The Meaning of Ordination

(part of the Baptist Heritage in the 21st Century Pamphlet Series)

by Wm. Loyd Allen

Baptists look to Christian beginnings for the meaning of ordination.  Early Church Christians gave us the New Testament, established orthodox doctrines, and regularized ecclesiastical practices, including ordination.  Baptist views of ordination are linked to this ancient Christianity, which looked to the New Testament as its standard.

The New Testament witnesses to a variety of gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon individuals.  Certain gifts are given to equip believers for “the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 3:12).  Over time, the Christian church developed the ordination service to acknowledge the continuation of God’s mission in Christ to the church and the world through Spirit-called and Spirit-gifted ministers.  Baptists hold these views about ordination in common with the rest of the Christian tradition.

Baptist ordination, however, is not an exact reproduction of any New Testament or Early Church practice.  The New Testament gives no comprehensive instructions for ordination.  The doctrine and practice of ordination has continued to evolve over the centuries, resulting in a variety of forms with a multiplicity of meanings.

From the New Testament to the end of the Middle Ages, the meaning of ordination moved toward an ever more exclusive and hierarchical rite designed to establish the primacy of the clergy over the laity.  By the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic tradition viewed ordination as an indelible mark granted by God and conferred by ordained clergy upon those whom the clergy approved for entry into elite ministerial society.

In this system, ordination served as certification for the clergy, the sole representatives of the body of Christ able to mediate divine grace to the laity.  The belief that ordination bestows some special and sacred status beyond that of the ordinary Christian still has currency among many Christians today.

The Protestant Reformation refuted this claim, emphasizing the doctrine of the priesthood of believers over against the hierarchical medieval view of ordination.  Martin Luther called all Christians priests, some of whom are ordained to publicly minister and teach.  Comparing ordained ministers to Christian cobblers, blacksmiths and farmers, Luther wrote in 1520 that priests, bishops or popes “are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments.”  Most Baptists believe ordination recognizes a particular calling to ministerial service without indicating a higher spiritual status than that of other Christians.

The original Baptists in the first decade of the seventeenth century defended the equality of each member of the body of Christ against the historic claims of clergy privilege made by the bishop led Anglican Church.  These earliest Baptists formed congregations of baptized believers who covenanted to share equal authority and responsibility in the body of Christ.

These Baptist churches, governed by congregational polity as dictated by the equal status of each baptized member, chose and authorized congregational leaders not as lords over them, but as servant ministers.  Divine authority in Baptist beginnings did not trickle down from ordained clergy to the common Christian, but flowed upward through the members of the congregation to its chosen leaders.  The very term ordination was avoided for several decades in the two original Baptist groups, Generals and Particulars, in favor of terms such as ‘set apart,’ ‘called,’ and ‘appointed.’[1]

Eventually, with considerable influence from Calvinist sources, the majority of Baptist churches standardized and promoted ordination practices.  The institutionalization of Baptist life intensified the regularization of ordination.  The Philadelphia Baptist Association’s 1742 Confession, for example, harking back to the ordination article of Congregationalist’s 1658 Savoy Declaration, describes Baptist ordination in a form familiar to us Baptists two and a half centuries later:  Christ-called, Spirit-gifted pastors and deacons chosen by church vote and set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands.

The similarities within Baptist ordination views should not be allowed to obscure the great variations played upon the theme.  Indeed, some Baptists have refused to play along at all, referring to ordination as a ritual rendered null and void by the priesthood of believers.  Charles Spurgeon, the most celebrated Baptist pastor of the nineteenth century, is popularly believed to have said that ordination consisted of “laying idle hands on empty heads.”

The diversity of Baptist views on ordination is hinted at by the many questions answered either yes or no depending upon which group of Baptists is asked.  Who may properly be ordained:  Women?  Divorced persons? Twice married widowed candidates?  What is the place of the ordination council; is it only a formality?  What is symbolized by the laying on of hands, and should only previously ordained members be invited to do it?  What academic credentials are necessary, if any?  What ministers other than pastors and deacons are eligible?  This list can and does go on and on within the Baptist tradition.

In spite of this diversity, where a Baptist ordination takes place one can be fairly confident of the following meanings:  Ordination is an act of worship by which the congregation, representative of the people of God, acclaims the one being ordained as chosen and empowered by the Holy Spirit to exercise gifts for ministry within the church.  Ordination is not to a holier ministry than those given to other baptized believers.  The laying on of hands with prayer invokes God’s blessing upon the one ordained and signifies that he or she is set apart as a servant to the servants of God.  Ordination is a gift to the church as well as recognition by the church of the minister’s inward call.  In the ordination service, the church receives the ministry of Christ in its midst through the grace of the Holy Spirit in the calling of the ordinand.  Ordination for Baptists is a service of thanksgiving for God’s love revealed in the minister’s calling, a service of petition for God’s continued blessing upon the one called, and a service of submission to God’s authority revealed in the gifted one set aside for ministry.

[1] C. Penrose St. Amant, “Sources of Baptist Views on Ordination,” Baptist History and Heritage, vol. 23, no. 3 (July 1988), 12.

Wm. Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at McAfee School of Theology of Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia.