(Jas. 5:14-16) Does this passage support the Roman Catholic doctrine of the ministerial priesthood?

CLAIM: James writes,

(Jas. 5:14-17) Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Catholic apologist Tim Staples offers two arguments for why this passage must refer to the priesthood:

ARGUMENT #1: The context refers to elders

Staples writes, “James had just told us to go to the presbyter in verse 14 for healing and the forgiveness of sins. Then, verse 16 begins with the word therefore—a conjunction connecting verse 16 back to verses 14 and 15. The context seems to point to the ‘elder’ as the one to whom we confess our sins.”[1] A number of observations can be made regarding this argument.

First, James doesn’t state that the sick person is in sin. The Bible doesn’t teach that sin is the cause of all sickness (Lk. 13:1-5; Jn. 9:1-3). Instead, James writes, “If he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him” (Jas. 5:15).

Second, in order for this to be a verse to support the practice of confessing to a priest for forgiveness, then the person would also need to be sick. While the person may or may not be in sin (“If he has committed sins…”), the person is definitely sick. Why then would we focus on the portion that is not absolute (i.e. forgiveness of sins), rather than the part that is absolute (i.e. physical sickness)?

Third, if this argument is valid, then this would mean that lay people couldn’t “pray for one another” either. Yet all Christians (Evangelical or Roman Catholic) advocate this practice.

Fourth, the context of this verse is not to confess our sins to the elders or pray for the elders. Instead, twice we read that we are to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. Later in verse 19, James addresses his audience as “my brethren,” rather than just the elders of the church. He writes that “he who turns a sinner from the error of his ways” will rescue him from death. Again, this is a universal pronoun—not referring only to the elders.

Finally, the term “therefore” builds on the previous verses, but in what sense? The main emphasis of this section is prayer—not the elders of the church. The “therefore” refers to the physical healing mentioned in the previous verses—not the elders. The “one another” passages always refer to the average, individual Christian. It is this subject that Staples challenges in his next argument.

ARGUMENT #2: While the expression “to one another” is used, the context specifies that this only refers to elders

Staples writes, “Ephesians 5:21 employed this same phrase, ‘to one another,’ in the context of teaching about the sacrament of holy matrimony: ‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ Even though the text says ‘to one another,’ the context limits the scope of the meaning of ‘to one another’ specifically to a man and wife—not just anyone. Similarly, the context of James 5 bears out that the confession ‘to one another’ refers to the relationship between ‘anyone’ and specifically an ‘elder’ or ‘priest’ (Gk. presbuteros).”[2]

To summarize Staples’ argument, he is saying that the “one another” passages can sometimes be limited (citing Ephesians 5 where it limits the “one another” to man and wife). From this, he argues that the “one another” passage in James 5:16 is limited to the elders in the previous verse.

This is a key hermeneutical mistake. In James 5:16, he looks retrospectively to define this “one another” passage (stating that this refers to the elders in verses 14-15). But in Ephesians 5:21, he looks prospectively to define it (stating this refers to marriage couples). He can’t have it both ways. As we read Ephesians 5, marriage isn’t brought up until verse 22. Verse 21 completes a string of clauses and conjunctions in the Greek that stretches back to verse 18. Verse 22 (“Wives, be subject to your own husbands…”) begins an entirely new thought.

Therefore, the one passage Staples cites to limit the “one another” passages to a small group of people actually turns out to only affirm the fact that the “one another” passages refer to all Christians—not a limited few.

[1] Staples, Tim. “The Priesthood is Both Universal and Ministerial.” This Rock. Volume 21. Number 2. 2010.

[2] Staples, Tim. “The Priesthood is Both Universal and Ministerial.” This Rock. Volume 21. Number 2. 2010.