“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:13-16)
Any interpretation of the above text, including my own, is going to have flaws and weaknesses. To me, none of the three views I discuss in my book, Elders and Deacons, seem likely, and the best solution may be no solution, which means there is not enough information for the church today to act one way or another on the instructions found in James 5:14. Rather than do this, I propose a fourth solution not found among the many interpretations of this verse. It is my view that the anointing with oil phrase is an idiomatic expression that refers to something that would be readily understood by church. The task of interpretation, then, is to discover the most likely meaning of this expression within a first century church context.
Notice there are three groups mentioned by James: “Is any one of you in trouble?…Is anyone happy?…Is any one of you sick?” (vs. 13-14). These three groups of Christians are commonly found in the church. Notice that the first two recommended solutions to the problems of these Christians also seem common and ordinary: “He should pray…Let him sing songs of praise” (v. 13). The first part of the third solution seems to be ordinary as well: “He should call for the elders of the church to pray over him” (v. 14). This seems a reasonable request, especially in view of what is stated elsewhere about the qualifications of elders. These men should be the spiritual leaders of the church and it is only natural that the church should look to them in times of sickness to offer prayers on their behalf. Note that James encourages Christians to seek the prayers of righteous people because these prayers are “powerful and effective” (v. 16). The elders also represent the church, and if a brother or sister needs help, it would be reasonable to ask the church for this help through its representatives. It is only when we get to the last part of the recommended solution that the instructions become unclear to the modern reader. James instructs the elders to “anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord” (v. 14). This is not only strange and unfamiliar to us today, but we find no evidence of this ritual being practiced in the church. As we have already noted, the only other example (Mark 6:13) seems to be in a miraculous context and this text says nothing about the work of elders.
If every circumstance and procedure of the three groups seems normal and familiar except one, then it might be that we are not understanding the one that appears out of step with the rest. But if the miraculous, ritualistic, and medicinal explanations are not acceptable, then how can we make sense out of the instruction to anoint with oil? The answer to this question must fit into the context of what would have been ordinary and familiar to the local congregation; that is, it must fit in with the common circumstances of the groups (the troubled, the happy, and the sick) and the other common recommended solutions (pray, sing, and call for the elders to pray). A miraculous healing or exotic ritual does not fit this ordinary context. The application of medicine by the elders also seems out of step with the context and nowhere in the qualification of elders is it stated that they are to do the work of a physician. The only possibility left is to view the anointing of oil statement in some way other than as a literal application of oil.
It is my view that the anointing of oil phrase is an idiomatic expression referring to the elder’s oversight of the physical care of these sick people. Instead of applying medicine to the sick, they are to see to it that the physical needs of the sick are met. The elders, as representatives of the church, are to inquire whether there is some help the church can give, other than prayer, that will facilitate healing. This might include financial assistance or the call for volunteers to minister to the sick person. We need to remember that Christians in the first century did not have health insurance or good hospitals where they could go in order to receive care. Health care, especially for the poor, would be the responsibility of the community of believers. This does not mean that the elders themselves were to do the work of a physician or to apply medicine, but they certainly were in a position to see to it that this was done if it was needed. The anointing of oil is probably an allusion to a contemporary medical practice, like the pouring of oil and wine over the wounds of the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34), but it must be more than just an allusion to one medical practice. It must represent in some way the whole process of physical healing and care for the sick. It must stand for a broad range of care and assistance the church might provide the sick Christian.
J B Myers