Issue #78 -------
October 19, 2003
A faith is something you die for,
a doctrine is something you kill for.
There is all the difference in the world.
--- Tony Benn (b. 1925)
In Reflections #76 we examined the teaching concerning elders, prayer and anointing found in James 5:14. Scholarship has been divided down through the centuries as to how best to interpret this passage. Is the charge to elders to anoint the sick with oil while praying for them a universal command of deity, or was it simply a reflection of the culture and customs of the time? Some are adamant that it is the former; others are just as adamant that it is the latter. Other, though less popular, interpretations also abound. Near the end of issue #76 I challenged the readers of these Reflections to write in and share their perceptions, convictions and experiences on this matter. Here is that appeal:
As in the past, I am most appreciative, and impressed, with the response of the readers. A great many of you wrote to share your insights ... and also your personal testimonies. As you might expect, the responses covered all areas of the theological spectrum, although the overwhelming majority of the readers who responded are convicted that the elders of the church today should be anointing the sick with oil as they pray for them. Many of you even gave me the names of congregations among the Churches of Christ who are presently practicing this anointing of the sick with oil. I thank you for your willingness to share this information with me, and with your fellow readers. As always, I will protect the identities of those of you who responded.
The Perspective of Culture and Custom
Some of the readers felt very strongly that James 5:14 should not be pressed into literal service among believers today, but that it simply reflects the cultural thinking and practices of that ancient time and distant location. Thus, elders anointing the sick with oil would fall into much the same category as foot washing and the "holy kiss." The underlying principle transcends culture, but the specific practice does not. For us to elevate an ancient cultural expression of a divine principle to a universal mandate is irresponsible exegesis. Frankly, it is this very hermeneutical error that has led to some of the legalistic, patternistic excesses of today which have so plagued and dismembered the One Body.
A noted university professor from the great state of Washington wrote and correctly observed that the Word of our God is a divine message "delivered within a cultural context." The reality of the inspired text is that not all aspects of the culture and customs of that day, in which these principles and precepts are framed, are specified and clarified in the text for later readers. We, as responsible biblical interpreters, "have to constantly remind ourselves that it would not be necessary to restate 'common cultural assumptions' which the first century audience would be carrying in their heads as a result of living in that particular time and place." By failing to read a passage through the eyes of the original readers, we often completely fail to perceive authorial intent. This professor then notes: "We are to 'bring-to' the Word a cultural context." He suggests implementing the following interpretative equation: text + culture = meaning. Although he admits this is simplistic, it nevertheless conveys a legitimate aspect of sound exegesis --- one must never overlook the culture and customs of the author and original readers if one would truly understand the passage under review.
The perfect illustration of this perceptive failure was seen in an episode of the television show 60 Minutes (originally aired on Feb. 1, 1998), which focused on a family who, because of a literal application of James 5:14, refused medical attention for their two children, relying instead only upon prayers and anointing with oil by their elders. The passage in James is SILENT about seeking the aid of physicians, thus they applied the "law of silence" and refused such aid as "unauthorized." It proved fatal; the children died. James was not prohibiting seeking medical attention; that was not the intent of the passage. Had this family known the culture and customs of that time and place, and had they not been misled by the fallacious "law of silence," they would have perceived this fact. We must be very, very careful in our exegesis that we don't overlook the cultural context within which these documents were originally written. To do so may lead to a flawed theology.
In short, it is entirely possible, indeed probable, that elders anointing the sick with oil was a purely cultural expression that was never intended by James (or the Spirit who inspired him) to become a universal LAW. A reader in Maryland wrote that after considering the culture of these ancient peoples, "the information points to a time in history when oil was significant for its medicinal properties." Thus, after consideration of such factors, this reader wrote, "I can find no reason that the action is still significant today, either biblically or physically. I do think this passage teaches that we are to care for the physical and the spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters, which many of us forget when we offer a simple 'I'll pray for you' in the face of real and pressing need."
I believe this reader has hit the nail on the head, so to speak. The genuine needs of the whole man are to be addressed by the elders of the church. If a member of the flock has physical needs, the shepherd will meet them. If the needs are deeper (emotional and spiritual), there are avenues for addressing those needs as well. Culturally, the rubbing of the body with oil met certain physical needs, just as washing feet did, or pouring oil over the head. We today can still apply the principle without necessarily mimicking the practice. My application of the "anointing with oil" in today's culture, for example, may well be to bring a sick saint a pot of chicken soup and run by the pharmacy on the way to pick up a prescription for them, and then praying with them when I arrive. We show love and concern, and we do what we can to meet both physical, spiritual and emotional needs. We minister to the whole man.
How we approach and apply James 5:14 goes well beyond matters pertaining to prayer and oil, however. It goes to the very heart of our hermeneutic. The professor from Washington astutely observed, "When we make any change in the practice in which the believing community is acculturated, we are seen to be 'drifting' from the faith on the part of those deeply committed to the continuity of the tradition. We alarm sincere believers who have been 'traditioned' to think that 'change' is in itself a sign of apostasy. Or, equally serious, we shift our practice with the latest fashion simply by popular desire without any understanding of the grounding for our new practice in biblical norms. The result of this lack of a coherent framework for living our lives in a culture strikingly different from NT times leads to confusion and division in the community of believers." The challenge before each of us today, if we would truly work toward that blessed unity of all believers, is to learn how best to effect responsible change in the evidencing of our faith so as to "properly image Christ in different historical-cultural settings."
The Perspective of Command and Example
Many of the readers who responded felt the James 5:14 passage constitutes a command of God which should not be lightly discarded or simply assigned to the realm of culture. After all, they point out, the "summoning" of the elders and the "praying" by the elders are both verbs which appear in the Imperative Mood, which is typically the mood of command. The "anointing" is a participle, but both it and the two verbs are all in the Aorist Tense, thus grammatically linking the actions together ... as well as associating the imperative force of the verbs with the participle. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that this does not necessarily negate the possibility of this simply being yet another case of cultural expression, for the "holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14) and foot washing (John 13:14) are both also phrased in the Imperative Mood. Indeed, with regard to the latter, Jesus says, "For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:15). Nevertheless, both of these "commands and examples" we have typically written off as "cultural expression" and do not follow today. Why would we lend any more weight to James 5:14? This smacks somewhat of a "pick and choose" (subjective selective) theology, and at best shows the inconsistency of the patternistic approach to biblical interpretation and application.
Nevertheless, many feel there is a mandate in James 5:14 for the church today, and that when elders fail to anoint the sick with oil, as they offer prayers on their behalf, they are guilty of setting aside specific divine direction for the church. Even those readers who did not feel this was necessarily a command, still felt it was a practice that was "authorized" by the Lord (through "approved example"), and which, therefore, should not be ignored today, as many do. Thus, according to some, elders may not actually be sinning by failing to anoint the sick when they pray for them, but they are certainly slighting the sheep of their fold by failing to minister to them as fully as the Lord directed.
I received two very scholarly papers from two very well-respected brothers in the Churches of Christ, one from Texas and the other from Indiana, who wanted to share with me their biblical basis for believing this charge to anoint the sick with oil is far more than just a cultural expression of an ancient time. One brother asked that I not print his research (23 pages) as it is currently being reviewed for publication in a scholarly journal. However, I don't think he would mind me simply stating his ultimate conclusion in the matter, which is that "the practice of anointing the sick with oil is a valid practice for today and should be honored by the elders whenever the request is made by the sick." His view is that the anointing with oil is "an aid to the faith of the sick person." The other brother provided a fairly in-depth study of the Greek words for "anoint," showing that there are some extra-biblical examples of overlapping in meaning and application of aleipho and chrio, although within the NT writings themselves the distinction seems fairly clear and unambiguous.
Thus, it is fair to say that there are good, honest, scholarly brethren on both sides of this issue. It also seems safe to say that more and more elders within the Churches of Christ are examining anew the teaching of James 5:14, and an increasing number of them are beginning to embrace the practice of anointing the sick with oil as they pray for their healing. One reader wrote, "At my home congregation, the --------- Church of Christ in Houston, we elders anoint with oil in connection with prayers for healing, both by individual request in private and by request at public, formal services." Another reader wrote, "I am a member of the ---------- Church of Christ in Boulder, Colorado. I am pleased to say that it is a frequent practice of our elders to pray for and anoint the sick with oil. This has been done at hospitals, in private homes, and once on a Sunday morning when one of our members requested it. I am comforted to know, that should I ever become seriously ill, I have wonderful men of God willing to anoint me with oil."
The Perspective of Consideration and Compliance
A third position of many of the readers of these Reflections, whether they felt the anointing was a cultural expression, or a command, or an aid to the faith of the sick, was that elders should be considerate of the persons making the request and seek to meet their needs rather than lecture them on theology. In other words, if a sick person sincerely sought the prayers and anointing of the elders, and genuinely believed that this was the desire of God in this situation, then the elders should comply. One reader phrased it this way, "If you are ministering to someone who believes it, how do you serve him well by not responding to his need and faith? His heart, not yours, I think is the deciding factor. Teach him after recovery if you feel strongly about the matter."
A minister for a Church of Christ in Indiana stated, "I have had the privilege of participating in a time of prayer and anointing on a number of occasions. The elders at the church I serve always honor the request of the person asking for prayer and anointing. I am always impressed by the faith of the person requesting this. The elders also demonstrate faith by doing it." A reader in Texas sends the following account which illustrates this compassionate consideration of a member's request:
Several readers wrote me and shared their personal testimonies of how prayer and anointing with oil proved efficacious in their own lives. One minister of the gospel wrote about a situation with his son who had a physical problem that several doctors stated was going to require surgery to correct. The reader writes, "Since I am a minister, my wife and I decided to request an anointing of oil and prayer from our elders. They agreed to meet with us. When we told them the story, they were willing but perplexed in that they had no idea exactly where to apply the oil. It was a comical moment, but they anointed his forehead and prayed over him." This reader says that they then took their son to the doctors who declared him to be in perfect health!! This minister concluded, "I was not relying on the anointing in this situation, but simply wanted to be obedient to the Scripture, even though I was not and am not clear on the implications of James' teaching."
A reader in England wrote, "Regarding your Reflections about anointing with oil and the prayer of elders, I relate to you a personal story. A few years back, while at work, I began hemorrhaging for no apparent reason. By the time I got to the doctor things were getting rather shaky. The doctor advised me to go to the hospital. On the way out of the building, I was forced to make a side trip to the restroom, and passed out there briefly. I had lost approximately four pints of blood in the last hour and a half. I was glad my husband was there with me. I called for the elders to come and pray over me, and they also anointed my head with oil before doing so. I had no more incidents. Not one. I later had tests, including a colonoscopy; they could find nothing. I realize such stories must be subjective, but I am convinced that the combined prayers of these men and their obedience in anointing me with oil are what cured me."
In many cases, these elders were rather perplexed as to how to anoint the sick person, and may well not even have believe it was necessary (as per their own interpretation of the passage in James). Nevertheless, out of consideration for the convictions of those who had sought their help, they complied.
What are we to conclude regarding the interpretation and application of the teaching in James 5:14? I suppose all one can safely conclude is that there is great diversity of understanding and practice among the people of God with respect to this passage. Some honestly believe the anointing with oil is simply an ancient cultural expression, and thus not applicable to our own times; others just as strongly believe this is a directive equally as relevant today as it was then. Most all recognize that there is no healing power in the oil itself, or in the elders. It is the Lord who heals, if healing occurs. Do healings occur? Does our God still intervene miraculously in the lives of His people on occasion? Some say no, some say yes. I personally have no doubt whatsoever that our God can, and does, heal. If He doesn't, then why pray for healing?!! What part does anointing with oil play in this process of healing, if it plays any part at all? I don't know, although the "aid to faith" suggestion makes sense to me.
My own personal conviction at present, based on my own study of the matter, is that the anointing with oil is more cultural expression than divine decree, and merely represents the truth that elders are to minister to the whole man, meeting physical as well as spiritual needs. However, I personally would not refuse to perform such an anointing if a member requested it in good faith. My own belief is that it is not necessary, but if a brother or sister is convicted that it is, I will show compassion and consideration for their conviction, and will anoint them as I pray for them. After all, when one is sick they need to be loved, not lectured.
In the final analysis, each of us must determine for ourselves the best meaning and application of this passage from James. I have my own views, and they determine my own course of action, but I have no intention of being dogmatic about this matter. More scholarly and spiritual disciples than I differ with me on this, and I don't dare discount that lightly. Thus, as with most subjects, I continue to challenge my thinking, and I continue to examine God's Word for greater insight into His will. I also continue to love and accept my fellow believers, whether they agree with me or not. None of us has arrived at perfect comprehension of ultimate Truth, thus we must be patient with one another, accepting one another, loving one another.
I sincerely thank each reader who wrote and shared their thoughts and experiences with me. May God's richest blessings be poured out upon each of you!
From a Reader in California:
AMEN!!! Unfortunately, our pulpits are full of those that I have NEVER, EVER heard give a testimony as to the saving power of Jesus. I've heard them tell about one cup, no music worship services, of uncut hair on the women, and how women teachers in Sunday School classes are bound for hell, but I have NEVER, EVER heard a Church of Christ preacher give a personal "Damascus Road" experience testimony. I think they don't have one.
Well, I do have a testimony and I give it whenever I have a chance, because without a "personal" testimony, we don't have a testimony at all and are merely repeating someone else's words. God gave me a song and I shall sing it!
From a Reader in Nevada:
I just read your latest on testimonials, and it is a great encouragement to me. I was raised in the one cup segment of the Church of Christ, and consequently never heard a testimonial. Since having grown in Christ in many ways (with other ways yet to come, praise Him), I have learned the value of testimonials, and practice this. How wonderful it is to grow in Him and know this growth is not an innovation but an experience of the Spirit.
I travel around a bit, and next year I would like to meet with the congregation there and to meet you. This will be a special blessing from God and you to me. Thank you for the continuing articles, and thank you for allowing us to use the information you put into your articles. I have never really understood why so many writers refuse to let their writings be used without explicit permission.
From a Reader in Georgia:
Brother Al, I appreciate so much your balanced view of Christianity. I have just finished reading the article about giving your testimony. Isn't that what the apostle Paul did in Acts 22? I was once asked to speak at a ladies' meeting. When I asked what I should speak about, I was told "just give your testimony." It was a great blessing for me to look back on my Christian walk and see what great things God had done for me.
From a Reader in Hawaii:
Aloha Al, If the redeemed are not authorized to testify, then Paul missed the mark with his testimony recorded in Acts 22. He missed the mark again in Philippians 3 when he testifies to who he had been and who he had become in Christ. I think I shall be a patternist and follow Paul's pattern. Peter also missed the mark by exhorting his readers to "always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). To give an account of my hope I am compelled to testify!
From a Reader in Mississippi:
Thanks for another great article, Al. I have to say, Amen, amen and amen. One thing that confuses me about Mr. Vick's article: if we are to go by the pattern of the 1st century church and the example of Paul, would that not mean that we are thereby commanded to give our testimony? I will grant, I do not necessarily follow the CENI hermeneutic, but to claim something is a sin when there is a clear example?
From a Reader in Texas:
The Walk to Emmaus is filled with "testimony." There are many within the restoration heritage who have had this experience and have gone on to help with the walks. I am helping with my first one in November along with another minister from a congregation here in town. Personal testimony was practiced by the early Christians and should be practiced by us.
From a Reader in England:
Once I too would have been "uncomfortable" with testimonies given. Not so much because I thought it was unscriptural, but because it is so personal. The way I grew up in the Church of Christ, somehow I absorbed a feeling that our assemblies were "supposed" to be impersonal, that what we felt or thought was too personal to be shared! I'm very thankful I shook that off eventually in my 30's. Isn't it odd, however, that we are all taught about Paul before his conversion? What is the purpose of knowing who he was BEFORE he became a Christian? Why did he himself tell his story? Why do we know the former occupations of many of the apostles? This is another case where I can only breathe a heavy sigh when I hear what is said by some. I KNOW most of these people mean well, and are sincere. Too often, in my opinion, the edifying and building up of one another to good works ONLY occurs outside the "worship services," and instead happens in groups of two or three or four families over coffee! NOT that I think that is a bad thing.
From a Reader in Michigan:
We all know of people who have blamed God for tragedies that have happened in their lives. To some extent what we have here is often the opposite extreme, and for this testimony to be of value to those that hear it they must place their faith in the one giving the testimony. But how can we be sure they haven't deluded themselves? We are on dangerous ground if we allow ourselves to be unduly influenced by such subjectivism. I'm more interested in Peter and Paul's testimony than in my neighbor's. Knowing and understanding is hard enough even when we have it divinely written down, let alone trying to sift out what someone feels. So I personally would take someone's testimony with a grain of salt, knowing they truly believe it, but reserving judgment until later.
From a Reader in (Unknown):
I wanted to let you know I have been enjoying your articles very much. I found your website through Edward Fudge's site. I am perhaps an odd duck in this pond since I am an Assembly of God Sunday School teacher. I have read Fudge's book and find it to be a very strong case for Conditionalism. Al, I would like to say thanks. I was at something of a crisis, finding the idea of eternally burning in hell to be so out of proportion to the offense. It was great to find that there was indeed another way of looking at some difficult scriptures.
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