A Bible Study for Brethren

by Graydon F. Snyder and Kenneth M. Shaffer, Jr.

James 5:13-16 (NRSV)

         "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous man is powerful and effective."

James 5:13-16 (BNT)*

         "Are there any among you who are depressed? Let them pray. Are any cheerful? Let them sing. 14Are there any among you sick? Let them summon the elders of the church, and let the elders pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15Prayer offered in good faith makes whole those who are sick. The Lord will restore them, and if any have committed sins, he will forgive them. 16So then confess your sins to each other, and pray for each other, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person works with profound effect."

*Brethren New Testament

The Text in Its Biblical Setting

            The Letter of James has no equivalent in the New Testament. First of all, it hardly has the form of a letter. Those who have read the letters of Paul will miss the fulsome greetings, prayers, thanksgivings, exhortations and final salutations. After a short address, the book of James instead jumps rapidly from topic to topic without any self-evident order to the material. A number of reasons have been offered for this peculiarity. Some have suggested that James was not a letter, but a speech or discussion in which the material we have is the answer of the author to questions we no longer possess. Another excellent possibility is that James represents the single complete piece of wisdom literature in the New Testament (see 1:5). In wisdom literature, as is evident in the book of Proverbs, the subject can shift very quickly without transitions.

            Secondly, James presents a style of faith which differs markedly from that of any other writer in the New Testament. It reflects the outlook of certain Jewish groups in the New Testament period who saw the problem of life as a struggle between good and evil within the person. They thought that all persons had within them a good impulse and a bad impulse. Religious persons were ones who subdued or controlled the bad impulse and allowed the good impulse to rule their lives and daily decisions. God gave believers strength to follow the good impulse. In James 1:12-15 the author speaks of temptation as a personís own desire. It is this desire or impulse which gives rise to sin (v. 15). The real problem for a person would be uncertainty about the good impulse and how it differs from the bad impulse. Such uncertainty was called "double-mindedness" or doubt. The person who lacks wisdom (regarding the two impulses) lives in doubt and so is tossed to and fro (James 1:5-8). Presumably then the Letter of James was written so that Christians might have the wisdom of God necessary to recognize and follow the good impulse in everyday decisions.

            The wisdom of James is preeminently congregational. True religion is visiting the widows and orphans (1 :27). The royal law coming from the scripture is to love oneís neighbor (2:8). Gossiping does more than anything else to destroy the community (3:6). Quarrels come from giving in to the evil impulse (4:1-10). Gaining riches creates dissension in the community (5:1-6; 2:1-7). So the passage 5:13-16 should also be understood in a community context. Verse 13 suggests that individuals with problems may participate in the "services" of the faith community. Those who are depressed would do well to join in the prayers. Those who are happy and cheerful, on the other hand, should join in the singing. In Colossians 3:12-17 we have an excellent description of the kind of life in the early church which made this possible.

            The church was bound together by forgiveness, love and the peace of God. Its "service" was the presentation of the word in teaching and preaching (admonishing), and the singing of psalms, hymns and songs (Col. 3:16). The author of James suggests therefore that individual moods can be celebrated or caught up in the regular structure of community worship. Likewise illness should be handled in the context of the faith community. The elements of the communityís service to the sick were: a visit from the elders, a prayer by the elders (or the church members, see v. 16), anointing by the elders, and confession of sins.

            In the ancient world the direct association of healing with divine things was assumed. There was a somewhat scientific or non-cultic approach to medicine in the Greek world, starting with Aristotle, but the Roman world held doctors in a rather low repute. Consequently the major healing institutions of the New Testament period were still religious groups, primarily that of Asklepios. Asklepios was the Greek god of medicine, and his shrines were places of healing. At his temples were priests skilled in healing, although much was accomplished simply by having the patient sleep overnight (with the god) in the temple (incubation). Accounts of miraculous cures by incubation can be found in all parts of the Roman empire. In the third century B.C. a snake in which Asklepios was said to reside was brought to Rome to avert a deadly epidemic, and a temple was built on an island in the Tiber River. That temple may still be seen, with the snake on a staff - the symbol of modern medicine.

            The Judeo-Christian approach to healing was somewhat different from that of Asklepios. The God of Israel was also a healing god and the temple priests made judgment on such matters (Mark 1 :43). But the Judeo-Christian faith was much more psychosomatic and community-minded in its understanding of illness. We see especially in the psalms that illness, sin, and alienation from the community are all the same thing. Look, for example, at the remarkable description in Psalm 102:3-11. In the New Testament and the early church illness was directly associated with alienation from the faith community. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul ascribes the cause of illness and even death in the Corinthian church community to the fact that some do not properly discern the body of Christ and therefore participate in Love Feast and Communion on a false basis (v. 30). Early in the first century another Christian, Ignatius of Antioch, struggled with schismatics who refused to participate in the communion of the church. He claims that breaking bread together is the medicine for eternal life, an antidote against death itself (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20:2). According to Ignatius, being schismatic obviously creates illnesses, and full participation in the life of the church is a "medicine." Little wonder then that the author of James advises the ill person to call upon the church. It seems probable, though not certain, that James would suppose the illness to be due to some friction with fellow members of the church. At least he assumes the necessity of a confession. In any case the order is as follows:

1. Call upon the elders. Elders were older natural leaders in the Near Eastern world. According to Acts elders were functioning as leaders in the Jerusalem church (11:30), where tradition says that James himself was resident. At the same time elders were also appointed by Paul and Barnabas in Hellenistic churches (Acts 14:23), so this form of organization was fairly universal. To call upon the elders was to call on the whole church through representatives.

2. Pray. Frequently the power of the faith community is stressed in the New Testament. In Matthew 18, we are informed that whatever the community decided had already been determined in heaven. Here we discover the same thing. The prayer of the elders, acting on behalf of the faith community, will have the power to heal. In v. 16b James states emphatically that a person at one with the congregation and the Lord ("a righteous person") has much power in prayer.

3. Anoint with oil. Oil was used for a variety of solemn occasions such as coronation (1 Sam. 10:1) or at death (Mark 16: 1). It was also used to signify healing, as a balm for wounds (Isa. 1:6), or as a sign of the healing action of God (Mark 6:13). Here we have the solemn use of oil to mark the concern of the church. The phrase "in the name of the Lord" refers not just to the power of the example of Jesus, but to the continuing power of the Lordís community (Acts 3:5-6).

4. Confess sin. If illness is associated with alienation from the community of God, there must be a moment when the sick person confesses that alienation. There is no exact parallel to this practice elsewhere in the New Testament, though in Matthew 5 the disciple is urged to become reconciled with members of the congregation before "going to church" (5:23-24). In any event, confessing oneís brokenness is a prerequisite to experiencing healing.

The Text in Brethren Life

            While it is generally affirmed that the Brethren practiced anointing since their beginning in 1708, there is no documentation of the anointing among the Brethren prior to 1770. Writing about 1770, Morgan Edwards (1722-1795), a Baptist pastor and historian, included the Brethren in his multi-volume work about the Baptists in America. Edward's description of Brethren practices contains the following reference to anointing: "They anoint the sick with oil for recovery."  1 The first mention of anointing by the Brethren themselves is in the minutes of the 1797 Annual Meeting: "From James 5:14, etc., the brethren testified unanimously, ĎThat the sick who desire and call for it should be anointed, according to the word of the holy apostle, in the name of the Lord.í" 2 Unfortunately, the query giving rise to this affirmation of the anointing service is not stated in the minutes.

            Two specifications about anointing are noted in the minutes for 1812. 2 First, the anointing is to be administered only if the person being anointed seeks no further aid from physicians. Second, there is no biblical reason why a person, having been anointed and recovered, cannot again be anointed if again taken ill. The minutes of 1827 outline the anointing service. First, a few verses are sung and a prayer is spoken.

         Then (there should always be two brethren) the one reaches forth his hand and the other poureth the oil on it, and the first puts the same on the head of the sick. and says the words, which the Apostles James teaches (chap. 5:14), "Thou art anointed in the name of the Lord." and thus three times, but the words only once said. Then both brethren lay their hands upon the head of the sick. and pray over him, for it is not considered to be intended only an inward unction, but an outward anointing, whereof the apostle speaks, as mentioned before. 3

            A more detailed outline of the service is found in the minutes for 1860.

            Two specifications about anointing are noted in the minutes for 1812. 2 First, the anointing is to be administered only if the person being anointed seeks no further aid from physicians. Second, there is no biblical reason why a person, having been anointed and recovered, cannot again be anointed if again taken ill. The minutes of 1827 contain an outline for the anointing service. 3 First, a few verses are sung and a prayer is spoken. Then one of the two presiding brethren pours oil onto the hand of the other brother, who touches the head of the sick person three times with the oil. As he touches the person, he says, "Thou art anointed in the name of the Lord." Finally the two presiding brethren gently lay their hands upon the head of the sick person and pray for him. A more detailed outline of the service is found in the minutes for 1860. 4

            The Annual Meeting minutes indicate that two basic problems concerning anointing arose in the nineteenth century - who in the church would preside at the anointing service, and who could receive the anointing. In response to the first question, the Annual Meetings repeatedly said that ordained elders (bishops) were to preside at anointings except in cases of necessity where two elders could not be obtained. The basis for this reply was, of course, the reference to elders in James 5:14. Regarding who could be anointed, the minutes of 1850 stated that only members of the church could receive anointing, and the minutes of 1852 said that anointing was meant for sick persons. It should also be noted that by 1860 the minutes indicate that a person might continue to use medicine after receiving the anointing. This seems to be a reversal of the 1812 statement that a person should not enlist the aid of a physician after being anointed.

            Peter Nead (1796-1877), presents anointing as more than a service based upon the example of James 5:14-15. Nead, writing in 1834, says: "Now, all those who desire to have this holy work [the anointing] performed upon them ought to be perfectly reconciled unto the will of God-in particular as it respects their recovery from a bed of affliction. Yes, they ought to make a complete surrender of themselves into the hands of the Lord." 4   With this statement Nead characterizes the anointing as more than a petition for physical healing. It is an act whereby the sick person accepts the will of God, whether that be health, continued sickness, or death.

            L. W. Teeter, in a late nineteenth century tract titled "Anointing the Sick," 5 presents further interpretative comments about the anointing service. There are, says Teeter, a primary design and a secondary design of the service. The primary design is physical restoration of the body. The secondary design consists of three blessings or promises based upon verse 15. First, "the prayer of faith will save the sick man." The full extent of this salvation is known only to God. Second, "the Lord will raise him up." While, as in the first promise, the exact nature of the raising up is not known, the sick persons can be sure that it will be what is best in their situation. Third, "if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven." This, says Teeter, is a clear promise that all sins of the sick person will be forgiven, not just those sins which may have brought on the present illness. Teeter completes his tract with an explanation as to why the laying on of hands, which is also part of ordination and baptism among the Brethren, follows the actual anointing as part of the service. According to Teeter the phrase "pray over him" in verse 14 implies that the elders will lay their hands upon the head of the sick and offer a special prayer on his or her behalf. To support the association of laying on of hands with anointing, Teeter cites Mark 6:13; 16:18; and Acts 28:8.

            A popular discussion of anointing in the twentieth century is the booklet titled "Anointing for Healing" by Warren D. Bowman (1894-1987), a pastor and college president. Originally written in 1942, Bowman revised it twice and it was reprinted many times. In addition to describing the anointing service and its expected results, Bowman answers several questions about anointing. First, concerning whether children should be anointed, Bowman says: "While a child may understand the anointing only in part, or perhaps not at all, the prayers of the ministers and others ... could have a powerful effect.', 6 Second, concerning whether people near death should be anointed, Bowman concludes: "While not denying this service to our aged saints who desire it as a spiritual blessing, we should emphasize that this is not the main function of anointing, that its main function is for healing. 7   Third, as to whether an unconscious patient should be anointed, Bowman points to the fact that anointing often gives great rom fort to the sick person's relatives and" that Jesus performed some of his greatest miracles of healing because of the faith of the patient's relatives.', 8

            A 1963 report to Annual Conference includes a discussion of the biblical basis of anointing, consideration of the relationship of anointing to modern medicine, a statement of the place of anointing in spiritual health, and a presentation of the procedures of the anointing service. Concerning the effect of anointing on sick persons, the report says: " Individuals who were fearful or under strain have found peace and contentment within Godís will and have been led to commit themselves wholly to Godís loving care. With it have also come forgiveness of sins, a strengthened faith, and, in many instances, some most remarkable in character, the healing of body, mind and emotions, as well as the restoration of social relationships. In cases where full physical healing was not experienced, the service has helped the persons involved to say with Christ, ĎNot my will, but Thine be done.í" 9   Concerning the relationship of the anointing to contemporary healing sciences, the report states: "The anointing service should not be expected to take the place of but work in cooperation with the proper use of medicine in treatment of bodily ills, of psychology or psychiatry in dealing with emotional ills, or of psychiatric social work in treatment of ruptured personal relationships."10

            The theme of the 1987 Annual Conference was ANOINTED. During the conference the various uses of anointing in the Bible were highlighted, including "hospitality, holiness, consecration, installation, leadership, and gladness and festivity as well as healing."11  In connection with the emphasis on anointing in 1987, a new pamphlet was published titled "Anointing: A Biblical Teaching as Practiced by the Church of the Brethren" by Dean M. Miller. According to Miller the service of anointing can properly be used in the following situations: physical illness, accident or sudden trauma, impending surgery, critical decisions, risk and vulnerability, reconciliation, emotional pain, and spiritual renewal.

The Text in Todayís World

            It may be that the modern, scientific world view has eroded the meaning of one of the richest of the Brethren practices - the anointing for healing. During the nineteenth century concern for anointing shifted from healing to the problem of proper order. During the more recent decades of this century interest has centered on the psychological or psychosomatic function of confession, prayer and anointing. As the focus of our concern has shifted in these ways, some of the original importance of the practice was lost. We lost sight of the truth that illness can derive from alienation. Our biblical heritage states strongly that personhood derives from community involvement. To lose that community involvement either by separation, alienation, or isolation can and likely does result in some form of illness. The Bible even speaks of severe alienation as death. But we have tended to speak of illness as a physical phenomenon which can be diagnosed and controlled scientifically. Or when we have spoken psychosomatically, we have tended to think of healing in the context of an individual patient/therapist relationship rather than in terms of the faith community. James 5 points us to reconciliation in the community as a means of dealing with illness.

            Faith healing is coming back in our day. The practice of anointing will thus likely become popular, once again. Brethren may be tempted to go the direction of "faith healing" in which one person prays with power that God will intervene in the life of sick persons to make them whole. James 5 should lead us in quite another direction. The elders represent the church and pray in the name of the Lord. They were not persons of unusual gifts or abilities. In fact, the author of James notes that his example Elijah was a person just like us (5:17). So though persons who need healing may call on the elders to represent the church, they also can confess to each other. The Brethren of this century could well move to recapture this priesthood of all believers in the realm of healing. Some churches have organized lay ministries for the sick, which catch up the meaning of James 5. Visiting by lay persons is not just a courtesy. For people who are sick the power of the faith community praying in the name of the Lord is enormous. It is indeed a healing ministry.

            This is not to deny that there are particular persons who have specific gifts or skills to share in the healing of the sick. Whether in the medical community, the psychological community, or the religious community, there are those equipped to contribute in special ways to the ministry of healing. In the final analysis, however, healing is a function of the faith community. Only as we experience the support and fellowship of a caring community of love can we discover the strength to be truly whole.


1 "Morgan Edwards on Pennsylvania Congregations," in Brethren in Colonial America, ed. Donald F. Durnbaugh (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1967), 174.

2 Minutes of the Annual Meetings of the Church of the Brethren, 1778-1909 (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1909), 19.

3 Ibid., 50.

4 Peter Nead, Primitive Christianity, or a Vindication of the Word of God (Staunton, VA: Kenton Harper, Printer, 1834), 142.

5 L. W. Teeter, "Anointing the Sick," Tract No. 276 in The Brethrenís Tracts and Pamphlets, Setting Forth the Claims of Primitive Christianity (Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Publishing House, 1900).

6 Warren D. Bowman, M., "Anointing for Healing" (Elgin, IL: Church of the Brethren, 1942), 21-22.

7 Ibid., 23.

8 Ibid., 24-25.

9 Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Church of the Brethren, 1955-1964, compiled and ed. by Ora W. Garber (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1965), 280.

10 Ibid., 283.

11 Phyllis Kingery Ruff, "Secretary's Report," in Minutes of the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, 1985-1989, compiled by Annual Conference Office (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1990), 349.

from Texts in Transit II, ©1991 by Graydon F. Snyder (Professor at Bethany Theological Seminary and Professor emeritus at Chicago Theological Seminary, see other publications) and Kenneth M. Shaffer, Jr. (Director of Brethren Historical Library & Archives), Brethren Press, Elgin, IL, 227-234. (The first two paragraphs in "The Text in Its Biblical Setting" were from an earlier edition).