The epistle of James says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
This well-known passage brings insight into the need for governmental prayer in the church. Why does James emphasis the elders being called to pray for the sick? What does he mean when he says sins will be forgiven? Are not sins forgiven in Christ? What does he mean?
We teach that every member is a minister. We believe that signs follow those that believe. We embrace that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit named 1 Corinthians 12, are for all those on whom the Holy Spirit wills to give. So why this focus on elders? James is not taking away from the priesthood of all believers, but pointing out an important aspect of church life and the sick among them. Let’s take a closer look at this concept of elders and spiritual authority.
There is another passage that focuses on the spiritual authority of the elders. Peter tells the elders in 1 Peter 5, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” The admonition to be sober and resist the devil applies to every believer, however, in this passage, Peter is speaking to the elders. He tells them they have a responsibility to keep watch because their enemy the devil is looking for someone to devour. They are to resist him in faith. Here we see a particular responsibility and spiritual authority given to the elders.
God has given spiritual authority to elders who serve in the governments of the local church. This spiritual authority is for the sake of the body of believers as to protect the people. There are specific passages that provide elders responsibility to operate in this spiritual authority.
From the Book of Acts, we see governments functioning in apostles and elders (Acts 15). Apostles serve in spiritual authority to the churches. They can also serve as official authority if they reside in that local house and serve as an elder. Elders have the official authority over the local church. The elders are those with a clear calling as one of the five gifts of Ephesians 4:11. Even though the Scriptures do not tell us that an elder must be of the five-fold gifts, the examples we see in the New Testament reveal this fact. For example, Peter who was an apostle and also an elder instructs the other elders to feed the flock, which means to pastor and oversee or to bishop the people (1 Peter 5). Paul, the apostle, charged the elders of Ephesus to guard themselves and the flock to which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers (Acts 20:28). If the five-fold gifts are to equip the saints then they must have the grace to do so. That ability comes with the gifts. It is not what someone does that gives them the ability to equip, but rather by virtue of who they are. That is why Paul tells us these gifts are given to the church. Yes, individuals function in this way, but they in themselves are gifts to the Church by the grace bestowed on them by Christ. If elders are to pastor and bishop they must have one of the five gifts of Ephesians 4:11 to do so. Paul said, ‘I am what I am by the grace of God” (1 Cor. 15:10). With the grace to serve as an elder then certain spiritual authority comes with that responsibility.
Is anyone among you sick? “Among you.” refers to those being among other believers. He is speaking to the local church. “Let them call” the elders of the church. This exhibits submission and alignment with spiritual authority. This person is asking for prayer from the elders. He is saying, “I acknowledge the elders God has put over me.” It is an act of faith and obedience to God’s word. No one should be begging this individual to come forward for prayer. This person is motivated to ask for prayer themselves. Their faith is in action. James says this person is to ask for prayer and to be anointed with oil.
Oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. It represents the anointing oil poured on the high priest. Jesus is our high priest, and when His church is together in unity, it flows down upon all. This is demonstrated in the words of Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”
“The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” The elders have a responsibility to pray in faith. To offer prayer in faith is to believe that God desires and will heal the afflicted. All the elders must do is simply to pray in faith, and the Lord will raise up the sick person.
“If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” What does James mean when he says they will be forgiven. We are not told what he means, and it is not clear, but in the context, we get a view of spiritual authority praying over the sick in the church. Not all sickness is related to sin a person has committed. That is why James says, “If they have sinned.” He uses the word “if.” We know that elders do not forgive sins and we know we have no mediator other than Christ, so what is meant here?
James is speaking in the context of anyone in the church who is sick for them ask for elders to pray. Elders are given charge to watch out over the souls of the people entrusted to them (1 Peter 5:2). I believe the sin that James speaks about is a sin against the body of Christ. Sins against the church can occur through slander, gossip, insubordination, division, and many other forms. I believe this is the context in which James is speaking. It would make sense why he would encourage those who are sick for themselves to call for the elders. They are properly aligning themselves and submitting to the spiritual oversight that Christ has given to them. If they have sinned against Christ’s body that will be forgiven because their heart is made right in humbling asking for prayer and anointing oil.
Is anyone among you sick?