Doctors and Divine Healing?

Dr. Collins is, of course, well-recognized as leading the Human Genome Project. One of the things he makes clear in his talks is the importance of this project relating to curing diseases and genetic defects. Dr. Collins is also a Christian, a follower of Jesus. But Jesus’ brother, James, seems to have no use for doctors or physicians for those who need healing. He said that if anyone was sick, they should call for the elders of the church, who would anoint the sick with oil, and the prayer of faith would heal that person. As a skeptic, I reject this approach to healing. I believe our best efforts at healing are done through doctors and medicine, through science, not through prayer. So I question how a follower of Jesus who believes what the Bible says about divine healing would even take the field of medicine seriously. Why study genetic abnormalities if the church can heal through prayer? Why study medicine at all if all that is required is going to the church for healing? Why have hospitals and medical research facilities if the book of James is correct that God’s view of healing is that people should go to the elders of the church and request prayer?

As a physician, I find this interesting, but you have to realize that doctors in James’ time were a lot different from doctors today, in that they were pretty useless (I better be careful here!) as scientific medicine really did not exist prior to the 20th century, and most meds were of minimal or dubious benefit. Gotta go see patients, but will check back later. I will mention that there was a book I found to be excellent on the subject, called Heal Thyself, but I see on Amazon there are a dozen dubious book by the same name, so will have to check on the authors at home if I can find it.

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Thanks for your reply, James. I’m not an expert on the quality of doctors in the 1st century. I suspect that, like many other areas, knowledge was in its infancy stages.

But my question is not so much about what doctors were like back then, but the applicability of James’ advice to us today. For Christians, the Bible applies as much to us today as it did to its original audience back when it was written. And James says that the sick are to be taken to the elders of the church where they will be prayed over and that prayer, not medicine, will do the healing.

So if this is the Bible’s view on how the sick are to be dealt with, if this is the legitimate way to get healing, why do Christians go to doctors? Why don’t they follow James’ exhortations here and just go to the church with their sick? Why do doctors train in medicine? Why don’t they simply become elders in the church where their faith, not their hands, accomplish the healing?

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.

So said St. Paul to his young disciple Timothy (1 Tim 5:23). So why didn’t he just say, “Pray about those tummy bugs, Tim, so they’ll stop slowing you down; after all, Jesus can easily take care of them”?

One possibility is that maybe they took more of a both/and approach than an either/or approach back then. If they had an effective (or semi-effective) natural treatment, it seems they may not have been afraid to recommend it.

AMWolfe, St. Paul wasn’t being very scriptural, was he? :wink: He should have simply sent Timothy to James’ church in Jerusalem for his malady.

Interestingly today, despite what the scriptures teach, most Christians do go to the doctor and use modern medicine. In my experiences, they tend to rely on prayer for illnesses that modern medicine don’t help with. And Christians who don’t avail themselves of medicine, but rely only on faith and prayer, are somewhat seen as loonies, even within Christendom. Yet these “loonies” are, in reality, just being faithful to what the scriptures teach.

Who says Christian teaching is opposed to medical practice? Read for example chapter 38 from the Sirach, a book considered canonical by Catholics and the Orthodox and respected by (among others) the Anglican and Lutheran denominations.

38 Give doctors the honor they deserve, for the Lord gave them their work to do.[a] 2 Their skill came from the Most High, and kings reward them for it. 3 Their knowledge gives them a position of importance, and powerful people hold them in high regard.

4 The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible person will not hesitate to use them. 5 Didn’t a tree once make bitter water fit to drink, so that the Lord’s power[b] might be known? 6 He gave medical knowledge to human beings, so that we would praise him for the miracles he performs. 7-8 The druggist mixes these medicines, and the doctor will use them to cure diseases and ease pain. There is no end to the activities of the Lord, who gives health to the people of the world.

9 My child, when you get sick, don’t ignore it. Pray to the Lord, and he will make you well. 10 Confess all your sins and determine that in the future you will live a righteous life. 11 Offer incense and a grain offering, as fine as you can afford.[c] 12 Then call the doctor—for the Lord created him—and keep him at your side; you need him. 13 There are times when you have to depend on his skill. 14 The doctor’s prayer is that the Lord will make him able to ease his patients’ pain and make them well again. 15 As for the person who sins against his Creator, he deserves to be sick.

Luke was a doctor.

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Perhaps my opening post is a bit vague or ambiguous. I am not debating whether there were doctors or medicine in the first century. What I’m stating is that for the earliest church in Jerusalem (of which James, Jesus’ half-brother was the leader), the way to be healed from sickness is through the prayer of the elders, NOT through doctors or medicine.

Therefore, if this is the way (the very Words of God) on how sickness is to be dealt with (via prayer, not medicine), why bother with medicine and doctors if God’s Word on the subject is to go to the church for healing? It seems to me that if the Bible says that sickness is healed by faith through prayer, then for Christians to go to the doctor and to use medicine implies that they don’t believe what the Bible says. I think James was right about one important thing. He said that faith without works is dead. So if you claim to have faith in the power of prayer to heal the sick, but your “works” is to go to the doctors when you are sick, your faith in prayer is dead, it is a sham. James says, “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” According to Christianity, this is what God, through the apostle James, has to say about the subject. God has spoken. To me, that pretty much puts a period there.

Speaking only for myself, I never go to the church for healing. I know that some do and they claim prayer works. But I would rather trust the science of medicine, fallible though it is, then the empty “promises” of God’s Word.

You simplify your understanding of the Bible’s message down to

without really backing that up. Yes, in context James seems pretty insistent that prayer was not only necessary but sufficient for healing. But your case for what the Bible says would be much stronger if you actually had a definitive negative quote from someone saying, “Don’t go to the doctor.” But I don’t think that’s in there. Now, you may feel this is implied, and Christians you grew up around may well have drawn those inferences and maybe even forced them down your throat. (Lord, have mercy.) But it doesn’t actually say that.

In fact, I personally don’t know much about early Christian stances on the medical sciences of the day, but for all I know, for James himself it might have been understood that he meant, “Is any of you (still) sick (after going to the doctor and not finding healing)?” I mean, that’s not really all that far-fetched, given that just two verses prior, he says, “Is any of you suffering? He should pray.” So by your logic did he really mean, “If you’re suffering, don’t do anything but pray”? No. In fact, the other use of that word for suffering in the New Testament comes where Paul speaks of having suffered to the point of imprisonment as a criminal (2 Tim 2:9) and we know that on occasion when Paul was arrested, he wasn’t averse to playing the Roman citizen card to get out of it (Acts 22:25). Oh, but wait, he was in trouble… according to James he should have just prayed!

Back to healing: If “prayer, not medicine” really is the unequivocal witness of Scripture, why would Paul have spoken to Timothy about adding wine to his water (a primitive sort of medical advice)? And why would Paul have admitted to his own sickness? I mean, if James 5 was the end all and be all of Scriptural witness to illness, wouldn’t that have implied Paul was either sitting on unconfessed sin or not faith-filled enough?

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. (Gal 4:13-15, emphasis mine)

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! (Gal 6:11)

Paul seemed to have an eye problem, but he didn’t say, “Sorry, guys, guess it’s time I finally confessed that secret idol worship I’ve been doing that’s really causing this” and he didn’t say, “Pray I will have more faith so I can kick this thing.” If anything, he seemed to say “God’s power is perfected in weakness” (even if it’s not clear that his eyes were the famed “thorn in the flesh”).

Summarizing: If you want to make the case that “the scriptures teach” that we shouldn’t go to the doctor, you’ll need to produce Scripture that says, “don’t go to the doctor.” Until you find such a verse, I submit we should try to look at a broader sampling of the Scriptural witness.

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Here is a link to a book I found interesting and thought provoking regarding the intersection of health and faith. One of the main lessons I learned is that we tend to spend a lot of energy in the pursuit of health, and as Christians are in danger of it becoming an idol. We can fall into the trap of using God in the attempt to achieve good health.

As to the question of should we go to the elders rather than to the doctor, perhaps it is relevant to the state of medicine at that time, and times change. While prayer is still important and we should share our burdens with the body of Christ, sometimes we need a mechanic. If our pipes are clogged, prayer doesn’t hurt, but the pastor will say call a plumber if the pipe goes to the sewer, and a cardiologist if the pipe goes to your heart.

I’m looking through James, Bill, and I’m just not seeing what you claim is there. The closest thing I see is in James 5 where prayer is touted as being appropriate for a myriad of situations, including sickness. But nowhere am I finding any prohibition against doing anything else to alleviate sickness or suffering. In fact, also found in James (starting 2:15) is the rhetorical and scathing question: "And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled;” and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. "

While the above passage isn’t mentioning prayer, it is pretty obvious what the author would think of someone who prayed for someone else, but then withheld the very means by which the other person’s need could be met.

Thinking that your passage of reference means all other pursuits are forbidden, would be like taking Jesus’ teachings that man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (as opposed to mere bread) as a prohibition against all eating of food. Because after all, if a person has faith they shouldn’t need any material sustenance then, right? But of course, the Bible teaches nothing of the sort for healing any more than for food.


As a cessationist this is obviously not a challenge to me; I don’t believe this gift is currently available to Christians. @AMWolfe made the excellent point that Scripture never devalues physicians or the medical practice; Paul makes a special point of Luke being a “beloved physician” (showing he valued Luke’s profession), tells Timothy to drink a little wine for the sake of his stomach (interestingly, no reference to prayer), and speaks of an illness he had which he clearly could not heal himself and which neither he nor his friends thought was best treated with simply prayer.


‘But Jesus’ brother, James, seems to have no use for doctors or physicians for those who need healing.’

I find this an interesting assumption since James did not speak out against doctors, but merely stated that divine healing was available to Christians. God does not demand that we rely on Him for healing, He provides it to those who will trust Him to provide it.

It is by His grace that he uses medicine to provide some relief to those who won’t trust Him for healing. Doctors don’t actually ‘heal’, they merely attempt to assist the body in healing.

Unfortunately, Christians have talked themselves out of believing God for healing. However, divine healing still occurs today in areas where folks have not been educated out of it.

The Christian Science denomination is based on faith healing, and as far as I know, members do not see physicians. I recall hearing in the news about court orders a written to send a sick child to the hospital when its Christian Science parents refused medical treatment. I have read that in the Middle Ages that the church forbade people to use umbrellas, because God intended us to get wet when it rains (I suppose the logic was something like if God wanted us to use umbrellas he wouldn’t have given us houses.) Refusing to use modern medicine on religious grounds seems like it is based on a very limited understanding of the Bible.

Tom Lehrer introduces his song on nuclear proliferation, “Who’s Next,” with the statement, “The world is beginning to feel like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis.”

Christian Science is neither Christian nor based on science. Christian Scientists deny all the core truths of Christianity. They believe that reality is purely spiritual and the material world is an illusion. They believe that disease is a mental error rather than physical disorder, and that the sick merely need to correct their beliefs that are causing the illusion of ill health.

There are documented cases of divine healing in Jesus’ name throughout history and up to today. That is not to say that Christians should be opposed to modern medicine. It’s simply that the idea that divine healing stopped with the development of modern medicine is not Biblical - and it is contrary to actual fact.

Whether or not we personally experience a Biblical truth does not negate the truth or make it a fantasy. Man can only see, hear, touch, taste and smell within a limited spectrum but that does not disprove reality outside of that spectrum. Man has developed and is developing means of translating non-sensed reality into a spectrum he can experience. Night vision goggles would be a simple example among many today.

The point you make with this about misinterpretation of Scripture is valid, Larry, but it’s a calumny on both the mediaeval Church, and the intelligence of mediaeval people in general. I can’t find a source on Google, but since it’s so completely incredible, I can only assume it comes from one of those atheist urban myths, like the Church believing in a flat earth (it never did), or suppressing science (it mainly fostered it), or even that mediaeval theologians spent their time with angels and heads of pins.

Personally I think it’s better to let such “only our age knows anything” stories die, and not mention them - except to expose them as fraud.

I probably heard about the church ban on umbrellas in some sort of “believe it or not” type column. The only thing I can find on umbrellas in church is that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church uses an umbrella in its services symbolize the presence of the spirit of God. A deacon holds an umbrella over the priest had during the liturgy. I can see where some pope may have banned such practice in the Western church, which could easily have been seen as a church ban on umbrellas in general. Good catch.

All I found was a 17th century (I think) joke at the expense of a dandy with an umbrella, saying he ought to take his house round with him if he was so scared of getting wet!

The European preference was for a cloak - which would surely have been banned by the Church as well if the umbrella calumny was correct!