Back in the 1970s many of us learned 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.

However, maybe all these problems were products of the particular construction of ordination in an era when a liturgical movement had swept the church. That construction 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 presently 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. However, is it time for another look at ordination?

Maybe it is time again to value ordination as an orderly process to test, affirm and recognise those people who are called by God and the church to pastoral ministry.

1 Timothy bear witness to such an orderly process. Hence:

  • 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 leader;
  • 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 discussion. 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 ordination process in Presbyterian churches involves several steps over an extended time.

  • Interview and recommendation by the applicant’s home church Session;
  • Interview and recommendation by the applicant’s regional Presbytery;
  • Psychological assessment by a trained professional;
  • Interview with the Candidate’s Review Panel;
  • Annual review and reporting by the theological college where the student trains;
  • Annual interview and review by the regional presbytery;
  • Trials for license by the regional presbytery;
  • Review by a congregation or church agency when issuing a Call of Appointment;
  • Review by the ordaining presbytery.

Put together, this adds up to review by two levels of church courts (Session and Presbytery) and up to 15 separate reviews over a four-year period. This process will not necessarily filter out all unsuitable persons and there have been some tragedies of unsuitable people being ordained over the years. Such tragedies affects the individuals, their families, and the churches that they serve.  However, the extended scrutiny around ordination surely provides a better alternative to the much leaner process of review when a local church and its presbytery entrust pastoral ministry to a somewhat untested person.

Back to Timothy. 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.

Likewise for the modern pastor.

The fact that the laying of hands in ordination was not rushed (1 Tim 5:22) is a reassurance to the pastor in those many dark moments when he doubts his calling and reaches for the ‘positions vacant’ section of the Saturday paper. The extended scrutiny by others is an external testimony to his vocation as pastor and an encouragement to persist through the dark moments. The fact of ordination also commends him to other churches when it is time to move to a new ministry. 

Furthermore, ordination gives reassurance to the church that receives a somewhat unknown pastor who may be young enough to be the grandson of church members. The fact that he has been carefully scrutinised by reputable bodies over an extended period commends his ministry and encourages the new church to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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.

Maybe ordination is a good thing after all.

– David Burke was almost refused ordination in 1979 because of his views on clergy titles and robes.