Who's in charge around here? Timothy 5:22aOct 15, 2023
22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.
Whenever the Council of Elders meets at our church, we invite people from the congregation and the community to meet with us for prayer. Typically, we will introduce ourselves, ask a few questions as to why this person has come for prayer, ask permission to anoint their forehead with oil (a symbolic gesture), and more or less surround the person as closely as is reasonable and comfortable, and then with outstretched arms and hands, touching the person appropriately, we pray. It's a gesture that is not unlike putting your hand on someone's shoulder as a sign of support and encouragement. This is all in response to the teaching in James 5:14, "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord."
But I don't think that's what Paul has in mind in this verse.
In the book of Acts, it appears that there is a connection between the laying on of hands and receiving or being filled with the Holy Spirit. That's what happened in 9:17, when Ananias approached Saul, placed his hands on him, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And he did.
When Paul approached the followers of John the Baptist in Ephesus (Acts 19), he told them about Jesus. They were baptized in the name of Jesus, and "When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied" (19:6).
Following the shipwreck of Acts 27, when they are safely on the island of Malta, Paul and his travelling companions met with an official whose father was sick, with fever and dysentery. The text tells us that "Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him" ( 27:8).
There is a connection between the laying on of hands, the receiving of the Holy Spirit, the receiving of gifts of the Holy Spirit, the practice of some of those gifts, and healing. But there is no reason for Paul to be telling Timothy "not to be hasty in the laying on of hands."
Until we remember that the laying on of hands is how Timothy was identified as a leader/pastor for the church. And remember that this section of the letter is all about the elders, pastors and leaders of the local church, and how they can fall away from the faith.
We need to go back to the qualifications that Paul writes about in chapter 3 - above reproach, husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, etc. Timothy, choose leaders well. Experience has shown that choosing the right members of the leadership team will largely determine how far and how fast the team goes. Or, the church.
The laying on of hands, then, in this context is all about discerning pastors, elders, and leaders of the local church. It's about identifying them as the leaders, and it's about the commitment from the followers to follow their leadership. A while back, in our own church, I had the privilege of representing the congregation as we prayed for our campus pastor and his wife. We stood in front of the congregation, I placed my hand on his shoulder, and as I prayed, those gathered stretched out their arms in solidarity with recognizing him as our pastor. It was a great honour.
There is nothing magical that happens with the laying on of hands - but there might be. As with so many ceremonial activities, it's an outward sign of an inward reality. But don't assume that inward reality - discern it in those who are being given the mantle of leadership. Be careful who you choose to lead, or there could be dreadful consequences. And once someone has been identified as a leader, love them, encourage them, and if necessary, hold them accountable for the sake of the Kingdom.