Sometimes we get questions to the Truth&Circumstances podcast that are more straightforward theological or interpretive questions rather than difficult everyday situations needing biblical solutions. When we get those kinds of questions, I like to try to answer them here. I just got another good one:
What is your take on anointing someone with oil? My church doesn’t practice it, which made me doubt if it’s Biblical because all the churches I ever attended that did do oil-anointing were not solid churches. However today I came across James 5:14 and it appears to be a Biblical command to anoint one another with oil when praying for the sick. Is this a practice my church should embrace? Or am I missing something in my interpretation of the text?
First, let me give you the reference from James:
Is anyone 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. James 5:14 ESV
As a young adult, I studied the book of James in an inductive study group in a church that did not anoint with oil. I’ll never forget when we got to James 5 — it seemed to me that the teacher had to do multiple exegetical backflips to explain why we should not anoint people with oil as prescribed in this verse. We had applied the book in such a straightforward fashion up to that point. All of a sudden, we were told to do the opposite of what the text so clearly taught.
So my experience was very similar to that of the person who asked this question. Just reading the text in a cursory fashion would lead one to believe that the elders of the church should anoint the sick with oil and pray for them when the sick call upon them to do so. After studying the issue very closely, my view has not changed.
Let me point out some things about the situation in James 5 that will help frame the rest of my answer. First, it appears that the anointing described there was at the request of the sick person. I don’t think this precludes the elders offering to do this for the sick person, but the text directs the sick person to call for the elders. Second, it was the elders specifically who were called to pray and who did the anointing. That is, there does not seem to be warrant here for all church members to anoint with oil. Third, the person was likely extremely ill, possibly terminally. We can deduce this from the fact that the text says “the prayer of faith may save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (v15). Fourth, the anointing does not seem to have been done publicly, but in the sick person’s home. Again, the person “calls” for the elders to “come”, and then is “raised up,” all of which would indicate that the elders went to wherever the sick person was rather than the sick person coming to a public gathering.
I point these things out because they may explain why the questioner has seen people anointed with oil in "non-solid" churches and has not seen people anointed with oil in "solid" churches. The questioner mentioned that she is aware of certain churches that do anoint, but that they were not “solid churches.” It’s possible that the reason the questioner knows those churches anoint with oil is because they were doing it in contexts and situations which do not coincide with this passage. Some denominations, particularly those known for abuses of the gifts of the Spirit, are known to use oil for all kinds of things outside of those prescribed by Scripture. These denominations can tend to have shaky theology in other areas as well, which may have led to the questioner associate the use of oil with bad theology.
(Incidentally, I believe that many churches (not all!) that do not anoint with oil in the biblical way prescribed by James 5:14 abstain because they also associate the use of oil with these errant pockets of the church. In a well-intentioned effort to avoid any appearance of evil, they throw the biblical baby out with the errant bathwater.)
On the other hand, because of the private nature of what is depicted in James 5:14, there may be many “solid” churches whose elders do anoint with oil, but it is not obvious because, in accordance with the passage, it is not done publicly. That is the case with PBF. The elders at PBF have observed this biblical practice in the past and will continue whenever we are called upon.
Now, one more thing. I imagine some will wonder - what is the point of the oil? I’ll quote from the ESV Study Bible: “[The oil] is best seen as a symbol representing the healing power of the Holy Spirit to come upon the sick person… ‘In the name of the Lord’ means that it is God, not the oil, that heals.” So when we anoint with oil and pray, we are not using a magic potion. Rather, we are obeying the Scriptures, using a symbol for the healing power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the person, praying that the Spirit would do what only He can do - bring healing to that person.