Thoughts on the History and Theology of Ordination

NOTE 2017.  I initially wrote this two years ago, but little has changed.  The Adventist Church still debates the way forward.  It is still confused on the practice of ordination–still ordaining treasurers while letting some chaplains go 20 years or more without ordination. It still has pastors do all the acts of ministry while not ordained. Ordination need not be complicated, as the Reformers demonstrated 500 years ago.
This summer (2015), the Seventh-day Adventist Church will discuss the question of the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. In preparation for this discussion, the Adventist Church appointed a Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), which issued its report in the fall of 2014. I’ve written about some of the uniquely Adventist aspects of this issue here.

In this post, I’d like to look at the broader issue of ministerial ordination. I want to focus on the points raised at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The background to that is, of course, the Catholic teaching on ordination that they rejected. I’m going to refer to the Catechism of the Council of Trent, that codified the key issues for Catholics.

And it is appropriate I post this today, June 11, which is the anniversary of my own ordination as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America back in 1989.

The Catholic Church understood ordination, or the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as the foundation for the other six sacraments, for it makes the others possible. Through priestly ordination, “the power of consecrating the Eucharist is conferred, and … a character is impressed on the soul which brings with it grace necessary for the due and proper discharge of that office ….” Here’s how the Catechism of Trent described the ceremonies associated with ordination:

When ordaining a priest, the Bishop first of all imposes hands on him, as do all the other priests who are present. Then he puts a stole on his shoulders and arranges it over his breast in the form of a cross, declaring thereby that the priest is clothed with power from on high, enabling him to carry the cross of Christ our Lord and the sweet yoke of God’s law, and to inculcate this law not only by words, but also by the example of a most holy and virtuous life.

He next anoints his hands with holy oil, and then gives him the chalice with wine and the paten with a host, saying at the same time: Receive the power to offer Sacrifice to God and to celebrate Masses both for the living and for the dead. By these words and ceremonies the priest is constituted an interpreter and mediator between God and man, which indeed must be regarded as the principal function of the priesthood. Lastly, placing his hands a second time on the head (of the person ordained the Bishop) says: Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained, thus communicating to him that divine power of forgiving and retaining sin which was given by our Lord to His disciples.”

Let me underscore the part about the change that takes place in the one who is ordained:

…[T]he Sacrament of Orders … confers on the soul of him who is ordained the grace of sanctification, fitting and qualifying him for the proper discharge of his functions and for the administration of the Sacraments, in the same way as by the grace of Baptism each one is qualified to receive the other Sacraments. Another grace is clearly conferred by this Sacrament; namely, a special power with reference to the most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. This power is full and perfect in the priest, because he alone can consecrate the body and blood of our Lord; but it is greater or less in the inferior ministers in proportion as their ministry approaches the Sacrament of the Altar. This power is also called a spiritual character, because those who have been ordained are distinguished from the rest of the faithful by a certain interior mark impressed on the soul, by which they are dedicated to the divine worship.”

The Sacrament of Holy Orders did not include priests alone. Holy Orders “are divided into major or sacred, and minor orders. The major or sacred orders are priesthood, deaconship and subdeaconship; while the minor orders are those of acolyte, exorcist, lector and porter.” After Vatican 2, the minor orders were supressed, along with the subdiaconate; the Catholic church returned to the language of earlier centuries, including in the Sacrament of Holy Orders the Episcopacy, the Presbyterate, and the Diaconate.

The Reformers agreed with the need for order within the church. They agreed that offices of presbyter, episcopos, and diakonos were Biblical. They agreed that ministers should be set apart through the laying on of hands and prayer. But that was about all they retained of the Catholic teaching.

I’m going to focus on the Lutheran response, both because it led the Reformation, and because it is the tradition I know best, having been ordained as a Lutheran pastor.

The primary statement of Lutheran Theology, The Augsburg Confession, saw the office of the ministry as instituted by Christ so that we might obtain the faith that justifies (Article V: Of the Ministry). It is the office “of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments.” Later (Article XIV: Of Ecclesiastical Order, they affirmed that “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called” (and the Latin, rite vocatus) emphasizes call through “rite,” that is, the public calling through laying on of hands.

Luther’s own writings on the subject are much more colorful. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (attacking the sacramental system as such), he rejected a sacramental understanding of ordination as a human invention. By “ordination” he meant the Roman ritual, as is clear when he specifies, “to anoint a man’s hands with oil, or to shave his head, and the like.” For Luther, sacraments are only those actions commanded by Christ to which he attaches a promise; the church cannot make a promise of grace on its own authority. But in ordination (“a certain churchly rite”), a man “is simply prepared, like a vessel or an instrument, for a certain work.”

Luther singles out for criticism the influence of (Pseudo-) Dionysius, in his Celestial Hierarchy and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, “which certain most ignorant theologians greatly puff,” and in which “he is downright dangerous, being more of a Platonist than a Christian; so that, if I had my way, no believing mind would give the least attention to these books.” Herein lies the root of clericalism, the separation of the laity from the clergy as separate castes.

He says,

“They have sought by this device to set up a nursery of implacable discord, whereby clerics and laymen should be separated from each other farther than heaven from earth, to the incredible injury of the grace of baptism and the confusion of our fellowship in the Gospel. Here, indeed, are the roots of that detestable tyranny of the clergy over the laity; trusting in the external anointing by which their hands are consecrated, in the tonsure and in vestments, they not only exalt themselves above lay Christians, who are only anointed with the Holy Spirit, but regard them almost as dogs and unworthy to be included with them in the Church. … In short, the sacrament of ordination has been and is a most approved device for the establishing of all the horrible things that have been wrought hitherto and will yet be wrought in the Church. Here Christian brotherhood has perished, here shepherds have been turned into wolves, servants into tyrants, churchmen into worse than worldlings.”

Luther goes on to spell out his understanding of the baptismal equality of all Christians. To the ordained is given only the office of the ministry—the office of preaching and administering the sacraments, “yet with our consent.” And they only have what authority we hand over to them, for the sake of order. Conversely, if you don’t preach, you aren’t a priest or minister. That’s the point, to the extenet that “the sacrament of ordination can be nothing else than a certain rite of choosing preachers in the Church.”

In conclusion, he says,

Let every one, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian be assured of this, and apply it to himself, —that we are all priests, and there is no difference between, us; that is to say, we have the same power in respect to the Word and all the sacraments. (Ordination, the Rite of Choosing Preachers) However, no one may make use of this power except by the consent of the community or by the call of a superior. For what is the common property of all, no individual may arrogate to himself, unless he be called. And therefore this sacrament of ordination, if it have any meaning at all, is nothing else than a certain rite whereby one is called to the ministry of the Church. Furthermore, the priesthood is property nothing but the ministry of the Word, mark you, of the Word —not of the law, but of the Gospel. And the diaconate is not the ministry of reading the Gospel or the Epistle, as is the present practice, but the ministry of distributing the Church’s alms to the poor, so that the priests may be relieved of the burden of temporal matters and may give themselves more freely to prayer and the Word.”

Now, let’s look at the Bible texts upon the subject—so that we might see which of these two approaches reflects better the Bible’s teaching. It seems all Christians take it for granted that leaders are appointed as such in the church through the laying on of hands—what we call, “ordination.” We see that especially in Paul’s letters to Timothy and in Acts (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:22, Acts 6:6, Acts 13:3). Where the apostles went, they appointed elders in the community to lead it (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The essence of these elders was to “rule,” and to preach and teach (1 Timothy 5:17); deacons were to “wait on tables,” so the apostles could devote themselves to “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:1-15). The laying on of hands imparted the spiritual gifts necessary for the calling (1 Timothy 4:14, 2 Timothy 1:6).

There’s a wider context for laying on of hands. Jesus blessed by laying on of hands (Mark 10:16). He did it to heal (Luke 4:40). The apostles did it to impart the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17). They did it to heal (Acts 28:8).

Going back further, the Levites were set apart by laying on of hands (Numbers 8:10), as was Joshua (Numbers 27:18). Joshua was filled with wisdom because Moses had done this (Deuteronomy 34:9).

Some, today, in their frustration, throw up their hands in the face of questions about ordination and say, “Let’s not do it at all, then! It isn’t Biblical!” That’s not an option. The act is Biblical, and it is fundamental. Do we say, “Let’s ordain everyone, since hands were laid on for lots of reasons!”? No. Yes, laying on of hands was done for many reasons—to set apart, to impart the Spirit, to heal—but in each case the intent is clear. The intent in ordination is to set apart someone as a leader, to call them publically, to pray for them.

And this is clear—in each of these cases, the prayer accompanied by the laying on of hands is effective. The Holy Spirit is given. The Spirit’s gifts are given for this work. That’s why Paul was able to encourage Timothy in times of trial (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6)–you are called, you have the gifts, they were given through the laying on of hands; don’t neglect them! Fan them into flame!

Yes, a lot of errors crept into the church in the early centuries. The idea that the clergy were separated from the laity, ontologically changed, to be treated specially. Multiple layers of offices. Complicated rituals to ordain. All of this the Reformers cut through very quickly, because the Bible’s teaching was clear to them. They affirmed that all have the Spirit through baptism. They affirmed that all are priests, and there is one mediator. But for the sake of order they understood that the church had the freedom to create offices, like that of deacon, to meet a need. They understood, as did the apostles, that local communities needed leaders, and that these leaders needed to be recognized by all. They prayed for them, they laid hands of them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them; they had gifts and talents by nature, and these were affirmed, but gifts were also given by the Spirit in this act. Presbyters were set apart to focus on their primary work of preaching and teaching.

The question facing the Adventist church now is, do we have the freedom to set apart women for this ministry? And the reality is we already do. They are doing the work. They are set apart by prayer and laying on of hands. We’re just playing a semantic game if we call it “commissioning” instead of “ordination.”

But we need to change some things, I think. We need to get rid of an indefinite period of years from the time someone starts full-time ministry until they are ordained or commissioned. Ordination in the Bible starts at the beginning, not three, five, seven, ten, twenty years later (in the case of many of our chaplains). And we need to stop ordaining people who aren’t in ministry (treasurers, book store managers, school principals). Oh, we can pray for them—but they aren’t ministers. Let’s reserve ordination for those who are ministers of the word. Let’s put it at the beginning, both to set them apart, and to give them the gifts of the Spirit for the challenges ahead.

Related: The Ordination of Women.