Laying on of Hands

(The Error of Simon Magus)

by John Pike

The topic of laying on of hands is a huge issue that can not be dealt with exhaustively in this essay. Hebrews 6:1-2 calls it a basic doctrine of the Church, so we should not expect it to be highly complicated. After using a concordance and examining all the passages of the Bible where laying on of hands occurs (this is easy and not too time consuming), I have come to the conclusion that my WCG experience left me with a distorted view of this basic doctrine.

In fact, I think that my former understanding was uncomfortably similar to that of Simon Magus, who thought there was power resident in the Apostles’ bodies to transmit God’s Holy Spirit through touch. Of course I never thought that the Holy Spirit would be given to unrepentant individuals, even if the elders thought they were repentant when they baptized and laid hands on them, but I used to think that it was important that the person doing the baptizing and hands laying have the Spirit himself.

Fortunately, the miraculous begettal that takes place after a person repents and is baptized is the result of direct action on the part of God—irrespective of the spiritual standing of the men performing the ceremony.

HWA was baptized by a Baptist clergyman. What you’ll find after examining all the scriptures that relate to the laying on of hands is that it is a symbolic act, a formality. It is a way to elevate a prayer to an event, where individuals pray for someone while physically present with them, together.

As an example, we understand that there is no advantage of a person anointing another, over using an anointed cloth, when seeking to be healed—but we probably all prefer the former. Laying on of hands is a course of action open to anyone who prays. It is not the exclusive province of only part of the Body of Christ. In terms of seeking God’s healing, James wrote that we are to call for the elders (plural), and obviously that is where we would look when seeking someone able to offer the prayer of faith for the reviving of the sick.

What you will not find in searching the scriptures is "raising someone in rank" in connection with laying on of hands. There are only 2 examples in the scriptures which can be misunderstood to support a greater-than-formality role for laying on of hands. We must guard against this mystical view. The first of these 2 examples is Timothy, to whom Paul wrote:

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 (1Tim 4:14).

This verse could be referring only to Timothy’s receipt of the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism—and admonishing him to exercise the Spirit. Or, if we look at the greater context from verses 11-16 we could conclude that Timothy was gifted to teach, and this gifting is connected with "the laying on of the hands of the eldership."

If we conclude that the second interpretation is correct, then we realize that it is scriptural, fitting and proper to lay hands on individuals and ask God to further empower them for more effective service in the Body. We still need to be careful not to move our focus away from God and onto the assembled elders.

The biggest obstacle to God dispensing the gifts that He desires to bestow on His people is not whether various elders are of a mind to pray for a specific person’s empowerment and lay hands on them. The problem is the lack of yielding to God, of each of us —and whether we are willing to use any gifts He may provide for His glory, and not our own.

God is not limited by the decisions of the elders in terms of who He chooses to gift. Paul also admonished Timothy in I Tim 5:22 "do not lay hands on anyone hastily" but this was not because he feared that Timothy would somehow over-commit God in dispensing His favors prematurely or unwisely! It had more to do with advising Timothy to proceed carefully, and not damage his own credibility by how and whom he prayed for and laid hands upon.

The second scriptural incident that can be misunderstood if viewed from the perspective of a hierarchial mindset is how Joshua was designated as the successor to Moses; and the prominent role that laying on of hands played in this:

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him (Deut 34:9, KJV).

If we look at this verse alone, it appears to say that Joshua had the Spirit as a result of Moses laying hands on him, rather than just mentioning the formality of laying on of hands in this connection. But notice Num 27:18 which tells us that Joshua had the Spirit before Moses laid hands on him:

And the Lord said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay thine hand upon him" (Num 27:18, KJV).

Moses laid hands on Joshua in a public ceremony to declare him as his successor—chosen by the Lord, not Moses. Some may feel that we have an apparent scriptural contradiction to resolve here, with Num 27:18 saying that Joshua had God’s Spirit prior to Moses laying hands on him, and Deut 34:9 seeming to say that he received God’s Spirit as a result of Moses laying hands on him. Let’s look at the entire verse this time:

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses (Deut 34:9, KJV).

Now, since punctuation does not appear in the original Hebrew, and this verse is one long messy complex sentence (reminds me of how I write sometimes); let’s see how we can make a judgement call (like the uninspired translators are forced to do) and make 2 sentences out of it (like some other translations do).

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom. For Moses had laid his hands upon him, and the children of Israel hearkened unto him and did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Presented this way, there is no conflict between Deut 34:9 and Num 27:18. What do you think? This would mean that the result of Moses laying hands on Joshua was that the Israelites acknowledged him as their leader.

Certainly the Lord is in no way prevented from granting gifts at the exact time that hands are laid on a person, and some brethren may believe that it has happened in exactly that way to them. However, we are on very shaky scriptural ground if we try to use Timothy and Joshua as types to claim that the Lord is bound by some formula to "come across with the gifts" in such cases. Aside from these accounts of Joshua and Timothy, no other scriptures provide an opportunity to side with Simon Magus and his mystical view of laying on of hands—study them all for yourself. &

Studying "Laying on Hands"

The easiest way to study this topic is with a computer Bible, searching on something like:

hand* and (lay* or laid*)

The exact line to type varies depending on the computer Bible that you use. The "*", above, is a "wildcard"—represents any characters.

Also, you can use an exhaustive concordance to look up "hands" or "lay", "laid", "laying", etc.