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Reflections on ordination

A sermon by Rod Benson

Sunday 10 October 1999

The great nineteenth-century Christian leader, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, described by many as “the prince of preachers,” occupied the pulpit of London’s New Park Street Baptist Church and its successor, the renowned Metropolitan Tabernacle, from 1854 to 1892.

When asked if he were a Doctor of Divinity, he is said to have replied, “I was not aware that the Divinity was in need of a doctor!”

On another occasion, when asked if he was ordained, Spurgeon is reputed to have replied, “I cannot see what putting your empty hands on my empty head would accomplish!” Spurgeon was never ordained, never used the title “Reverend,” and remained Mr Spurgeon to the end of his life.[1]

Regardless of Spurgeon’s personal convictions and practical conventions – and, I should add, those of a number of prominent Baptist leaders today – ordination was practised and commended in the Bible, and some form of ordination is practised today by almost every Christian denomination.

Today I want to consider the biblical and theological foundations of ordination, and close with some personal reflections in view of my recent ordination to the ministry of the Word.

The words “ordain” and “ordination” derive from the Latin meaning “to set in order” and implying appointment to an office or function. The KJV uses the verb “to ordain” to render about 30 different Hebrew and Greek words. But general biblical principles and practices are not hard to identify.

In the Old Testament, for example, we read that God has “set in place” the moon and stars (Psalm 8:3). God “provided a place” for his people Israel to dwell (1 Chronicles 17:9).  Aaron and his sons were consecrated to serve as priests offering blood sacrifices to God on behalf of the people (Exodus 28-29).  Levites were appointed as servants of God (Numbers 3-8). The seventy elders were appointed to assist Moses (Numbers 11, 24-25). Joshua was commissioned as Moses’ successor (Numbers 27). Jeremiah was appointed by God as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5). And so on.

In the New Testament we find a similar pattern. Jesus appointed the Twelve to serve in apostolic ministries (Mark 3:14). The Apostles appointed Matthias to replace Judas among the Twelve by casting lots (Acts 1:12-26).

God appointed Paul “as a servant and as a witness” (Acts 26:16). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the new congregations (Acts 14:23).

In a more general sense, the Lord commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14); and the Great Commission effectively appoints every follower of Christ to specialised Christian ministry (Matthew 28:18-20).

The New Testament provides five passages of special significance for the practice and protocols of ordination. First, in Acts 6:1-6 we read how seven leaders of the early church were set apart to specialised ministry in order to allow the Twelve to concentrate on prayer and ministry of the Word.

They were all men of spiritual distinction, chosen by the church at Jerusalem to assume new roles. The original language of the text does not clarify whether it was the Apostles or the whole church who laid hands on them, but the practice may have followed the mass ordination of the Levites (Numbers 8:10).

Along with the laying on of hands, prayer was offered – probably that the Lord would bless the seven in their new sphere of Christian service.

Second, in Acts 13:1-3, we find Barnabas and Paul set apart for missionary service. Here the Holy Spirit spoke, presumably through a prophet, and again we find the church engaging in prayer and laying on of hands. Both candidates were already recognised leaders, commissioned for a new sphere of service.

Third, in Acts 14:23, while on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches at Derbe, Lystra and Iconium, committing these leaders of new churches to the Lord with prayer and fasting.  In a more established church, of course, it would have been appropriate for the congregation to identify and appoint their own leaders.

Fourth, in 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul advises his young ministry partner, and eventual successor, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.”

It is important to keep in mind that when Paul wrote to Timothy he was not writing a church handbook nor a theological treatise. He was writing a letter of encouragement and instruction to a friend.  But through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the providence of God such letters also inform our faith and practice.

Fifth, in 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul further instructs Timothy, “. . . fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” – probably a reference to 1 Timothy 4:14.

Why does Paul say “my hands” here? In 1 Timothy 4, Paul sought to authenticate Timothy’s spiritual leadership gifts, rather than have him quench the Spirit through natural timidity. Here, he focuses on his own involvement in Timothy’s ordination, and appeals to their close personal ties.[2]

We may conclude, then, that in the New Testament ordination usually has the sense of divine appointment, designated authority and (spiritual) ministry to people. Ordination recognises the personal character and leadership gifts, and the prior call of God, in the life of the ordinand.

In our Baptist churches, we usually only ordain men and women who have:

(a) sensed the subjective call of God to serve, usually full-time, in ministry;

(b) evidenced appropriate leadership gifts;

(c) evidenced a godly Christian character;

(d) been recognised by the people of God as appropriate ordinands;

(e) been tested by the wider church in a range of areas;

(f) received training to stretch and inform the mind, and learned practical ministry skills;

(g) had their call confirmed by receiving and accepting a pastoral call from a local congregation to exercise pastoral leadership among them.

The preconditions are significant, and the process of gaining ordination is rigorous – as it should be for such a high calling.

In New South Wales, for example, the testing by the wider church includes a series of interviews with the Committee for the Ministry on the candidate’s call and commitment, personality and pastoralia, doctrine and denominationalism, academic potential, gifts for ministry, and any area of speciality deemed appropriate, such as fitness for missionary service.

You can have every confidence in the people accredited and ordained by our Baptist family of churches. You are well served.

I want to make five brief theological comments about ordination as we practise it.

First, while we ordain our leaders, we recognise the biblical principle and Baptist distinctive of the priesthood of all believers. Ordination is not about privileged status but about particular function.  It does not change the candidate’s standing before God; it does not impart a special measure of grace to the ordinand; it does not signify apostolic succession, as implied in Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches.  And ordination is certainly not an initiation to priesthood, authorising the ordinand as a priest offering blood sacrifices and mediating between God and the church, as in Roman Catholic teaching. All the people of God are priests.

Nor does ordination convey special authority to preside at the Lord’s table, or to preach the Word of God, or to baptise. As Paul Beasley-Murray says,

Where the pastor baptizes or presides at the Lord’s Table, the pastor does so, not by virtue of being a priest mediating between God and his people, but by virtue of being the recognised and trusted leader of God’s flock. Indeed, there is no Scriptural reason why anyone may not perform either function provided it is at the initiation of the church.[3]

Second, ordination represents a person’s setting apart for ministry without denominational or geographical qualification, and without differentiation of roles and functions.

There are moves today to discontinue the practice of ordination entirely in Baptist church life, and replace it with denominational accreditation alone. In my opinion this seriously devalues Christian ministry and ignores our rich heritage as Baptists.

As I see it, ordination is about consecration, and accreditation (while absolutely necessary) fills a distinctly secondary function of certification. Ordination is universal and general, while accreditation is the recognition of a person by a particular body for a certain role or position.

Third, in a Baptist context ordination is to be viewed as indelible: it is for life and is not rescinded. Once ordained, always ordained. There is no need to be re-ordained when one moves to a new church or a new sphere of service.

Fourth, in ordination the church recognises God’s prior ordination and gifting of the candidate, and ratifies the candidate’s inner conviction, calling and fitness for ministry.

Fifth, ordination recognises the candidate’s new responsibility and sphere of service within the local church, and the wider fellowship of churches.  Christian ministry in general, and leadership in the local church in particular, is often a difficult, painful, exhausting and thankless task. That is why, as I said last week, the Chief Shepherd promises a crown of glory to pastors and elders who serve God faithfully and well (1 Peter 5:1-4).

I close with some personal remarks. Why was I ordained? Despite my strong Plymouth Brethren heritage, with its general eschewal of professional pastors and a “paid ministry,” I believe ordination and full-time Christian ministry, and effective spiritual leadership are absolutely vital to the health of the church. I sought ordination because I felt called and gifted by God to teach and preach his Word, and to lead the people of God according to his will.

My ordination service represented the end of a long process of training, equipping and accreditation. It represents the threshold of a new stage of life and ministry. And, importantly, it represents the formal recognition and affirmation of my call to ministry by the churches.

May we see many more young men and women of God counting the cost, preparing for ministry, and serving the Lord Jesus Christ with their whole lives. And may we see our churches grow and prosper under godly and excellent leadership, and thus reach out to others in evangelism and mission and social transformation. For that is why God calls and equips his people.

 


 

Copyright © 1999 Rod Benson. Sermon 275 presented at Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 10 October 1999. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] Peter Cotterell, “The ministry: Time for reformation,” in Paul Beasley-Murray (ed.), Anyone For Ordination? A Contribution to the Debate on Ordination (Tunbridge Wells: Monarch Publications, 1993) 35, 43.

[2] Gordon Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1984) 226.

[3] Beasley-Murray, 168.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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