The Elder’s Ordination (7) Laying on of Hands: Considerations in Favor of the Practice

Previous article in this series: April 1, 2016, p. 300.

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

With this article we conclude our treatment of the ordination of elders.

Our first three articles on this subject explained what ordination is, and why ordination in a public ceremony is significant both for the elder being ordained and for the congregation in which he is ordained. Next, we examined the various aspects of the ordination ceremony, taking Article 4 of our Church Order as our starting point. Although Article 4 regards the ordination of ministers, not specifically of elders, the ordination of any officebearer into any office should include the same elements. But…, what about laying on of hands? We do it at the ordination of ministers; why not at the ordination of elders?

Review

In the last two articles, we learned several things about the laying on of hands at the ordination of elders.

First, various Protestant confessions, even some historically Reformed confessions (other than our Three Forms of Unity), make provision for such laying on of hands.

Second, our Reformed confessions (Three Forms of Unity, Church Order, and Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons) are silent on the matter. This silence does not mean that Reformed churches reject the practice as wrong, but rather that they simply do not practice it.

Third, in the early history of the Reformation, many considered the practice to be unedifying in light of Rome’s wrong view that the laying on of hands has sacramental powers, and that many members of Reformed churches early on did not fully understand Reformed distinctives.

Fourth, to explain why it is common practice to lay hands on ministers at their ordination, but not on elders and deacons, some have pointed to the fact that in Reformed churches ministers hold office for life (unless deposed or resigning), while elders and deacons serve terms.

Reasons to continue our current practice, then, would be that it has traditionally been the Reformed approach, and that it preserves this distinction between the office of minister on the one hand, and those of elder and deacon on the other.

In this article, we will spell out reasons why it would be good for Reformed churches to begin, or return to, the practice of laying hands on elders and deacons at their ordination—that is, when they are put into office for the first time, and not when they begin a second or subsequent term of office.

The Sign Is Biblical

One reason to use the ceremony of laying on of hands in the ordination of elders and deacons is that the use of this sign is biblically warranted. We have already mentioned that Acts 6:6, Acts 13:3, I Timothy 4:14, and II Timothy 1:6 indicate that hands were laid on some who were appointed to office in God’s covenant.

The argument here is not that the church has always done it. In fact, as noted in previous articles, the Christian church has not always followed the practice; even Reformed churches have not. Nor am I contending that the biblical warrant for the sign demands that we use it today.

The argument is that the sign was used in Bible times. It was used by the apostles themselves, as they functioned in the office to which Christ called them. The inspired Scriptures—which are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16)—record their use of this sign, so that we know of it. The argument is that, even if it is not wrong not to follow this biblical practice, we ought be sure our reasons not to use it are compelling.

All of this leads to this question: today, in 2016, is it better to use the sign that the apostles used? Or to continue not using the sign?

Circumstances in the Church Today Warrant It

Historically, Reformed churches did not use the sign because they judged it unedifying. Members of Reformed churches included many recent converts from Roman Catholicism, which viewed this ceremony as a sacrament that imparted grace to the ones inducted into office.

Today, the circumstances are different. They are not different as regards Rome’s view and practice; Rome still views the ceremony as having sacramental powers. But the circumstances are different in Reformed churches and among Reformed believers, who, as a whole, understand the errors of Rome’s view. Most Reformed churches and believers today are not recent converts from Roman Catholicism and will not stumble at the practice.

At the same time, the danger today is that members of Reformed churches do not hold the ecclesiastical offices in as high esteem as they ought, and do not honor the work of the offices as highly as they ought. In our society individualism is rampant; authority is despised; every man does that which is right in his own eyes. In such a society, Christ’s church exists and strives to be distinct. In such a society, the members of the church must remember that the officebearers, though themselves men—and sinful men at that—are nevertheless Christ’s representatives, equipped with Christ’s Spirit, to do Christ’s work.

The use of the sign of laying on of hands on elders and deacons at their ordination will not change the hearts of men, if those hearts already are stubborn and rebellious toward their church authorities. But it will remind the congregation that these men are called and equipped of God Himself for their work. That was the original intent of the sign, and that purpose would still be well served today.

Duration of Time in Office Is Not the Fundamental Issue

I am grateful for the explanation of some PR ministers, writing in past issues of the Standard Bearer, that the reason why Reformed churches lay hands on a minister at his ordination, but not on elders and deacons, is that the former serves for life, while the latter serve for terms. I read their explanations as being not merely their own opinion as to why, but the answer that Reformed churches have given as to why many Reformed churches lay hands on ministers, but not on elders and deacons.

But let us ask the question: what substantial difference does length of time in office make with regard to laying on of hands? Is a relatively short duration of time in office (three years, for example) a substantive reason not to lay hands on elders at ordination? While the elders hold office, is their authority any less, because they hold office for three years? Do they represent Christ in their work any less than does a minister who holds office for life, or less than does an elder in a church that appoints men to the eldership for life? Or, is the need for the congregation clearly to see and understand that the elders and deacons represent Christ any less, because these men serve in office for definite terms? My answer to all of these question is no.

The fact is that, whether one serves for life or for term, every minister, elder, and deacon serves in office only for a specified time. In some instances, the church specifies that time—two years, or three years. In other instances, God specifies the time: one serves until, in God’s providence, he finds himself unable to serve. But either way, while one serves, he serves in God’s authority, equipped with God’s Spirit. The practice of laying on of hands underscores and symbolizes that.

John Calvin and Samuel Miller

In essence, then, I agree with the comments John Calvin and Samuel Miller make regarding this point. I pick John Calvin because his word is regarded as weighty in Reformed circles. I pick Samuel Miller because, though lesser known to us, his work regarding the offices is considered a classic—and he treats at length the matter of the laying on of hands, so that I can quote only a few representative samples of his work.

Calvin wrote:

Two comments about this quote are in order. First, by his last statement, Calvin means that the sign will not be empty if freed from the superstitious use to which Rome puts it. Second, Calvin writes this in the context of the calling, authorization, and ordination of “ministers,” but one who reads the entire section will realize that by “ministers” he refers to all officebearers in the church of Christ, not only to pastors.

Samuel Miller expressed himself at length regarding the practice of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in the 1830s. He included in the expression of his own sentiments, an investigation into the Scripture passages that speak of the laying on of hands, as well as a historical survey both of the practice itself and of the neglect to lay hands on ruling elders. The point is this: whether you agree or disagree with Miller, his comments are worth reading. I have not the time to quote him in full (the quote itself would take up another article or two), but simply to state his conviction:

…it has been, for many years, my settled conviction, that the Ordination Service in question, in not making the imposition of hands a stated constituent part of it, is chargeable with an omission, which, though not essential, and therefore, not a matter for which it is proper to interrupt the peace of the Church; yet appears to me incapable of a satisfactory defense; and which it is my earnest hope may not much longer continue to be, as I know it is with many, a matter of serious lamentation.2

Miller proceeds to present the biblical and historical data regarding the use of the practice—again, worth reading. On the basis of that data, he gives six arguments why the practice ought to be restored in conservative Presbyterian churches. Summarized, they are: 1) The frequency and significance of laying on of hands as an Old Testament Jewish rite warrants it. 2) The government of the New Testament church is modeled after the government of the synagogues. 3) The ruling elders of the Jewish synagogues were ordained with the laying on of hands. 4) In every account of ordination to office in the New Testament the ceremony was used. 5) If the first deacons were ordained with the laying on of hands, certainly those ordained to the office of elder ought be. 6) The rite has no “mystical influence,” such as Rome would ascribe to it.3

Good food for thought. But enough about it for now. It is time to get to the meat of the matter—the work of the office of elder. Next time, D.V.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.3.16, ed. John McNeill, transl. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2:1067.

2 Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (General Books [www.General-Books.net], 2009), 138-139.

3 Miller, 142-143.