"Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him" (James 5:14-15).
This passage has over a thousand years of misapplication and misunderstanding. Earlier misapplications are what eventually evolved into "last rites" with holy water. Aside from this obvious misapplication, there are other questions associated with this passage. Does this passage assume that elders are to have miraculous gift of healing? What is the anointing oil for? Is sickness the direct result of personal sin?
I believe many of these difficulties can be cleared up through improving the translation. First, here is a brief reminder about translations. Improvements by scholars are slow to make it into published translations for marketing reasons. Think about it, when you go to buy a new Bible, you either buy one that "sounds" familiar. If readings are different, you will probably avoid it even if the preface states it is an improved translation. Therefore, for the purpose of marketability, publishing companies are sometimes slow to make improvements to the text.
"Sick" in verse 14 is astheneo, which means "weak or powerless." Here is a lexical definition: "Weakness is the opposite of strength (sqenos) and embraces the full range of physical, emotional, social, economic and even spiritual incapacity." The word can be used of an illness, but not necessarily so. There are other Greek words that mean illness. Asthen more often refers to weakness or helplessness rather than an illness. Here are some examples: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mk 14:38). "While we were still helpless Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom 5:6). "Accept one who is weak in faith" (Rom 14:1). "To the weak I became weak" (1 Cor 9:22).
"Sick" in verse 15 is kamno, which means "weary, fatigued, or worn out." It never means sick. It is used two other times in the New Testament: "Consider him who endured such hostility so that you will not grow weary." (Heb 12:3). "You have endured and not grown weary" (Rev 2:3). Notice that in both of these, kamno is related to hardship or persecution.
With these improved translations, a new picture emerges of those this passage is addressing. These are those who have been distressed by various trials. They have become weakened, tired, worn out, beat down, distressed. They may have had their property confiscated, lost their jobs, or their family members might have been persecuted to the point of death. They may no longer have the strength or the will to pray. Perhaps it may have led to a lapse in faithfulness to God. No wonder James instructs them to call for the elders to come and pray over them and even mentions possible sin.
The ministry of the elders, and ultimately the whole church, is one of strengthening, refreshing, and restoration. That is probably what this anointing is referring to. The word for anointing in this passage is not chrio, which is ceremonial anointing, but aleipho, which means to rub in, smear, or even pour. It is the word used to apply ointment as medicine or for hygiene, like aftershave or lotion. In this passage, it is most likely not literal anointing because oil is obviously not a cure-all. The power of healing is not in the oil, but in God who answers the prayer. Like the 23rd Psalm or Isaiah 1:6, this anointing is probably a metaphor for a ministry of refreshing, strengthening, and restoration. The Greek construction of the sentence connects the anointing to the prayer, suggesting that the ministry of prayer is the anointing. The whole act of coming to pray over the parched, worn out, distressed soul is the anointing which helps to soothe, strengthen, and heal.
This passage, then, is not about miraculous healing. It is about the ministry of prayer, restoration, and encouragement. It should be a reminder that prayer is one of the most important ministries of elders and of the church in general.