The Meaning of
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.’
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.
Wm. Loyd Allen is professor of church history and
spiritual formation at McAfee School of Theology of Mercer University in