It’s been argued by many that spiritual gifts died out in the generation following the apostles because the gifts were imparted exclusively by the laying on of apostolic hands. In the Churches of Christ, this teaching has taken on near-canonical status due to the highly influential book by H. Leo Boles The Holy Spirit: His Personality, Nature and Works. And there are indeed passages in the both the Old Testament and New Testament that refer to the Spirit’s coming by the laying on of hands. And yet, there are cases where the Spirit came by other means.
Who laid hands on John the Baptist? Or the apostles? Or the Romans? Ah, yes, the Romans. We need to talk about the Romans … because Paul says,
(Rom 12:4-8) Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Paul speaks of “gifts” (charismata), including prophecy, which has been described as a gift from the Spirit going back to Numbers 11. So how did the Romans receive these gifts if no apostle had ever been to Rome? A few people may have traveled there from other locations where the apostles had laid hands on converts, but Paul plainly speaks as though they all have spiritual gifts. While it’s entirely possible that gifts were sometimes given by the laying on of apostolic hands, it’s awfully hard to argue that only apostolic hands could give spiritual gifts.
Also, there are the Corinthians. Ah, yes, the Corinthians. We need to talk about the Corinthians … because Paul says,
(1 Cor 1:14-16) I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)
If Paul refused to baptize Christians so that there’d be no cause of jealousy — some claiming a special apostolic baptism whereas others have a more pedestrian baptism, why on earth would he have laid hands on a few, knowing that this would lead to some having special gifts and others not? Wouldn’t the giving of miraculous powers by the laying on of apostolic hands give far more cause for jealousy that an apostolic baptism?
And surely members had been added to the Corinthian congregation after Paul’s last visit, and yet he speaks as though each member had been gifted (12:7, 11, 13, 18).
And then there’s the conversion of Cornelius and his household. They received the Spirit, evidenced by the gift of tongues (Acts 10:46), without apostolic hands.
Obviously, there is no ironclad rule that God will only give spiritual gifts via apostolic hands. Right? So let’s take a look at the passages that do speak of the laying on of hands.
The first reference to the laying on of hands is Acts 6:6 where 7 men, likely deacons, were charged with caring for Hellenistic widows. The laying on of hands was a means of investing them with a new office, but they were already “full of the Spirit” (v. 3), and there’s no indication of any miraculous impartation.
When the Samaritans were baptized, they did not receive the Spirit (Acts 8:16). This was a great problem, and so the men who converted them sent for the apostles.
(Acts 8:17) Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
There is no statement that they spoke on tongues or prophesied. Nor are we told how they could tell that the Samaritans received the Spirit. Luke says nothing of miraculous gifts. Rather, a number of commentators have suggested that that apostles had been derelict in the commission they received in Acts 1 when Jesus ascended. They were charged with going to Samaria, and they hadn’t gone. Therefore, to compel them to go to Samaria, and so to fully include the Samaritan Christians in the Kingdom, God refused to give his Spirit until the apostles came.
You see, if the Samaritans had received the Spirit but not miraculous manifestations, the apostles wouldn’t have been compelled to make the trip. But as the Spirit is essential to salvation, they had to come to make things right.
One might argue that the only way the apostles could have known that their hands imparted the Spirit is if the Samaritans spoke in tongues or the like. And that may be so. But if it is, then it’s also so that the only way Philip knew they didn’t receive the Spirit at first is because they didn’t speak in tongues or the like. And if tongues come only by apostolic hands, why would he have been surprised that they didn’t speak in tongues?
No, you can’t make the Samaritans fit the apostolic hands theory.
In Acts 9 Ananias laid hands on Saul/Paul, he regained his vision, but there’s no record that he spoke in tongues. But then, he’d not yet even been baptized. In Acts 13, the teachers and prophets in Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Paul to commission them as missionaries — but there are no miraculous manifestations recorded.
In Acts 19 Paul baptized the Ephesians and then laid hands on them, and they immediately prophesied and spoke in tongues. However, in the early church, it was routine practice to lay hands on the person just baptized. After all, a convert was being converted to a mission — a fact we often forget. Therefore, it’s not altogether clear that the Ephesians received a second infilling of the Spirit — an ordinary indwelling at baptism and a miraculous indwelling with the laying on of hands. It’s likely, I think, that it was all one event, with the Spirit received just once and evidenced, as had often (but not always) been true going back to Numbers 11, by tongues and/or prophecy.
The Timothy passages are a bit of a puzzle —
(1 Tim 4:14) Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
(2 Tim 1:6) For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
It seems likely that both statements refer to Timothy’s baptism and the customary laying on of hands that immediately followed. But Paul doesn’t feel compelled to credit the giftedness of Timothy to Paul’s apostolic hands. He was quite comfortable crediting the gift to the hands of the elders. You see, both statements are surely true.
Finally, we have —
(1 Tim 5:22) Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.
It’s unlikely that Paul was referring to the laying on of hands that follows baptism. Rather, Paul was likely referring to the appointment of elders and deacons as described earlier in the book.
Now, Felix Brunner in A Theology of the Holy Spirit offers an important hypothesis explaining much of Acts. You see, it’s clear from the epistles that all Christians have the Spirit and only Christians have the Spirit (e.g., Rom 8:9-11; 1 Cor 12:1). And it’s clear that baptism is the normal time for the Spirit to be received (Acts 2:38, for example). But we see three prominent exceptions: the apostles in Acts 2, the Samaritans, and Cornelius and his household. The apostles received the Spirit without baptism, the Samaritans received the Spirit after baptism, and Cornelius and his household received it before baptism. Why?
Well, you can’t help but notice the parallel —
(Acts 1:8) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
God used the coming of the Spirit — in three different ways — to drive the gospel outward. The apostles were plainly reluctant to go to Samaria and the Gentiles, and God had to push them to take these difficult steps.
The laying on of hands in ancient times was a means of commissioning to office or a mission. For a new Christian, the laying on of hands symbolized both the giving of a mission and the coming of the Spirit — because the Spirit came on the convert to equip him or her for mission. The hands weren’t primarily to infuse gifts. Rather the coming of gifts came with the Spirit, not the hands.
Sometimes it suited God’s purposes to demonstrate that the Spirit had come by means of tongues or prophecy, but not always. Sometimes the tongues or prophecy came with the laying on of hands and sometimes not.
God is not a rulebook. God is the power behind the laws of nature, but he is not himself a law of nature. He is a person with free will, and he does things as he wishes. Even when it involves the keeping of a promise, God keeps it as pleases him. He promises his Spirit to his people, but he delayed giving it to the Samaritans for his own, very good reasons. Sometimes we know the reasons and sometimes not.
The Spirit’s work in the early church was to drive the gospel to more and more people. The mission was far more important to God than following some set of spiritual laws about how to give gifts. Rather, gifts were given as suited God’s purposes, and his purposes were to spread the gospel from Judea to the nations.
When we seek to reduce God’s work through his Spirit to a set of invariable rules, like Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (in which he set for his laws of motion), we become, to an extent, Deists. It’s not a good place to be.