The Bible and Ordination -- Reflections on a Theology of Ministry

Fifth posting in series on Developing a Theology of Ministry

            The idea of professional ministry as we know it today is not present in the New Testament.  The idea of a church professional is a modern concept that very likely would be foreign to the authors of the New Testament and the churches of that era.  That doesn’t make it an invalid development, but we must treat this question with care.  There are, however, structures and officers present in the text that may suggest a foundation for considering what it means to be called to ordained ministry.   Thus, Corinth and Ephesus offer contrasting examples of such structural elements.  The Corinthian church appears to have had a fairly informal structure, one guided by spiritually discerning elders (therefore it is not surprising that we find the bulk of teaching on spiritual gifts in a letter written to this church).   But, remember that this is written by Paul early in the life of the Christian movement.  It should be noted too that this church seems to have a lot of difficulty ordering itself.  Ephesus, on the other hand, seems to have had a more formal structure that included apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11).  This letter, possibly written sometime after Paul’s death, suggests that over time churches may have discerned the need for more structure.  Finally, there is the first letter to Timothy, written it seems to the pastor of the Ephesian church by a later disciple of Paul (later first century), where you have bishops (elders), presbyters, and deacons. In this discussion of presbyters (elders/pastors) and episcope (bishops/elders), the Pastorals flesh out a relationship between the church and its leaders that looks much different from the much earlier Corinthian church.  By the beginning of the second century the church has moved into even more formal forms of leadership. 
            The responsibilities of a typical pastor can be found described in the first letter to Timothy, where an older experienced pastor encourages a young pastor not let the people despise him for his youth.  Instead, Timothy's mentor tells him to set an example in his speech and conduct, and "give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhorting, to teaching."  Finally, Timothy is told not to "neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders."  (1 Tim. 4:12-14).  This reference to a gift given by laying on of hands is the biblical foundation for an ordained ministry.  Later in the letter, the author tells Timothy to rekindle this gift.  Vocational ministry, therefore, is in the words of this biblical writer a matter of giftedness, which must be rekindled on occasion.[i]

            If ministry is rooted in giftedness, is there a place for more priestly leadership?  In most mainline traditions (the Disciples of Christ being something of an anomaly, at least to a degree), there is a category of ministry called “minister of word and sacrament.”  Such ministries have liturgical/sacramental functions reserved to them.  Although in the Disciples tradition lay elders may preach and celebrate the sacraments, with the exception of the prayer at the table, the clergy normally preside over worship.   If, however, we are all priests, ordained at baptism, should there be a separate order of priestly ministers?  This is a question that each tradition will have to wrestle with.  I’m not sure that a strict distinction can be made, at least on biblical grounds.  

            As it has come down through the centuries, ordination is a process that sets men and women apart for specific forms of vocational ministry.  Congregations, denominations, seminaries are charged with discerning whether candidates have the gifts and calling for this type of ministry.  Following the instructions of 1 Timothy, the church (whatever its appropriate form in each tradition) lays hands on the candidate, commissioning that person and praying that the Spirit might indwell and empower them for service to the church and the world (1 Tim. 4:14).[ii]     

            Whatever authority such a person has within the congregation is rooted in that congregation.  It is the Spirit who gifts, empowers, and commissions, and thus bishops, elders, congregations simply are the conveyers of that tradition.  By recognizing a pastor’s ordination, a congregation receives that person’s leadership and guidance.  Tradition and history help us understand how this authority should be exercised in the life of a congregation.  Though our churches may use a variety of structural forms, it is important to recognize that the church is not a democracy, ruled by majority vote.  It is also not an autocracy, the rule of an elite group of clergy, or a monarchy for that matter.  The church is guided and led by the Spirit of God who speaks through pastors, elders, deacons, prophets, and just ordinary believers.  

            If modern concepts of ordained ministry are foreign to the New Testament, though we find concepts and ideas that might influence the way we envision ministry, is ordination something to hang on to?  Do we need human credentials to affirm a call to ministry? 

[i]Donald  Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry, (Abingdon, 1989), 64.
[ii]Keith Watkins, The Great Thanksgiving, (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 1995), 210-11.


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