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Are All Evangelicals Orthodox?: The Church, Ordination, and Prayer for the Sick

Evangelicalism is not a particular denominational confession or tradition in the Church.  It is a movement—an orthodox, Christian movement in Protestantism that relates to the Reformation and is an extension of German pietism and the great revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries.  (By 'orthodox' I simply mean what the Church has typically taught everywhere, always, and by all through the centuries that is grounded in Scripture.  I am not referring to the Orthodox Church in particular.)  It is best described historically, especially if the alternative is a political description.  This historical definition allows a definition in terms of what united different orthodox movements operating within and outside wayward, Protestant denominations over the post-Reformation centuries.  However, has Evangelicalism remained untainted by the Enlightenment’s Deism, secularism, and rationalism—its anti-supernaturalism and denial of miracles?  I think not, and I will seek to illustrate this with reference to teaching in the Church on prayer for healing of the sick.

The Biblical Basis for Praying for Healing

The Biblical basis for praying for healing is canonical, theological, and textual.  Canonically, stories of the miraculous hand of God and of healing are to be found in both the Old and New Testaments.  Theologically, the ministry of Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God—the reign of God—and this is connected to the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry and in the ministry of the disciples in the Gospels, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.  We have come to speak of the ‘overlap of the ages’: the first and second coming of Jesus place us within an overlap of ‘this age’ with the ‘age to come.’  While this age clearly continues with sin, suffering, and death, the age to come has been inaugurated with Jesus’ redemption of sinners from their sin, his resurrection from the dead, his exaltation over all authorities, and the Father’s sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church.  Textually, we may point to the ministry of healing given by Jesus to the disciples:

Mark 6:13 And they [the twelve disciples] cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.

The elders in the churches are to continue this ministry given the disciples:

James 5:14-16 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.  16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

This ministry is more widely disseminated in the local churches: it is not limited to clergy.  There are those given the gift of the Spirit to works miracles (1 Corinthians 12.10).

The Early Church’s Understanding of a Ministry of Healing by the Clergy and in the Church

As we look at ancient liturgies for ordination and worship, we find the continuing belief in miraculous healing.  Following are several examples and quotations from primary sources to illustrate these points.

Hippolytus (early 3rd c.) discusses various ways, not only by means of the laying on of hands, someone might be recognized as a presbyter: by having been imprisoned or put in bonds because of confessing Christ, by being a widow for a long time, by being given the book to be a reader without ordination, by showing purpose by remaining a virgin, and by showing appointment by already having the gift of healing (The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus I.10-15).

In the Ethiopic Epitome of Hippolytus, the prayer for the ordinand includes, ‘—that he, being filled with powers of healing and words of teaching in meekness’.[1]  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s liturgy includes a number of prayers for the healing of the sick, such as in the Preparatory Service III: ‘For the sick and the diseased we implore that God should heal them and speedily send upon them mercy and compassion.’[2]

The ancient Christian Armenian Church also mentions the spiritual and miraculous work of priests.  The Armenian prayer for the ordination of a priest includes, ‘Grant him, Lord, the apostolic grace to remove and drive away from mankind all evil infirmities and impure spirits by the imposition of his hands and by invoking your most powerful name to help and to heal the infirm.’[3]

The ancient, albeit unorthodox, Nestorian Church’s rite of ordination for bishops includes the following injunction and prayer that agree with more orthodox versions of Christianity:

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils; freely ye have received, freely give’ and ‘Clothe him, O LORD, with power from on high, that he may bind and loose both in heaven and on earth; that by the laying on of his hands, the sick may be healed, and miracles be wrought by him in Thy holy name, and to the glory of Thy great Godhead….[4]

In the Liturgy of the Holy Apostles Adai and Mari of the Assyrian Church of the East, the priest prays: ‘For those who are grievously sick, and tried by evil spirits, let us pray….’[5]

The Great Litany of St. John Chrysostom (4th c.) prescribes prayers for the sick:

For travelers by land, by sea, by air, and by space; for the sick and the suffering, and for captives; and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.’[6]  

In the Litany before the Lord’s Supper, Chrysostom directs the priest to pray:

…heal the sick, O You who are the Physician of our souls and bodies.[7]

The Coptic Church (Egyptian) similarly has this prayer by the bishop at the ordination of a priest:

‘Yes Lord hear us, grant him a spirit of wisdom to be filled by healing deeds and doctrinal words to teach Your people meekly and adore You purely.’[8]

Modern Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism is going through a difficult time.  If it has historically been defined particularly as a renewal movement within mainline denominations, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Methodism. The turn of these denominations in the West in our day to unorthodox teaching has meant a crisis of identity for Evangelicals.  This statement will have to remain a contention in the present essay, perhaps to be taken up at a later date.  To be sure, this is not the only challenge to the meaning of ‘Evangelical’ in our day, but it does seem to be a significant reason for confusion over the meaning and purpose of Evangelicalism in the 21st century.  (I say this with the hope that a clearer meaning and purpose will emerge soon as I strongly believe in the importance of an orthodox movement across the differences of various theological traditions.)

In the increasing absence of Evangelicalism defining itself over against the mainline denominations, Evangelicals are being defined by the new denominations that declare themselves ‘Evangelical’ and by the non-denominational, independent churches that continue to proliferate and identify themselves as ‘Evangelical’—what we might call the Western Independent Churches.  The question coming into focus is whether this newer ‘Evangelicalism’ is to be considered orthodox.  The old, mainline denominations claimed to be orthodox, even if there were serious problems within them in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  Since the mid-20th century, they have increasingly rejected orthodox teaching and practice.  The assumption seems to be that those who claim the title ‘Evangelical’ in our day are the heirs to orthodoxy, since the mainline denominations clearly are not.  This may be largely true, but it is a claim to be proven as much in the West as in, for example, the African Independent Churches, some of which are orthodox and some decidedly not.

The question, then, is whether any church claiming to be Evangelical must be orthodox as well, or whether there are some Evangelical churches and denominations that are not actually orthodox in some area of theology or practice.  This essay is not about how some so-called ‘Evangelicals’ in the West have claimed that they can also be proponents of same-sex marriage—a decidedly unorthodox and unbiblical contention.  Yet that example does seem to add a significant exhibit to the case for questioning whether all Evangelicals are orthodox in Christian faith.

This essay rather has in focus the ancient Christian belief in the miraculous and in the practice of prayer for the sick associated with the clergy and others in the church.  On the positive side, the newly established Anglican Church of North America’s ordination of a bishop includes this charge: ‘Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, do not devour them; hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring back the lapsed, seek the lost.’[9]  We have here the continuation of the ancient church’s belief in miracles and its understanding of ordination to a ministry that includes healing ministry.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the Westminster Catechism of the mid-17th century asks no question about healing, although in its many Scripture references for other questions it does provide Biblical passages that mention healing.  The somewhat new, ‘Evangelical’ Reformed denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America’s ‘Pastoral Letter Concerning the Experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church Today’ addresses speaking in tongues, working miracles, and healing.  It claims that these gifts have been given ‘undue prominence’ in our day, and the general tone of the pastoral letter is to downplay these gifts.  Its comments on speaking in tongues are only about wrong views to hold and nothing about what might be said positively about this gift.  It allows that miracles and healing ‘cannot be limited,’ but the letter’s concern is to speak against an ‘obsession’ with these gifts.[10]  One gets the impression that these gifts are more problematic than anything else to an otherwise fairly rational expression of Christian faith.

Also of interest is that the Roman Catholic Church lacks a reference to healing the sick for ordinands—only comfort for the sick by deacons.[11]  It is, as an ancient Church, a Church that, of course, does believe in the miraculous and in healing.  The liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church (‘Evangelical’ in the denomination’s name has nothing to do with ‘Evangelicalism’) lacks specific prayer for healing in its liturgy.  Rather, it calls for prayer for ‘the poor, the persecuted, the sick, the lonely, the forgotten, and all who suffer….’[12]  Perhaps this is not prayer for deliverance to a God who hears and answers prayer in miraculous ways but more of a statement of concern for those who suffer by a caring community.  We regularly see older denominations retain some of the teaching and practices of the earlier Church while not believing it and redefining it in some way.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (this time, ‘Evangelical’ is linked to ‘Evangelicalism’) lacks any reference to ministry to the sick by those being ordained, let alone a reference to a ministry of healing.[13]  Some of the EPC’s churches are charismatic, however, and the denomination will pray for healing of the sick.  Yet the ancient linking of ordination to a ministry of healing the sick is lacking.

There is, however, a rationalistic, Enlightenment understanding of the Christian faith in certain groups and denominations that claim to be Evangelical.  ‘Cessationism’ is the term given to those who believe that the miraculous (speaking in tongues, prophecy, and miracles in particular) has ceased.  A stark example of this is the doctrinal statement of John MacArthur’s The Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles, California.  It includes the following statement about speaking in tongues and miracles:

We teach, in this respect, that God the Holy Spirit is sovereign in the bestowing of all His gifts for the perfecting of the saints today and that speaking in tongues and the working of sign miracles in the beginning days of the church were for the purpose of pointing to and authenticating the apostles as revealers of divine truth, and were never intended to be characteristic of the lives of believers (1 Corinthians 12:4-1113:8-102 Corinthians 12:12Ephesians 4:7-12Hebrews 2:1-4).[14]

 How the Scripture passages cited here could possibly relate to this rationalist contention is beyond me, and how such a statement ends up in a doctrinal statement is disturbing at several levels.  Are we now confessing what we do not believe?  Are we confessing things with no Biblical warrant?  And, as this article is concerned to explore, are we confessing things that do not relate to the historic, orthodox Church?  In other words, is ‘Evangelical’ necessarily orthodox?

I would suggest that ‘Evangelical’ is necessarily orthodox in theology and practice.  If so, Enlightenment Evangelicals who deny miracles, understand ‘faith’ as merely a set of dogmatic propositions, and who do not pray for the sick cannot actually be considered ‘Evangelical.’  We may do well to state as well that the Prosperity Gospel is equally outside orthodox, Evangelical faith.  Yet there are no grounds on which to exclude the latter while denying the miracle-working power of God in doctrine and prayer for the sick.  On the contrary, we should rejoice in the testimonies of persons among us who have experienced the miracle-working power of God in their lives in salvation, healing, miracles, and the transformation of sinful desires to desiring God and His righteousness.  As we face the task of defining ‘Evangelical’ for the 21st century rather than jettisoning the term for all the challenges the term poses in our day, we need to retain the connection between ‘Evangelical’ and ‘orthodox Christianity.’  If we Evangelicals are not Biblical and orthodox in faith and practice, we are nothing at all.[15]


[4] Cf. George Percy Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals: With the Narrative of a Mission to Mesopotamia and Coordistan in 1842-1844 and a Late Visit to Those Countries in 1850; also Researches into the Present Condition of the Syrian Jacobites, Papal Syrians, and Chaldeans, and an Inquiry into the Religious Tenets of the Yezeedees, Vol. II (London: Joseph Masters, 1852), pp. 344, 345; online at https://books.google.com/books?id=8FUZV3_VSqMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=George+Percy+Badger,+The+Nestorians+and+their+Rituals&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwik8aaAsI3YAhUNYt8KHZQZAYkQ6AEINTAC#v=onepage&q=Badger&f=false; accessed 15 December, 2017.
[5] Cf. The Liturgy of the Holy Apostles Adai and Mari Together with Two Additional Liturgies to be Said on Certain Feasts and Other Days: and the Order of Baptism (Typis Missionis Archiepiscopi Cantuariensis, 1890); https://books.google.com/books?id=K1Q1AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP183&lpg=PP183&dq=takhsa&source=bl&ots=LY44QHzpV8&sig=x5BCOHup5f1Wfeup5jW32EP-sUA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiUy4DYj43YAhUkkeAKHS20CpwQ6AEIVzAJ#v=onepage&q=sick&f=false; accessed 15 December, 2017.
[6] As quoted in Fr. Joseph Irvin, The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Orthodox Service BooksNumber 1 (Lulu Press, 2017), n.p.; online https://books.google.com/books?id=PY4tDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false; accessed 15 December, 2017.
[7] Ibid.
[10] 
[12] Cf. download.elca.org/.../Evangelical_Lutheran_Worship_Ordination.rtf.
[14] See p. 77; online at https://www.tms.edu/about-the-seminary/doctrinal-statement/; accessed 15 December, 2017.

[15] Some Evangelicals try to define ‘orthodox’ narrowly, such as by what is affirmed in the Nicene Creed.  The Creeds contribute to an understanding of ‘orthodoxy,’ but they are decidedly not limited to what the term means.  The Creeds define in whom we believe, as my colleague, Dr. Donald Fairbairn, argues, and are not definitive by themselves for either orthodox beliefs or practices.