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Posted: 08/20/07

When should the sick call for the elders of the Church? 

This question is raised in view of the teaching found in James 5:13-20.

Please read the passage in its entirety: 

13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. 19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins."

From this text, we learn that sickness and sin will be part of the life of the Church. We are not promised perfect health or sinless perfection in this life. Some day the dwelling of God will be with his people in such a way that sickness and sin will be banished. On that day, "God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:3-4). Until that day, we groan and long for the completion of the work God has begun in and among us (Romans 8:18-30).

Because of the realities of sickness and sin, God outlines his plan for dealing with them. James 5 offers one part of that plan. The text begins with reference to a sick person calling for the elders of the Church. This implies some type of official involvement of the leadership of the Church. It seems best to understand this as a case of sickness needing the attention of the elders in some official way. This is not an invitation for each person to call the elders for every possible occasion of sickness.  If that were the case, the elders would function more like doctors and be overly focused on this role.

Instead, several things in the context lead us to believe that the sickness mentioned has a relationship to some specific sin. There is a reference to the possibility of sin (15), confession of sin (16), Elijah praying in relation to the sin of the people (17-18), and reaching out to those (sinners) who wandered from the truth (19), turning a sinner from the error of his way (20). This emphasis on sin in connection with a call for the Church leadership could be understood to imply a situation involving Church discipline that has led to a sickness in the life of the one under discipline.

The sick person mentioned in this text does not call for people with gifts of healing but for the elders. The elders do two things: "pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord" (14). If the sick person is made well it is the Lord who raises him up in response to the prayer offered in faith (15).  After this point, the text connects the focus on sin mentioned above. It is significant to notice that in a more general way, James 5 instructs prayer for yourself when suffering (13) and prayer for each other: "pray for each other so that you may be healed" (16). It is not only the elders who must pray.

Another reason to relate this text to a matter of Church discipline is the emphasis on the certitude of the outcome: "…the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up" (15). There is nothing unclear about this language. The confidence of healing has been a source of confusion to those who have made a more general application of this text. If, however, it relates to a specific case of discipline and a resulting sickness, the prayer would be very focused and offered in the context of confession of the sin that occasioned the official act of discipline. This would also contribute to the emphasis on "the prayer offered in faith" (15) (relating more generally back to James 1:5-8).

If the circumstance of James 5:14-20 is not one involving specific sin and/or Church discipline, it would at least refer to someone who is "…so weak and bedridden that they can't get out easily to the gathered church. We see this condition in the phrase "pray over" (probably signifying their being on a bed with the elders around); and we see it in the statement, "the Lord will raise him up" (implying that they are laid low). So the situation when the elders are called probably involves a physical condition that keeps a person from getting out to the fellowship." (John Piper).

If a more general application is taken, it is best applied to the situation described above or to extremely severe sicknesses. In such cases, however, the elders should honor the context of James 5 in relation to potential sin. The one seeking prayer based on James 5 should be instructed of the potential sin in relation to sickness in the context and offered an opportunity to respond.  

Those who are not bedridden or facing severe sickness of this nature should be encouraged to seek the prayer of the Church when they gather for fellowship. Church elders should also faithfully pray for those who struggle with sicknesses when they gather as a leadership team.

Finally, use of oil for anointing is an optional part of the equation. The text emphasizes that "the prayer of faith" is what God responds to. There is no power in the oil. If not for medicinal purposes, the oil was used symbolically with reference to God's presence. Mention of anointing with oil is found in relation to the healing ministry of the apostles (Mark 6:13), but is not found in most accounts of healing by Jesus and his disciples. Some churches choose to continue the tradition, others like our own do not anoint with oil.  

Steve Cornell  

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By Steve Cornell

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Disclaimer: Worldview Weekend, Christian Worldview Network and its columnists do not necessarily endorse or agree with every opinion expressed in every article posted on this site. We do however, encourage a healthy and friendly debate on the issues of our day. Whether you agree or disagree, we encourage you to post your feedback by using the feedback button.


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Posted On: 08/24/07 06:13:24 PM Age 63, OH
Dear brother, I am not Steve but since he has not answered I will offer this. One man may use the oil in faith trying to please God and that is good. But another man may think that the power is NOT IN THE OIL and want to show the truth of that. So this man does not use oil and that can be good also. As long as a man looks to the Holy Spirit for guidance and tries to act in faith, that is what is important. If a man does eat meat or not eat meat is not the important thing. But what is important is that every man tries his best to act in faith, and does his best to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Lou

Re: Re: Re: When should the sick call for the elders of the Church?
Posted On: 08/23/07 09:45:01 AM Age 48, MT
I'm not an elder, so I do not anoint the sick or pray over them without an elder present. The elders I see praying over the sick always carry a vial of oil with them. I believe it is olive oil. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

Re: When should the sick call for the elders of the Church?
Posted On: 08/22/07 04:27:40 PM Age 20, MI
I lost both my legs in accident when I was ten years old. I'm a new born Christian of 3 years and I've seen many healed as a result of prayer. I pray everyday that the Lord might heal me as well. But have yet to see any results. In atheistic circles the non healing of amputees is a bit of a cliche. I'm beginning to think it's true. Why does God not choose to heal those with missing limbs like me but instead heal others with more "mysterious" aliments?

Re: Re: When should the sick call for the elders of the Church?
Posted On: 08/22/07 11:27:23 AM Age 53, VA
What kind of oil do you use? What happens if you are out of oil? Do you just "pass" on the sick or pray for them anyway?

Re: When should the sick call for the elders of the Church?
Posted On: 08/21/07 04:13:30 PM Age 48, MT
One wonders what the author is trying to establish. God doesn't heal sickness? This verse is not about getting healed of sickness? Sin and sickness are synonymous? I had to read it again to try and figure out the point. Then I realized, it's just a theological dance. The author is trying to justify his own pre-determined theology by shaping this verse. Why else would he say things like the elders shouldn't be called in for prayer every time? The verse does say "anyone," as in, " anyone sick?" It's not just a select few, or in select special cases only. Or how about that anointing oil is optional? Just a silly custom, I guess. Perhaps like communion, which is "only" bread and wine, right?

Re: When should the sick call for the elders of the Church?
Posted On: 08/21/07 12:06:25 AM Age 21, MO
Steve, I really appreciated your article but I was just wondering where we get the idea that annointing with oil is optional? I'm not trying to be critical I am just wondering because I see pray and anoint. I don't see an option there. Thanks Steve. Blessings.

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