Question: "What is a prayer cloth?"
Answer: There are several biblical accounts that are the basis for the modern practice of using a prayer cloth to assist the pray-er to receive positive answers to prayer. Matthew 9:20–22 tells the story of a woman who had suffered severe bleeding for twelve years. She managed to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, believing this simple contact would heal her. Jesus countered in verse 22, telling her, “Your faith has made you well.” In Matthew 14:34–36, the people of Gennesaret had a similar thought. All the sick from the area desired to touch only the hem of Jesus’ garment. All who did were healed. Acts 19:11–12 relates how handkerchiefs that Paul had merely touched were carried to the sick, in hopes that people would be healed of diseases and evil spirits.
It should be noted that in none of these stories in the Bible is Jesus’ garment or Paul’s handkerchief called a “prayer cloth.” The first modern use of a prayer cloth may have been by the Mormons. As the practice faded in Mormonism, it grew in the Pentecostal church. It can now be found even in the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes the cloths are anointed in oil or in the sweat of those who pray over it.
At its most innocent, the prayer cloth is merely a reminder that a group of people are praying for an ailing friend. The group may pray while holding the cloth, and then send the cloth to their friend, who keeps it near as a comfort. More disconcerting is the belief that the oil or sweat the prayer cloth is anointed with acts as a point of transfer that allows the blessings of God to enter the recipient. But the most disturbing trend is the use of prayer cloths as a fund-raising device among prosperity gospel televangelists. Such programs encourage viewers to send their name and address and perhaps a short prayer request. In return, the viewer receives a prayer cloth, instructions such as “place it in your Bible for one night” or “put it under your pillow” or “write your name on it,” and an envelope to return the cloth with a substantial donation. Variations on the prayer cloth include a “prayer fleece,” a “prayer cloud,” and coins. Some prayer cloths are designed specifically for financial gain.
There is nothing theologically wrong with sending someone a tangible reminder that friends are praying. There are, however, two major potential problems with prayer cloths. Acts 19:11 points out that the use of cloth in Paul’s ministry was “extraordinary.” Miracles are signs that a teacher is specifically chosen to reveal God’s Word. Paul, a former enemy of the church, would have needed extraordinary miracles to confirm his new position as evangelist. But, with the completion of the Bible, we do not need signs gifts to identify God’s prophets. And God certainly does not need oil or sweat to more easily pass on the power of His Spirit.
Second, and more troubling, is the use of prayer cloths as a shameless money scheme. Second Peter 2:2–3a reads, “Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words…” While Paul pointed out that the work a pastor performs does merit compensation (1 Corinthians 9:14), nowhere does the Bible imply that prayers and spiritual favors can be bought and sold.