Should we pray for the sick?

Would it be right to accede to the request of a sick brother, to send for the elders of the church to pray for his recovery?

I should think that the question ought rather to be, “Would it be right to refuse such a request?” Surely the Scripture is very plain, “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” (James 5: 14, 15). We must not evade Scripture or twist it out of its simple meaning, as is sometimes done, because if taken as it stands, it may seem to favour some false notion. There is scarcely a heresy in the world which cannot quote some half-truth or twisted text in its favour.

No doubt James 5:14 has been used as a basis for the many erroneous systems of bodily healing abroad to-day, and so some have fallen into the erroneous idea that it must be evaded. “For instance,” says one, “James does not give us ‘church truth.’ “ That is no doubt in a sense the case, but he seems to speak here of a church custom, for we cannot admit that “church” in its local and technical sense, means one thing in the Acts and another in the Epistles, and we accept without hesitation for ourselves to-day other exhortations of the Epistle. Another evasion, as it seems to me, is to ask, “Where in the scattered condition of the church are the elders?” The answer is that in nearly every scripturally-ordered assembly there are some who are known and act as such, and who bear the character of elders in a greater or lesser measure. Others point out that the epistle is addressed to the twelve tribes. Yes, but to them as actual or potential believers in Christ. See, for example, James 2:10 “My brethren have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . with (or along with) respect of persons.”

The Roman Catholic Church, of course, bases on this passage the “Sacrament of Extreme Unction.” But for this they have to read—”Is any among you dying?” because they only administer the rite to those in extremis. For anyone to recover after the reception of Extreme Unction is quite unlooked for and out of order, whereas the anointing in “James” is in view of recovery—”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.” This last promise seems to give character to the whole passage. It is as though it were a case where the sufferer* suspected that the Lord was dealing with him on account of some sin, and sent for the doctors of the soul, rather than of the body. I do not know any faith-healing systems which teach the sick to send for the “elders of the church.” It is generally rather some leader, who professes to be a “Healer,” who sends for the sick; or else it is a faith-healing home, often under female control, where the sick are taken in as boarders, awaiting their turn to be healed at some public service, which savours rather of an advertisement for man than as a testimony for God.

One is, of course, not questioning the earnestness of many of these people, but is comparing their methods with our passage. Here it is the sick one who desires the fellowship in prayer of his brethren. These make no claim to be “faith-healers,” but they pray in simple fashion for the sick one, in submission to the will of God, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord. They cannot command the prayer of faith. It may not be the Lord’s intention to raise up the sick brother, but the prayer of faith (if they are able to offer it) shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him. Nothing is said as to other means being unlawful, and the word for “anoint with oil” is not the sacred word—used, for instance, in Hebrews 1:9 (the “Christ” word). It is noticeable that the most outstanding example in the Bible of healing, granted to the prayer of faith—that of Hezekiah—was in no way incompatible with the use of means—a fig poultice. The faith-healing systems would entirely rule out this as a lack of faith. The case that follows in James 5 is still more simple. Here there seems no doubt as to the cause of the illness, and there is no question either of physician or elders. “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another.” Any godly person will do, for “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man” (though he be not an elder) “availeth much.” There ought surely to be more exercise among us as to the why and the wherefore of our sicknesses. They may not all be sent in chastisement, they may be part of our salutary and daily discipline, but there can be no loss in enquiring of the Lord, “Why am I thus laid aside?” We cannot leave the subject without a note of warning. Many erroneous teachings prevail to-day in the “faith-healing” world, e.g., that disease does not exist (how then cure what does not exist?); that disease in a Christian is a sin (!); that bodily healing is included in the Atonement (then why does any believer die?): and healing pilgrimages—little “Lourdes—are being encouraged to-day within the fold of the Protestant State-Church. The fact that cases of miraculous healing are claimed for all these systems, even if genuine, is not conclusive, for miraculous powers are not limited to the Spirit of God. We must test teachings, methods and results by the Word of God. What strikes the student of the faith-healing systems around us is the distant resemblance they bear, if any, to apostolic healings.

* In order to have a full view of this whole subject we must not limit ourselves to this passage, but must Join with it such passages as 2 Corinthians 12: 7-9; Philippians 2:25-27; 2 Timothy 4:20; 1 Timothy 5:23, etc., in which there is neither mention of any miraculous intervention nor of sending for the elders. No scripture contradicts any other nor can it dispense with any other.

* The word is “weak”—the first condition noted in those under the chastening of the Father: “for this cause many are weak and sickly, and many sleep” 1 Corinthians 11:30).