by Max Aplin
In Hebrews 6:1-2 we read:
‘1 Therefore, let us leave the basic teaching about the Messiah and be carried forward to maturity, not again laying a foundation of repentance from dead actions and faith in God, 2 of teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.’
In this passage the author lists six elements of Christian teaching that he says are basic: repentance, faith, baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection and judgment.
I have written an article entitled, ‘Should Hands Be Laid on New Christians?’ in which I discuss the fourth of these, the laying on of hands.
In that article I reach the following conclusions:
(1) It is highly likely that in Hebrews 6:1-2 the author has in mind laying on of hands for the purpose of new Christians receiving the Holy Spirit.
(2) The Bible quite strongly suggests that in the early church a common way in which Christians first received the Spirit was through the laying on of hands. And this may have been the most common way.
(3) There is very much a place for laying on hands for this purpose today.
An argument against using hands for this purpose today
In my earlier article there was one argument against the position I was taking that I only touched on briefly. In this present article I want to deal with it more fully. The argument runs as follows:
In the early church, only the apostles laid on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit. There are no apostles alive at the present time. Therefore, when Christians first receive the Spirit today, laying on hands is never the means God uses. Instead He always just does it Himself without using any human agents.
I am convinced that this argument is a very weak one. And in what follows I will try to demonstrate why.
What do we mean by an apostle of the early church?
The first thing we need to do is spend a moment considering exactly what we mean by an apostle of the early church.
Different New Testament authors actually use the term ‘apostle’ (Greek: apostolos) in different ways.
For example, Luke usually uses it to refer exclusively to members of the twelve, although in Acts 14:4, 14 he exceptionally refers to Paul and Barnabas as apostles.
Paul, however, often uses the term more broadly to refer to more than just the twelve. He frequently describes himself as an apostle. In 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, speaking of a time when he wasn’t yet an apostle, he probably implies that ‘all the apostles’ was a broader group than ‘the twelve’. And in Galatians 1:19 he probably refers to James the brother of the Lord as an apostle.
When Paul uses the term ‘apostle’, he usually seems to have in mind a group of Christians, including himself, who received an extraordinary commission for ministry by the risen Jesus. This definition appears to have been the most common one in the early church. And it is the one I will use in this article.
Is there apostolic ministry today?
One other preliminary point concerns the existence of apostolic ministry today. Some Christians claim that apostles exist in our day. Others say that they don’t.
It is surely true that there are no apostles today who have anything like the degree of apostolic authority that the twelve or Paul had.
However, I do think that God calls some Christians today to perform roles that have quite a lot in common with what the first century apostles did. Whether these people should be given the label ‘apostles’ is a valid question, although it isn’t one that I want to discuss here.
Those who make the argument based on apostles that I am trying to counter in this article, believe that there are no apostles today of any sort. Importantly, however, none of my arguments in what follows depend on there being any kind of apostles today.
Let’s turn now to the key points of this discussion. If there are no apostles today, would that mean that there should be no laying on hands for new Christians to receive the Holy Spirit? There are two main points I would like to make.
We would expect others to continue what the apostles did
First, even if we were to assume that the apostolic ministry ceased when the original apostles died, and we were to assume too that when they were alive no one else laid on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit, it seems likely that others would have taken over this practice once the apostles were dead. It is less likely that God would have stopped imparting the Spirit through the laying on of hands.
The reason for this can be found especially in Hebrews 6:1-2. Here laying on of hands is said to be a basic element of the Christian faith. And in my earlier article I showed that there are good reasons for believing that the hands in this passage are for Christians to receive the Spirit.
It seems unlikely that God would describe something as a basic element of the faith if it only applied to the first few decades of a Christian era that is thousands of years long.
Even if, then, we were to suppose that in the early church all laying on of hands for receiving the Spirit was done by the apostles, and that no other apostles came after them, we would expect other Christians probably to continue this practice.
It is highly probable that non-apostles laid hands on new Christians
Second, it is extremely doubtful that in the early church all laying on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit was in fact done by the apostles. There are a few things to think about here.
(1) To begin with, we need to consider an argument used by those who say that only apostles laid on hands for this purpose at that time.
In Acts 8:5-17 we are told that some people in Samaria became Christians when Philip the evangelist (not the Philip who was one of the twelve) evangelised them. And we are told too that when the apostles in Jerusalem heard of this, they sent Peter and John (both apostles, of course), who laid hands on the new believers so that they might receive the Spirit.
It is sometimes argued that this episode shows that in the early church only apostles laid on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit. The argument goes in this way:
Samaria was some days’ journey from Jerusalem where a number of the apostles were based. If non-apostles were able to lay on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit, this would already have been done before the apostles arrived. God would not have allowed a delay between the conversion of these Christians and their receiving the Spirit unless it was necessary. It was necessary, because only apostles could lay on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit.
This argument is not one that should be easily dismissed. It is, of course, normal for Christians to receive the Spirit at the time of their conversion. So it is quite right to ask why Philip hadn’t already laid hands on these new Christians for them to receive the Spirit if he was able. It seems highly likely that he wasn’t able, at least on this occasion.
Nevertheless, it is going much too far to use this passage in Acts as proof that in the early church only apostles ever laid on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit. Importantly, everything to do with the Holy Spirit is mysterious and difficult, if not impossible, to tie down into theological formulas.
For example, if we leave aside the exceptional example of what happened on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), there are three places in Acts where we are given some description of how Christians receive the Spirit. In two of these examples laying on of hands is used: Acts 8:15-17; 19:6. In the other, no laying on of hands is used: Acts 10:44-47.
Why is there this variation? We can make guesses, but I don’t think it’s possible to reach clear answers. I think the Holy Spirit is too mysterious for us to fathom this out.
Similarly, we can say that for some reason the apostles Peter and John needed to lay their hands on the Christians in Samaria for them to receive the Spirit, without concluding that non-apostles were never able to do this.
It is true that this account might at first sight seem to suggest that in the early church only apostles laid hands on new Christians for them to receive the Spirit. But the passage falls far short of proving this. At best, it is a pointer towards this view that needs to be weighed against other factors. And I am sure that these other factors carry much greater weight. Let’s turn to these now.
(2) In my earlier article I showed that there are good reasons for thinking that in the early church a common way in which Christians first received the Spirit was through laying on of hands, and that this may have been the most common way.
We must bear in mind how rapidly the church grew at this time over a wide geographic area. And we must bear in mind too how few apostles there were. Given these things, it seems very unlikely that an apostle could have been present on each occasion when hands were laid on a new Christian.
Receiving the Spirit took place at the time of conversion. (Acts 8:5-17 is a puzzling exception to this, as I have said.) So it doesn’t make sense to think that if someone became a Christian where no apostle was present, they would have waited a few weeks or months until an apostle visited to have hands laid on them. The matter was much more urgent than that. And it is reasonable to think that non-apostles regularly laid on hands for this purpose.
Especially relevant here is Hebrews 6:1-2. In my earlier article I showed that there are good reasons for believing that this passage teaches that laying on of hands for receiving the Spirit is a basic part of the Christian faith.
Hebrews is widely believed to have been written some time between 60 and 90 AD. Even if it was written at the beginning of this period, we know of at least one apostle who was dead by this point, James the brother of John (see Acts 12:2). And it is probable that others had died by this time too. If it was written near the end of this period, the vast majority of the apostles would almost certainly have been dead.
The problem of the large number of Christians and the lack of apostles to lay on hands is therefore especially pressing in the light of this passage in Hebrews. In other words, Hebrews 6:1-2 is a strong piece of evidence that at some time between 60 and 90 AD non-apostles were regularly laying hands on new converts for them to receive the Spirit.
(3) The New Testament refers to non-apostles laying on hands as a means of commissioning Christians for ministry and imparting gifts to them.
Acts 13:1-3 tells us that ‘prophets and teachers’ laid hands on the apostles Paul and Barnabas to commission them for their upcoming mission. It is true that in v. 1 Barnabas is named as one of the prophets and teachers, and he was also an apostle. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that any of the other prophets and teachers were apostles. And it seems that those who laid hands on Paul and Barnabas were mainly or exclusively non-apostles.
In 1 Timothy 4:14 we learn that elders laid hands on Timothy to bestow a spiritual gift. And in 1 Timothy 5:22 Timothy himself, who was not an apostle, is envisaged laying hands on others, presumably to bestow a gift or to commission in some way.
In the early church, then, non-apostles clearly laid hands on Christians in these important ways. And it would fit well with this if they also laid on hands for new converts to receive the Spirit.
Similarly, there is water baptism to consider. In 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 Paul thanks God for how few of the Corinthians he baptized. And he remarks that God didn’t send him to baptize but to proclaim the good news. This probably suggests that non-apostles often baptized new Christian converts.
Again, if water baptism was performed widely by non-apostles, it becomes more likely that laying on of hands for receiving the Spirit was widely performed by them too. This is especially true because both these things took place at the time of conversion.
When points (1), (2) and (3) are all taken into account, it becomes highly likely that in the early church non-apostles often laid hands on new Christians for them to receive the Holy Spirit.
In the above discussion we have found:
(A) Even if we were to suppose that in the early church all laying on of hands for new believers to receive the Spirit was done by the apostles, and that no other apostles came after them, we would expect other Christians probably to continue this practice.
(B) It is in fact highly likely that in the early church non-apostles often laid hands on new Christians for them to receive the Spirit.
Together these points carry considerable weight. Therefore, those who say that the absence of apostles today means there should be no laying on of hands for Christians to receive the Spirit are making a very weak argument. I refer readers to my previous article for more reasons to support the view that there is very much a place at the present time for laying on hands for this purpose.