The Laying On of Hands

The question box received the following: 

Hudsonville’s Men’s Society in its discussion of Acts 6had some questions in regard to the ‘laying on of hands’. Some of the texts considered were Genesis 48:13,Leviticus 1:4Numbers 8:10, 27:18, 23I Timothy 4:14, 5:22 and II Timothy 1:6. We would appreciate your writing on this in theStandard Bearer’s Question Box. The question is: “Could not this practice be used today in the ordination of elders and deacons as well as with ministers? If possible, include comments on its history in the early church, reformation times, and up to today.” 

As is evident from the question, there are many references to the laying on of hands in the Scriptures. The Men’s Society refers to Genesis 48:13, 14, where Jacob lays the patriarchal blessing upon Joseph’s two sons, placing Ephraim before Manasseh as prophecy of the future blessings that God would bestow upon their tribes. They also refer to the laying on of hands upon the sacrifices in the tabernacle and in the temple. Aaron and his sons were to lay their hands upon the sacrifices to show that God laid the sins of the people upon the Great Lamb of God, and to show that the sacrifice was dedicated to God as symbolic of the Christ Who brings the sacrifice of atonement on the cross for the sins of His people. 

In the New Testament we read that Christ encouraged parents to bring their children to Him that He might lay His hands upon them and bless them (Matt. 19:13, 14Mark 10:13-16Luke 18:15, 16). When Jesus ascended to heaven He lifted up His hands upon His disciples to bless them, symbolical of His blessings that He bestows upon His church as our ascended Lord. 

This practice was quite common in the early church after Pentecost. Acts 8:17 mentions that Peter laid his hands upon the believers in Samaria as a sign of the giving of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 19:6 Paul gave to the Ephesian believers the outward signs of the laying on of hands while Christ laid His Spirit upon them. InHebrews 6:3 this sign is mentioned in close connection with the sacrament of baptism, assuring the church of God’s continued blessings upon them. In a sense, it can be said that we still do this at baptism, as well as in pronouncing the benediction in our public worship services. 

We come closer to the subject at hand in Acts 6:6 where the laying on of hands accompanied the ordination of the first deacons in the church. Also in Acts 13:3 the church at Antioch, upon instruction of the Holy Spirit, ordains Paul and Barnabas to the preaching of the Word among the gentiles with prayer and fasting, and the laying on of hands. In I Timothy 4:14 Paul reminds his spiritual son Timothy not to neglect the gifts (charismatos in the Greek) that were given to him by means of the Word and “with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (see also II Tim. 1:6). Paul warns the church in I Timothy 5:22 not to be overly hasty in using this sign upon new converts or anyone who is not fit for the office. 

In the Roman Catholic Church this practice was used in baptism, in healing, in the restoration of those who fell away as heretics, in marriage ceremonies, as well as with the ordination into an office. It soon fell into misuse by making it a sacrament and ascribing to it certain powers, as if the laying on of hands bestowed certain gifts upon the members of the church. In the case of ordination, the right to lay on hands was entrusted only to the bishops, as successors of Peter, and was regarded as a transfer of the gifts of the office. 

It is exactly because of this misuse that the churches of the Reformation questioned whether they should continue this practice in their churches. The Lutherans abolished it and later took it up again, ascribing great value to it. 

Calvin writes in regard to the laying on of hands at the ordination of ministers, “It is certainly useful, that by such a symbol the dignity of the ministry should be recommended to the people, and he who is ordained reminded that he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and His Church. Besides, it will not prove an empty sign, if it is restored to its genuine origin. For if the Spirit of God has not instituted anything in the Church in vain, this ceremony of His appointment we shall feel not to be useless, provided it is not superstitiously abused” (Institutes, vol. 3, page 71). 

Rev. Jansen writes in his Church Order Commentary, “At the time of the Reformation many raised serious objections against the laying on of hands for fear of superstition, namely, that this practice would be continued as a ‘transfer of gifts of the office.’ The first synods frowned upon it. But the Synod of Middelburg, 1581, made a distinction and recommended that the laying on of hands should be used at the ordination of ministers of the Word. This was adopted at the Synod of ‘s Gravenhage, 1586. The laying on of hands was regarded as a sign of complete devotion to the official ministry of the Word; therefore it was used only when ministers were ordained to their office for the first time, and not for elders and deacons.” This is also according to Article 4 of our Church Order.

Bavinck informs us in his Dogmatics that, “The Reformers were of one opinion, that the laying on of hands was no command of Christ and therefore is not absolutely necessary. While some regarded it as important, worthy of esteem and imitation, others regarded it as belonging to the adiaphora and advised against it for fear of superstition. It is not an essential element in the ordination, for neither in the case of Jesus Himself, nor with the appointment of the apostles, nor in connection with the elders (Acts 14:23, 20:28) is any mention made of it. Nor must it be regarded as a sharing of the special gift of the Spirit in the office. For it does not grant, but presupposes, according to the Scriptures, the peculiar gifts necessary for the office, and therefore can never be more than a public designation for those who are called to the office. It is only a sign, a solemn declaration before God and His church that the one who is called in a legal manner and therefore sent of God Himself, has the required gifts and as such must be received, acknowledged and respected by the congregation” (Dogmatics, vol. 4, pages 124-126). 

This is the opinion still held by the Church Order Commentators of today. 

Four matters, therefore, are given for our consideration: 

There is obviously no principle involved. Scripture neither requires nor condemns it. It is, therefore, left to the discretion of the churches whether they will use it or not. I can add, that the Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore has decided to use the laying on of hands with the ordination of elders and deacons on the basis of I Timothy 4:14 and II Timothy 1:6

In any case, this must never be considered as having some mystical power or as being a transfer of gifts, but always nothing more than a sign. 

Since it 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.