by Robert M. Johnston  |  26 August 2020  

The earliest leaders of the Jesus movement were the twelve apostles whom Jesus called and commissioned (Mark 3:13-19 and parallels). The King James Version says that He “ordained them,” but that word is much too fraught with medieval baggage. Modern versions commonly say that He “appointed” them, and that is as good a word as any. The important thing is that the Twelve received their role by a divine calling. 

Apostles and prophets were the most important leadership roles in the early church (Ephesians 2:20), and Paul counted them among the gifts (charismata) of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28-31). Again, the important thing is that these roles were bestowed by a diving calling: the Spirit “apportions to each one individually as He wills” (verse 11).

A person is not elected by the church to be a prophet or apostle. It is a call directly from God, and the church can only acknowledge it. That is why, when the early believers felt it was necessary to replace Judas, they did not vote on his replacement. It must be in God’s hands. So they prayed, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two men Thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry (diakonia) and apostleship from which Judas turned aside,” and then they cast lots (Acts 1:23-26).

The elected ministry

The young church grew, and this created problems. The apostles found themselves increasingly distracted by administrative duties. The believers who were Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora complained that they were not getting their fair share in the daily distribution (Acts 6:1). So the apostles made a proposal to the community of believers that was enthusiastically accepted. The people were to elect seven worthy men to take over the administrative responsibilities, and this was done. Judging from their Greek names, it appears that they came from the group that had complained. “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:2-6).

This was a new thing, a momentous development that was to have far-reaching and perhaps unforeseen consequences. Unlike apostles and prophets, these leaders were chosen by the community of believers. But two questions leap out. First, what was their office called? We have traditionally said they were deacons (diakonoi) perhaps because the kind of work they were asked to do was called diakonia (service, ministry). But the work of the apostles was called the same thing (Acts 1:25; 6:4). The fact is that the office is not named here, and deacons are never mentioned in the book of Acts. In fact, in Acts 11:30 the people who did the kind of work the Seven were called to do are called elders! 

The solution to this puzzle is simple. This is the beginning of elected ministry, and its members are not yet divided into ranks. The first evidence of the bifurcation of the elected ministry is in Philippians 1:1, where greetings are sent to “bishops and deacons.” In the New Testament “bishop” (episkopos, meaning “overseer” or “superviser”) and “elder” (presbyteros) are interchangeable titles (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7). When we come to the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus), the distinction between elder/bishop and deacon is firmly set. If we need a name for the office of the Seven, we will need to use a hyphenated term, like “elder-deacon,” which only later became divided. Still later, early in the second century in some places, a further bifurcation took place, so that elder and bishop became differentiated, and we see a three-rank ministry of deacon, elder, and bishop. This strongly hierarchical pattern of ministry was vigorously promoted by Ignatius of Antioch (ca. AD 115).

Laying on of hands

A second question leaps out. The believers set the Seven before the apostles, “and they prayed and laid their hands upon them” (Acts 6:6). But who is “they”? The Greek is just as ambiguous as the English. It is commonly assumed that “they” were the apostles, and I long thought so myself, but I have changed my mind. Now I am convinced that “they” refers to the community of believers. I will explain why and tell you why the answer to this question is consequential.

I believe that these early believers were influenced by an Old Testament precedent, namely the consecration of the Levites in Numbers 8:5-26. “And you shall present the Levites before the tent of the meeting, and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. When you present the Levites before the Lord, the people of Israel shall lay their hands upon the Levites, and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, so that they may perform the service of the Lord.” (verses 9-11). This is one of only two instances of laying on of hands in the Old Testament, the other being the commissioning of Joshua, when Moses laid hands upon him to transmit some of his authority to him (Numbers 27:18-23; Deuteronomy 34:9). But the Seven were not to be successors to the apostles, as Joshua was to be a successor to Moses, but rather to be sacred servants like the Levites. It was a new office.

The only other comparable instance of laying on hands in the book of Acts is in 13:1-3, where Barnabas and Saul of Tarsus are consecrated. “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” Here it is clearly the community that fasted, prayed, and laid hands on the two men, because there were no apostles present (except that Paul and Barnabas became apostles themselves).

In Acts 14:21-23 we read that Paul and Barnabas revisited the churches they had planted in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, strengthening their faith. “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” There is a certain ambiguity here also, because the verb translated “appointed” is cheirotonein, which does not mean stretching out the hand to “ordain,” but rather raising the hand to vote. That is how voting was done in the Greek cities and in the early church.

The picture that emerges is one in which both the community and the apostles had a role in choosing the elected ministers of the church. The community chose them, and the community laid hands on them. But just as the Levites were consecrated in the presence of Aaron, so were the Seven (and later elders) consecrated in the presence of apostles. The popular will should not be absolute, because it is not always right. People should also listen to experts, to people of authority. That is why in the Roman and the American republics governance involved a system of checks and balances, with assemblies and with courts. Unfortunately, in Rome the system fell into dysfunction and drifted into autocracy, which was not often benign. In America we are still waiting to see what is next.

What did the laying on of hands signify? In various contexts it meant various things. It could be done in an act of healing, of transmitting authority, of bestowing a blessing. In Acts 8:14-17 the apostles laid hands on the Samaritans to confirm their baptism, which resulted in their receiving the Holy Spirit. In the case of the Seven, and those who followed after them, I believe it was a way for the community to say: “We affirm you. We accept your leadership. In your ministry you represent us, and you do it in our name. You have our blessing.”

At least in the case of the Seven it did not signify bestowing of the Holy Spirit, because these men were already full of the Spirit–that qualified them as candidates (Acts 6:3). But in the Pastoral Epistles it is less clear. Paul writes to Timothy: “Do not neglect the gift (charisma) you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Timothy 4:14). It is important to notice here that the Greek preposition (meta) used shows that the reception of the gift accompanied the laying on of hands, but was not caused by it. This distinction is subtle, but important. We do not have ex opere operato, the idea that it was the physical act that produced the result. It is the Holy Spirit who gives the gifts.

A text in 2 Timothy 1:6 is more difficult: “Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through (dia) the laying on of my hands.” This almost sounds like a transfer of power such as happened between Moses and Joshua. But however that may be, we are not dealing here with ecclesiastical authority, but with an unspecified spiritual gift. Some suggest that this happened at Timothy’s baptism, with the laying on of hands functioning as it did with the Samaritans in Acts 8:15-17.

Why does it matter?

Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and high church Anglicans hold to a doctrine of “Apostolic Succession.” This does not mean a succession of teaching and preaching, but an unbroken succession of ordinations. The idea is that Jesus ordained the Twelve, and they ordained successors, and the successors ordained successors, and so on down to today. Along in this process bishops replaced apostles. There is supposedly an unbroken chain of ordinations, and if the chain that comes down to you has lost a link along the way, then your ordination is invalid, and you have no ecclesiastical authority. In fact, anyone downstream from the missing link in the chain has an invalid ministry.

If in Acts 6 it was the apostles who laid hands on the Seven, that supports the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. Authority flows downward from above through a hierarchy. But if it was the community of believers who laid hands on the Seven it shows that authority was delegated to them by the community with the approval of the apostles.

Seventh-day Adventists cannot play the game of Apostolic Succession, because we have too many missing links in the chain that comes down to us. We cannot demonstrate an unbroken chain of ordinations extending back to the apostles of old. We must derive our ecclesiastical authority and the validity of our ministry from the consent of the people we serve, because the alternative is not available to us.

All this has a bearing on how we conduct our ordination services. Those that I have seen took place at camp meetings. The ordinands (if I may use that word) received the laying on of hands from conference dignitaries. This has the smell of Apostolic Succession. If we wish to do the ceremony in the spirit of the early church, and on the model of the book of Acts, we should do it differently. I suggest that the young ministers be ordained in the churches they are serving or will serve in, and that the whole congregation lay hands on them, in the presence of appropriate dignitaries. It may help to save us from monarchical episcopacy, if not papism.

Sometimes what may seem like a minor detail of interpretation is not trivial at all.


Robert M. Johnston is professor emeritus of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.  He has been a missionary in Korea and the Philippines.  He has published three books and many articles.

To comment, click/tap here.