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.

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