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The Theology of Ordination
"What is the theology of ordination?"
That's a question that got me in trouble at my own ordination. Essentially, I asked the committee, "What theology of ordination?"
Well, I managed to smooth things over with the committee by pointing out the practical value of ordination as practiced in some of the modern denominations--it is a process in which the background of the candidate is carefully checked in order to ensure that, essentially, the requirements of 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 are met. It keeps--or, at least should keep--predators out of the Lord's flock.
The idea of ordination would appear to have its roots in Acts 13, where the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul to the work which I have called them." So we have those who are "set apart." Some are set apart for music ministry, some for the pastorate, and so forth. Those who are ordained for music have musical ability, those who are ordained for missions have gifts for missions. Do we ordain in response to the Holy Spirit, or as a result of a very worldly assessment of natural abilities? Hopefully, we weigh the former more than the latter.
The Laying On of Hands
Sadly, many have added the laying on of hands to their arsenal of pleagian magic--actions in which they would try to force God to recognize a change to a human that results from certain actions and procedures performed by other humans (but see Rom. 11:34, "Who has ever put God in their debt?"). The laying on of hands that climaxes many modern Christian ordination services has its roots in such passages as 1 Tim. 4:14, which recalls a time when elders laid hands on Timothy. But the text describes this action as the giving of a "prophetic message," and Paul refers to it again in 2 Tim. 1:6--this time as a "gift of God." To interpret these passages properly, it is probably best to examine the Acts. In Acts 19:6, the "hands" are associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, not an office. Also, Acts 20:28 is very clear that it is the Holy Spirit that selects "overseers." There is absolutely nothing in the 1 Tim. or the 2 Tim. passages that suggest that the overseers are making of Timothy another overseer by the laying on of hands. We are on much better biblical ground if we interpret the "hands" passages as the imparting of some sort of charismatic gift or, in Acts 19:6, a facilitating of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit himself.
A Blessing or Prayer
So the biblical laying on of hands is more a blessing than it is a rite that transfers authority or office (Ferguson, 5:39). Its usage in Christianity is based on Gen. 48:14 (Jacob blessing his grandchildren), and Mk. 10:13-16 (Jesus blessing the little children). After Pentecost it is associated, quite naturally, with the work of the Holy Spirit.
Banks offers another approach to the New Testament laying on of hands--that of enacted prayer. He suggests that the layong on of hands was a physical action that "did not just accompany the prayer; it was part of the prayer itself."(Banks, 80).
The reader will have to decide for himself what the "setting apart" passage in Acts actually means--but please bear its context in mind.
Is this not really a setting apart for missions?
Is it not a response of obedience to God's Spirit?
Is it not a commissioning into a place of service?
Finally, where in this passage is any kind of authority bestowed on Barnabas and Saul?
Where we understand ordination as prayer or blessing, and where it can be used to police the entry into the pastorate or to recognize and affirm the work that God has done to prepare an individual for a work of service, let's by all means keep ordination. My own testimony is that I was blessed--greatly blessed--by the laying on of hands (God somehow arranged it so that pastors of more than one denomination participated in my case). But let us be very careful that we don't attach too much consequence to whether one is ordained or not ordained. Nowhere in the discussions of gifting and duties of the church does Paul make any such requirement. Why should we?
Here is the bottom line: It would be a shame if a house church wished to bless, commission, or otherwise respond to the Holy Spirit to "set apart" one of its number for a particular work of service, but demurred because they did not have any "ordained" members. When the modern house church movement was born in a house church meeting in Zurich, many who had previously been "ordained" by the Catholic Church were present. Yet when George Cajacob arose and begged to be given "the true Christian baptism"--the act that caused them to break with the state church and would be a death sentence for nearly all of them--it was to the unordained Conrad Grabel that he turned (see "Counter Clutural Discipleship").
House Church Central Home Page
Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community, Revised ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson: 1994). [This book is listed on the Resources page].
Everett Ferguson, s.v., "Ordination," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:37-39.