Many may have heard or read of the “laying on of hands,” but how many Christians understand its significance? St. Paul, in listing out what he called the “elementary principles of Christ,” mentions the “laying on of hands” as being as fundamental to Christianity as “repentance … faith … baptisms … resurrection of the dead, and … eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2).
Really? As fundamental as “faith” and belief in the “resurrection of the dead?” Yes. Yet, if you are reading this and consider yourself a Christian, do you understand what the laying on of hands is? And for those who recognize this as a familiar practice, I ask you this: is it being practiced by your church the way it was practiced by the apostles and their legitimate successors?
Here is its history and significance:
LAYING ON OF HANDS
The Laying on of Hands is the physical gesture that accompanies invoking the Holy Spirit to confer some divine mystery. Only those designated with the power to invoke the Holy Spirit (bishops, and to whom they delegate this power) are divinely authorized to perform the laying on of hands, whereby the Holy Spirit will heed such an invocation.
Recently, and to my amazement, I’ve noticed nearly every Orthodox Christians I’ve asked has trouble answering these questions:
What was the (clerical) rank of the disciples, such as Peter and John?
What about Paul? or Timothy? Titus?
They were all bishops. This is historical fact. And it is evidenced in Scripture by the laying on of hands, which only occurs at the hands of bishops as they invoke the Holy Spirit, to confer divine mysteries such as when they ordain other bishops.
For example, Saul, who became the apostle Paul, even after Christ Himself miraculously appeared to him, was not given the right of overseeing the church (the word “overseer” is the literal translation of the Greek word for bishop), until after the apostles laid hands on him. This is recorded in two different writings, written by two different authors—St. Luke, in the book of Acts, and St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians:
St. Paul received the laying of hands to become a bishop:
“As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:2-3).
In Galatians we read the apostle Paul confirming this event (see Galatians 2:9)
St. Paul and other bishops laid hands on Timothy and Titus to ordain them as bishops:
St. Paul later ordained Timothy and Titus to become bishops, and then wrote them epistles extensively detailing how careful he must be in selecting other bishops to serve over Christ’s flock:
“Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership” (1 Timothy 4:14)
“Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (1 Timothy 2:16).
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you” (Titus 1:5)
It was recorded by the early Church historian Eusebius (c. AD 300) what the above meant:
“Timothy, so it is recorded, was the first to receive the episcopate of the parish in Ephesus, Titus of the churches in Crete.” (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.4.6)
Only such legitimately ordained bishops could lay hands to confer divine mysteries such as Baptism
In the book of Acts, we find that Philip, who was simply a deacon (one of the 7 designated as such in Acts 6), could not confer the Holy Spirit on the Samaritans who believed in Christ. He could baptize with water, but the conferring of the Holy Spirit required two bishops—Peter and John—to embark on a 2-day journey from Jerusalem so they may be present and lay hands on the people (Acts 8:14-17):
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
THE EARLY CHURCH UNDERSTANDING OF LAYING ON OF HANDS:
St. Jerome, who lived in the 4th century, is one example among many early Christians who record for us the significance of the laying on of hands, as understood by the Church, when there was only one universal Christian Church at the time:
Don’t you know that the laying on of hands after baptism and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit is a custom of the Churches? Do you demand Scripture proof? You may find it in the Acts of the Apostles. And even if it did not rest on the authority of Scripture the consensus of the whole world in this respect would have the force of a command.
For many other observances of the Churches, which are due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as for instance the practice of dipping the head three times in the laver, … and, again, the practices of standing up in worship on the Lord’s day, and ceasing from fasting every Pentecost; and there are many other unwritten practices which have won their place through reason and custom. So you see we follow the practice of the Church…
You can also see the significance of the laying on of hands and the authority to ordain bishops in an interesting episode around the time of the council of Nicea. There were was a rogue Egyptian bishop named Meletius who had ordained other individuals to serve as bishops. The Church had to figure out what to do with “those who have been ordained by him” illegitimately. The bishops representing all of Christendom at the council of Nicea declared that Meletius would no longer have “authority to … ordain,” and those ordained by Meletius who returned to orthodox Christianity would need to be ordained by a legitimate, “more sacred laying on of hands.”
Those [bishops] who have been placed by him [i.e., the rogue bishop Meletius], after they have been confirmed by a more sacred laying on of hands, shall … be admitted to communion [with strict conditions imposed on them].
Those who were legitimate bishops, who never deviated from orthodox Christianity, the council decreed, would have the full rights of appointing bishops by laying on of hands:
Those who, by the grace of God and through your prayers, have been found in no schism, but on the contrary are without spot in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, are to have authority to make appointments and nominations of worthy persons among the clergy, and in short to do all things according to the law and ordinance of the Church.
SIGNIFICANCE OF LAYING ON OF HANDS: “NO SALVATION OUTSIDE THE CHURCH”
Why does this all matter? Why was this called by the apostle Paul an “elementary principle of Christ,” on the same footing as faith, repentance, baptism, belief in the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment?
Because, Christ in Scripture made very clear what is required for one to have eternal life with Him, and two of those key mysteries require the invocation of the Holy Spirit by a person divinely authorized to do so: (1) Baptism by water and Spirit (John 3) and (2) partaking of the real body and blood of Christ (which is given to us in the form of bread and wine but is mysteriously His real body and blood [see John 6]).
On the latter mystery, in the Coptic Church, as in other apostolic Churches, there is a moment during the liturgy where the clergyman makes this invocation. According to the Coptic rite, immediately preceding this invocation, the deacon calls on all the people to “Worship God in fear and trembling,” followed by commanding the congregation to pay attention: “Let us attend.” During this time the clergyman inaudibly prays as follows:
“We ask You, O Lord our God… that Your Holy Spirit descend upon … these gifts set forth [i.e., the bread and wine] and purify them, change them, and manifest them as a sanctification of Your saints.”
Afterward the priest affirmatively and loudly declares, “This bread He makes into His holy Body” and “This cup also, the precious blood of His new covenant,” to which each congregant is called upon to respond loudly, “I believe! Amen!”
This was all brought to you by the elementary principle of Christ, the laying on of hands. The disciples received the Holy Spirit from Christ whereby they became bishops (John 20:22-23), they conferred it on others to assist them in pastoring the flock of Christ, and the successors of the apostles today (who can trace their ordination—the hands laid on them to ordain them—back to the disciples) have the power to bring people into the faith through baptism and allow them to partake of the tree of life (the body and blood of Christ).
This is why the early Christians (such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Cyprian of Carthage) used to say the phrase, “There is no salvation outside the Church.”
Bishop Irenaeus (2nd Century) therefore wrote:
“One should not seek among others the truth that can be easily gotten from the Church … She is the door of life.”
The laying on of hands therefore according to Scripture and early Christianity is fundamental to eternal life, as taught by Christ and the apostles.
Image: Participating in the Life of One Another’s Churches: The Ordination of a Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches Delegate to the Holy Diaconate, May 2017
On apostolic succession and successive ordination:
Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (3rd Century) wrote:
“He cannot be reckoned as a bishop who succeeds no one. For he has despise the evangelical and apostolic tradition, springing from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the church in any way … for the true shepherd remains and presides over the Church of God by successive ordination.”
Tertullian (2nd Century) wrote about the way to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate churches:
“Let them [those who claim to be a legitimate church] produce the original records of their churches. Let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that the first bishop of theirs can show for his ordainer and predecessor one of the apostles or apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner with which the apostolic churches transmit their registers. For example, the church of Smyrna records Polycarp was placed there by John. Likewise the church of Rome demonstrates Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way, the other churches similarly exhibit [their list of bishops].