Elders and Anointing Oil by Gerald Cowan

In the church of Christ do elders anoint the head with oil and pray for people?  If not, why not?

    I presume the question is based on James 5:14, “If any is sick let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil.”

     Prayer for the sick is common, but anointing with oil has not been in common use for a long time. To answer the question as to why it is not used one must first determine why it was used in biblical times, and if it was intended for the same use in perpetuity.  None of that is answered clearly or definitively in the scripture.

Possible Uses

    There are two possible ways the oil could be used. First, it could be used physically as medicine in its own right (as in Luke 10:34). One would doubt the curative properties of oil (or wine too), as compared to medicines readily available today. But, perhaps the meaning could be, “Use whatever medicines and medical help are available and add them to your prayers to God.” If one asks why the elders are mentioned, it may be because as leaders and overseers in a time when “doctors” were few and scattered, elders would likely stand in for many other offices in society, especially in a religious community or church.  Anointing with oil would be discontinued in favor of more effective remedies, although prayer would continue. It would also be generally pointless to call for the elders now to diagnose and treat physical sicknesses in Christians.

    Second, the oil could be symbolic or representative of something else.  It could be a social amenity, a customary sign of hospitality, as suggested in Luke 7:46.  Such anointing was also a sign of fellowship and acceptance (see Psalm 45:7, Hebrews 1:9).  If that is the meaning in James 5:14, the suggestion is that elders should show ordinary signs of fellowship and acceptance of the person.  But such usage was a cultural custom, not a universal mandate.  Just like the kiss of greeting and the washing of a visitor’s feet (also in Luke 7:46, compare John 13:3-5).

     Why would the elders, or others called to the person, bring with them what should have been furnished by the caller?  Oil could indicate the receipt of some blessing (as in Psalm 23:5). So, it could be either thanksgiving for a blessing, or a request for a blessing.  It may be that the oil here was not intended as thanks for a blessing received, since it was apparently administered before prayer and before the blessing of healing.

     Oil was also used as a sign of consecration, of things or of persons (Genesis 28:18-19, Exodus 40:9, 1 Samuel 10:1). But it could not be so in James 5:14, since Christians are already anointed and consecrated to God (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

     The point is, none of these things has any religious significance now and are certainly not commanded today. Yes, hospitality and fellowship are commanded, and there are ways to show them, with or without oil, in every culture and circumstance.

The Holy Spirit

    Some want to see the oil as somehow symbolic of the Holy Spirit and His works, and perhaps tie it somehow to supernatural or miraculous healing by the Spirit.  In this case the anointing with oil would be done in conjunction with a miracle of healing.

     This idea seems to come from Mark 6:13.  The Lord’s spiritually endowed disciples to cast out demons, anointed many of the sick with oil and healed them.  But that would have to assume that the elders in question had a gift of healing (see Ephesians 4:8-11), and that they employed the symbolic oil and their prayers to effect healing by the Spirit of God.  Even if that were the case, it would be inappropriate and meaningless now, since the gift of miraculous healing is no longer valid.  The gift of healing was neither given to, nor possessed by, any Christian after the death of the apostles and those to whom they conferred it by the laying on of their hands (Acts 8:18).  It would be pointless, a claim of power that nobody has today, to associate anointing with oil somehow with miracles of the Holy Spirit.

In Conclusion

    There is nothing in the text or the context to indicate that anointing with oil (by elders) had some spiritual basis that made it applicable to the church forever, or that it was an obligation imposed by God upon the church and its elders.  If it was to be required in the church for all time, some explanation and foundation for the practice would surely have been given.

     It seems best to conclude that this anointing was a cultural or medicinal measure, not a spiritual one.  So, to abandon it is not breaking faith with God. And again, as said at the beginning of this article, one who continues the practice must explain why it was practiced originally, what it meant then, what it supposedly means today, and why it should be continued.