The Fallacy Of Ordination

In the fourth century, theology and ministry were the exclusive domain of the priests. Work and war were the domain of the laity. What was the rite of passage into the sacred realm of the priest? Ordination."' Before we examine the historical roots of ordination, let's look at how leadership was recognized in the early church. After beginning a church, the apostolic workers (church planters) of the first century would revisit that body after a period of time. In some of those churches, the workers would publicly acknowledge elders. In every case, the elders were already "in place" before they were publicly endorsed."'

Elders naturally emerged in a church through the process of time. They were not appointed to an external office.'" Instead, they

Dunn, New Testament Theology in Dialogue, 127.

Hanson, Christian Priesthood Examined, 64. Terms like coryphaeus (Master of Ceremonies) and hierophant (Grand Master of the Lodge) were freely borrowed from pagan cults and used for the Christian clergy. Tertullian was the first to use the term supreme pontiff (bishop of bishops) to refer to the bishop of Rome in his work On Chastity, written at about AD 218. Tertullian, however, uses the term sarcastically (Bruce, Spreading Flame, 322). Hanson, Christian Priesthood Examined, 64. ■'" Ibid., 65-66; von Ca mpenhausen, Tradit/on and Life in the Church, 222-223. Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 40,167.

See Acts 13-19; 1 Corinthians; 2 Corinthians. I (Frank) trace the chronology of when the apostles visited the churches they planted and when they acknowledged elders in Viola, The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2004).

According to Bible commentator Alfred Plummer, the Greek words translated "ordain" in the New Testament do not have special ecclesiastical meanings. None of them implies the rite of ordination or a special ceremony. "The Pastoral Epistles," in W. Robertson Nicoll, ed., The Expositor's Bible (New York: Armstrong, 1903), 219-221.

were recognized by virtue of their seniority and spiritual service to the church. According to the New Testament, recognition of certain gifted members is something that is instinctive and organic.' Every believer has the discernment to recognize those within his or her church who are gifted to carry out various ministries.

Strikingly, only three passages in the New Testament tell us that elders were publicly recognized. Elders were acknowledged in the churches in Galatia (Acts 14:23). Paul had Timothy acknowledge elders in Ephesus (1 Timothy 3:1ff.). He also told Titus to recognize them in the churches in Crete (Titus 1:5ff.).

The word ordain (KJV ) in these passages does not mean to place into office.114 It rather carries the idea of endorsing, affirming, and showing forth what has already been happening.'" It also conveys the thought of blessing." Public recognition of elders and other ministries was typically accompanied by the laying on of hands by apostolic workers. (In the case of workers being sent out, this was done by the church or the elders.)'''

In the first century, the laying on of hands merely meant the endorsement or affirmation of a function, not the installment into an office or the giving of special status. Regrettably, it came to mean the latter in the late second and early third centuries.'

During the third century, ordination took on an entirely different meaning. It was a formalized Christian rite.' By the fourth century, the ceremony of ordination was embellished by symbolic garments and solemn ritual.'" Ordination produced an ecclesiastical caste that usurped the believing priesthood.

Acts 16:2;1 Corinthians 16:18; 2 Corinthians 8:22; Philippians 2:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:10.

Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Histor/cal View, 4. Translators of the KW have used ordain for 21 different Hebrew and Greek words.

Seventeenth-century ecclesiastical misunderstanding influenced this poor word choice.

The Greek word cheirotoneo in Acts 14:23 literally means "to stretch forth the hand" as in voting. Hence, it is likely that the apostles laid hands on those whom the majority of the church deemed were already functioning as overseers among them. Campbell, Elders, 169-170.

Acts 13:2; 1 Timothy 4:14. Paul, an older worker, also laid hands on Timothy, a younger worker (2 Timothy 1:6). - Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 104, 111, 127, 130. Warkentin does a thorough study on the New Testament meaning of the "laying on of hands" in chapters 9-11 of her book. Her conclusion: "The laying on of hands has nothing to do with routine installation into office in the church, whether as elder, deacon, pastor, or missionary" (p. 156).

The earliest record of the ordination rite is found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (ca. 215). By the fourth century, references to it abound (Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 25, 41). Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 104.

From where did Christians get their pattern of ordination? They patterned their ordination ceremony after the Roman custom of appointing men to civil office. The entire process, down to the very words, came straight from the Roman civic world."'

By the fourth century, the terms used for appointment to Roman office and for Christian ordination became synonymous."' When Constantine made Christianity the religion of choice, church leadership structures were buttressed by political sanction. The forms of the Old Testament priesthood were combined with Greek hierarchy."' Sadly, the church was secure in this new form—just as it is today.

Soon ordination was viewed as a rite that resulted in an irrevocable position.'" Augustine taught that ordination confers a "definite irremovable imprint" on the priest that empowers him to fulfill his priestly functions."'

Christian ordination, then, came to be understood as that which constitutes the essential difference between clergy and laity. By it, the clergy were empowered to administer the sacraments. It was believed that the priest, who performs the divine service, should be the most perfect and holy of all Christians."'

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389) and Chrysostom had such a high view of those occupying the priesthood that danger loomed for the clergy if they failed to live up to the holiness of their service."' "The priest, [Chrysostom] observed, is ever judged by his parish as though he were an angel and not of the same frail stuff as the rest of men."'

How was the priest to live in such a state of pure holiness? How was he to be worthy to serve in "the choir of angels"? The answer was m Hatch, Organization of the Early Christian Churches, 129-133. This same tendency was picked up by Judaism as early as the first century. Jewish scribes who were proficient in the interpretation of the Torah and the oral traditions ordained men for office in the Sanhedrin. These men were viewed as mediators of the will of God to all of Israel. The "ordained" of the Sanhedrin became so powerful that by the early second century the Romans put to death anyone who performed Jewish ordination! Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 16,21-23,25.

Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 35. This is evident from the Apostolic Constitutions (AD 350-375). Ibid., 45.

Niebuhr and Williams, Ministry in Historical Perspectives, 75. von Cam pen ha usen, Tradition and Life in the Church, 224. Ibid., 227. Ibid., 228.

Niebuhr and Williams, Ministry in Historical Perspectives, 71,128.

ordination. By ordination, the stream of divine graces flowed into the priest, making him a fit vessel for God's use. This idea, also known as "sacerdotal endowment," first appears in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (330-395).

Gregory argued that ordination makes the priest "invisibly but actually a different, better man," raising him high above the laity. 129 "The same power of the word," writes Gregory, "makes the priest venerable and honorable, separated. . . . While but yesterday he was one of the mass, one of the people, he is suddenly rendered a guide, a president, a teacher of righteousness, an instructor in hidden mysteries." 130

Listen to the words of one fourth-century document: "The bishop, he is the minister of the Word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in several parts of your Divine worship. . . . He is your ruler and governor. . . . He is next after God your earthly god, who has a right to be honored by you."131 Priests came to be identified as the "vicars of God on the earth.""

To further show the priests' distinction from other people, both their lifestyle and dress were different from that of laymen.1" Regrettably, this concept of ordination has never left the Christian faith. It is alive and well in contemporary Christianity. In fact, if you are wondering why and how the present-day pastor got to be so exalted as the "holy man of God," these are the roots.

Eduard Schweizer, in his classic work Church Order in the New-Testament, argues that Paul knew nothing about an ordination that confers ministerial or clerical powers to a Christian.' First-century shepherds (elders, overseers) did not receive anything that resembles modern-day ordination. They were not set above the rest of the flock. They were those who served among them (see Acts 20:28, nasb, and 1 Peter 5:2-3, nasb).

von Cam penhausen, Tradition and Life in the Church, 229.

On the Baptism of Christ: A Sermon for the Day of Lights by St. Gregory of Nyssa. See also Nieh bur and Williams, Ministry in Historical Perspectives, 75. Ordination was believed to confer upon the recipient a character indelibilis. That is, something sacred had entered into him (Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 42; Schaff, History of the Christian Church 3:489).

Apostol/c Constitutions 11.4.26.

David D. Hall, The Faithful Shepherd (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972), 6. '>' Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, 207.

First-century elders were merely endorsed publicly by traveling apostolic workers as being those who cared for the church. Such acknowledgment was simply the recognition of a function. It did not confer special powers. Nor was it a permanent possession.

The contemporary practice of ordination creates a special caste of Christian. Whether it be the priest in Catholicism or the pastor in Protestantism, the result is the same: The most important ministry is restricted to a few "special" believers.

Such an idea is as damaging as it is nonscriptural. The New Testament nowhere limits preaching, baptizing, or distributing the Lord's Supper to the "ordained." Eminent scholar James D. G. Dunn put it best when he said that the clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies.'"

Since church office could only be held through the rite of ordination, the power to ordain became the crucial issue in holding religious authority. The biblical context was lost. And proof-texting methods were used to justify the clergy/laity hierarchy. Perhaps the best-known example is the early Catholics' use of Matthew 16 to justify the creation of a papal system and the doctrine of apostolic succession. The result: Ordinary believers, generally uneducated and ignorant, were at the mercy of a professional clergy.135


The Reformers of the sixteenth century brought the Catholic priesthood sharply into question. They attacked the idea that the priest had special powers to convert wine into blood. They rejected apostolic succession. They encouraged the clergy to marry. They revised the liturgy to give the congregation more participation. They also abolished the office of the bishop and reduced the priest back to a presbyter." 6

Dunn, New Testament Theology In Dialogue, 138ff., 126-129. ]3! Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 45,51; Hatch, Organization of the Early Christian Churches, 126-131. Ordination grew into an instrument to consolidate clerical power. Through it, the clergy could lord over God's people as well as secular authorities. The net effect is that modern ordination sets up artificial barriers between Christians and hinders mutual ministry. 1iE Hanson, Christian Priesthood Exam/ned, 82.

Unfortunately, however, the Reformers carried the Roman Catholic clergy/laity distinction straight into the Protestant movement. They also kept the Catholic idea of ordination.' Although they abolished the office of the bishop, they resurrected the one-bishop rule, clothing it in new garb.

The rallying cry of the Reformation was the restoration of the priesthood of all believers. However, this restoration was only partial. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli affirmed the believing priesthood with respect to one's individual relationship to God. They rightly taught that every Christian has direct access to God without the need of a human mediator. This was a wonderful restoration. But it was one-sided.

What the Reformers failed to do was to recover the corporate dimension of the believing priesthood. They restored the doctrine of the believing priesthood soteriologically—i.e., as it related to salvation. But they failed to restore it ecclesiologically—i.e., as it related to the church."'

In other words, the Reformers only recovered the priesthood of the believer (singular). They reminded us that every Christian has individual and immediate access to God. As wonderful as that is, they did not recover the priesthood of all believers (collective plural). This is the blessed truth that every Christian is part of a clan that shares God's Word one with another. (It was the Anabaptists who recovered this practice. Regrettably, this recovery was one of the reasons why Protestant and Catholic swords were red with Anabaptist blood.)"'

While the Reformers opposed the pope and his religious hierarchy, they still held to the narrow view of ministry that they inherited. They believed that "ministry" was an institution that was closeted among the few who were "called" and "ordained."' Thus the Reform-

While Luther rejected the idea that ordination changes the ordained person's character, he nevertheless held to its importance. To Luther's mind, ordination is a rite of the church. And a special ceremony was necessary for the carrying out of pastoral duties (Senn, Christian Liturgy, 297).

"The priesthood of all believers refers not only to each person's relation to God and to one's priesthood to neighbors, as in Luther; it refers also to the equality of all people in the Christian community with respect to formal function." John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted through Its Development (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1988), 61. Hall, Faithful Shepherd, 8. For a compelling treatment of the Anabaptist story, see Peter Hoover's The Secret of the Strength: What Would the Anabaptists Tell This Generation? (Shippensburg , PA: Benchmark Press, 1998).

1. L. Ainslie, The Doctrines of Ministerial Order in the Reformed Churches of the 16th and 17th Centuries (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1940), 2, 5.

ers still affirmed the clergy-laity split. Only in their rhetoric did they state that all believers were priests and ministers. In their practice they denied it. So after the smoke cleared from the Reformation, we ended up with the same thing that the Catholics gave us—a selective priesthood!

Luther held to the idea that those who preach needed to be specially trained. Like the Catholics, the Reformers believed that only the "ordained minister" could preach, baptize, and administer the Lord's Supper.' As a result, ordination gave the minister a special aura of divine favor that could not be questioned.

Tragically, Luther and the other Reformers violently denounced the Anabaptists for practicing every-member functioning in the church.'" The Anabaptists believed it was every Christian's right to stand up and speak in a meeting. It was not solely the domain of the clergy. Luther was so opposed to this practice that he said it came from "the pit of hell" and those who were guilty of it should be put to death.''

In short, the Reformers retained the idea that ordination was the key to having power in the church. It was the ordained minister's duty to convey God's revelation to His people.' And he was paid for this role.

Like the Catholic priest, the Reformed minister was viewed by the church as the "man of God"—the paid mediator between God and His people.14 5 He was not a mediator to forgive sins, but a mediator to communicate the divine will.' So in Protestantism an old problem took on a new form. The jargon changed, but the error remained.

U1 Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Histor/cal View, 57-58, 61-62.

The Anabaptist both believed and practiced Paul's injunction in 1 Corinthians 14:26, 30-31 that every believer has the right to function at any time in a church meeting. In Luther's day, this practice was known as the Siizrechi—"ihe sitter's right" (Hoover, Secret of the Strength, 58-59).

Luther announced that "the Sitzrechtwas from the pit of hell" and was a "perversion of public order ... undermining respect for authority." Within 20 years, over 116 laws were passed in German lands throughout Europe making this "Anabaptist heresy" a capital offense (Hoover, Secret of the Strength, 59, 198). Further, Luther felt that if the whole church publicly administered the Lord's Supper it would be a "deplorable confusion." To Luther's mind, one person must take on this task—the pastor. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 323. Warkentin, Ordination: A Bibtical-Historical View, 105.

Ibid. Protestants today speak of "the ministry" as a mediatorial body set within the larger body of Christ rather than a function shared by all.

" Just as the Roman Catholic clergy was seen as the gatekeeper of salvation, the Protestant clergy was viewed as the trustee of divine revelation. According to the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the highest office in the church was the preaching office. In ancient Judaism, the rabbi interpreted the Torah for the people. In the Protestant church, the minister is regarded as the custodian of God's mysteries (Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, 168).

In the seventeenth century, Puritan writers John Owen (16161683) and Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), like Luther and Calvin, viewed the pastorate as a permanent fixture in God's house. Owen and Goodwin led the Puritans to focus all authority into the pastoral role. To their minds, the pastor is given "the power of the keys." He alone is ordained to preach, administer the sacraments," read Scripture publicly,'" and be trained in the original biblical languages, as well as logic and philosophy.

Both the Reformers and the Puritans held the idea that God's ministers must be competent professionals. Therefore, pastors had to undergo extensive academic training to fulfill their office.''

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  • brhane
    How is ordination of priests done in christianity?
    7 months ago

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