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The Meaning and Challenge of Ordination

The setting apart of certain people for a ministry of spiritual leadership had become a set practice in the church well before the close of the apostolic era. The New Testament contains considerable instruction regarding the need for, the qualifications for, and the selection of spiritual leaders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:12).

The term “ordain” comes from a Latin word that means “to set in order.” Paul commanded Titus to set in order the churches in Crete; this included the ordination or appointment of  elders. The following passages from the New King James Version of the New Testament describe the act of setting apart for ministry:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you (Titus 1:5)

…I was appointed a preacher and an apostle—I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying—a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Timothy 2:7; assertion repeated in 2 Tim 1:11).

So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).

The Meaning of Ordination

In the New Testament three different Greek words are translated “ordain.” The most frequently occurring word that is translated ordain means “to put or place.” The church, directed by God, has authority to place people into leadership (Acts 13:2,3).

Another Greek word that is translated ordain means “to make someone something.” This carries the idea of conferring upon someone the office of an elder or pastor. In the New Testament, the offices of elder, pastor and bishop are not differentiated (Titus 1:5-7).

A third Greek word that is translated ordain means “to select by the stretching forth of the hand” (Acts 14:23). The church, with the Spirit’s guidance, is to select people for places of spiritual leadership (Acts 6:3).

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

Finally, the act of ordination is a dedication to humankind. In his writings to the Romans, Paul made the following declaration:

I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Romans 1:14-16).

Oh, that in every ordination service we would echo Paul’s assertions: I am a debtor! I am ready! I am not ashamed!

Much of the work of the ministry is devoted to maturing and equipping believers (Ephesians 4:12); yet, to Timothy, who was stationed at Ephesus, Paul commanded, “… Do the work of an evangelist…” (2 Timothy 4:5). I am certain that if He who died for a lost world were to be present with us at ordination as He was present with the disciples after the resurrection, He would again proclaim, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

The fields are still white unto harvest, and the laborers are few. The same Lord who called Isaiah to prophesy in troubled times is inquiring on behalf of the triune God, “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” We who accept ordination are responding, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

Timothy had received a ministry gift by the laying on of hands by the eldership. Paul warned him not to neglect the gift and not to let its flame subside. It seems that Timothy was timid and fearful by nature; the gift he had received by the laying on of hands gave him boldness to face persecution and affliction. Along with his admonition to Timothy not to neglect this gift, Paul added, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). When faith is present with the laying on of hands, a ministry enablement is imparted that overcomes natural weaknesses.

Finally, the church has the responsibility to maintain a standard of quali”cation for ministry. Spiritual leaders of God’s flock must not be selected carelessly. If workers are chosen carelessly and they fall into sin, the church becomes, in some sense, a partaker in that sin. We must take note that maintaining standards is a responsibility that Scripture lays upon the church: “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people’s sins; keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22).

The Challenge of Ordination

It is important that ministerial candidates understand the meaning of ordination. It is also imperative that they accept the challenge of ordination. One definition of ordination is that it is ‘`consecration to the ministry.” That consecration is not an act of the church only; it is also a consecration or dedication on the part of the candidate for ministry. The challenge is, at least, threefold: 1) dedication to God, 2) to the church 3) to humankind.

First, ordination is certainly the charge for men and women to give themselves to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). We surrender to God the right to command; we will go where He sends, we will do the work He sets before us, we will be the earthen vessels the divine Potter molds and shapes. The apostle Peter made the following plea:

If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glori”ed through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11).

Further, ordination is a type of dedication to the church. Barnabas and Saul were separated to the ministry of missionary evangelism by the Antioch church. When they returned from their “rst mission, they immediately reported to the church that had commissioned them (Acts 14:23-28). After the second mission, Paul again returned to Antioch. After the third journey, he went to the mother church at Jerusalem, where he was in full submission to the other apostles (Acts 21:17-26). Everywhere in the New Testament the work of God is also the work of the church:

Is Ordination an Act of God or of the Church?

Some passages of Scripture seem to suggest that placement into ministry is entirely a work of God:

And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry (1 Timothy 1:12).

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

It is quite clear that Paul considered himself “put into the ministry” by the Lord Jesus and that he believed that elders were made overseers of the flock by a work of the Holy Spirit. Paul clarified that concept when he wrote the Galatian churches:

But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11, 12).

The call to ministry must come from God. It is not enough for people to select the ministry from a number of occupations. People should not embrace ministry because they are good communicators, counselors or social workers, or because they have completed formal ministerial training. Men and women must have the sincere conviction of being divinely appointed to preach and teach the gospel of Christ. They must be empowered and set apart by the Holy Spirit to do a divine work that is meant to have eternal consequences.

On the other hand, certain scriptural commands appear to place the responsibility on the church:

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you (Titus 1:5).

So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).

While Paul, one of the foundation apostles of the church, seems to have been placed into ministry by the Lord Jesus directly without o$cial recognition by the Jerusalem church, he himself appointed elders (pastors) over the churches that he founded. He instructed Titus to do the same in Crete, without any mention of a divine call to ministry experienced by the candidates.

The perceived contradiction about selection for ministry is resolved when we consider a wider view of New Testament revelation. Without doubt both views of “putting into ministry” are true. Ordination to ministry is the mutual work of God and the church:

As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away (Acts 13:2-3).

The passage quoted above paints a clear picture of the involvement of the church in ending forth Barnabas and Saul for ministry. The church ministered to the Lord, prayed, fasted, laid hands on the workers and sent them away to their mission. However, there was no laying on of hands or sending forth until the Holy Spirit revealed that God had called Barnabas and Saul for the work to which the church was to separate them. God calls, and the church separates to ministry. To commission workers whom God has not called is a presumption; to launch ministry without the church’s prayer and laying on of hands is an exercise in futility.

Saul of Tarsus had a direct call of God from the time of his conversion (Acts 13:47). But his official ministry did not begin until Barnabas presented him to the church in Antioch; his full ministry was not realized until he was dispatched by the Antioch church in response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

The Responsibility of the Church in Regard to the Ordination of Ministers

First of all, the church must pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2). Both the harvest and the laborers are the Lord’s.

Further, the church must maintain a concern for the selection, preparation, and placement of those who are to preach and teach the gospel of Christ. The church must be able to discern those who are called of God and those who display the qualifications set forth in Scripture for elders (bishops, pastors):

1 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

1 Timothy 3: 1-7, NIV

7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Titus 1:7-9, NIV

Finally, the church must maintain a vital faith in God, in His Word, and in the anointing power of the Holy Spirit. Combined with that vital faith, the laying upon of hands will result in sending forth men and women who will preach, teach and minister boldly and with Holy Spirit power.

Much is said in Scripture about the “laying on of hands” for introduction into pastoral ministry. Note the following:

Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them [Barnabas and Saul], they sent them away (Acts 13:3).

And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them (Acts 6:5-6).

Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership (1 Timothy 4:14).

Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands (2 Timothy 1:6).

According to these Scripture passages, the laying on of hands by an authentic eldership has a twofold purpose:

  • It is a liturgical act by which men and women are launched into the ministry
    to which they are called of God.
  • … If it is exercised by faith on the part of the elders and the recipients, it is an
    act of empowerment by which ministry gifts are imparted.

(1907-2002) was a pastor and theologian. He wrote "Foundations of Pentecostal Theology," "Handbook of Preaching" and "The Vine and the Branches."