Controversies over Hands–Forgotten Debates

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) and James A. Harding (1848-1922) belonged to the same theological orbit. They started the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University) together in 1891. Harding, for a time, was an associate editor of the Gospel Advocate in the 1880s.lipscomb-and-harding They agreed on a host of theological issues, including opposition to rebaptism, renewed earth eschatology, special providence, pacifism, sole allegiance to the kingdom of God in opposition to allegiance to the nations, etc. Bobby Valentine and I have written about their spiritual legacy among Churches of Christ in Kingdom Come.

However, they did not agree on everything.  Harding, I believe, was more of a hardliner on ecclesial practices. His insistence on following the examples of the New Testament and the use of the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic was more strenuous than Lipscomb.  While Lipscomb opted for some flexibility here, Harding sought precision in every detail when it came to imitating the New Testament church.

Two of the most significant disagreements, which yield considerable discussion in the first decade of the 20th century, regarded the use of hands–the laying on of hands and the right hand of fellowship.  On both of these issues Harding insisted on following what he thought was the biblical pattern whereas Lipscomb failed to discern any precise or obligatory pattern on these questions.  Consequently, we have a good example of two prominent leaders among Churches of Christ from the same theological orbit addressing “church practices” in relation to the biblical pattern on the basis of the same hermeneutic but yet disagreeing.  They were “divided” but somehow remained “united,” as Armstrong’s article reproduced in my previous post trumpets.

Laying on of Hands

Lipscomb thought it unnecessary and without Scriptural authority, but Harding believed he was following the example of the apostles and their example should always be followed when it comes to ecclesial practices.

Harding believed that elders and evangelists should be appointed through a laying on of the hands, fasting and prayer.  This is the apostolic example of Acts 13:1-2 and Acts 14:23. Regarding these texts, Harding wrote:  “we learn that we are under solemn obligation to follow apostolic teaching and example, that in so doing we are following Christ. If we neglect to follow apostolic teaching and example, we neglect to follow Christ.”  It is, according to Harding, “scriptual and safe” when elders are appointed in this way (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8-9).

Lipscomb contended that there was no example of anyone appointed to an office by the laying of hands in the New Testament.  At one level, Lipscomb did not believe the evangelist or elder occupied an office, and at another level he did not believe there was any example of appointing persons to a task by the laying on of hands.  Since there is no biblical example or precept, there is no obligation. Indeed, it is “a practice without scriptural authority” (“Appointment and Laying on of Hands,” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [27 March 1906] 4).

Do we follow apostolic example or not? Is there an example? Is it binding? The Churches of Christ, in the first decade of the 20th century, were divided on these questions.  Jesse Sewell and James A. Harding on one side of the question and David Lipscomb along with E. A. Elam and others on the other side .  This, according to Harding, is a “very radical difference in judgment” between believers “who are on most points of doctrine in full accord” (“A Reply to Bro. Elam on the Appointment of Elders,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [9 April 1907] 8). It needs to be settled so that there is no division.

Right Hand of Fellowship

Daniel Sommer–editor of the Octographic Review–thought it necessary, Lipscomb–editor of the Gospel Advocate— thought it good but optional, and Harding–editor of The Way— thought it should be prohibited.

In the late nineteenth century, the dominant practice–“nearly all, if not all, congregations of the disciples of Christ” (Harding, “What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8)– of receiving another person from one congregation to another was by the corporate extenstion of the “right hand of fellowship.” This was a corporate, congregational act. The whole congregation lined up to extend their “right hand of fellowship” one by one to the new member as part of the assembly itself.  Sometimes, however, an elder acted for the whole congregation in receiving the new member.  Either way it was an ecclesial act in the assembly. The “right hand of fellowship,” then, brought that new member under the oversight of the eldership of that particular congregation. When this was extended to a Baptist who wanted to now join fellowship with a Church of Christ, those who opposed this union with a Baptist without rebaptism called this “shaking in the Baptists.”

Sommer believed that Acts 15, Galatians 2, and Acts 11 all involved the reception of members through the right hand of fellowship. He believed there was apostolic example.  Moreover, he believed that it was an “unavoidable conclusion” that members should be received through the “right hand of fellowship” into a local church so that the elders of that congregation might have disciplinary authority.  No congregation can exercise discipline unless there was some formal entrance into the local congregation itself. (See his articles “Concerning the Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 45 [11 November 1902] 1, 8 and “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8.)

Though he onced practiced the custom, when Harding was thirty-four he discovered it was not in the New Testament. From then on he regarded it as an innovation. If we cannot “read it in the very words of the New Testament” it should not appear in the assembly (“What Does the Bible Teach on the Right Hands of Fellowship?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 [11 December 1906] 8). Though it is often regarded as a “church ordinance” rivaling baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is no authority in Scripture for this congregational act in the assembly.  Any fair look at the New Testament would discover that “the giving of the right hands of fellowship for the purpose of receiving baptized belivers into the fellowship of the congregation is without Scriptural authority” (“Brother Sommer’s Visit. No. II.,” The Way 5 [30 July 1903], 755). According to Harding, it is a “high crime against God, Christ and the Holy Spirit” to add an unauthorized practice to the assembly, and such additions will receive the judgment of God just like Uzzah.  We should, according to Harding, “give up this unapostolic, man-made ordinance, and abide in the teaching of Christ”…and we should “remember Uzzah” (“An Article Suggested by Brethren Cain, Hillyard and ‘A Well-Known’ Texas Preacher,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 [30 April 1907] 8).

Interestingly, on this question Harding was alligned with the majority of writers in the Firm Foundation (one notable exception is Jackson, McGary’s co-editor in the 1890s). For example, Price Billingsley (“‘Hand of Fellowship’ Again,” Firm Foundation 18 [14 April 1902] 2) writes that “we can not worship and honor God in doing something that he has not told us to do; and it must be that these things are done to please men; and if true it becomes mockery instead of true. worship.” It is an “unauthorized” practice since there is no command, example or inference for it as a corporate act in the assembly.

Another interesting dimension of this debate is that the precise difference between Sommer and Harding, according to Sommer, is that Harding extends the right hand of fellowship individually to new members after the formal closure of the assembly while Sommer does it in the assembly (“Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1) and that Harding thinks it authorized for individuals as individuals but not for the corporate body.  Does that sound familiar to anyone?  I remember discussions about whether a College chorus (choir) was permissable as long as it was heard after the closing prayer of the assembly and noninstitutionalists stress the significant difference between individual and corporate acts. Harding argued something similar about the right hand of fellowship.  Somethings don’t change when we seek a pattern in the New Testament that does not exist. 

No Division

Churches of Christ did not divide over these issues.  Though Harding–as one among others–thought the questions were matters of compliance with apostolic example (laying on of hands) and the silence of Scripture(right hands), the movement as a whole did not divide.  (There were, however, a few congregations that did divide.) 

Lipscomb’s methods prevailed. Lipscomb regarded “right hands” as optional, and given the desire for unity, it was done after the closing prayer rather than in the assembly.  Elders were generally appointed without the laying on of hands and usually–if not practically always–without fasting.  By the 1950s it was a rare congregation that had a communal ceremony for receiving new members with the right hand of fellowship in the assembly and that appointed elders through fasting and the laying on of hands.Churches of Christ, in my experience and in my reading in the mid and late 20th century, were not convinced by Harding’s arguments but followed Lipscomb’s practice on both the right hand of fellowship and the appointment of elders. 

What we have in this story is an example how Churches of Christ negotiated their hermeneutic so that they did not divide over these questions even though the same principles and hermeneutic were utilized to separate from congregations that used musical instruments in their assemblies.

Perhaps “common sense” prevailed–as it has saved us from our hermeneutic at times in the past.  Perhaps instrumental music was such an embedded cultural concern (“worldliness”) that it transcended mere pattern arguments. (Remember one of the first articles against instrumental music in the Stone-Campbell Movement was also about dancing!)  I don’t know, but it is an interesting question to think about.

In our history, some things divide us but do not subvert the unity (“right hands” and “laying on of hands”).  Other things divide us and prevent unity (“instrumental music” and whether there should be more than one elder).  But both are pursued through the same hermeneutic with the same assumptions about assembly and ecclesial patterns. Some things create a division, others do not.

Go figure.  🙂

P.S. I found this particular paragraph from Daniel Sommer quite interesting, and it is filled with questions about the ambiguity of the received hermeneutic–to what does it apply and to what does it not apply.  Sommer, “Concerning Right Hands of Fellowship,” Octographic Review 47 [23 August 1904] 1, 8.  See what you think.

     Another evidence that those who denounce a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship are technical is that they have never been, they are not, and never will be consistent.  They say, “There is no divine precept nor example for a formal giving of the right hands of fellowship, and therefore it should not be practiced.” But this is what may be called “one premise logic.” The major premise is suppressed. What is that major premise? It is this general proposition: Whatever practice is not authorized by divine precept or example should not be adopted, or, having been adopted, should be discontinued. Those who assume that such a proposition is true, will need to discontinue all formal exercises when they are going to preach to sinners, all formal invitations to sinners in the public congregation, all formal invitation songs in the congregation, all rising up to give thanks at the communion table, all formality in regard to attidute in time of prayer, all formal invitations to preachers to hold protracted meetings, and all formal acceptance of such invitations on the part of preachers, all formal keeping of church records, and all formal business meetings of the church. I could mention more, but this is enough.

20 Responses to “Controversies over Hands–Forgotten Debates”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I seems some issue divide to the point of disrupting unity because those issues are pressed more than the other issues, such as instrumental worship. Why are some issues pressed harder than other? I suspect there are a wide variety of reasons but I convinced many of the reasons are influenced by internal and external concerns that go well beyond theology/doctrine. It just seems to coicendental that as the United States is split by civil war, that not only would the Restoration Movement begin fragmenting but also this took place among Baptists and Methodists as well. I know Richard Hughes argued strongly for the sociological factors that contributed to the division within the Restoration Movement.

    Any ways, thanks for the post. Harding and Lipscomb stand as example of how two Christians can disagree and not divide. But here is my question, why could they not extend this same attitude towards the churches that we adding instruments and supporting missionary societies?

    Grace and peace,


  2.   randall Says:

    Most interesting!
    JMH said “Somethings don’t change when we seek a pattern in the New Testament that does not exist. ” Ain’t it the truth!

  3.   rich constant Says:

    I thought it was interesting last year in my study on Cornelius, and how he was accepted with God.
    Everyone was talking about Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius, Prior to being baptized, in the midst of Peter’s preaching of the Gospel.

    I don’t really understand why I don’t hear more about this anyway it doesn’t matter, this whole idea of fellowship seems to be a convoluted mess, so it really doesn’t make too much of a difference what I’m going to say or how I say. So I’ll just run up there anyway.

    I think everyone of us know why Cornelius was excepted with God, the angel tells him quite plainly.
    But that seems a hard concept to build upon right now.

    What event boils down to is the ethics of God. Not my ethics.

    I might also add something that I have learned from reading your blog: how would Harding or Lipscomb feel about walking in to today’s life and how could they make their Christianity work,
    I would find it quite interesting. Most likely could not walk in to a lot of churches in America. Just because of the racial diversity that is here.
    But then you put a sports coat on Jesus or you put a sports coat on Paul and have them walk into any church i bet that they could get along.
    I don’t know what it’s like for all of you, but I really do need some company out here.

    I could be wrong, I wish you would comment on that?

    Then there’s the issue of what I’m really getting at is what we’ve got instrumental music. We’ve got the different modes of partaking of the Lord’s supper. We sure don’t have the fellowship that they had back then, which I think is needed greatly.
    Congregations split over can an Elder can drink wine at home, and he be an elder.

    For the most part, John Mark, I think that the Reformation stemmed out of gross deviation from the truth.
    And I think that’s where the hermeneutic went wrong,we just kept walking and looking and looking for error, with an attitude of, finding more and more binding truths, the more and more we study the Word.
    There is something to be said of tolerance, it’s just knowing where to draw the line.

    I think with Cornelius, God knew, where to draw that line, the angel told them this is why God has picked you to go get Peter,
    I think we’re going to be in bad shape until we learn the ethics of God, the root ethics of God.

    I receive something from Pepperdine john Mark about the lectureship in May, anybody thats goen, let me know because I’d sure like to meet any you guys…

    Blessings all

  4.   rich constant Says:

    A little PS.
    My kids have started going to a place called crossroads first Christian rooted fellowship.
    And I’m allowing and encouraging it.
    On Wednesday night, they have a thing called generate.
    They sing songs of praise and grace in an environment that would be what I consider an environment great for a rock concert.
    On Wednesday night there’s aprox. 1500 kids there.
    My young girl Allie, just got through reprimanding me Saturday, for my bad attitude. All I might add from a Christian point of view that I couldn’t argue with.
    That girl is in her Bible all the time,
    I think she signed up for a mission to go to Africa,
    They are all buying Christian books and reading Christian books, mind you I have a 20-year-old and a 18-year-old boy also.
    They’ve found a place to fellowship. They’re taking all of their friends.they are going to Starbucks and engaging in Christian conversations. My son just brought home a young man yesterday, that he had met at Starbucks.
    Much to his surprise, the young guy that he had met. He knew in school.
    He walk up to them because he saw him studying his Bible.
    They went to church Sunday morning together, he will probably be baptized in a couple three days.

    10 years ago, I would have considered that so out of the question to go to a “church” like that, the transitions that I have made over the years are incredible to me.and i might add i am still not where i want to be.
    It used to be so black and white and now I’m finding it with a bit more gray in between black and white.

  5.   Todd Deaver Says:

    Great article–another outstanding example, I think, of the inconsistent application of our doctrine of fellowship as it relates to perceived pattern authority. We’re still just as inconsistent today. It’s baffling that so many still can’t see it.

  6.   Todd Deaver Says:

    Ok, it’s not so baffling. It took me more than 20 years to see it myself–or at least to admit to it. I suppose that is a testimony to the power of our indoctrination: we are the one true church, the only ones who have the whole truth. To reject our theology is to apostatize. That’s pretty powerful motivation to stick with the status quo.

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    I think Harding, for one, thought IM was such a divisive issue because his experience was that those who wanted the “innovation” pressed it to the dividing of congregations. In other words, it was not simply that it was an innovation but that it was pressed in a divisive way. Harding quotes Romans 16:17-18 quite often!

    For Lipscomb, IM was not the dividing issue itself. Rather, it was the growth of higher criticism and an expanded understanding of unity (ecumenicism) that concerned Lipscomb.

    For both, there were cultural and sociological issues involved as well. The sectional issue is a huge one that has to be factored in as the southern churchs sought an identity that was not caught up in the northern allegiance to the state and its “worldly” (from the southern point of view as well as Sommer’s) ways.

    It is, as you say, much more complex than simply doctrinal or theological.

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    Cornelius is a neglected “example” in terms of Stone-Campbell history. Usually explained as the difference between circumstance (miraculous gift of the Spirit) and essential (baptism) in our history, and explained as an “exception” in the law of conversion because what is law is what is present in all the conversion stories (a la Lamar).

    We rejoice with you in the faith your children exhibit!

  9.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    I did intend it as another example–an earlier one–of the sort of thing that you are talking about in your books as far as the diversity of our ecclesial practices.

    I hope to get to your book soon, but house chores await at this point.

    John Mark

  10.   K. Rex Butts Says:


    Do you know when the first citation of Eph 5.19 or Col 3.16 in support/defense of non-instrumental worship occurs? I have often wondered what came first, the issue and opposition to instrumental worship or the regular proof-texting of the two above mentioned scriptures in support of a capella worship.

    Grace and peace,


  11.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I’m not sure about that one, Rex. I would have to investigate that. I would imagine that it came in the debates of the late 1860s and early 1870s when the “sides” were solidified though it took forty years for it to filter throughout the movement and individual congregations.

    The use of Col and Eph in this way would be in the context of here is the command to sing, but there is silence about instruments.

    The debate over the meaning of Psallo and the nature of the command is something that consumed the first decades of the 20th century leading up to Kurfees book on IM.

  12.   Rex Says:

    Sounds like a good research topic for some student in one of your Restoration Theology classes.

    Grace and peace,


  13.   rich constant Says:

    What seems strange for me to look at and remember me when I was 21,
    I got baptized and started running. I knew about baptism anew about the Holy Spirit. I knew a lot of these standard issues.
    Calvary Chapel was a tent. I knew the guy that started Calvary Chapel Lonnie Frisbee I went to high school with him and Chuck Smith took over. I should say I knew of lonnie Frisbee.

    In any case, when I was 2I went over to their tent and started speaking with Chuck Smith from the Fellowship issue of baptism and Chuck Smith told me that if I didn’t leave he was going to have the police come and throw me in jail.
    Talk about extremes. Guess I’ve found quite a bit of gray in between a black-and-white issue of the Fellowship.


  14.   rich constant Says:

    (a la Lamar).????

    john mark have you forgotton to whome you are
    you be typin AT…
    thought that i would throw that prepossition at the end of that.
    just to make you grimis as much as that word got to me.

    you know nails on chalk board stuff…


    thanks ri

  15.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    “a la Lamar”

    Richard, as a devoted reader of this blog, you should know Lamar. 🙂 Here is a link to read something about him.

  16.   Randall Says:

    Your series on hermeneutics was wonderful. Whenever I go back and re read a post (like the link you provided above) I find myself wishing you would put it together in a book. It would save us the time of printing them all and stapling them together.

  17.   rich constant Says:

    your starting to sound like me …

    my mom Used to say richard you’ed complain if you were being hung with a NEW rope.


    john mark
    i’m old, almost addeled,you should be more tolorent of your elders young man. 🙂

    hay it’s better than saying i stayed up to late that night and the dog ate my notes 🙂

    thanks john mark for the link. that sure is nice like Randell said.
    blessings all

  18.   Matthew Says:

    Thank you for this excellent and interesting look at this issue. In my thesis for my M.Div, I studied a little about the laying on of hands because of 1 Tim. 4, but not the hand of fellowship. I love it when you go back in the history and let us know about the debates of the past.

  19.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    I think you are correct about Harding and his experience of his home church John Mark. It is hard to separate our experience from our views of other things.

    I recall first reading the ink about the laying on of hands back in the late 90s and thought it was bizarre as are many of our controversies.

  20.   Tom Atkinson Says:

    I’m grateful I discovered this website and have enjoyed (and been challenged) by some of what I’ve read.

    A professor I once had taught me a principle that has worked very well for me over the years. ” Let me speak for me, you speak for you, and God speak for God.” The problems occur when people confuse the three!

    God has spoken and his truth is objective! However, once we (meaning any of us) began to dialogue about it, teach it, preach it, etc. we “subjectify” it! My understanding is no more than just that, my understanding! I cannot “lean upon” my understanding, but must attempt to “trust” God with my whole heart (emotions and intellect) cf. Proverbs 3. I have found this basic principle a great comfort and help when it comes to my study of any Biblical issue. Thanks for the interesting and challenging articles.

    Tom Atkinson
    Union City, TN

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