the weblog of Alan Knox

Assembling Together 2 – Laying on of Hands

Posted by on Mar 13, 2007 in books, ordinances/sacraments | 14 comments

The second chapter of Watchman Nee’s book Assembling Together (chapter 15 of the Basic Lessons series) is called “Laying on of Hands”. This was perhaps one of the most perplexing chapters in the book. Now, I realize that many tradtions associate the laying on of hands very closely with baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. However, I know very little about this except for a few readings from some of the patristic fathers. I’ll try to explain Nee’s premise as fairly as possible. Then, I’ll explain why I think he missed something in his exegesis.

First, Nee associated the laying on of hands with the coming of the Holy Spirit. He uses Psalm 133 as a type or metaphor: the anointing of Aaron typifies the believer’s reception of the Spirit:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1-3 ESV)

Since only Aaron’s head is anointed, the Spirit can only come through the Head of the church, that is, Jesus Christ. Just as the oil runs from Aaron’s head, to his beard, to his robes, etc. the Holy Spirit comes from Jesus, through the apostles, then to the church. Here are a few quotes in which Nee explains his position:

The Holy Spirit is given to the Head, not to the body. But as the head receives the oil, the whole body is anointed. [23]

It is, therefore, clear that people enjoy the anointing oil today not because of their personal condition before God but because of their standing in the body. If we stand in our place beneath the Head, the oil will most assuredly come down upon us. [24]

The apostles represent the Head, Christ, as well as the body of Christ. When one receives the laying on of hands, he bows his head and worships, for hereafter he will never again raise his own head but will submit himself under authority. His own head is no longer head; instead he is under authority. The apostles represent the body. As they lay hands on the believers, it is as if they are saying that we all have fellowship with one another for we are one. [25]

The laying on of hands in the first aspect [identification] joins a person to the body and in the second aspect [impartation] communicates what the Head has for the member. [26]

The rule is: the Holy Spirit descends on those who have been delivered from the world and identified with Christ in death and resurrection through baptism; they then see how they must live in the body and be subject to the authority of the Head. Let me emphatically say that the anointing oil is more than a mere outward manifestation; it is an inward reality. [29]

Nee says that the only exception to believers receiving the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands is found in Acts 10 when Cornelius and his household are converted. He says that the Spirit came without the laying on of hands because Peter would not have baptized and laid hands on Gentiles, fearing what the Jewish believers would think about him. Therefore, God sent the Holy Spirit apart from baptism and the laying on of hands.

There are a few reasons that I have problems with this. First, Psalm 133 does not appear to talk about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Specifically, verse 1 tells us that unity is like the anointing of oil… It seems a stretch to use this Psalm as a model for how God plans to send the Holy Spirit.

Second, there are instances of laying on of hands in Scripture that have nothing to do with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Acts 13 describes one example. We have already been told that both Paul and Barnabas have received the Holy Spirit. Yet, the church in Antioch lays hands on them. Apparently, the Antioch believers did not think that laying on of hands signified the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Third, there are other passages besides Acts 10 where people receive the Holy Spirit without the laying on of hands being specified. Specifically, both the original 120 disciples and the following 3000 receive the Holy Spirit, but the laying on of hands is not mentioned. Similarly, in the general descriptions of the activities of the church in Acts 2:42-47, there is no mention of the laying on of hands, despite the fact that Peter seems to deliver his sermon in Acts 2:14-40 specifically for the purpose of describing the coming and reception of the Holy Spirit. While this may be considered an argument from silence (i.e. just because the laying on of hands is not mentioned, it does not mean that it did not happen), similarly the doctrine that the Holy Spirit comes through the laying on of hands is a doctrine from silence: the cause/effect relationship is not specifically described in Scripture.

I have laid hands on people. People have laid hands on me. I do not have a problem with this practice. I believe that this practice signifies communion, fellowship, partnership, participation, etc. In other words, when we send with the laying on of hands, we are signifying our partnership with the ones going. When we pray with the laying on of hands, we are signifying are agreement and our fellowship with the one for whom we pray.

However, I am less clear about laying on of hands than many of the other activities of believers within Scripture. For one thing, I do not think we are given a clear reason for laying on of hands in Scripture. However, since Scripture does not tell us that the Holy Spirit comes through the laying on of hands, I am hesitant to accept that.

Again, however, I greatly appreciate Nee’s final paragraph of this chapter:

New believers need to be shown that they cannot live independently but they must be members of one another and learn to be subject to the authority of the Head. They ought not to be rebellious, but should rather walk together with all the children of God. Thus they will manifest the fact of anointing both in their lives and in their works. [32]

The next chapter is called “Assembling Together”.

Review of Watchman Nee’s Assembling Together Series:
1: Chapter 1 – Joining the Church
2: Chapter 2 – Laying on of Hands
3: Chapter 3 – Assembling Together
4: Chapter 4 – Various Meetings
5: Chapters 5 & 6 – The Lord’s Day and Hymn Singing
6: Chapters 7 & 8 – Praise and The Breaking of Bread


14 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-13-2007

    Hey Alan,

    Before I get into addressing some of your questions and concerns regarding Nee, I didn’t see my blog “World of Faith” added to your blogroll. I thought you said you added it, if I am correct?

    Anyways, I never have read Nee for myself, but I pretty much agree with what he said, at least the material that you quoted. But let me address some of your concerns.

    First, I do believe that the anointing oil in the OT is a type and shadow of the Holy Spirit in the NT. And, I believe the Holy Spirit DOES anoint believers for service. I also believe in the anointing of oil for the healing of the sick (see James 5). Thus, what Nee teaches about Ps. 133 is not really that much of a stretch.

    Second, I need to clarify something that I know about Nee, which you seem to confuse. You are correct that the laying on of hands has nothing to do with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But that is not what Nee teaches. Nee teaches that the Acts 2 baptism in the Holy Spirit (or the filling of the Holy Spirit) necessitates the laying on of hands. If you look at each instance of the laying on of hands in the Book of Acts, none of these examples are the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but the filling of the Holy Spirit. Again, I cover this much in my blog, “World of Faith,” and you should look at the first half of the series “What is Charismatic?” in regards to the specific articles that deal with this important issue.

    Let me add that while I agree the indwelling Holy Spirit does not come through the laying on of hands, the baptism (or infilling) of the Holy Spirit most certainly does. I do believe we need to distinguish between these two functions of the Holy Spirit, because the latter brings empowerment for ministry and service in the body, which is much needed today. Amen? Further, the laying on of hands is mentioned as a foundational aspect to our faith in Hebrews 6. It is on the same foundational level as repentance. So, that shows its rather important.

    Anyways, those are my views. Please refer to the series in my blog “What is Charismatic?” for more. Also, please look into why I’m not on your blogroll, as you said you would over at David’s blog. Thanks.

    God’s blessings,
    Jonathan

  2. 3-13-2007

    Wouldn’t this be an example of people receiving the “filling” or Baptism of the Holy Spirit without the laying on of hands?

    Acts 10:44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”

    Be blessed…
    Brandon

  3. 3-13-2007

    Jonathan,

    Welcome to my blog. When I said that I added you to my blogroll, I meant my feed reader. I read many, many more blogs than are listed on the right.

    I understand what you are saying about indwelling and filling, however, I did not read that distinction in Nee. Specifically, he said that the Spirit is only given through laying on of hands. He was not talking about filling after indwelling. He was talking about indwelling.

    As far as filling and indwelling, I agree that these are separate. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit upon conversion. Filling is different. I know that we will probably disagree at this point, but I also do not believe that filling is related to the laying on of hands. There are too many passages that deal with being filled by the Spirit without mentioning laying on of hands. A good example is in Eph. 5 where we are commanded to be filled, but again Paul does not mention laying on of hands. That seems strange if it is necessary.

    -Alan

  4. 3-13-2007

    Brandon,

    Yes, Acts 10 is one example of people being indwelt (and possibly filled) by the Holy Spirit apart from the laying on of hands. Nee dismisses this occurrence. He said that God sent the Holy Spirit in this instance because Peter, as a Jew, would not have voluntarily laid his hands on Gentiles. That seems a strange argument to me since in the entire first part of that chapter God is dealing with Peter’s Jew/Gentile distinctions. I guess, according to Nee, this is one point (touching Gentiles) that God was not willing to stretch Peter.

    -Alan

  5. 3-13-2007

    Alan,

    Thanks for your clarification about the blog roll.

    I’ve not read Nee for myself, but I have friends who have. I don’t think Nee was talking about the indwelling Holy Spirit. To me, if he was, then he would be doing bad exegesis to the text. I think when he discusses the “coming of the Holy Spirit,” he is clearly making a reference to Pentecost, which is when the Holy Spirit came to empower the Church and endue (sp?) the believers with power. The Holy Spirit already indwelled believers BEFORE Acts 2. I believe that the very first indwelling actually occurred in John 20:22, when Jesus breathed into the disciples, and commanded them to, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But in order to really understand Nee, I probably should go and read the book myself. Unfortuantely, I don’t have time for that right now.

    As for Eph 5., you’re right, but Eph. 5 is a little different than what you see in the Book of Acts. I have studied Eph. 5 in the Greek, and what I’ve seen in the Lexicons is that it really should be translated, “Be ever-filled with the Holy Spirit.” So, Eph. 5 is an exhortation to STAY filled, once you are initially filled. I am sure both of us agree that human beings are “leaky vessels.” BUT — I do believe that the laying on of hands can/should normatively be used to facilitate the initial infilling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. If you look at Heb. 6, you’ll see the laying on of hands there, along with baptisms in the plural. I believe that one of the baptisms is the baptism IN the Holy Spirit, which is the same as the infilling of the Holy Spirit. So, that’s where I draw a connection between being filled with the Holy Spirit (initially), and the laying on of hands.

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  6. 3-13-2007

    Jonathan,

    You said: “I’ve not read Nee for myself, but I have friends who have. I don’t think Nee was talking about the indwelling Holy Spirit.” This is the only book by Nee that I have read. In this book, it seems that he is talking about the indwelling (initial reception) of the Holy Spirit. I do not have the book now, but if you would like, I will add a few other quotes to clarify why I believe that.

    Moreover, Nee is talking about more than Pentecost. He says that no one in the church today can receive the Holy Spirit apart from the laying on of hands. Again, I’ll quote him if you need me to.

    Yes, the verb in Eph 5:18 is a present passive imperative. This tells us several things. One, it is continuous. Two, it is a command. Three, we cannot do it ourselves, and since an agent is not supplied with the passive, we can assume divine agency. Thus, we are commanded to continually allow God to fill us with the Holy Spirit. So, where are the laying on of hands?

    Hebrews 6… there is the laying on of hands… where is the filling of the Holy Spirit?

    Does Scripture show NT believers laying hands on one another? Yes. Does Scripture tell us specifically why the NT believers laid hands on one another? No. Does Scripture command us to lay hands on one another? No. Does Scripture command us to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Yes. Does Scripture tell us to lay hands on one another so we will be filled with the Holy Spirit? No.

    Again, I do not understand everything about “laying on of hands” in the text of Scripture. But, I’m trying my best to understand that practice from Scripture itself.

    -Alan

  7. 3-13-2007

    Alan,

    Does Nee ever use the term “indwelling” in this book you’re reading so far? Although I am a charismatic, one problem I have with my movement is that sometimes people blur terms. They say you receive the Holy Spirit at salvation, or they say you receive the Holy Spirit at the baptism in the Holy Spirit’s occurrence (after salvation), or they say BOTH. That is confusing to people, esp. new believers. So, I am very curious whether Nee ever uses the term “indwelling” in his book. What do you think?

    That’s right, we are commanded to continually allow God to fill us with the Holy Spirit. However, as an example, look at Acts 8:14-17, “Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen on any of them; they simply had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” Now, what does this passage show us? First, we have evidence that the Samarians were believers, because they received the word of the Lord and were water baptized. Second, this passage suggests that receiving the Holy Spirit is not the same as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that occurs at salvation. Rather, “receiving the Holy Spirit,” as it is used in Acts 8, signifies the initial infilling or baptism in the Holy Spirit, and the laying on of hands is used to facilitate and impart that. So, I believe that there is a connection there. What do you think about Acts 8???

    Heb. 6:1-2 (NKJV) says, “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” Notice that baptisms is in the plural. I believe that there are probably 3 different baptisms in the Bible. There is baptism into the body of Christ, which occurs at the new birth, there is water baptism, and there is baptism into the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). So, clearly, the laying on of hands is involved in at least one of these, and then I look to the scriptural pattern to observe which one. That’s the connection, Alan. I know that my be a bad hermeneutical method, but that’s what I believe.

    Alan, while I believe the Scripture does not command believers to lay hands on one another, I do believe, like in Acts 8, that NT believers do lay hands on one another, and also gives us a reason why they do so — for purposes of receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit (the initial infilling), and ALSO for the purposes of imparting anointing (e.g. healing the sick).

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  8. 3-13-2007

    Jonathan,

    As far as I can tell, Nee does not use the term “indwell” nor does he use the term “filling” in this chapter. Instead he uses the term “given”. The Holy Spirit is “given” through the laying on of hands. He does not make the same distinction that you are making – at least, not in this chapter.

    As I said before, there are several passages in Scripture that mentions the laying on of hands. In the passage that you quote (Acts 8), the text does say that they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. I’m not ready to see this passage as indicative that the Holy Spirit is ALWAYS received through the laying on of hands. There are other passages where people receive the Holy Spirit without the laying on of hands. We must deal with both sets of passages.

    Hebrews 6:1-2 lists baptisms and laying on of hands. It also mentions dead works, faith, resurrection, and eternal judgment. There is nothing in this passage to connect the laying on of hands with the plural baptisms. Why not connect the baptisms to dead works or faith or resurrection? They are all listed together. In other words, unless someone is already inclined to connect baptisms and laying on of hands, nothing in this passage will teach that.

    Similarly, there is nothing in this passage to identify the “baptisms” as the three types that you mentioned. I have also heard it suggested that these “baptisms” were Jewish washings. I don’t see that either, because it is not in the text. As a matter of fact, I do not see Scripture instructing us about multiple baptisms anywhere. Instead, Scripture tells us to focus on the ONE baptism. (Eph. 4:5; Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 12:13)

    Finally, I do not deny that believers laid hands on one another in the New Testament. However, I do not see the cause/effect relationship that you see. In fact, there are many times that we see the cause (laying on of hands) without the effect (the Spirit), and there are other times when we see the effect (the Spirit) without the cause (laying on of hands). We can’t build our theology just on selected passages. We should look into all of them.

    By the way, I’m preparing a blog post where I plan to list all of the passages that mention “laying on of hands”. So, for now, I’m going to defer any further comments (at least on my part) about laying on of hands until I can finish that post.

    I have truly enjoyed the interaction, and look forward to more.

    -Alan

  9. 3-14-2007

    Alan,

    That is interesting that Nee does not make the indwelling v. filling distinction that I make. Like I’ve said, I haven’t read Nee, so I am unfamiliar with his view on salvation, the Christian life, etc. I know he is BIG on authority and that kind of thing, but I am unfamiliar with him on a doctrinal level. Perhaps later in his book (I’ll be following you as you discuss each chapter), he fills in some of these details.

    I agree that you do not necessarily need to receive the baptism in (or infilling of) the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands. For one, I did not, and I know others who have not, either. I believe God generously gives this experience to all who ask for it in faith, and believe they receive it. The laying on of hands helps facilitate the experience, but is not necessary to receive it. And I think there is enough in the Bible to substantiate this (after all, Peter received the baptism in the Holy Spirit with no laying on of hands).

    Let me ask you something, Alan. You’re a seminary student. The author of Hebrews identifies both baptisms and laying on of hands as foundational doctrines to the Christian faith. What do you think is meant by this? What are your thoughts on how to interpret those two verses???

    Lastly, and this will be my last word for “Assembling Together 2,” I see a normative pattern in the Scripture, that every time someone laid hands on someone else, there was a reception of the Holy Spirit. I will comment more on this in your later post, but I see impartation every time a believer lays hands on someone else. Again, I see this as a normative pattern that we should consider, and I’ll bring this up again, in your later post.

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  10. 3-14-2007

    Jonathan,

    Thanks again. You said: “I see a normative pattern in the Scripture, that every time someone laid hands on someone else, there was a reception of the Holy Spirit.” This is definitely something that I plan to address in an upcoming post.

    -Alan

  11. 3-14-2007

    Alan-
    I wanted to share something that many who read this may not be aware of.

    The laying on of hands is ONE way to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, but not THE way. Everyone here seems to agree with that. I wanted to share a word of caution for anyone with limited experience with laying on of hands.

    I personally will not allow “just anyone” to pray over me and lay hands on me. I agree that a “transference” can/does occur with the laying on of hands. For example, If someone is praying over (laying hands on you) and they ask you, “do you receive the spirit that I have within me?” Be careful about saying, “yes, I receive the spirit…” There are spirits besides the Holy Spirit and they are transferred the same way He can be. I will say, “I receive the Holy Spirit…etc”

    That’s not to try to make people fear the laying on of hands. That can be a powerful and edifying experience. We often tend to throw the baby out with the bath water because of fear. Just use wisdom in how you practice this.

    I hope this didn’t go too far off topic. If you feel this is an inappropriate post please feel free to delete it.

    Be blessed…
    Brandon

  12. 3-14-2007

    Brandon,

    I think you have offered a great word of caution and advice. God is certainly free to work however he chooses to work. In this case, God may choose to send the Spirit through the laying on of hands, and he may choose not to. At the same time, practices such as this (and others) can be duplicated / imitated by spirits that are not from God. Thank you again!

    -Alan

  13. 3-14-2007

    Brandon’s point is very well-made, and I think it demonstrates a more general problem that we face frequently in Christianity. That is the trap of thinking that everything is formulaic.

    Jesus described the Spirit in John 3 as like the wind. We don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going, but we see its effect.

    The danger, whether it’s with “laying on of hands” or evangelism or determining God’s will in a certain decision — whatever it is, we must resist the urge to constantly reduce it to 3 steps to this, 5 steps to that, etc.

    As long as we try to place undue emphasis on the method (“Now, I’m going to lay my hands on your head, and I want you to close your eyes, lift your hands, and……”) we miss the whole point of letting God move how He wants to. And, like Brandon said, we run the risk of opening ourselves up to things that are not of God since we are following the method and not Him anyway.

    Thanks for reminding us of the danger in that, Brandon.

  14. 3-14-2007

    Steve,

    I agree completely, especially with this statement: “The danger, whether it’s with ‘laying on of hands’ or evangelism or determining God’s will in a certain decision — whatever it is, we must resist the urge to constantly reduce it to 3 steps to this, 5 steps to that, etc.” Thank you!

    -Alan