Needed—a theology of ordination

Is the divinely inspired decision-making process for the screening of ordination candidates being followed totally anywhere in our church?

T. H. Blincoe is dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The objective of this article is not to write a full-blown theology of ordination from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective. It is much more modest. I seek only to take some steps in that direction. My sources are the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White. In the former we have the only rule of faith and practice. In the latter the Biblical rule is amplified so that significant details and emphases appear and are often applied to the contemporary situation.

Mark 3:13-15 reads, "And he goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would. . . . And he ordained twelve . . . that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils." The Revised Standard Version translates "ordained" in verse 14 "appointed." On the basis of this text alone we could hardly argue that we have be fore us the account of the ordination of the twelve disciples to the gospel ministry by Jesus. Nothing is said about the laying on of hands or of prayer, both of which clearly be came central in the sacred rite of ordination (see Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22).

But Ellen White writes under divine inspiration: "When Jesus had ended His instruction to the disciples, He gathered the little band close about Him, and kneeling in the midst of them, and laying His hands upon their heads, He offered a prayer dedicating them to His sacred work. Thus the Lord's disciples were ordained to the gospel ministry."—The Desire of Ages, p. 296.

Later she wrote, "It was at the ordination of the Twelve that the first step was taken in the organization of the church that after Christ's departure was to carry on His work on the earth."—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 18. Ordination in the Christian church, then, originated with none other than Christ Himself and constituted the first step in its organization.

Ellen White refers to Acts 13:1-3 as an account of the formal ordination of Paul and Barnabas to the gospel ministry. "God had abundantly blessed," she writes, "the labors of Paul and Barnabas during the year they remained with the believers in Antioch [Acts 11:22-30]. But neither of them had as yet been formally ordained to the gospel ministry. They had now reached a point in their Christian experience when God was about to entrust them with the carrying forward of a difficult missionary enterprise, in the prosecution of which they would need every advantage that could be obtained through the agency of the church."—Ibid., p. 160.

Acts 13:1 indicates that the instruction from the Holy Spirit to the church at Antioch to ordain Paul and Barnabas probably came through one of the prophets in that congregation (see The Acts of the Apostles, p. 160, The Story of Redemption, p. 303). Verse 2 implies that the mes sage came either in the midst of the specific public worship service or sometime during the course of their ministering to the Lord in that place.

The components of the ordination service are delineated clearly in verses 2 and 3. They are the instruction of the Holy Spirit to the church, fasting, prayer, the laying on of hands, and an official sending. These imply that Paul and Barnabas went forth on the mission to which the Holy Spirit had called them with the full blessing and authorization of the church.

Ellen White seems to view this ordination as a paradigm for the church today. Thus, in the circumstances connected with the separation of Paul and Barnabas by the Holy Spirit to a definite line of service, she sees clear evidence "that the Lord works through appointed agencies in His organized church."—Ibid., p. 162.

Two significant questions

This raises at least two significant questions: Within the context of ordination, how does the Lord work through appointed agencies in His organized church today? and what are these appointed agencies?

"I saw," writes Ellen White, "that God had laid upon His chosen ministers the duty of deciding who was fit for the holy work; and in union with the church and the manifest tokens of the Holy Spirit, they were to decide who should go and who were unfit to go." —Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 209. On page 101 of Early Writings she speaks again of the decision-making process in these words: "Brethren of experience and of sound minds should assemble, and following the Word of God and the sanction of the Holy Spirit, should, with fervent prayer, lay hands upon those who have given full proof that they have received their commission of God, and set them apart to devote themselves entirely to His work."

An analysis of the above statements reveals that the "appointed agencies" in God's organized church for the selection and ordination of ministers of the gospel are chosen ministers of experience and sound minds, the church, the Word of God, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The ministers mentioned would logically be those who had the most knowledge of and the closest contacts with those who were being considered for ordination. By "the church" Ellen White most likely has in mind the local church or churches where the candidates have been laboring. Thus the laity would be directly involved in the decision-making process. And why not? Can the testimony of the fruits of a man's labor be omitted when his fitness for ministry in the church is under study?

Ellen White also gives us some important guidelines for the work of these divinely appointed agencies. She laments the fact that "hands are laid upon men to ordain them for the ministry before they are thoroughly examined as to their qualifications for the sacred work" and counsels "how much better it would be to make thorough work before accepting them as ministers." —Testimonies to Ministers, p. 172.

Regarding the nature of this thorough examination, she informs us that candidates for ordination should be "examined especially to see if they have an intelligent understanding of the truth for this time, so that they can give a connected discourse upon the prophecies or upon practical subjects." —Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 407. By the latter, Ellen White means subjects related to practical godliness or Christian experience, such as the nature of faith and how to exercise it, how to pray, true repentance, confession, genuine con version, and the free gift of Christ's righteousness. (See Evangelism, pp. 168-216.)

In addition, the faithful, experienced persons who are conducting this thorough examination "should acquaint themselves with his [the candidate's] history since he pro fessed to believe the truth. His Christian experience and his knowledge of the Scriptures, the way in which he holds present truth, should all be understood. No one should be accepted as a laborer in the cause of God, until he makes it manifest that he has a real, living experience in the things of God."—Gospel Workers, p. 438.

Still another work to be done

Ellen White is not through with her counsel, however. She says that after the candidates have been care fully examined and have had some experience, "there is still another work to be done for them: they should be presented before the Lord in earnest prayer, that He may indicate by His Holy Spirit whether they are acceptable to Him. The apostle says, 'Lay hands suddenly upon no man' [1 Tim 5:22]. In the days of the apostles, the ministers of God did not dare to rely upon their own judgment in selecting or accepting men to take the solemn and sacred position of mouthpiece for God. They chose the men whom their judgment accepted, and then placed them before the Lord to see if He would accept them to go forth as His representatives. No less than this should be done now."—Ibid.

As far as we know, this divinely inspired decision-making process for the screening of candidates for ordination is not being followed totally anywhere in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the light of that, isn't Ellen White's lament still relevant? Doesn't the solemnity and sacredness of the highest calling on earth require the most careful and thorough examination that can be devised by ministers of experience and sound minds? In addition, the voice of the laity should be heard and given due weight. Yet the findings of human instruments are not sufficient. God's own word of approval or disapproval must be received through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, because the ordinands are to be His mouthpieces, His representatives.

The question is, How is this word to be perceived? A colleague I talked to about this felt that we really don't know enough about the working of the Holy Spirit. His conviction is that when Ellen White tells us to present candidates for ordination "before the Lord in earnest prayer, that He may indicate by His Holy Spirit whether they are acceptable to Him" or to place them "before the Lord to see if He would accept them to go forth as His representatives," we don't know how to carry out her instruction. Was this colleague right? Reluctantly I had to agree.

The last sentence quoted from the pen of Ellen White three paragraphs before, "No less than this should be done now," will neither permit us to say that this particular part of the decision-making process is not imperative nor to declare that there is no way to discover how to carry it out. It appeals to me that it under scores our need to become better acquainted with the Holy Spirit and His ministry in the work of the church and in our personal lives. Should we not look upon it as an invitation from God to search the Scriptures and Spirit of Prophecy diligently with earnest prayer and humility until we learn how this word from God is to be implemented? Think of the tragic loss that is averted by the church when men who are not approved of by the Holy Spirit are not ordained to the ministry. Think of the assurance it would give to the ordinands to know that the Holy Spirit Himself has spoken the final word of approval before their ordination.

Ordination for missionary physicians and deacons

Last, we turn to three of the four categories mentioned in the Bible and the writings of Ellen White as being among those to be recognized by the church through the rite of ordination. These include missionary physicians, whose work is largely spiritual. "The work of the true medical missionary is largely a spiritual work. It includes prayer and the laying on of hands [a reference to prayer for the sick as out lined in James 5:14, 15?]; he there fore should be as sacredly set apart for his work as is the minister of the gospel. Those who are selected to act the part of missionary physicians, are to be set apart as such." —Evangelism, p. 546. Unless I misunderstand Ellen White, there should be a distinct ordination service for the missionary physician, one suited to his particular calling and function in the church.

The second category mentioned is deacons. A study of Acts 6 through 8 reveals that the decision-making process was carefully followed. "The seven chosen men were solemnly set apart for their duties by prayer and the laying on of hands. Those who were thus ordained were not thereby excluded from teaching the faith. On the contrary, it is re corded that 'Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.' They were fully qualified to instruct in the truth. They were also men of calm judgment and discretion, well calculated to deal with difficult cases of trial, of murmuring or jealousy. This choosing of men to transact the business of the church, so that the apostles could be left free for their special work of teaching the truth, was greatly blessed of God. The church advanced in numbers and strength. ... It is necessary that the same order and system should be maintained in the church now as in the days of the apostles." —The Story of Redemption, p. 260.

What has happened in the church to the category of deacons as described above? There seems to have been a diminishing of the scope and sacredness of the calling, a tragic loss of identity and mission, a degeneration from deacon to usher. Ordination is hardly a requisite in order for one to be able to take up the offering, open and close the church doors and windows, or even to pass out the elements of the Lord's Supper. Can it be that ordained ministers are at least partially responsible for the current situation in many, if not all, of our churches? Should there not be a revival of the Biblical ideal and an ongoing reformation moving the whole church toward it?

The third category is composed of those whom God has called to minister in word and doctrine. These are the ones I have had in mind through most of this article. I return to them now for a specific purpose. Ellen White has written: "Those who are chosen of God to be leaders in the cause of God, having the general over-sight of the spiritual interest of the church, should be relieved, as far as possible, from cares and perplexities of a temporal nature. Those whom God has called to minister in word and doctrine should have time for meditation, prayer, and study of the Scriptures. Their clear spiritual perception is dimmed by entering into lesser details of business and dealing with the various temperaments of those who meet together in church capacity." —Ibid., pp. 260, 261.

Is it not true that we ministers have taken upon ourselves too many cares and perplexities of a temporal nature? Could one cause be that we have placed an unwarrantable importance upon our ordination, feeling that it has immediately qualified us for all types of ministry in the church? Perhaps, on the other hand, our theology of ordination has lost its spiritual centrality and intensity because we have lost those characteristics in our own experience. Have the lesser details of God's business, which should be left to others who have been called to and even ordained for that ministry, dimmed our spiritual perception and robbed us of time for meditation, prayer, and study of the Scriptures? Think of the spiritual loss to the church. Is it not time to restudy our role as outlined in the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy and to bring our practice of ministry into line with these inspired sources?

One more word seems to be necessary. To those readers who feel that what I have written here is more of a homily than a preliminary approach to a theology of ordination, may I remind you that theology is at its best when it is brought to bear on essential, practical concerns of the church.


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T. H. Blincoe is dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1978

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