The Elder’s Ordination (5) Laying on of Hands: The Practice in Protestantism

Previous article in this series: December 15, 2015, p. 137.

Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. I Timothy 4:14

In our last article we explained four elements that must be found in the ceremony in which elders are ordained (installed): appropriate stipulations, interrogations, admonitions, and prayers. The fourth article of the PRC Church Order prescribes that, particularly when a new minister is ordained, these four elements be included in the ordination ceremony. We have already shown that the same applies to the installation of elders.

In passing, we also noted that Acts 13:3 mentions fasting in connection with the ordination of Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries, and Acts 14:23 mentions fasting in connection with the ordination of elders in the various churches that Paul and Barnabas established on their first missionary journey. About fasting, our Church Order is silent. This silence is meaningful. It means that Reformed churches as a whole do not bind themselves to observe a fast; if we did, the Church Order would explicitly prescribe it. Yet this silence is not to be considered prohibition. Especially in light of Scripture’s indication that the early church did fast on such occasions, this silence means that individual Reformed congregations are free to observe a period of fasting in connection with ordination of elders.

Article 4 of the Church Order specifically mentions the “imposition of hands” as being a necessary element in the ordination of a new minister. Scripture mentions the laying on of hands in connection with the ordination of deacons (Acts 6:6), the sending forth Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:3), and the ordination of Timothy as pastor (I Tim. 4:14, II Tim. 1:6). In the two New Testament passages that speak of the ordination of elders (Acts 14:23, Tit. 1:5), no mention is made of the laying on of hands.1

But if the practice is mentioned with regard to ordaining deacons and ministers, would it not follow that it is permissible in ordaining elders?

Why do we not lay hands on new elders at their ordination? Would it not be good to return to this practice?

In our next article, we will examine reasons why we could return to this practice. But first, in this article, I will demonstrate that this idea is not novel. Confessional statements of Protestant (that is, non-Catholic or Eastern Orthodox) denominations from the 1500s on have permitted or even required it.

Confessions of Broader Protestantism

The “Sandomierz Consensus” (1570) is not a confession, strictly speaking, but a joint statement of Polish Lutherans, Bohemians, and Zwinglian Reformed regarding doctrines and practices with which they were in agreement. Speaking in section 18 of “Ministers of God’s Church,” but making clear that “ministers” includes any who hold legitimate church office, the “Consensus” stipulates that qualified people should be chosen, in accordance with God’s Word in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Then it says: “Such, after being duly chosen, are ordained or consecrated by the elders of the Christian congregation with public prayers and the laying on of hands.”2

New England congregationalists (Puritans) considered each church to be independent. While various independent churches cooperated with other churches who shared their faith, they did not federate into a denomination. These congregationalists were satisfied with the doctrines of the Westminster Standards, but adopted the “Cambridge Platform” (1648) as a statement of the principles of their form of church government. After treating the office and duties of the pastor in chapter six, and of the ruling elders and deacons in chapter seven, this document treats the manner of their election in chapter eight. This chapter states that “hands are not suddenly to be laid upon any” (reflecting I Tim. 5:22).3 Chapter nine, entitled “Of Ordination and Imposition of Hands,” specifies that the current elders of a church are to lay hands on those being ordained. If the church is newly established or has no elders for another reason, elders of other churches may do so, or non-elder representatives of the congregation whom the congregation has selected for this purpose.

The Puritans of Old England revised the Westminster Confession of Faith in the Savoy Declaration” (1658). Article 11 of its appendix treats “Of the Institution of Churches, and the Order Appointed in Them by Jesus Christ.” There the Puritans expressed their conviction that the

way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Ghost, unto the office of pastor, teacher, or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself, and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of that church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon, that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.4

The next article then states that the essence of the call of pastors, elders, and deacons “consists in the election of the church, together with his acceptation of it, and separation by fasting and prayer. And those who are so chosen, though not set apart by imposition of hands, are rightly constituted ministers of Jesus Christ….” It would appear that the Puritans wanted to preserve the tradition of laying on of hands, but understood that it was not essential to holding office. Without saying so in as many words, they must have understood what we do—that the imposition of hands is a sign of something else, of a reality that is no less true when the sign is not administered.

Similarly, the “London Baptist Confession” (1677) is a revision of the Westminster Confession to suit the English Baptists. Its wording of the matter is almost identical to the quote from the “Savoy Declaration,” though it omits the second statement about the essence of the call.5

Confessions Within Reformed Protestantism

But what of more narrowly Reformed church confessions and polities? Have any of them suggested the benefits of the practice of laying on of hands?

We will consider the Scottish Presbyterians to be part of the category of “more narrowly Reformed.” Referring to all church offices, section 3.12 of their “Second Book of Discipline” (1578) says: “The ceremonies of ordination are fasting and earnest prayer, along with the imposition of hands by the eldership.”6

Let us not overlook the “Second Helvetic Confession” (1566), penned by Heinrich Bullinger, and officially adopted by the Reformed Churches in Switzerland, Hungary, and Eastern Europe. One statement in chapter 18, “Of the Ministers of the Church, Their Institution and Offices,” is noteworthy: “And those which are chosen, let them be ordained of the elders with public prayer and laying on of hands.”7 Of course, if the “ministers” of which this chapter speaks are pastors only, this quote is not relevant for our purposes. But prior to the sentence just quoted, the article has mentioned elders as being “ministers” (that is, servants), saying that elders “are the ancient, and as it were the senators and fathers of the church, governing it with wholesome counsel.”8

Finally, the “Articles of Wesel” (1568) set forth an early church polity for the Dutch Reformed Churches. Speaking in chapter 4, section 7 of the installation of elders, the document says: “Then finally [after these solemn promises have been made], they will be admitted to the exercise of their offices after solemn prayers have been offered (in this case also we leave the laying on of hands optional).”9

Our Own Reformed Standards

Clearly, the PRC’s officially adopted standards say nothing about the practice of laying hands on the elders-elect at the time of their installation. Specifically, this is true of the Belgic Confession, the Church Order of Dordt, and the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons.”

I repeat here what I said in connection with the matter of fasting: the silence of our creeds is meaningful, but not prohibitive. If our Reformed fathers considered the practice of laying on of hands to be fundamentally wrong, or to be absolutely necessary, they would have said so. Rather than being prohibitive, this silence means that our Reformed fathers considered this practice to be unnecessary.

And we would agree: it is not necessary. Not absolutely fundamental.

But why have Reformed churches historically not followed the practice? The reason is that they judged it would not edify.

Why did they judge, early in the history of Reformed churches, that it would not edify then?

Does their reason remain true today? Would laying on of hands at the ordination—now, the first appointment to office—of elders and deacons be unedifying still today?

To this we will return.


1 We noted in our first article in this series that the Greek word translated “ordained” in Acts 14:23 refers to a stretching forth of hands. But this word seems to suggest a stretching forth of hands to choose, not to ordain—in other words, to the practice of voting by hand in choosing officebearers, rather than laying on of hands to ordain officebearers.

2 “Sandomierz Consensus” (1570), translated by Agata Omelanczuk Gazal, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, ed. James T. Dennison, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books), 227.

3 “The Cambridge Platform” (1648), Reformed Confessions, vol. 4, 391.

4 “The Savoy Declaration” (1658), Reformed Confessions, vol. 4, 491.

5 “The London Baptist Confession” (1677), Reformed Confessions, vol. 4, 563.

6 “The Second Book of Discipline” (1578), Paradigms in Polity: Classic Readings in Reformed and Presbyterian Church Government, ed. David W. Hall and Joseph W. Hall (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 237.

7 “The Second Helvetic Confession” (1566), Reformed Confessions, vol. 2, 853-854.

8 Reformed Confessions, vol. 2, 852.

9 “The Articles of Wesel,” Translation of Ecclesiastical Manual including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches (P. Biesterveld and Dr. H. H. Kuyper), by Richard R. DeRidder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), 31.