What part should healing play in the church? I believe the Bible is clear on this matter. James 5:14,15 gives specific advice.
"Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven."
I don't want to deal here with how we are to pray for the sick. Different churches and denominations certainly pray for healing in different ways. But I want to deal with the theological foundations for healing in the church.
I will begin with the Power of Prayer.
There is no question that the Bible teaches the power of prayer. There are certainly more important things to pray for than physical healing. But if we pray for our needs they will include health and healing. I have terminal cancer. And I am always pleased with people who will pray for me. Several years ago I told one of my doctors I had been alive much longer than they had been willing to suggest because people were praying for me. He looked at me thoughtfully and then said, "That's right."
For many years I visited people in the hospital as a pastor. For the first twenty or so of those years I had the feeling that doctors were uncomfortable with me being there. Then something changed. Suddenly doctors started asking if I would step into intensive care units before they were admitting family members. What happened? The American Medical Journal published a study that showed a significantly higher rate of healing in patients who were being prayed for. Medical literature is replete with evidence for the effects of prayer. God has given that power to us.
However, I also need to point out the Humility of Faith.
God does not always answer prayer the way we expect. And while most of us know of dramatic examples of healing, we have also prayed for people who did not get well. I think this may be the main reason many of us are reluctant to pray formally and somewhat publicly over someone who is sick. Will I be embarrassed if God does not heal this person immediately? And there is of course the concern that the Name of God might be dishonored if I pray for healing when He has something else in mind. I am thankful that we can trust God to protect us from harmful prayers we might pray. I trust God to give me what I would have prayed for if I knew everything He sees. If I know that, surely I can trust God when He does not heal the way I want Him to heal. We can trust the outcome to God.
And we need to see healing as commensurate with the Compassion of Our Lord.
The early church saw compassion for the sick as the natural expression of faith in Christ. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark points out that one of the major factors in the upstart Christian faith supplanting the dominant, pervasive, and enforced paganism in the Roman Empire was the terrible plagues that swept the country. While the pagans were casting former loved ones out into the dirt to keep from contracting the deadly disease, Christians risked their lives to minister to them. Many gladly died showing Christ's love to others. Stark quotes from letters written by the Emperor, Julian, to pagan priests, saying "Not only do the impious* Christians minister to their own sick, they minister to ours as well." A pagan had a better chance of surviving a plague if he lived near a believer.
Finally, we pray for healing to bring about the Witness of Praise.
We honor God simply by praying to Him for others, believers and unbelievers alike. And we share His glory by telling people what God has done. Healing prayer becomes a springboard for talking to people about things that are more important and enduring than physical healing. It is a fact that all physical healing is temporary. It is also important for us to know that all illness is temporary for believers. 1 Corinthians 13 says that is also true of knowledge and prophecy. And like the foolishness of preaching, God may use it powerfully to bring forth His kingdom on the earth.