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Should Christians Anoint the Sick With Oil?

Are Christians throughout time, before the return of Christ, to anoint the sick with oil to bring about healing? After all, it is a practice common to Christendom even when Christians don’t believe there is a promise of healing tied to the practice. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Charismatics, and various forms of the most Fundamentalist Christians (yes, even some Plymouth Brethren) all do it with various degrees of expectation (or not). The early Disciples did it (Mark 6:13) and James 5:14, the text in question, seems to command it.

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;

Notice that it’s not a finished thought. The sentence carries the topic down to verse 20. Because of that, I’m going to take this piece-meal, asking questions, and often looking at the context.

Can any person ask for whatever is going on here?

When Jesus or the Apostles were called to help the sick they often (Matthew 8:14–15, Mark 1:29–31, and Luke 4:38–41), not always (Lazarus died waiting in John 11), went. Sometimes the Apostles healed the sick that were nearby (Acts 4:22) and sometimes folk brought the sick to them (Acts 5:12-16).

But, in this verse, James says that the person is “among you”. In other words, they are part of the local assembly (James 2:4; 3:13; 4:1; 5:19 also compare Col 4:16; 2 Thes 3:11; Eph 5:33)—they’re not a visitor, nor are they a person who had a passing acquaintance. They are known among the assembly and know enough to identify and call the leadership.

Lastly, they’re not calling for tea. Nor is it that they are suffering (James 5:13). The trigger here is that the person who is “among you” has called because they are also sick.

In this verse, what is it to be sick?

Asthenei is the verb for being without strength, or being weak. It is what happens when someone is sick (Mark 6:56, Luke 4:40) though it is also used for other forms of weakness (the law was weak in Rom 8:3; Christ was crucified because of weakness 2 Cor 13:4, or being fainthearted 2 Cor 11:21 or easily disturbed Rom 14:1).  Whatever the weakness, it is at a level that this person is not going to others for help but they’re calling others to come to them.

The context at first seems to support that the weakness is of a physical nature. Verse 15 uses a different word kamnonta (which usually means tired from constant work like in Heb 12:3) but when used with asthenei it includes the idea of being physically sick. Plus, verse 16 highlights bodily healing (iathete: even if sometimes it metaphorically refers to healing moral sickness Matt 13:15).

Thing is that James says some things that make it seem like this has sickness is not only physical. He later says that the Lord will “raise him up” (15) and that the sins of this person will be forgiven. It makes me think that although this sickness could be physical it might have a moral dimension too.

What if the person is non-responsive?

In Scripture, we have several examples of others going for help on behalf of the likely non-responsive sick (like Jairus for his daughter: Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56; or Mary and Martha sending a letter on behalf of Lazarus John 11:1-3).

But in this verse, the text says that “he must call for the elders”. That’s different from the person in James 5:13 who is suffering—mind you, it can be an external suffering from persecution—and James tells them to pray for themselves. Further, it’s different from a person solely being sick and non-responsive. Something is going on here that is more than a person who is bedridden.

Beyond that, it seems he or she might need to confess something (James 5:16) that the assembly knows about (James 5:19). Maybe the text is implying that they’re going to die (because the Lord will raise him up James 5:15) but more likely it’s that they’ve spiritually gone off track and they can’t simply come back (James 5:19-20) because Christianity is communal and not individualistic by nature.

How many elders are required to anoint the sick?

The verse doesn’t say how many elders are required. The focus is on asking the elders of the church to come. This would mean that it is not the elders of another church, nor is it the elders of some random church, nor the persons thought to be elders by some, but it is the elders of the church of which this person is affiliated.

Of interest to me is that it is assumed that there is a plurality of elders (Acts 11:30; 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17-19; 1 Pet 5:1-2) but there is no mention on what that plurality consists of (2? 3? 8?). The verse does seem to take that plurality and then carry it over as a whole. In other words, it doesn’t call for some of the elders but rather the elders of the assembly.

What is the church?

There’s a question that demands a much bigger answer (and you can click here for that). The word here is just the assembly. It’s just the local gathering of believers. There was no idea of denominations back then.

What is it to “pray over him”?

Most occurrences in scripture for the term “pray” is in the context of praying for someone else or praying to God. This text has praying over a person. That makes it difficult to decide on what is happening. For example, Mark 16:18 shows a practice of laying hands on the sick—is this what is going on? The word here is the preposition “epi” coming with the “two leading ideas of rest upon, on, in, and of motion upon, to, towards” which is why some folk go with the hands thing.  The text doesn’t say so we should be careful about assuming. I mean, with this reasoning you can just as easily place feet upon a person.

Either way, I think that is beside the point.

The point here then is not so much the position of the praying but rather the collective activity of urgent prayer. R.P Martin (1998) suggests looking at Acts 19:13 to see the type of activity where someone is urgently, and not only once, invoking the name of the Lord.

In this passage, what does it mean to anoint the sick?

The sacred (or religious) word for anoint (χρίω or chrio) carries the idea of sanction, blessing, or an appointment (such as in Luke 4:18 and 1 John 2:20). In the New Testament, the only time the word occurs with oil is in Heb. 1:9 where Jesus is anointed with the “oil of gladness”—surely not actual oil.

The word here is ἀλείψαντες  is to “rub” or “to cover over” or “to besmear” occurring in several passages (Matt. 6:17; Mark 6:13; 16:1; Luke 7:38, 46; John 11:2; 12:3; James 5:14). It is not the word for a religious anointing. This is a simple, mundane verb for rubbing or besmearing.

So whatever is happening in James 5:14, it less to do with a religious unction and more with something approaching a massage or a bath.

What is this oil that is used for anointing?

This is not an ointment (the word muron Matt 26:7,9,12) which has olive oil as its base. The word here is elaio comes up for the stuff that is used to light lamps (Matt 25:3,4,8), comes from the root of olive tree, and when used in conjunction with the verb above (alepho) it refers simply to olive oil.

What is this practice of anointing with oil?

“… it is a well-documented fact that oil was one of the most common medicines of biblical times. See Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34. Josephus (Antiq. XVII, 172 [vi. 5]) reports that during his last illness Herod the Great was given a bath in oil in hopes of effecting a cure. The papyri, Philo, Pliny, and the physician Galen all refer to the medicinal use of oil. Galen described it as “the best of all remedies for paralysis” Burdick, D. W. (1981). James. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 204). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

There are not many references to this practice in the New Testament. Besides James 5:14, we have Luke 10:34 where the good Samaritan poured oil on the wounds of the sick and Mark 6:13—that’s it.

Although we can say that per the cultural norms of the day we’re seeing the description of a medical practice we need to be careful assuming that this is a practice that is being commanded for the church throughout time.

The point here is that the elders would pray and they would adhere to the common medical practice of the day by massaging the infirmed with oil, but their hope wasn’t in the oil. This is evident in the fact that James highlights (16) two things as the channel of God’s work: (1) prayer and (2) how it is offered in faith.

This surely doesn’t mean that the elders should have avoided the medical practice of the day and only focused on praying while trusting the Lord. Again, the point is clear that the medical practice of anointing the weak with oil is performed but done only in the name—or authority—of the Lord.

James mentions a similar concern with travel plans. It’s not that people shouldn’t make plans but rather that all of their plans are predicated on the Lord’s will (James 4:13-15). Making plans solely based on personal means (and I gather solely based on medical practices of the day) is, in essence, “boasting in arrogance” and such boasting is evil (James 4:16).

What are the results of this prayer in faith?

(1) The one who is weak is restored, (2) a person may be healed, (3) the Lord will raise him up, and (4) if he has committed sins they will be forgiven him.

This is an interesting structure since it connects to verses 19 and 20 (where the sinner is turned from the error of his ways and saved from death) and verse 12 (where a person falls under judgment by falsely swearing) and verse 16 where the church is told to confess their sins to one another AND to pray so that they may be healed.

This could imply that the physical illness has a moral dimension by which the physical illness entered in.  (Note, that this is not unheard of in scripture. In 1 Cor. 11 we see that a number are sick and have died because there was a failure to judge the body rightly while taking the cup and the loaf (1 Cor 11:29-30).)

It’s also important to highlight here that there is restoration first (15) and the real possibility of healing (16-18).

Even the restoration of the sick here is tied to the “raising up” which seems to have a future significance in the return of the Lord. Is the person merely getting up after they’re sick or are they finally raised up in the last day—or better, is it a matter of one being possible (getting physically better) and the other being fully secure (being raised up in the last day)?

Before the prayer, do we need a time of confession?

As above, it seems that there is a moral component involved in this passage though it might not be the case in all matters of sickness. After all, James says that if the person has committed sins, they will be forgiven (15)—it’s not necessarily a requisite for the illness.

The passage does indeed tie the fact that there should be a process of ongoing confession of sins to one another (16) in conjunction with praying for one another so that there is healing.  Even so, it’s not like the correlation is promised for even as the prayers as are offered the effective prayer is tied to that of the “righteous man”.

I don’t think the activity of confessing sin consists of admitting every sinful thought that passes through our minds. Verse 19 and 20 imply that the weakness might be brought about by “straying from the truth”—very different than a teen who thought too much about the other teen three rows down and to the left.

So, what is this “righteous man” like?

James chooses Elijah, a man who had serious issues with depression and fear, and the activity of the recorded story (1 King 17:1; 18:1) where there was no explicit mention of prayer, and to reflect on what a righteous man looks like. The best part is that he says Elijah was just like us.

I find that comforting. Elijah wasn’t Super Man. He was a guy who had issues but was where the Lord wanted him. In the same way, the community of faith, and the elders that shepherd that community, can collectively pray with the actual results—not based on their own power but solely on God’s desires.

Okay then, if we do not anoint the sick with oil, what do you think the passage is telling us to do?

Well I think that based on the context what is key is that believers are to pray for one another. The Elders, who are the spiritually mature in the assembly, have a ministry of praying for the weak within the assembly—especially those who call for them. In most cases this would be when the person is physically sick and likely bedridden and it is never in opposition to modern medical practices. The Elders are to pray and help in the administration of the medicine (if they can).

Christians throughout time do not need to adhere to the practice of rubbing the sick down with oil, just as other passages (which have more Biblical support) don’t mandate that we need to greet all Christians with an actual kiss (Rom. 16:16, I Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, I Thess. 5:26, 1Pet. 5:14). What we see is a cultural activity (saying hello with a kiss or rubbing oil on the sick) being used to highlight an activity that Christians should be participating in: adhering to the medical practices of the day while depending on the Lord to act.

Lastly the passage is highlighting the fact that the assembly is a true community. Too often, Christians today compartmentalize their lives by publicly adhering to Christian norms while privately applauding sinful behavior as a personal right. That doesn’t mean we need to share every sin that we commit in our thought-life, but it does mean that our sanctification also occurs as a unified body of believers.

So, should Christians “anoint” the sick with oil?

I understand that many parts of the Church do it, and I know that simply reading the words would imply that we should be doing it, but no—I do not think Christians should be doing this.

As I said above, it’s the same reason that I don’t think all Christians should be greeting one another with a kiss; or avoiding braids, gold, pearls, and Lucky brand jeans (1 Tim 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3; James 5:1-6); or washing the feet of fellow believers (John 13). In some situations, it might be okay but in others, I think it imports a cultural practice the might unnecessarily communicate the wrong thing.

For example, greeting one another with a kiss might be okay in some cultural settings but in others it might seem to be a sexual advance when a hand shake would have been completely fine in addressing the point of the passage: to greet one another.

The fact is that the practice of bathing in oil for medicinal purposes is completely disconnected from modern medical practices and has all the markings of magic when performed in a setting when a person is sick and bedridden. The elders offer no explanation that the oil has no healing properties, and indeed there is usually some sort of mysticism attached to the practice to make it seem that the combination of prayer with oil is what is effective—surely not the intent of the passage at all.

So no, I do not think that Christians in the modern cultural setting, should be anointing the sick with oil. Instead they should be praying and helping them take their medication.

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