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Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Anointing of the Sick: Magic, Faith, or Sacrament?



The following is the first in a series of guest posts
as my family embarks on a much needed vacation!
This post was written by my new friend, Walt Gessner,
whom I met through my husband, Phil,
who met Walt when they were in the same cohort at
Northwest Nazarene University, studying Spiritual Formation.
Walt gives you a little bit more of his background
in the post that follows.
Thank you for sharing with us, Walt!

I am aware that those of us that have aligned our work and ministry with the Church of the Nazarene have varied opinions and thoughts in regard to the anointing of the sick. A mentor and very good pastor friend of mine does not like to use oil in praying for the sick. His position is a well-reasoned and understandable one: many people that sit in the pew will see the oil, receive the oil, and somehow missing the prayer in being healed will think that it was the oil that healed them. I guess he feels that many Christians do not have a very good grasp of the basic tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that the power is not in the oil, but in the one whom the oil represents: the Spirit of God.

Other Nazarenes that have a more conservative approach to theology and Christian living quickly pick up on the other name for the anointing of the sick, the Sacrament of Last Rights, and cast it aside as being “too Catholic,” and thus something that we Nazarenes best stay away from so that our theology and Christian living are not corrupted. I see their point, especially since our roots are in the Protestant stream of things. To be too Catholic might somehow pull us into that void of works over faith salvation, and thus we would fall into the trap of thinking our being good is being good enough to “make it to heaven.” It should be noted, however, that the anointing of the sick in the greater context of Christian history was practiced before the Roman Catholic Church became the Roman Catholic Church and was seen in terms of Christ’s healing of the sick and as a valid practice of the early church through the Apostle James.

Now before we go any further, I should explain that I am an ordained elder and pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, I hold a BAMin from Nazarene Bible College, two Masters degrees from Northwest Nazarene University (am I still allowed to admit that?), and am in the dissertation phase of a PhD from Regent University (an odd relationship where Fundamentalists and Pentecostals are bedfellows in the School of Divinity). My PhD will be in Theological Studies with a Christian History concentration – of course should I actually get the dissertation written and defended. My call and spiritual gifts are to be a pastor/teacher, and specifically, to encourage the body of Christ to be re-created in the image of God and ministry students to be spiritually formed in preparation, not simply complete a course of study for the piece of paper.

Why is it important to know my pedigree before we continue? Because I see sacrament in historical as well as ecclesiastical contexts; helping me at least to peel away the uninformed clichés that we often found our beliefs upon. Please don’t get me wrong. I do not feel that we are living less than Christian lives because of cliché. I do feel, however, that cliché has become the easier thing to preach and teach which is up and against good biblical exegesis and the exhortation to study to show one’s self approved. I also am forced to reconsider presupposition and allow the stories of the church to speak for themselves, even being willing to raise controversial questions at the expense of my own notions and temperament.

So why is the anointing of the sick a varied practice in the Church of the Nazarene? Really it comes down to that old saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” We Wesleyan types like this saying and attribute it to John Wesley, but it was probably something that was said before Wesley, but in principle was practiced by Wesley and was embraced by early Nazarenes.

The man that is considered the founder of the Church of the Nazarene, Phineas F. Bresee, was not a fan of the proponents of the Divine Healing Movement, which has its origins in the American Holiness Movement, but was not embraced by all Wesleyan leaning holiness folks – Bresee fell here. Before he set out and started that very first Church of the Nazarene in 1895, Bresee worked with a city holiness mission, Peniel Mission, in Los Angeles. At one point, Bresee got wind of the Mission’s inviting another holiness preacher by the name of A.B. Simpson (Simpson would become the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance) who was a divine healing proponent and considered an extremist. Whether coincidence or intentional, when Simpson agreed to come, Bresee pulled out and the Church of the Nazarene was born.

E.A. Girvin, a Bresee biographer, gives great insight into Bresee’s position on healing and of the anointing of the sick in writing:

I never knew a man who was freer from all forms of fanaticism, and from that presumption which so often masquerades under the guise of faith. He insisted upon our using all the means which were placed at our disposal, trusting God for the outcome, and giving Him the glory. While he frequently prayed for the healing of the sick, and his prayers were marvelously answered in many cases, he never anointed with oil. He would pray with and for those who desired to be anointed, but invariably have someone else do the anointing. His exegesis of the passage in James, referring to anointing the sick, was that the oil was used as a kind of medicine, and that we complied with that requirement when we gave to those who were ill the best remedies at our disposal. He claimed that God healed in all cases, whether means were used or not, and that healing was always divine healing.[1]

While Bresee had this position, it is also obvious that he considered divine healing a non-essential.

In October of 1907, the Church of the Nazarene would form a union with the Association of Pentecostal Churches of America, becoming the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene. One of the leaders from the Association instrumental in the union was Hiram F. Reynolds. Reynolds did see divine healing as having an important place within the Holiness Movement having testified to being healed and sanctified after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1880.

To read the articles submitted by both Nazarenes and those of the Association in The Nazarene Messenger in 1906 and leading to the union in 1907, it is easily seen that one of the “issues” leading to the union was healing. Equally interesting is to read the reports published in The Beulah Christian, the official paper of the Association. In 1906, there were reports of healing and of supernatural occurrences at the college that would be the precursor to Eastern Nazarene College.

Why are these articles, testimonies and reports important to our talk? They are important because they reveal that unity, liberty, and charity were very much at the heart of the union. Our early foremothers and forefathers in Nazarenedom would not allow non-essentials to unhinge the greater mission: to proclaim scriptural holiness to the world. So, where Bresee was not a fan of the tenets of the Divine Healing Movement, he would not allow divine healing to be the divide of a holiness people. In fact, a statement on divine healing was added to the statement of union between the two formerly separate bodies now made one and called the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene.

The anointing of the sick with oil whether one is comfortable with it or not, is indeed a valid practice within the Church of the Nazarene. If one believes that anointing with oil is an important “sacrament” (a Christ directed and biblically instructed practice of the church), then let those who desire to be healed call upon the elders (spiritual leaders) of the church, be anointed with oil, and prayed for in faith. If one should see the potential of spiritual downfall for the local gathering of Nazarenes in the practice, then let them still pray the prayer of faith, all in agreement, so that sins would be forgiven, bodies made whole, and spirits set free to be healed in heaven. If two Nazarenes disagree on the matter in fellowship, then let them commit themselves to unity, offering liberty, and sharing charity as sisters and brothers in Christ – for the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. After all, this is our founding, this is our heritage.


[1]E. A. Girvin, Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel  (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1916; repr., Third, 1982), 377.

1 comment:

  1. I did not realize Bresee was against using oil when annointing the sick and praying for their healing. Very interesting. I am 51, a life long Nazarene, and have always seen Pastors annointing with oil. The Scripture you quoted seems pretty clear to me. Thank you for sharing our history.

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