Ministerial Ordination

Posted by in Church & Missions

*Knowing this is a potentially controversial topic, I want to make clear right from the top that I am, by no means, dogmatic on this, and am totally open to gaining any further insight from Scripture any of you may have to offer on this.

I do not believe that ministerial ordination, as traditionally practiced in Baptist churches, has a biblical basis. I also believe that it can end up having an adverse affect on the advance of God’s Kingdom. I do believe, however, in publicly setting apart individuals called by God to a particular ministry, laying hands on them, praying for them, and commending them to that ministry. I believe this is biblical, and has a generally positive effect on the advance of God’s Kingdom.

In traditional Baptist practice, there is a three-fold recognition of God’s call on the life of an individual, and commendation to ministry: first, license to preach; next, ordination; and next, installation into a specific ministry role.

I believe that what is symbolically communicated by such a practice flies in the face of the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It props up the idea that “professional ministers” are, in one way or another, a class apart. Historically, it has its roots in the Roman Catholic concept that certain members of the Church, by virtue of their ordination (“holy orders”), have prerogatives and abilities to carry out certain spiritual tasks (“sacraments”) that others do not. Some historical justification for this is also at times adduced from the Old Testament practice of ordaining priests, insinuating that Christian ministry is essentially a continuation of the Old Testament priesthood.

I am not arguing against recognizing specific individuals and commending them to certain ministry tasks or roles, such as those of elder, deacon, missionary, evangelist, teacher, etc. This is what is normally done in a ministry “installation” ceremony, or missionary commissioning service.

I believe that, biblically, in the Body of Christ, each of us is “licensed” to preach, and “ordained” to ministry, in a general sense, at the moment of our conversion. Most ministry “roles” or “offices,” however, are specific to local church contexts. I believe it is generally a good thing for those in modern “para-church” ministry “roles” to be subject to local church accountability, as well. When someone is “installed” as the new pastor at a local church, they are accountable specifically to that local church for the exercise of that particular ministry. When someone is “ordained to gospel ministry,” however, the idea communicated is that they are recognized as legitimate, authentic “gospel ministers,” whether they have a specific “role” or “office” through which they carry out their ministry, or not.

Scriptural Evidence

The following are the New Testament passages I have found that seem to speak one way or another to the question of “ordination” and/or ministry “installation.” I have included my own comments and observations on each passage…

In Matthew 10; Mark 3:13-19, 6:7-13; Luke 6:12-16, and 9:1-6, Jesus Himself personally commended the twelve apostles to specific ministry tasks, as well as appointed them to the specific ministry “role” they were to carry out in the Church. Judas was later disqualified from his appointment after his betrayal of Jesus, and subsequent death. In Acts 1:15-26, we learn that Matthias was named to take his place through the process agreed upon by the other eleven.

In Acts 6:1-7, seven men (commonly regarded as the first deacons) were chosen by the members of the Jerusalem church to oversee the daily distribution of food. The apostles prayed for them, and laid their hands on them, apparently commending them publicly to this specific task.

In Acts 13:1-3, Barnabas and Saul were prayed for, set apart with the laying on of hands, and sent off for the specific task to which the Holy Spirit had called them.

In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for the churches they had planted, praying and fasting for them, and committing them to the Lord.

In Acts 15:40, Paul was “commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord,” together with Silas, as he set out on his second missionary journey.

In Acts 20:28, Paul instructed the elders in the church at Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” In v. 32, Paul also committed these same elders “to God and to the word of his grace.” A legitimate question can be asked, at this point, if the elders were elders exclusively of the church at Ephesus, or also elders of the entire “church of God” throughout the world. While church history does indicate that there was a relationship of collegiality and mutual respect and recognition among church leaders in various locations, there is no reason to assume an official “connectionalism” between local churches or a trans-local leadership hierarchy at this time.

In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul writes to Timothy, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” Also, in 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul writes something similar: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” It is unclear exactly what the context of this event was. However, it would appear that Paul knew that Timothy had at one time been commended to a specific ministry, which, in 2 Timothy 4:5, he calls “the work of an evangelist.” Likewise, the specific context of 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others” – is unclear, though it is possible, given the general context of the book, to link it to the appointment of elders.

Finally, Titus 1:5 indicates that Titus was given the task by Paul of appointing elders in every town on the island of Crete. Nothing is said explicitly, however, as to whether or not this involved a public recognition and commendation of these men, setting them apart to this specific ministry.

Some Final Comments

It is evident that the action of “laying on of hands” was known and commonly practiced in New Testament churches. There were also special moments in which certain individuals were publicly recognized, prayed for, and commended to a specific ministry. However, there is nothing to indicate that the significance of such an action was the same as that conveyed in modern Baptist “ordination” ceremonies. There is no indication in the New Testament that anyone was ever publicly recognized and set apart for “at large” ministry. Whenever this occurred, it was always with regard either to a specific ministry responsibility linked to the direct accountability of a local church, or to being commissioned for itinerant missionary or evangelistic ministry.

At this point, although one may agree there is no specific New Testament justification for the practice of ministerial ordination, the question still remains: “What harm does it cause?” While I am reluctant to in any way “cast stones” at all those who in good faith and with very noble intentions carry out or submit to traditional Baptist ordination practices, I see the following potentially negative consequences for doing so:

  1. The idea is symbolically and falsely communicated that there are two separate spiritual classes within the Body of Christ: “clergy” and “laity.”
  2. The idea is also communicated of a professional ministry “club” or “guild,” for which the official initiation ceremony is ordination.
  3. Ordinary “lay people” are led to believe that there are certain tasks in the Body of Christ that should generally be reserved for “ordained clergy,” and are thus, in many cases, encouraged to remain passive, and not put to use the spiritual gifts that God has given them.
  4. There is a potential conflict of interest, with respect to discipline and ministry accountability, between the congregation that initially ordains a minister and the congregation in which he later serves and/or becomes a member.
  5. Church leaders who fall into sin, and are disqualified from specific ministry roles and tasks they previously occupied in a specific local church setting, many times continue to maintain their “ministerial credentials,” and take advantage of this circumstance to dupe those in other local churches who are unaware of their moral failure.