted by institute president Hank Hanegraaff in his little book The Covering: God's Plan to Protect You From Evil "(W Publishing), which is endorsed by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant group.
Hanegraaff's other outlets are his daily radio program, "Bible Answer Man," and the institute's Christian Research Journal, which complains in the current issue that "there seems to be no end to the subjective, sensational and superstitious fare on spiritual warfare" sold by Christian retailers.
Hanegraaff objects that deliverance teaching makes Christians mistakenly think their sins are the work of demons rather than their own moral responsibility. Remember comedian Flip Wilson's catch phrase "the devil made me do it"?
Proponents cite the New Testament, where Jesus exorcised demons from people and commissioned his followers to do the same (see Matthew 10:l, Mark 3:13-15, Luke 10:17-20). In that tradition, Roman Catholicism commissions priests to conduct exorcism rituals, but rarely.
Hanegraaff insists there is no biblical basis for people exorcising demons by themselves without helpers, or for other deliverance ideas.
Deliverance preachers cite Luke 13:10-17, where Jesus heals a crippled woman said to have "a spirit of infirmity." Hanegraaff responds that the passage refers to this as a healing, not an exorcism, and the incident lacks typical exorcism features. (Jesus addresses the woman, not an evil spirit, and the spirit does not speak through the woman.)
Most important, says Hanegraaff, we are not told the woman's spiritual status. He contends the Bible contains no "credible example of a demonized believer" and he argues from various biblical passages that it is impossible for a true believer to be demon-possessed.
Hanegraaff charges that the "deliverance industry" mimics secular pop culture.
So what is the "discipleship model"? Hanegraaff says old-fashioned spiritual disciplines are spelled out in Ephesians 6:10-18, where the Apostle Paul assures believers they can "stand against the wiles of the devil" and confound "the hosts of wickedness."
As Hanegraaff summarizes matters, "the key to supernatural protection in the invisible war is not found in exorcising demons, but in exercising spiritual disciplines."