African culture has long been interwoven with belief in magic, witchcraft and sorcery. Samuel Kunhiyop in African Christian Ethics says that almost all African societies believe in witchcraft. A personal anecdote will help.
During my first two years in Africa I stayed in a little rural village with the chief’s family. One evening, while I was away preaching, thieves broke into my room and stole most of my electronic devices. Because the chief’s wife was responsible for watching my room, she felt terrible. The next day she could be seen scurrying about with a list in her hands containing “items” the witch doctor needed. These would make the potion that would soon locate my pilfered goods. And she was a ZCC member that “believed in Jesus.”
Witchcraft in Scripture
According to Deuteronomy 18:10-11, many forms of sorcery fall beneath the umbrella of “witchcraft.” “Diviners” (v. 10) seek insight from evil spirits. “Sorcerers” (“those who cause to appear”) specialize in conjuring up ghosts and visions (Jdg. 9:36-37). “Soothsayers” like to use objects for their craft (Gn. 44:5). “Spell casters” (v. 11) hurl hexes and curses upon people (Ps. 58:5).
“Witch doctors” were experts at warding off evil (Isa. 47:9-12) or performing signs–like Pharaoh’s wise men turning rods into snakes (Ex. 7:11). “Mediums”, “necromancers” and inquirers of the dead could communicate with the dead–such as the witch of Endor (1Sm. 28). The latter takes the form of ancestor worship today.
The Lord abominated all of these practices. Moreover, human sacrifice was often associated with witchcraft, as seen in this passage and in others (2Kngs. 17:17).
Witchcraft in African Culture
The example above of the chief’s wife probably fits into the “soothsayer” category. She tried to manipulate divine power through a witch doctor and a host of traditional methods such as amulets and muti to ward off evil or bring blessing.
Not only is sorcery popular in Africa to find lost objects or place curses on people, it is also the central argument to explain evil in the world. Kunhiyop calls witchcraft “the traditional way of explaining the ultimate cause of any evil, misfortune or death” (loc. 7367).
In the African mind, witchcraft is the power that causes much of the suffering in the world. If someone was hit by lightning and died, or if a child fell out of a tree at school and was killed, the explanation for this is often witchcraft. If a man has two wives and the child of one is healthy but the child of the other is sickly, the mother of the sickly may think that the mother of the healthy is using witchcraft.
Witchcraft and African Traditional Religion
African traditional religion (ATR) does not believe God allows or ordains evil toward his friends. Thus if evil befalls a “good” person, it must have come from demons, magic, or some kind of witchcraft. Scripture, however, teaches that God permits and even ordains evil, though He never sins (Ex. 4:11; Isa. 45:7).
ATR fails to comprehend every major Christian doctrine. For example, it has:
- A poor understanding of the Trinitarian God. ATR believes that God has no role in evil and concludes that evil is the result of demons or witchcraft.
- A poor understanding of Scripture. Though Scripture has much to say about witchcraft, ATR turns to culture for answers.
- A poor understanding of human nature. Many of humanity’s problems come from the sinful heart. The flesh is listed as the primary enemy of the Christian, not demons (Rom. 8; Gal. 5:17; Eph. 2:3). Therefore, the biblical and most successful method of battle in spiritual warfare is putting on the whole armor God (Eph. 6:11-18), not soliciting sangomas or blaming the results of sin on witches.
- A poor understanding of medicine. A baby who does not get the proper vaccinations may die. A woman who sleeps around may get AIDS. The teenager who does not wash his hands may get a disease. It is not necessary to blame evil spirits for this.
- A poor understanding of salvation. Many African churches are filled with nominal Christians who are untrained in the Word of God.
- A poor understanding of preaching. When preachers give a heavy dose of the Prosperity Gospel, it makes sense that the emphasis of their proclamation becomes miracles and the exorcism of demons.
Witchcraft and the Prosperity Gospel
Religion, then, often becomes an issue of power–of harnessing the good and rebuking the bad. No one in African society claims to wield more power than the witch doctor. And no one in the church professes more authority than the pastor. Prof Koos Van Rooy observes:
Religion is therefore usually a form of manipulation of powers rather than of obedience to God and communion with God. African people are impressed by power, positive as well as negative power, white as well as black magic. For the same reason, African church members seem to be obsessed with power.
People expect and demand power rather than saintliness from their leaders. Leaders should be able to heal the sick and protect them from magic. Having many wives, although diametrically opposed to Scriptural requirements for Christian ministers, is regarded as a sign of power and therefore a recommendation rather than a disqualification of a person as leader of the church.
Many PG preachers have taken advantage of this “power” ethos in Africa and played the part of witch doctor, only this time wearing clerical dress. In the past, if one should need something (finances, a job, a wife etc.), he would go to the witch doctor, for a price. Now, he goes to the pastor, for a price. This has caused some wise pastors to ask: “Are we preachers or witch doctors?”
How is the African church to address the issue of witchcraft inside and outside the church? Thankfully, Scripture has the answer.
First, acknowledge that Satan and his demons have real power and that witchcraft exists. From one perspective, Satan was responsible for the imprisonment of Smyrna Christians in Revelation 2:10. There seems to be certain places on earth that have a stronger Satanic influence than other parts of the world (Rev. 2:13). Witch doctors and sorcerers, as seen above, have real power, including the ability to speak to the dead (1 Samuel 28), and mimic the power of God as Pharaoh’s wise men did (Ex. 7:11). While some “witchcraft” may be faked, it does no good to act as though sorcery in Africa doesn’t exist.
Second, focus on the Gospel. At Calvary, Jesus did more than die for sin. Christ decisively defeated the demonic world by stripping them of ultimate and future power and putting them to shame (Col 2:15). Furthermore, witch doctors and sorcerers will be saved if they repent and trust Christ (Acts 19:18-19).
Third, preach the sovereignty of the Triune God. God the Father sustains all things (Mt. 6:26). But so does God the Son (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) and God the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14). God controls all things (Ps. 115:3) and Satan cannot do anything without His permission (Job 1-2). This ought to give the believer great comfort and confidence while facing his fear of the spirit world.
Finally, articulate that there are many sources of evil, such as sin (Gen. 3:16; Rom. 5:12), bad decisions, demons, scientific laws, and God’s ultimate decree. One must be careful of the modern prosperity preachers who use vunghoma to trick ignorant people—often using Bible verses to strengthen their claims. The solution to evil in one’s life is either repentance of sin or faith in the sovereign God who always does what is best.
 Koos Van Rooy, “Christ in the Context of the African World View,” 5.