Although an infrequent occurrence in most Reformed churches, the laying on (imposition) of hands is among the most venerable of all religious ceremonies—and one that is beginning to attract renewed interest in some Christian circles. What does the imposition of hands signify? Why has it played such a minor role in the Reformed tradition? Can this ancient practice contribute anything to Reformed worship today? Is it biblical?
A Biblical Tradition
Hands figure prominently in the Bible as symbols of power or authority. A vivid example is the account of the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea, a passage filled with references to the impact of God's "right hand ... majestic in power" (Ex. 15:6). By extension, the laying on of hands commonly signifies the transmission of power, authority, or divine blessing (though on occasion it may have other connotations as well).
In the Old Testament, hands are imposed for a variety of purposes. They may be used to convey a solemn blessing (e.g., Gen. 48). They may also be used in a sacrificial context (e.g., Lev. 4). Most often, however, they serve as a sign of commissioning or consecration, setting apart a person (or thing) for some special task or office. We are told, for example, that Joshua "was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him" (Deut. 34:9), an act of empowerment marking him as Moses' God-appointed successor.
The gospels repeatedly describe Jesus as laying hands on people in acts of healing or blessing. For the apostles who came preaching in Jesus' name, the laying on of hands became a means of communicating the power of the risen Lord through the invocation of the Holy Spirit he promised to send (see, for example, Acts 8:14-17). That this was not something to be carried out indiscriminately or with frivolous intent (see 1 Tim. 5:22) testifies to its significance in the life of the Christian community.
Evidence from Scripture and other sources suggests that the early church employed the laying on of hands in at least four basic ways, often in conjunction with some form of anointing with oil. (1) The act was integral to the ordination or commissioning of church leaders—indeed, "to lay on hands" and "to ordain" were virtually synonymous terms. (2) It frequently accompanied prayers for healing, both physical and spiritual (exorcism). (3) It sometimes served as a gesture of blessing: instruction of new converts, for example, often concluded with prayer and the laying on of hands. (4) It was normally used during baptism to invoke the Holy Spirit's blessing on those newly received into the church (a practice that eventually gave rise to the rite of confirmation and, at least indirectly, the later Reformed practice of public profession of faith).
Over time, most of these usages became encrusted with elaborate ceremonies and embedded in sacramental doctrines of dubious theological merit. By the late Middle Ages, what was once a corporate act of invocation had become widely regarded as something semi-magical, a ceremony that bespoke not so much the power of God or the faith of the community as the authority of a priestly elite.
These magical and sacramentalist overtones help explain the ambivalence with which many Protestants regarded the practice. To be sure, its use did not die out entirely, especially in relatively conservative traditions such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism. It also found a place among some Baptists and, much later, Pentecostals.
The Reformed tradition, by contrast, viewed the practice with considerable suspicion. While Calvin affirmed its biblical meaning and warrant (see for example Institutes, TV, 19), he and most other Reformed leaders took the position that, as the 1541 Geneva church order put it, "because there has been much superstition in the past and scandal might result, it is better to abstain from it because of the infirmity of the times" (quoted by John M. Barkley, Westminster Dictionary of Worship, p. 296).
What began as a dictate of prudence soon became a fixed rule of practice. A few Reformed churches dispensed with the custom entirely; others retained it, but only as part of ordination ceremonies. Some scholars would argue that its vestiges can also be detected in the custom of having pastors raise their hands over the congregation while pronouncing the benediction. In any event, the laying on of hands has been largely alien to historic Reformed experience. Usage has been limited at best—a practice of, by, and for ordained ministers.
During the past few years, however, traditional attitudes seem to be changing. While the "infirmity of the times" may still give cause for concern, times have obviously changed dramatically since the sixteenth century. Thanks in part to Vatican II, today's theological climate is far different from that of Calvin's day. Faced with a secular, media-dominated culture, churches have begun paying greater attention to nonverbal elements in worship.
Many Reformed churches have also drawn inspiration from contemporary movements for liturgical renewal, especially efforts to recapture something of the spirit of early Christian worship. As a result, it may now be possible to reconsider the laying on of hands as an action reflecting basic Reformed convictions while also respecting the concern expressed by those skeptical Genevans of 1541— namely, that any such act "take place without superstition and without offense."
Reclaiming a Legacy
To enhance worship, the imposition of hands needs to be an authentic liturgical act. This means, above all, that it must be edifying: it must help build up the body of believers in their faith and practice. In particular, it needs to be experienced as something corporate, in which all those present have a share. The meaning and expressive purpose of the action must therefore be clear. It should not call attention to itself in ways that might obscure its character as an act of prayer.
How might the laying on of hands be used in worship? Here early church practice still provides the best point of departure: the most appropriate occasions, besides ordination or installation, are likely to be in connection with prayers for healing, as part of the initiation of new members through baptism and profession, and (less often, perhaps) as a gesture of blessing.
As already noted, newly ordained pastors often receive a laying on of hands, generally from the other pastors in attendance. There is no compelling reason, however, why this practice should be restricted to ordained clergy, especially in view of the historic Reformed emphasis on the priesthood of believers. It would be entirely fitting for persons being installed as elders and deacons to have hands laid on them—perhaps by retiring officebearers—while prayers were offered for the gifts of the Spirit needed to carry out the duties of these offices. (The most recent Christian Reformed installation form allows for this option; see the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, p. 1004.)
Similarly, hands might well be laid on individuals being commissioned for special tasks on behalf of the congregation: mission workers, education directors, or other volunteer leaders. In situations such as these, the imposition of hands becomes a tangible expression of the congregation's prayers on behalf of those it has called to service.
"Prayer and the laying on of hands" is also a familiar way of responding to illness, even if the phrase may call to mind the theatrics of self-styled faith healers. When prayers for healing are made a part of formal worship, a major concern ought to be to underscore the corporate dimensions of this action, in keeping with the biblical idea that when one member suffers the entire body suffers. The imposition of hands might be one way to convey such a sense of corporate identification. Some congregations designate council members or special prayer teams for this purpose. There is also much to commend the custom of one congregation I know in which persons desiring prayer are invited to have hands laid on them by the pastor and those seated at the front of the sanctuary, while those sitting farther back place their hands on the people ahead of them, thus enabling everyone in the congregation to become participants, physically as well as spiritually.
The early church provides ample precedent for the imposition of hands at baptisms and public professions of faith, practices recommended in a growing number of recent liturgical forms. For churches in the Reformed tradition, this might well become an eloquent way of bearing witness to the doctrine of the covenant and to the role of the Holy Spirit in nurturing faith. In my own congregation, it is customary at professions of faith for those who have made their vows to kneel and have family members and representatives of the congregation come forward to lay hands on them as prayers are offered for the continued work of the Spirit in their lives. Comparable prayers are to be found in most baptismal liturgies—and what could be a more fitting expression of covenantal convictions than for parents (and grandparents!) to lay hands on their offspring at this point?
Finally, certain occasions—besides, of course, the customary benediction—might encourage the use of hands as a sign of blessing. To borrow one more example from my own congregation: infants and children are encouraged to come forward with their parents to the communion circle (see "The Communion Circle," RW 7), where they receive a blessing from designated worship leaders as the elements are being passed.
These sketchy suggestions are obviously open to much refinement and elaboration. Perhaps here is one aspect of worship in which hands-on experience can truly be regarded as both a means and an end!