Even as far back as the 1970s many church goers began to be suspicious of ordination and all that went with it. The spectacle of some leaders being given special status among the people of God seemed contrary to the essential equality of all people in creation, fall and redemption. When accompanied by the wearing of special clergy robes and designation as “Rev” and then the clambering for such giddy titles as “Right Rev.” and “Very Rev.”, the whole ordination thing seemed reminiscent of Matt 23:1-12 (Scribes and Pharisees). Women clamoured after these top jobs.
The liturgical construct separated ordained clergy from the people of God and from the eldership. Clergy were placed on a pedestal (with all its perils), the eldership was diminished (with all its perils) and the people of God were left behind in this hierarchical understanding of church (a tragedy).
The present rising pattern of non-ordained persons being entrusted with significant pastoral ministries in our churches may be a reaction against the abuse of ordination as noted above. Which makes it time to look at what God’s Word says about the appointment of pastors and leaders.
1 Timothy bear witness to an orderly process:
- 1 Tim 2:7 on Paul’s appointment as a preacher, apostle and teacher;
- 1 Tim 3:1-13 on the criteria of character and gifting applicable to church leaders;
- 1 Tim 4:6 on the value of training in the ‘words of the faith’ and ‘doctrine’;
- 1 Tim 4:13 on the key word ministries to be undertaken by leaders;
- 1 Tim 4:14 on the recognition of the role of the ‘council of elders’ (πρεσβυτέριον) in recognising gifts of ministry (see also 2 Tim 1:6b);
- 1 Tim 6:2 on expected standards for the content of teaching by church leaders.
The context of 1 Timothy is relevant to this discourse. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus to continue his own ministry elsewhere (1 Tim 1:3). This was an apostolic delegation which many see as part of the transition from the extraordinary and time-bound office of apostle to the more enduring office of pastor or shepherd. We do know that Timothy had been well-reared in the faith by his maternal ancestors (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14). However, he was also young, subject to youthful passions (2 Tim 2:22), possibly subject to self-doubt (2 Tim 1:7) and open to dismissive treatment because of his youth (2 Tim 4:12). The recognition and affirmation of Timothy by Paul and the council of elders was important as testimony both to him and to the church as to his suitability for ministry.
Therefore, by all means let’s scrap the titles, robes and assumed status that can be implied by the traditional construct of ordination. Equally, let’s locate the work of pastor within the eldership rather than as a separate order and let’s recognise the gifting and service of the whole people of God. However, let’s not lightly dismiss the value of orderly processes to test and affirm those called to pastoral ministry.
Of course, the same applies to all roles in church service. The youth leader, small group leader or teacher of children all need processes of testing, training and affirmation before being appointed to their roles. However, the high potential of pastoral leaders to do good or harm demands that they receive particular scrutiny before their ministry is recognised.
This article is adapted from an article by David Burke “Rethinking Ordination” David was a lecturer at Christ College. He was almost refused ordination in 1979 for his views on clergy titles and robes.