This is the second study on the theology of ordination. The first post dealt with the laying on of hands in the Old Testament. The present post addresses the laying on of hands in the New Testament. My next post will deal with the theology of ordination.
In the New Testament, the act of laying on of hands is used in several ways:
1. Before the healing of a sick person.
Jesus laid on his hands in healing the sick: “And [Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (Mark 6:5). See also Mark 5:23; 7:32; 16:18; Luke 4:40; 13:13.
Ananias laid hands on Paul that he might recover his sight: “I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see” (Acts 9:12 NLT).
By the laying on of hands Paul healed the father of Publius in Malta: “It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him” (Acts 28:8).
In Acts 5:12 the apostles performed signs and wonders, and healing by the imposition of hands: “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles” (Acts 5:12 ESV).
2. The laying on of hands was used to bless people.
Jesus blessed the little children by laying hands on them: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; . . . And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:13, 16).
3. The laying on of hands was used after baptism.
The laying on of hands was used after baptism for the reception of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 8:14-19 the gift of the Spirit was conferred after baptism by the apostles’s laying on of hands: “Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).
Acts 19:6 links laying on of hands with baptism and the gift of the Spirit expressed in tongue and prophesying: “When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”
Hebrews 6:2 refers to the teaching about baptism and laying on of hands, probably as instruction given to new converts. The gift of the Spirit, however, was given elsewhere in the New Testament without the mention of laying on of hands, and once even before baptism (Acts 10:44-48). Thus, baptism is not always associated with laying on of hands for “it is unlikely that in the New Testament period, baptism was always accompanied by laying on of hands” (Marshal 1965: 724).
4. The laying on of hands and ordination.
Laying on of hands became of special importance in the conferring of an office or assignment in the service of the church. Following the example of the Old Testament and the practices of contemporary Judaism, the rite of laying on of hands became the means by which an individual was ordained to the ministry of the church.
In Acts 6, seven men were selected on the basis of their charisma and the twelve apostles, by prayer and laying on of hands, ordained them for Christian service. In Acts 13:3 the church in Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas for missionary work by praying and laying on of hands on them: “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).
In 1 Timothy 5:22, Timothy is urged not to be hasty in laying on of hands: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure.” This exhortation may refer to ordination of elders or to the restoration of backsliders to the fellowship of the church with an act of blessing (Fairbairn 1956: 224).
2 Timothy 1:6 refers to Timothy’s own reception of the gift of God for the work of the ministry by the laying on of Paul’s hands: “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.” However, in 1 Timothy 4:14, it is the Presbytery (the council of elders) which lays hands on him: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you.” There is no contradiction in these two passages, for it was Paul and the local elders who, together, were involved in the act of ordination.
Thus, in the light of the activities of the church, the act of laying on of hands, carried out under divine guidance, had several purposes:
1. It was an outward sign that God gave to the individual His gifts for some task in the ministry of the church.
2. By the laying on of hands the church acknowledged the divine enabling, and commission, and associated itself with the Holy Spirit in commissioning and authorizing the candidate for his task.
3. By the laying on of hands, the apostles and elders were showing that they made an offering to God of the people whom they admitted to the ministry.
4. By the laying on of hands the dignity of the ministry should be commended to the people, and those who are ordained reminded themselves that they are no longer their own, but that they are bound in service to God and to the church (Calvin 1965: 2:236).
Calvin said that only pastors laid hands on ministers: “it was not the whole people, but only pastors, who laid hands on ministers” (Calvin 1965: 2:236). Strong denies such an idea. He said that ordination is an act of the whole church, not the act of a privileged class in the church. He wrote,
The council of ordination is not to be composed simply of ministers who have been themselves ordained. As the whole church is to preserve the ordinances and to maintain sound doctrine, and as the unordained church member is often a more sagacious judge of a candidate’s Christian experience than his own pastor would be, there seems no warrant, either in Scripture or in reason, for the exclusion of lay delegates from ordaining councils. It was not merely the apostles and elders, but the whole church at Jerusalem, that passed upon the matter submitted to them at the council, and others than ministers appear to have been delegates. The theory that only ministers can ordain has in it the beginning of a hierarchy. To make the ministry a close corporation is to recognize the principle of apostolic succession, to deny the validity of all our past ordination, and to sell to an ecclesiastical caste the liberties of the church of God (Strong 1963: 920-21).
In his study of laying on of hands in Patristic literature, Vogel (1972: 7-21) concluded that throughout tradition the laying on of hands was never lacking, but he said that it is legitimate to wonder if it is absolutely necessary. The act of Chirotony [the laying on of hands in order to bestow a blessing in an ecclesiastical rite] passes on the mandate given by the church, but this might well be transmitted by other means. The laying on of hands is not sufficient for the ordination of a minister, if the mandate is lacking.
NEXT: “The Theology of Ordination”
Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964.
Fairbairn, Patrick, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1956.
Marshal, I. H. “Laying on of Hands,” The New Bible Dictionary. J. D. Douglas, Editor. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965.
Strong, Augustus H., Systematic Theology. New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1963.
Vogel, Cyrille, “Chirotonie et Chirothesie: importance et relativite du gest de l’imposition des mains dans la collation des ordres,” Irenikon 45 (1972): 7-21.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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It appears from both the OT and NT usage of the “laying on of hands” that there is the assumption of “authority” or “authoritative teaching” behind the act. This in itself would indicate that it was done by one(s) who had the authority to perform the act, e.g. apostle, prophet, elder(s)/pastor.
I agree with you. Generally, those in authority delegated authority to new leaders.