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Is It Okay to Pray to the Saints?

This week's question comes via e-mail from Jan G. She wants to know whether or not people can talk (pray) with those who have passed on. She shared that a minister told her that praying/talking with the deceased is contrary to scripture and theologically incorrect.

When the Church determines whether or not a teaching is "orthodox" it has two places to turn: scripture and tradition (for those Methodists and Wesleyans in our readership, the Wesleyan fourfold formula of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience cannot be used to determine orthodoxy because reason and experience are subjective). So, to answer Jan's question let's turn first to tradition.

Long before the Reformation (of the 16th century), the Church embraced the Apostle's Creed. In this creed there is a confession of belief in "the communion of saints." Today, in most creedal churches, this confession has come to mean either the "fellowship" of church members or the sharing of the Eucharist. However, for the Roman Catholic Church and for the Episcopal Church the communion of saints means much more -- and their belief reflects the early church's doctrines and thoughts regarding the departed saints.

In the early church we have writings from Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200), Augustine (354-430), and others documenting the early church belief that God, the departed saints (Christians who have died), the angels, and those on earth are part of an ongoing fellowship as the body of Christ. This belief included the benefit of praying for the dead (cf. 2 Maccabees 12.39-45) and vice versa. The notion that those on earth can talk/pray to those in heaven is based upon this fellowship of the full body of Christ.

The church understood the purpose of communicating with the saints through prayer as an opportunity for the saints to pray for us. In answer to the objection, "We don't need the saints to pray for us, we can go straight to God ourselves", one must ask, "Have you ever asked a friend or a minister to pray for you?" The results are the same -- neither replace your prayers, rather they supplement them.

But what of scripture? Is there any teaching either for or against communication with the departed? The answer depends on one's view of scripture. Paul enjoins the church to pray for him (Ephesians 6.19; 1 Thessalonians 5.25; 2 Thessalonians 3.1). If one believes his writings were written only to those of his day, then the notion has no substance. On the other hand, if his writings are for all people of all times, then we have his instructions to continue to pray for him.

However, it is in Hebrews where we find the best support for the fuller understanding of the communion of saints. There we read, "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel" (Hebrews 12.22-24). This passage unfolds the fuller mystery of the communion of saints and the members thereof. It seems that those on earth ("you"), the angels, the departed saints ("the firstborn" and "the righteous"), and God are all a part of this holy communion. And if we are all a part of the communion of saints, surely we have fellowship with one another.

For over 1,500 years this teaching prevailed in the church. But Luther opposed the teaching and in his 39th Article he wrote, ". . . concerning . . . the Invocation of Saints . . . [it is] a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God." However, Luther and the scholars who followed him have not shown this practice as "repugnant to the Word of God." Indeed, more and more Protestant churches are informally embracing the 1,500-plus year tradition and returning to our roots as they celebrate the full body of Christ and the communion of saints.

So, can we talk/pray to our departed loved ones? According to the longstanding traditions of the church, if our loved ones have gone on to paradise, then yes -- as a part of the body of Christ and the communion of saints we can indeed commune together.

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