Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 13, 1958

"Call For The Elders" (James 5:14-15)

Harold Hazelip, Louisville, Kentucky

We receive inquiries occasionally about James 5:14-15: "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." Some believe this passage clearly teaches that miraculous powers will be in the Church until time's end.

Do Men Follow It?

Although this passage is used by every "healing" group from Holiness sects to Roman Catholicism, we know no group that follows its precepts. If this is to be the pattern for miraculous healing in all ages, note several points demanded: (1) "Is any sick . . .?" But healing revivals or "Our Lady of Lourdes" do not offer healing to all! Candidates are often screened in campaigns, and unhealed persons are consoled. (2) "Call for the elders of the church . . ." Elders of what church, with Mormons, Holiness, Catholics, Christians Scientists, etc., offering cures? And who calls for elders? The Catholic version of the Bible mistranslates the word "elders" and has in its place "priests;" they obviously do not intend to call for the persons James mentions! Holiness groups are apt to call for women preachers rather than elders! (3) "Anointing him with oil." We know of no group which uniformly practices this and while healing groups may do so occasionally, their preachers also offer healing by laying hands on a radio or TV set, or Catholic agencies will sell one a bottle of water from Lourdes, France — neither of which resembles the anointing here commanded. (4) "...shall save the sick and the Lord shall raise him up." These promises are certain; they do not allow for the multiplicity of failures so common to all healing advocates of our day.

What Does The Passage Mean?

This passage does not authorize setting up "faith-shops" or "miracle shrines" and peddling "faith-cures." Some brief suggestions should help toward an understanding of the verses. Some believe that since oil has been used as medicine in practically all ages, James may mean that we should use physical remedies and prayer to overcome sickness. (For oil as medicine, see Isa. 1:6; Luke 10:34) While this is a possible interpretation, we think it incorrect for several reasons, and believe rather that the passage relates to miraculous healing. In the first century, miracles were performed as a means of confirming Gospel preaching as being the Word of God. (Mark 16:20; Heb. 2:4.) While the inspired word was in inspired men, confirmation was necessary in order to detect pretenders and false teachers. However, when inspired men wrote the words that were "God-breathed" in the books of the New Testament, the complete guide for the Christian religion was thoroughly confirmed and available to all. There was no further need for men who could confirm their preaching by miracles; now men could confirm their teachings by the written New Testament, if their teachings were true!

The Apostles' Hands

During the first century, these miraculous gifts were imparted to Christians by the laying on the Apostles' hands. (Acts 8:14-18.) Elders of the congregations would certainly be in position to use such miraculous gifts in their work of teaching the flock, that their teachings might be confirmed as true. We take this passage, then, to be instruction as to the proper usage of the miraculous gift of healing by those who had the gift! While elders possessed such powers, this was the proper usage of them. However, there are no Apostles present today to impart miraculous gifts to elders, nor are there any elders yet alive upon whom the Apostles laid their hands; these miraculous powers are just not present in men today! It is certainly still appropriate to call for the elders to pray for the sick, as it is appropriate also for any righteous man to pray for the ill; above all, be it remembered that the preacher's prayer is certainly no more effective with God then the prayers of other righteous men!

Extreme Unction?

Other errors based upon this passage should be refuted. The Catholic (Douay) Version footnote to verse 14 states; "See here a plain warrant of scripture for the sacrament of extreme unction ..." Extreme unction is the application of consecrated oil to the eyes, ears, nostrils, hands and feet of persons who are thought to be dying, and are too ill to consciously confess their sins. But extreme unction did not come from James, or from the New Testament! The practice originated in the 8th century A. D., received its name in the 12th century and its authoritative definition by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The instructions of James are to the end that the sick shall get well, not to anoint the dying!

The Prayer Of Faith

Finally, we ought always to distinguish between the "prayer of faith" and modern healing systems. It should be distinguished from: (1) Christian Science, which is in conflict with the Bible and physical knowledge concerning sickness and death; (2) Mental healing, which may be entirely independent of faith in God; its emphasis is upon the known power of mind over matter, while it ignores the power of matter over mind; (3) Faith healing, which usually forbids employment of physical remedy.

Their False Assumption

Modern miracle healers operate upon a basic assumption that is false, i. e., that it is God's will that everybody should enjoy at all times perfect physical health. Paul's thorn in the flesh or Timothy's stomach ailment will prove otherwise. If faith healers were correct, death would soon be banished from the planet; as things really are, it is in that yonder world that "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (Rev. 21:4.) May God forbid that we should miss that eternal reward through some perversion of His word in laying claim to miraculous powers which, obviously, no man now has.