The Elder’s Ordination (6) Laying on of Hands: The Practice in Reformed Churches

Previous article in this series: January 15, 2016, p. 188.

“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

Historically, Reformed churches have followed the practice of laying hands on ministers who are first ordained to their office. After the minister being ordained has been reminded of what the work of his office entails, has publicly professed that he believes himself called to this office, and has promised faithfully to discharge his office, he kneels in front of the congregation. The officiating minister and any other ministers who are present lay their hands on his head, and the officiating minister says:

God our heavenly Father, who hath called thee to His holy ministry, enlighten thee with His Holy Spirit, strengthen thee with His hand, and so govern thee in thy ministry that thou mayest decently and fruitfully walk therein, to the glory of His name and the propagation of the kingdom of His Son Jesus Christ. Amen.1

This beautiful and moving part of the ordination ceremony is not merely a prayer for the new minister. Rather, it is a symbol that God gives His Holy Spirit to His pastors, equipping them to minister the Word. In the Old Testament, God’s kings were anointed with oil as a picture that God had called them to be king and had equipped them with the Holy Spirit (I Sam. 16:13, I Kings 1:39). When Christ was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon Him in the form of a dove, making evident to all that Christ was God’s anointed (Matt. 3:16). By the laying on of hands, the apostles imparted the Holy Ghost (Acts 8:17). At an ordination ceremony today, the laying on of hands pictures the same reality.

Why, then, do we not follow the same practice regarding the ordination of elders?

The Practice in Reformed Churches

In our last article I demonstrated that the idea of laying hands on elders at their ordination is not novel. Christians from various branches of Protestantism, including Scottish Presbyterianism, have advocated the practice, and no less a Reformed document than the Second Helvetic Confession has encouraged it.

Our Three Forms of Unity, Church Order, and “Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons” make no mention of the practice. Especially because the “Form” makes no provision for the laying on of hands in the ordination ceremony, it has not been the custom of Reformed churches to do so.

And we grant that this practice is not absolutely necessary. The laying on of hands is a sign—a beautiful sign, but nothing more than a sign. Nowhere in Scripture is the use of this sign commanded. Only when Christ commands the use of a sign (as He does in the case of the sacraments) must the church use the sign. Otherwise, she is free to use the sign, or not to use it, as she thinks best.

This brings us to the historical reason why Reformed churches have not followed the practice. Early in the history of Reformed churches, officebearers who made their decisions with a view to God’s honor decided that this practice would not edify the church.

This is a godly concern. The inspired apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that what is lawful is not necessarily edifying (I Cor. 10:23). This might take us aback: how can something be lawful but not edifying? If God commanded it, is it not inherently edifying? But the Greek word translated “lawful” indicates that a thing is permissible because the law does not forbid it. Paul is saying that, when doing what Scripture does not forbid, we must not only ask “may I,” but also “will it edify?” And later he admonished the Corinthians that in their worship they were to “let all things be done unto edifying” (I Cor. 14:26).

What could possibly be not edifying about laying hands on elders at their ordination?

For the early Reformed churches, the answer was twofold.

First, Rome had required it; but Scripture does not require it. Because the Reformed wanted to distance themselves from Rome as far as possible, within the bounds of Scripture, they would not use the ceremony of laying on of hands.

Second, Rome taught that the laying on of hands had sacramental powers; the very act imparts grace to the new officebearers. Rome still teaches this: “The essential rite (italics in the original, DJK) of the sacrament of Holy Orders…consists in the bishop’s imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand and in the bishop’s specific consecratory prayer….”2 Not only did our Reformed fathers recognize that Rome’s view was seriously wrong; they also recognized that not every Reformed convert from Rome truly understood the Reformed view of the sacraments, and opposed Rome’s error. So they considered that to require the laying on of hands would be unedifying—it could perpetrate a wrong idea of the sacraments in the minds of the people.

Best not to do it, then. Certainly not for elders. The Articles of Wesel (1568), to which I referred in the last article, say with regard to the ordination of elders: “in this case also we leave the laying on of hands optional.”3 And in DeRidder’s translation of the decisions of synods of the Lowlands, one finds no further reference to the laying on of hands in the case of the ordination of elders.

Regarding the practice when ordaining ministers, one finds that the Reformed churches proceeded cautiously. The Church Order approved by the provincial Synod of Dordrecht 1574 declared (regarding the ordination of ministers):

In view of the fact that the church is only in its beginning, the laying on of hands may lead to superstition and ridicule by some, the brothers have decided that the laying on of hands shall be left out and only the ministers shall be entrusted to God and the congregation as follows.”4

Four years later, a national synod of the churches of the Netherlands, Germany, and Walloon (Belgium) decided that the laying on of hands in the case of the ordination of a minister was permissible “where this can be done with edification or else with the right hand of fellowship.”5

And the 1581 General Synod of Middelburg permitted the laying on of hands “if the circumstance of the church allows….”6 The National Synod of ’s Gravenhage in 1586 made the matter mandatory, with no restrictions: “Finally, in the public ordination in the presence of the congregation which shall be done with…prayer and laying on of hands….”7 Thirty-three years later, the Synod of Dordt said essentially the same thing in the Church Order it adopted, which we still use today.

Should we change?

Having seen the reasons why Reformed churches historically did not follow the practice of laying hands on elders at their ordination, we can face the question: should we change? Would Reformed churches be wise to return to this practice?

Arguments can be made on both sides of the issue. I have time in the rest of this article only to present and evaluate the reasons to continue with the status quo, that is, not to begin the practice of laying hands on elders and deacons.

The first reason to continue as we are is that this has been the historic practice of Reformed churches, and it is not inherently wrong. This reason is valid, of course. No one can argue that we must change, that we have been violating biblical principles, and that to change is necessary to show that we are Reformed and always reforming.

The second reason to continue as we are is to underscore the distinction between the office of minister on the one hand, and that of elder and deacon on the other. Of course, all three offices are equal in their authority: Christ requires each to be present in the church and works through each. But they are distinct. Obviously, they are distinct in that a different work is assigned to each of them. But Reformed churches have also historically made another distinction between them: ministers serve for life, until retirement, resignation, or deposition, while elders and deacons serve for terms.

This distinction is the reason why Reformed churches have chosen to lay hands on newly ordained ministers, but not on elders or deacons.

In 1990, a reader from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia wrote a letter to the editorial committee of the Standard Bearer asking why in Reformed churches the practice of laying on of hands was not followed in the case of elders and deacons. The editorial committee responded:

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find an explicit instruction that hands must be laid on elders and deacons. In the Reformed tradition this practice was not followed because elders and deacons are installed for specific terms (usually three years) of office and not for life. Ministers are called for life.8

Seven years earlier, Rev. C. Hanko said essentially the same thing, in response to a question from the Hudsonville Men’s Society:

Since it [the laying on of hands] is a sign of complete dedication to the office, the fathers decided to use it in connection with the ordination of ministers for the first time, but not in ordaining elders and deacons.

Finally, the fact that we follow the practice of term office for elders and deacons, rather than life office, should also bear some weight in deciding whether or not to introduce the practice of the laying on of hands when ordaining elders and deacons.9

With this, we may be finished with the matter. But the arguments some have put forward in suggesting that we lay hands on ministers, elders, and deacons are at least worthy of our consideration. To these we will return next time.

1 “Form for Ordination of Ministers of God’s Word,” in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 287. This form was first adopted by the Synod of Hague in 1586; it is not unique to the Protestant Reformed Churches.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church With Modifications from the “Editio Typica” (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1995), 438.

3 “The Articles of Wesel” in Ecclesiastical Manual Including the Decisions of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Churches (P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper). Translated by Richard R. DeRidder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), 31.

4 DeRidder, 64.

5 Ibid., 82.

6 Ibid., 109.

7 Ibid., 141.

8 “Concerning Laying On of Hands,” Standard Bearer 90, no. 6 (December 15, 1990):129.

9 Rev. C. Hanko, “The Laying On of Hands,” Standard Bearer 59, no. 8 (January 15, 1983):188.