Are any among you suffering? They should pray… Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord… My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
My mother frequently invoked that final bit from James’ letter: “…cover a multitude of sins.” She was generally referring to a loose-fitting top, a splash of rouge, or a slipcover as ‘covering a multitude of sins’ but you got her point.
James has three great activities for life together as a community of faith: healing, praying, and rescuing. We get the first two pretty well. The early church was a healing church. An early church code even required that each congregation appoint at least one widow to take care of women who were sick. Today there is hardly a major American city that does not have a hospital with a Christian or denominational name in its title.
Praying we understand. We have the Daughters of the King whose ministry is deeply rooted in prayer. We have the Prayers of the People. Folks always ask for prayer or volunteer to pray. There’s no great tension between James’ teaching and our own faith in modern medicine and psychiatry. The psychological effects of sin are well known, and a sense of being forgiven for real or imagined sins is related to a sense of health.
It’s the third activity that often brings us up short: turn around people who have wandered from the truth, thus covering over a multitude of sins. Healing and praying are non-invasive. Rescuing, not so much.
The issue of wanderers from the truth and what to do about them has always been a ticklish topic for the Church. From the Spanish Inquisition to the warring within the Southern Baptist Convention in the latter part of the 20th century, proponents of a litmus test of beliefs have sabotaged genuine Christians everywhere. The words of James are powerful and dangerous.
James says that Christian truth is something from which a person can wander. Consequently, someone has to go after them and bring them back from the error of their ways. If not someone in the church, then who?
Pray? You bet.
Rescue? Oooo… now you gone meddlin’, James. Efforts to pronounce others as wanderers from the truth can get mean, ugly, and vengeful. Bashing people who believe differently and labeling them isn’t what James is advocating. James isn’t telling Christians to condemn other people’s beliefs. But he is pointing out that living in a church community is more than going after funds for the budget and rescuing the property from decay and neglect. Living in a church community is also going after those who have wandered from the truth.
Think about the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The shepherd and the woman searched. The meaning is obvious. People go to great lengths to recover stray property or money, but wandering people? Not so much. We often invoke tolerance as our reason to avoid approaching the wanderer.
Now, I’m not saying that we should be ‘in your face’ or adopt a ‘one size fits all’ Christianity, but some truths in Scripture are clear. The Church can be victimized by its vacillations and compromised by its compromises. Anything Goes may be a great musical, but it makes a lousy sequence hymn. The work of reclaiming human beings who err must be part and parcel of the priorities of the Church. Participation in a covenant community requires a personal commitment to others who are part of that same covenant.
I think Robin Lovin, ethics professor at SMU, frames James’ expectation of healing, praying, and rescuing very well: “Unless we have some sense of mission in our institution, we probably will not have much of a moral life, even though we may not be guilty of many moral mistakes.”