The Elders, the People, and the Prayer of Faith

Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? 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 will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought fort its fruit.

Last week I tried to show from 1 Corinthians 12:9 and 28 and Galatians 3:5 that gifts of healings were intended for the church in Paul's day and in our day. But I stressed that the New Testament does not talk about THE gift of healing. Nor does it talk about people in the church who are known as healers. The phrase "gifts of healings" (two plurals) in 1 Corinthians 12:9 and 28 suggests rather that at different times for different sicknesses God gives to different people different "gifts of healings." In other words, you might find yourself drawn to pray for one person with remarkable, expectant faith and see that person healed, but then pray for others and not experience that same gift.

So we concluded that it is good to earnestly desire gifts of healings—not as something to boast in but as something to love with. Love is the main thing. Gifts without love are deadly. But love plus gifts is the biblical ideal.

Does James Harmonize with Gifts of Healing?

Now today we turn to James 5:13–18. And the question is: Do the healing instructions here fit in with what we said last week? Listen to what one British pastor says:

The idea that God has placed "gifted" healers in our local churches is also excluded by James, who says nothing about sending for someone who possesses a gift. We are simply to send for the elders, whose task is to pray, not to effect the healing by virtue of some personal gift. Indeed, James goes out of his way to say that if a sick person is raised up this will be by the power of the Lord working in answer to prayer, not by any power channeled through the elders.

Then this pastor attacks the ministry of John Wimber on the basis of James 5. John Wimber is the author of Power Evangelism and Power Healing, and is the pastor of the Anaheim Vineyard where 58 of us went to the conference on holiness recently.

John Wimber tells us that when he was called to visit a very sick baby in hospital, he addressed the "spirit" of death saying, "Death, get out of here!" Immediately, he claims the atmosphere changed. James, however, has never heard of such amazing feats being achieved by men, and so he fails to give this spectacular kind of role to the elders of the church. Denying them all the extra-sensory insight and power of today's healing superstars, he reduces them to "mere" pray-ers. Wimberism, therefore, with all its arrogance and presumption, receives a crushing rebuke from James 5.

Those are strong words from one Christian pastor to another. The way I approach this text this morning is guided by the desire to test that accusation—not to test all that John Wimber does, but just this point for now: Does James 5 rule out a community in which the spiritual gifts are active including gifts of healings? I will make four observations from the text that suggest its teaching is not so incompatible with gifts of healings as some think.

1. Three Kinds of Praying Are in the Text

In James 5:13–18 we see at least three kinds of praying not just one. And all three of them are ways of praying for people who are sick or suffering in some way. You can't use this text to say there is just one biblical way to pray for the sick. There is a great deal of flexibility possible here.

Praying for Yourself

First, there is praying for yourself. James 5:13, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray." Here the suffering may be of any kind. We are not told that only in some kinds of suffering you should pray for yourself. So our response to some suffering should be praying for ourselves evidently without always pulling the elders or other people in, though of course, it doesn't have to be either-or.

Praying of the Elders over a Sick Person

Second, there is the praying of the elders over a sick person. James 5:14–15, "Is any among you sick? 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 will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins he will be forgiven."

This is a case where the person is so weak and bedridden that they can't get out easily to the gathered church. We see this condition in the phrase "pray over" (probably signifying their being on a bed with the elders around); and we see it in the statement, "the Lord will raise him up" (implying that they are laid low). So the situation when the elders are called probably involves a physical condition that keeps a person from getting out to the fellowship.

Praying for Each Other

Third, there is the praying for each other. James 5:16, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed."

This is very general. It could include what we know as a prayer meeting. It could include private prayer at home for a friend. It could include teams of people praying for others in their presence or at a distance. But notice that the issue is still healing in verse 16: "pray for one another that you may be healed"—not necessarily limited to physical healing but in this context surely not excluding it either. So calling for the elders in the case of a bedridden Christian is NOT the only model in this text. We simply don't know all the ways that these churches prayed for the sick.

2. The Example of Elijah

The example of Elijah seems to indicate that James thought about healing and miracles very differently from those today who limit gifts of healing to certain points of redemptive history. Let me illustrate.

"Signs and Wonders" Limited to Three Periods?

Part of their argument is that signs and wonders erupted at three times in history and during the rest of the time they were not available. For example, one respected popular pastor says,

According to Scripture, miracles occurred in three major periods: the days of Moses and Joshua, the time of Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Christ and the apostles. Each of these periods lasted something less than one hundred years, but in each period there was a proliferation of miracles. Miracles were the norm. God can interject Himself into the stream of history supernaturally any time He wishes. But it seems that He chose to limit Himself essentially to these three periods.

So the direction of thought in this argument is that Elijah and Elisha were extraordinary and therefore cannot serve as a model for us insofar as they prayed for miracles to occur.

James Seems to Use Elijah as a Model to Imitate

But James seems to think in the exact opposite direction in verses 17–18. "Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit."

Now what's the point of saying, "Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves"? The point is to block the objection that says he was somehow extraordinary and cannot serve as a model for our praying. The point is just the opposite of those who say Elijah and Elisha experienced miracles because they were unique spokesmen for God. The point is: Elijah was just like you so that you can be encouraged that YOUR prayers will have great effect—like stopping the rain for three and a half years.

Now notice that the example of Elijah was brought in by James to encourage all of us who are referred to in verse 16 to pray for each other that we may be healed. After he says, "Pray for each other that you may be healed," he says, "The prayer of a righteous person has great power in its effects." Then he gives Elijah as the example and stresses that he is not in a class by himself when he prays for a three-year drought. The logic of the passage seems pretty plain: All of us should be praying for each other and our goal in praying should be to live and pray in a way that would have the same kind of healing effects as Elijah had when he prayed for rain after a three-year drought.

In other words, this text does not limit powerful praying for divine healing to the elders, and it encourages us rather than discouraging us to think of our praying in the same category with a great miracle worker of the Bible.

3. "The Prayer of Faith"

The "prayer of faith" will heal the sick person. James 5:15, "And the prayer of faith will heal the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up."

The Gift of Faith Is in View—the Sphere of Spiritual Gifts

The text does not teach that everyone the elders pray for will be healed. It teaches that if the elders pray "the prayer of faith," the sick person will be healed. This is stated so absolutely that it seems to me that a gift of faith is meant here which assures the elders the healing will be done.

In other words, I think this phrase ("prayer of faith") puts us right back into the sphere of spiritual gifts rather than taking us out of that sphere. The elders seek God's gifting for faith so that they might pray "the prayer of faith." That gift is referred to in 1 Corinthians 12:9, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one [this] . . . to another faith by the same Spirit." There is a faith that comes as a special gift to pray for something extraordinary.

God's Special Gift of Assurance

1 Corinthians 13:2 says, "Though I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." There is a gift of faith that can remove mountains. This goes back to what Jesus said in Mark 11:23–24, "Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."

It seems to me that what we have in Mark 11:23–24 and 1 Corinthians 12:9 and 13:2 and James 5:15 is an unbroken line of teaching about a gift of faith that enables a person to pray a completely assured prayer because God has given extraordinary assurance. This is why the "prayer of faith" in James 5:15 WILL heal the sick person. It is certain because this faith is God's special gift of assurance about what he intends to do.

So the picture I have of the elders at the bedside of the sick person is not of a group of men who think gifts of faith and healing are past, but of a group of men who earnestly desire a spiritual gift of faith so that they might pray the prayer of faith which in this case would amount to the same thing as a gift of healing.

4. Shepherds Sometimes Used as Channels

God intends that in some circumstances the shepherds (=elders) be the channel of needed spiritual gifts to the flock.

People ask: Why should not the sick person, bedridden at home, ask for the healers to come instead of the elders. The answer is twofold.

First, we saw last week that there is no evidence in the New Testament that there were any so-called healers in the churches. God gives "gifts of healings" not THE gift of healing. And he distributes these gifts of healings variously as he wills, now to one person, now to another. Some people might receive a gift of healing more regularly than other people. But that is not guaranteed for every church and so it can't be the basis of James' instruction for the churches.

The second part of the answer is found in who the elders are. They are shepherds (Acts 10:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–2). Whom does a sheep need when it is wounded or sick? Answer: It needs a shepherd.


Could it be, then, that the picture of the elders in this passage teaches us not that extraordinary spiritual gifts have ceased, but that shepherds are responsible to be zealous for spiritual gifts? Could it be that shepherds are to carry out their doctrinal, spiritual oversight of the church by living in such constant fullness of the Spirit that they are likely candidates for whatever gift is called for in their ministry? And could it be that sickness is such a frequent misery among the sheep of God that the shepherds will take it as their normal responsibility to be zealous for gifts of faith and healing after the pattern of the chief Shepherd Jesus Christ?

My conclusion, then, is that James 5 is not a "crushing rebuke" to John Wimber's ministry—even though I have misgivings about it. Rather it seems more likely to me that James 5 is a rebuke to shepherds that never have the faith to heal and churches that don't pray for each other in the spirit and the power of Elijah.