Ordination: Do we believe in that?

ordinationYesterday afternoon was a great occasion at Christ Church Derby: the ordination of Joel Kendal as a minister and elder. Joel is the new minister of Christ Church Derby, taking over from Jonty Rhodes who is moving in a few months to Leeds to begin a new church, Christ Church Central Leeds.

So what is an ordination? Like many evangelicals, I for years thought that it was nothing: a bit of Church of England archaic nonsense, a hoop for ministers to jump through to get into a job, but nothing more. It’s fair to say that the Church of England ordinations I have witnessed did nothing to dislodge that idea. But more fundamentally, we evangelicals believe in the priesthood of all believers, don’t we? So therefore there is no difference between ministers and everyone else. What, then, could ordination possibly mean?

Well, absolutely we must believe in the priesthood of all believers. Jesus Christ is our great high priest, and in him all believers are priests. We, the whole church, are a royal priesthood, as Peter says (1 Peter 2:9). But believing in the priesthood of all believers does not mean we believe in the eldership of all believers. The fact that it is manifestly against the Bible to consecrate ‘priests’ in the church of Jesus Christ does not mean that there are no biblically-mandated offices at all.

Because, quite clearly, there are. Eldership, as a distinct office in the church, is found repeatedly in the New Testament. In the book of Acts, the critically important Council of Jerusalem is a council of the Apostles and elders (Acts 15:2,4,6,22). Paul appointed elders in the churches he had established (Acts 14:23). His farewell address at Miletus was to the Ephesians elders (20:17); Paul quite plainly sees them as having a specific ministry of overseeing the flock (20:28), thereby demonstrating that elders, overseers (=episkopoi, from which we get the word ‘bishops’) and shepherds (which, via latin, has come into English as ‘pastors’) are all the same people. Also, very significantly, Paul is clear in 20:28 that it is the Holy Spirit who has appointed these men. It is therefore not simply a man-made ministry but a God-appointed ‘office’: a role planned and designed by God for certain men to fulfil for the good of his church. The pastoral epistles are written with this office particularly in mind. The whole purpose of Titus being in Crete, is to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5); the purpose of the letter is to assist him in doing this. 1 and 2 Timothy are full of this. The office of overseer (1 Tim 3:1) is a noble task, and it is a God-given one; that is why an overseer must (3:2) have certain qualifications. There cannot be God-given stipulations for who may occupy a man-made function! Peter, finally, speaks to the elders and identifies them not only as different from the rest of the church but also as shepherds and overseers of the flock, under the chief shepherd Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Ephesians 4:11 is particularly instructive here. Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists and Pastor-Teachers are gifts from Christ to his church to bring her to maturity. The Apostles and Prophets are the bearers of the New Testament once-for-all revelation of God in Christ and his gospel (Eph 3:5). Opinions differ on exactly how the understand ‘evangelists’, given that the word is not elaborated on elsewhere in the New Testament. But Pastor-Teachers are beyond question the same as the elder/overseer/pastors found throughout the New Testament. They are not a man-made invention but men whom the Lord Jesus himself has given to the church with the specific, defined task of caring for her, overseeing her, teaching her and ruling her on his behalf. Christ has delegated his ruling authority over his church, in part, to the men who occupy the office of elder in the church.

So what is an ordination? It is the point at which Christ confers this office on a man, gives him the authority to fulfil it, and charges him to discharge its duties. It absolutely does not move him closer to God, increase his righteousness, or give him greater access to God. What it does is give him new duties and responsibilities over the church, and give him a delegated authority from Christ to proclaim the gospel and to govern the church. It is an authority which he must not abuse, hence the great and weighty vows he must take about how he will use it. It is an authority which is strictly limited according to God’s word. But it is a real authority which he must not neglect and the church must not refuse to recognise (1 Peter 5:5). It is an authority, and a duty, to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments according to the word of God, for the good of the church.

Ordination to this office is itself described in the Bible, accompanied by the sign of laying on of hands. So Timothy was not to neglect ‘the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands’ (2 Tim 1:6). This gift, in the context of 2 Timothy, is not some mystical ability but must refer to the duty of his office to proclaim the gospel and govern the church without being ashamed of it. Paul referred to it also in 1 Tim 4:14, where he refers to the ‘council of elders’ who ‘laid their hands’ on him. Laying on of hands demonstrates Christ laying on this man the duty, responsibility, and delegated authority to discharge the office of pastor/teacher/elder.

Why should a church submit to the teaching of its elders (provided they do not transgress God’s word, of course)? Why should they accept their authority in governing the church? Why should they allow them, and not others, to make decisions about who teaches, what they teach, and who will be baptised and admitted to the Lord’s table? The answer is that they know that their elders have been ordained to the office by Christ. Equally, why should a minister labour to preach the word faithfully? Why should he get up in the morning when no-one will check that he does so? Why should he keep going when the work is tough and the people are ungrateful? Why should he keep proclaiming the gospel without fear when the world, and perhaps the church, are against him? Why should he go through the awkwardness of telling people that they ought to be baptised, or that they cannot eat the bread and the wine, when it would be much easier to say nothing? Why risk the offence of those in front of him when he says things which he knows some of them will hate to hear? Why proclaim a gospel which has led countless ministers before him to their death, and may do the same to him? Because he has been ordained by Christ crucified and risen, before whom he made his vows and in whose name the elders of the church have laid their hands on him.

So ordination is of immense significance for the church. Praise God for the ordination of another minister yesterday. Let’s pray for Joel. May God bless him, enable him to discharge the duties with which he has charged him, and use him for the church’s good and God’s glory.


Christian freedom under threat? A tale of two freedoms…


Is our freedom as Christians under threat? From the news in the last week, and from the reaction of many Christians, the answer would seem to be pretty unequivocal: yes it is. Unless the judgment in the Ashers Bakery case is overturned by the Supreme Court, or there is a change in the law, it now appears that Christians may be required by law verbally to express support for the rightness of homosexual relationships, on pain of losing their livelihoods. As in the days of the Emperor Diocletian, Christians will now apparently be forced to make sacrifice at the altar of a god whom they do not and will not worship. As in the reign of ‘Bloody’ queen Mary, those who refuse to assent to something to which they do not assent will be made, by the force of law, to pay the price.

And yet the freedom of Christians is not at all under threat. Not if, by ‘freedom’, we mean what both Scripture and historic Christian theology has meant by that. Not if we understand what true freedom is.

Freedom, in the Reformation, was a big thing. The Reformation happened in the midst of a society thick with legal coercion: from the church of Rome, which demanded conformity (under threat of purgatory and damnation) to all sorts of practices not found in Scripture and alien to the Christian gospel, and from the various governments of Europe, which in various ways used civil punishments ranging from fines through imprisonments to death to compel conformity to the church.

And yet the Reformers never complained that their freedom was under threat. Rather, they understood ‘The freedom of a Christian’ as the freedom that Christ himself has brought from the curse of the law, from the power of indwelling sin, and from the threatenings and coercions of the Roman church and the civil government. The Christian is free because Christ died to set him free. He is free from God’s curse on his lawbreaking, because Christ bore the curse for him. He is therefore free from the threat of judgment for his sins. That means he is free to pursue righteousness and holiness without fear of God’s wrath at his inevitable shortcomings in doing so. And it means he is free from the fear of man. This is Romans 8: who can separate us from the love of Christ? ‘Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ No: The pope may threaten hell, and the magistrate may threaten penury, prison or the stake, but the Christian is free to follow Christ because Christ has made him free. No man can take away our certain hope in our King. No man may enslave us.

What’s more, Christ has set us free from our own sinful desires. This in many ways goes to the heart of what Christian freedom means. We are no longer slaves of sin. Our exodus liberation is from the tyranny of our corrupt desires which dwell inside us. This is Romans 7: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’. We are no longer slaves to our desires. Christ has set us free, free to love our God, free not to sin where previously we had no weapons in our armoury to resist it. Free to be what God designed humans to be, free to be God’s true images.

So in this sense the freedom of Christians is not the slightest bit threatened by the current disastrous drift of law in the British Isles. It is precisely because we are free that we will never need to submit to the increasing threats used to compel our conformity to the reigning doctrines of sexual licence. Yes, we may lose our court cases, our jobs, our social respectability. We may go to prison. But we will do so cheerfully because we are free to do so. We serve a higher master, and his blessings – now and for eternity – cannot be removed by man. That is the freedom Christ has won for us.

Now, it is often assumed that these two freedoms – the freedom of a Christian, and the idea of ‘free speech’ or ‘religious liberty’ – are the same thing. Many Christians have seized on the comments of Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights campaigner, as supporting our cause. But this is not merely short-sighted, it is a very serious mistake. For the secular doctrines of freedom are not a version of the Christian doctrine but its very opposite.

Before the enlightenment, Christian authors never conceived that ‘freedom’ was in any sense a moral absolute. And for a very good reason. There was another word already in their vocabulary for the idea that human beings should be free to say, and to do, whatever they chose, with no regard to higher authority. That word was ‘sin’. For that is what sin is: it is a belief in human autonomy, that there is nothing worse for a human being than in having God tell us what to do. Secularism, rooted in the atheist doctrines of the Enlightenment, exactly inverted Christian ethics on this point. Far from being the root of human evil, human autonomy was now to be considered the highest human good. Sin was rebranded; now it would be ‘freedom’, and under that rubric made the foundation of a whole new ethics. Civilisation and the moral character of a society was to be judged not on its conformity to the law of God but on how much it defended the absolute freedom of men and women to believe, speak and act as they choose.

It is part of the tragedy of the history of the last 250 years that generations of Christians (with of course some notable exceptions) have not noticed the inversion in the word ‘freedom’ that this entailed. Christian freedom is freedom from ourselves and our desires, won for us by God in Christ, so that we might obey his laws. Secular freedom is freedom from God and his laws, won by us, so that we might follow ourselves and our desires. The social revolution of the last 50 years are just the working out into law and mainstream public opinion this inversion of the meaning of freedom that philosophers adopted 200 years earlier.

The lessons for us are twofold. First, we need to stop thinking that secular ideas of ‘freedom’ – the ideals of free speech and absolute religious liberty – are our friend. They are not. They are in fact the enemies which are fighting against us. The more we appeal to them, the more we strengthen the secular zeitgeist which hates Christianity as an immoral restriction on the freedom of the individual. If we fight the spirit of the age with the weapons of the age we are in fact affirming the rightness of the age. If we win this battle this way, we lose. Ashers bakery was not right to refuse to promote gay marriage because of a ‘fundamental’ principal of free speech. There is no such principal in God’s universe. If there were, the serpent in the garden of Eden did nothing wrong! They were right to refuse to promote gay marriage because those Christ has set free from sin are free to obey God and not man. God is God, whatever the courts might say. That is what the McArthurs, to their credit, said outside the courtroom.

And second, we need to stop thinking that our freedom – real freedom – is in any way under threat. The law can revile us, it can fine us, it can deprive us of our jobs, it can throw us to the lions – but it can never remove from us the freedom to live righteously which Christ won for us at Calvary. There may be dark days ahead for Christians in the British Isles, but they will be temporary. And Jesus Christ will build his church, the church of those whom he has set free to serve him, in true righteousness and holiness, both now and in the new creation forever.