This is one of the questions directed to us, and we hear it with a certain frequency. Laying on of hands is practised in some churches, but not in the majority.
Laying on of hands was regarded by the author of Hebrews as one of the elementary principles of the doctrine of Christ, together with the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, the doctrine of baptisms, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:1 and 2). All these things are found in the Old Testament and lead us to Christ.
In the Old Testament, to ritually lay hands on the head of an animal was a symbol, not so much of the dedication or consecration of the animal which was being made an offering or holocaust to God, but of an identification of the priest or the person making the sacrifice with the animal, which then became his representative on its death or banishment (Leviticus 1:4, 16:21). The animal was a type of Christ, who really took our place when He died on the cross.
In the New Testament we see that the laying on of hands has a very different significance from this: it was used when blessing (Matthew 19:15, Mark 10:16), and when healing (Mark 6:5, 7:32, Acts 28:8). Furthermore the apostles, as well as the elders of the church (1 Timothy 4:14), in only a few situations laid their hands when endowing the Holy Spirit and other gifts (Acts 8:17-19, 9:17, 19:6, 2 Timothy 1:6). Ananias, a simple disciple, laid his hands on Saul in the same way (Acts 9:17) and Paul instructed Timothy not to hastily lay hands on anyone (1 Timothy 5:22). Their hands did not transfer some invisible thing, like a magnetic chain, but the gesture to lay hands was a visible expression of the desire on the part of who made it, that God might grant some determined thing to the person on whom he laid hands. It was only a symbolic gesture.
What happened to Timothy is an example: we read that he received a gift by prophecy with the laying on of hands of the presbytery, or overseers (1 Timothy 4:14), and a gift of God through the laying on of Paul's hands (2 Timothy 1:6). Would there have been two different occasions and therefore two different gifts? What was this gift, or gifts, isn't specified, but the circumstances seem to indicate that it was one gift given him by God on one occasion only, as follows:
First there were prophecies regarding Timothy, and through them Paul was guided to Timothy, perceiving that some special service had been assigned to him. Together with the overseers of the church where they were at the time, Paul laid hands on Timothy and God gave Timothy the gift enabling him to carry out that service.
Be that as it may, we know that all gifts come from God (Acts 8:20; 11:17; 1 Corinthians 1:4-8, 7:7, James 1:17), and in those beginnings of the church He was using his servants to physically illustrate the grace that He was granting to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, in many cases, the legitimacy of these servants was evidenced when the gift was granted at the moment when their hands were laid. Paul, for instance, used this to prove his legitimate credential as an apostle (Acts 19:11, 2 Corinthians 12:12).
This no longer happens today, for the same reason that we do not see any more the signs of the apostles - cures, miracles, prophecies, instant knowledge of foreign languages - that designated the beginning of the church of Christ. The faith of Christ, by which we understand the set of teachings given by means of His apostles and prophets, came to its maturity ("that which is perfect" of which we read in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10) with the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John. We already find written in the Bible for us everything that we need in order to grow in the knowledge of God and of Christ, and to achieve our own spiritual maturity. God certainly still grants spiritual gifts to us for the benefit of the local church, love being the most excellent amongst them, which we owe to all our brothers and sisters in the faith. These gifts are distributed to each one individually by the Holy Spirit as He wills, as needed, for the profit of all.
Finally, we also read that, on one occasion, the dedication of deacons for the service of the church in Jerusalem was marked by the laying on of hands by the apostles. It was clearly a symbolic gesture, made while they prayed that God might grant them the gifts they needed to carry out their mission. It was part of the attitude of intercession for them, not a guarantee that the gifts had been granted. Some people also consider it as a symbol of identification with the workers, a show of solidarity with them in their work (Acts 13:2).
A symbolic gesture of this nature is not to be condemned today, and is practised by churches in some places. It can, however, be badly interpreted with the risk of giving the act a greater meaning, raising it to become a necessary ritual for the effectiveness of prayers, and for this reason it is not generally done.
I believe it to be opportune, even though not directly connected to this subject, to give some guidance on the attitude the local church should take towards those who have been separated for missionary work:
Firstly, there must be a conviction that they have really been called by the Holy Spirit, following the example of the church in Antioch.
Secondly, the members of the church must be in solidarity with them, praying for them (Acts 13:2).
Thirdly, the church must provide for their sustenance, as the apostle John wrote to Gaius: "If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name's sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore should receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth."
Fourthly, it must give letters of commendation to them so that they can be received as brethren legitimately sent on a mission in churches where they go. Letters of introduction with the commendation evidently were a norm in the early churches (2 Corinthians 3:1) just as they were in the synagogues (Acts 9:2). We read about the problems that appeared in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia when people were received coming from Jerusalem without authority from the church there, and of the letter of introduction that was given by the church at Jerusalem to Judas and Silas when they went to Antioch, even though they were in the company of Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:22-24). Sometimes the apostle Paul included in his letters to churches a commendation of the bearer (Ephesians 6:21, Colossians 4:7-9).
With the introduction of electronic communication, those that are able to access the Internet will find in the site www.obreiros.com a list of workers, almost all in Brazilian territory: obviously the list is limited to only some, of whom we have the necessary details. It is only a small catalogue to help in their identification and to get to know their origin and current place of work. We hope that it can be of good use in the Lord's work.