Called to be a minister

A biblical, theological, historical inquiry of ordination and its relevance to ministry

V. Norskov Olsen, Th.D., Ph.D., is a church historian and a former president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

The meaning of ordination must be sought in the Bible. But the task is not easy. The King James Version, which has influenced the church in the English-speaking world for three centuries, uses "ordain" to translate more than 20 different He brew and Greek words. We will consider here the Greek usage of the word in the New Testament only where it relates to appointment to an official ministry.

We begin with the only usage found in the Gospels: "And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach" (Mark 3:14, KJV).* The Greek poieo literally means "made twelve." Modern versions translate the word as "appointed" (for example, RSV, NIV, NKJV). The Living Bible says: "He selected twelve."

Another reference to "ordain" is the KJV rendition of Acts 1:22 that deals with replacing Judas. "Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection." The Greek here is ginomai, meaning "to become." Other translations use "select," "join us," "become one with us," etc.

A third mention of "ordain" in the KJV is Paul's reference to himself: "Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle" (1 Tim. 2:7). Here the Greek is tithemi, which means to "place," "set," "assign." The word is also translated as "appointed" (RSV, NIV), "chosen" (TLB), and "been named" (Jerusalem).

A fourth reference is Titus 1:5, which states that Titus should "ordain elders in every city." The Greek here is kathistemi, meaning "cause to be" or "arrange." Other translations em ploy "appoint," "put in charge," but never "ordain."

A fifth reference is Acts 14:23: "And when they had ordained them elders in every church." The Greek is cheirotoneo, a word that appears also in 2 Cor. 8:19, where the KJV translates as "chosen." Cheirotoneo comes from cheiros, "hand," and toneo, "to stretch," meaning "to stretch out the hand." Technically, the word expresses appointment or agreement by lifting of the hand as in voting.

Such, briefly, is the KJV translation as "ordain" from different Greek words. But "ordain" has a Latin root as well. The Latin ordinare means "to set in order," "arrange," or "regulate." The Greek and Latin words have different connotations: "It is evident that there is a certain difference between the unspoken cultural setting of the Greek cheirotonein and that of the Latin ordo or ordinare. The New Testament use of the former term borrows its basic secular meaning of "appointment" (Acts 14:23; 2 Cor. 8:19), which is, in turn, derived from the original meaning of extending the hand, either to designate a person or to cast a vote. . . . Ordo and ordinare, on the other hand, are terms derived from Roman law where they convey the notion of the special status of a group distinct from the plebs, as in the term ordo clarissimus for the Roman senate." 1

With Latin becoming the language of the church in the West, and with the consolidation of monarchical episcopacy, it is not difficult to see how the church's organizational structure gradually followed that of the empire. Words such as ordo and ordinare, already in use in the Roman society, enhanced the power of the church hierarchy, and in time the concept of priesthood of believers and of spiritual gifts became obsolete. Eventually a hierarchy of priests and bishops and the concept of ordination to make them so came to be in vogue.

Thus to build a case for ordination on the basis of KJV usage of the word "ordain" is rather shaky. Moreover, "ordination" is not once mentioned in Romans 12,1 Corinthians 12,and Ephesians 4, the three main chapters that speak of the special gifts given to the church "for the work of the ministry" (Eph. 4:12, KJV). Paul lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (verse 11), but makes no reference to ordination.

Laying on of hands in the Old Testament

In the rite of ordination the laying on of hands is an important ritual. Is there a scriptural basis for this?

The first biblical reference to laying on of hands is found in Genesis 48:14: Jacob "stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh's head." Here the laying of hands represented a special blessing. Then there is laying of hands in connection with the sacrificial system, where the act meant that guilt, sin, and punishment were transferred from the sinner to the sacrificial animal. The Old Testament also refers to two cases where hands were laid in relation to a particular ministry: on Joshua and on the Levites.

The appointment of Joshua. Moses "laid his hands on him [Joshua] and commissioned him, just as the Lord had spoken" (Num. 27:23). Several points should be noticed here. Joshua's experience made him an obvious choice. He was a close associate of Moses. He was richly endowed by the Holy Spirit. Urim and Thummim confirmed his call from God. His commissioning should be public in the sight of the congregation. So Moses placed his hands on him. It was a onetime occurrence for a specific and unique historical event—for leading Israel into the Promised Land—and it was not repeated in other installations of priests, kings, or prophets.

Hands placed on the Levites. How were the Levites consecrated and in stalled? Moses was asked to "present the Levites before the tent of meeting. You shall also assemble the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, and present the Levites before the Lord; and the sons of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites" (Num. 8:9,10). The Levites' role as representatives of the people was confirmed by hands being laid upon them by the people.

As in the case of priests and high priests, the Levites inherited their functions by birth, and the laying on of hands was not repeated.

Usage of Hebrew words. "Laying on" is a translation of three different Hebrew words.2 Where a special blessing is involved as in the story of Jacob, s'im or shith (synonymous) are used. An act of healing would also fall into this category. Where we have consecration and offering, the Hebrew is samakh, as when Moses consecrated Joshua or when the people placed their hands on the Levites. S'im and shith express a light touch, but samakh suggests a heavy touch, as in the sense of "to lean upon." Samakh also hints that a person transfers "something" to another person (or sacrificial animal), who/which then became the representative or substitute.

When lifting of hands is related to priestly blessing, nasa is used, as when "Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them" (Lev. 9:22). Much confusion could be avoided if this difference in meaning and usage is kept in mind.

The installation of priest, king, and prophet

Consecration of the priest. God said to Moses: "Invest your brother Aaron and his sons, anoint them, install them and consecrate them; so shall they serve me as priests" (Ex. 28:41, NEB).

What the NEB translates as "install," the KJV renders as "consecrate," and the NASB and RSV as "ordain." The Hebrew word mille'yadh means liter ally "to fill the hands." The most likely meaning is that the hands should be filled with those objects they were to offer up in the temple as part of the sacrifice. "In Eastern lands installation into office was usually accomplished by putting into the hand of the official the insignia marking his functions. Here certain portions of the offerings were used for that purpose."3

The words "fill the hands" clearly emphasize that the installation is to a service connected with the rites of the temple (see Ex. 29:20-28).

Anointing the king. The anointing of a king symbolized the endowment of "the Spirit of the Lord" (see 1 Sam. 10:1; 16:13). The king, as custodian of the Book of the Law, was supposed to copy it with his own hand (Deut. 17:18-20). The covenant was renewed as a covenant between God, the king, and the people. While the high priest's hands were filled with oblations, the king's hands were "filled" with the law. He was also crowned and enthroned (see 1 Kings 1:33ff.; 2 Kings 11:12; 1 Chron. 29:22ff.).

Anointing the prophet. We have only the instance of anointing the prophet: Elijah anointing Elisha (1 Kings 19:16, 19). It appears that the "anointed ones" and the "prophets" in Psalm 105:15 are the same. The Lord's servant (Isa. 61:1) speaks of himself as anointed "to bring good news."

Rabbinical ordination4

 

We now turn to rabbinical ordination and its relationship, if any, to the primitive church. According to Jewish tradition, the steps of succession descended "in a direct line from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the elders, from the elders to the prophets, from the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly [Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Sanhedrin created after the return from captivity], and so on, until it reached the patriarchs [the heads of the Sanhedrin after the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70] and the other heads of the Rabbinical schools."5

The codified tradition. The Mishnah and Talmud became representative of Judaism after A.D. 70. The Mishnah codified rabbinical oral tradition and supplies us with information from the first century. The rabbis may have read their own theological concepts into the biblical texts, but this was no different from what Christian theologians did later. In fact, a close parallel exists between Catholic argument for apostolic succession of the monarchical bishop and the pope as the successor of Peter, and the Talmudic "proof for rabbinical succession from the time of Moses. This parallel also includes the subject of ordination.

The rabbinic case for ordination was based on the laying of hands on Joshua by Moses (Num. 27:22, 23) and the choosing of the 70 elders (Num. 11:16, 17, 24, 25). Even though there was no mention of the laying of hands on the 70, rabbinical exegesis applied a hermeneutical principle that "in two analogous texts, a particular consideration in one may be extended to the other as a general principle," 6 and took for granted that hands were placed on the 70 elders.

Mishnaic ordination. Based on the Mishnah, "ordination was required both for membership in the Great Sanhedrin, and the smaller Sanhedrins and regular colleges of judges empowered to decide legal cases." The "lowest degree of ordination entitled the rabbi to decide only religious questions, while the highest degree entitled him to inspect firstlings, in addition to deciding religious questions and judging criminal cases." 7 Thus the "ordained person" became important in not only the religious but also the civil life of the people.

But the Emperor Hadrian, during the Jewish revolt of A.D. 132-135, sought to curtail the influence of the new Sanhedrin by forbidding ordination. By the third century the laying on of hands ceased, and the rabbi was appointed and dedicated by his name being pronounced. The authority for the appointment rested with the patriarch and not, as earlier, when a teacher would place his hand on his pupil; further, any ceremony of installment performed by the council or college of judges "without the consent of the patriarch was invalid, while the patriarch received the privilege of per forming the ceremony without the con sent of the college." 8

Another reason for not laying hands was "the increasing role played by the imposition of hands in the Christian religion." The name of the Jewish ordination service was also changed from semikah or semikuta, meaning laying on of hands, to minnuy, meaning appointment.9

Mishnaic influence on the primitive church. Scholars hold three main opinions on how mishnaic ordination may have influenced the primitive church. Hugo Mantel distinguishes two separate ordinations during the Second Temple period: "First, they ordained the student (the scholar sitting at the top of the front row was given the official title of Hakam [sage]), and then they appointed him judge and sat him in the High Court." 10

Mantel believes that "the early Jewish Christians, especially in Jerusalem, borrowed their customs from Judaism. They regarded themselves as a Jewish sect separated from the Pharisees only by their belief in Jesus. It is clear that the early Christians did not invent this laying on of hands, nor could they have borrowed it from the Hellenistic world." 11

Another view is that of Arnold Ehrhardt who argues that the Mishnah is not historically reliable and does not prove rabbinical ordination in New Testament times. On "rabbi" as a title for an ordained Jewish scholar, Ehrhardt states: "There can be no question that in Talmudic times it was 'Rabbi,' but in the period before A.D. 70 this title was freely given to nonordained Jewish scholars—a fact which is borne out by the evidence of the New Testament." 12

Ehrhardt also points out that the title given to the members of the Sanhedrin was "presbyter," and that was not synonymous with "scribe" or "rabbi." In the New Testament "the elders and scribes are mentioned side by side as separate groups in Matthew 26:57 and Acts 6:12, which suggests that the elders were not necessarily scribes." 13

Ehrhardt draws three conclusions: "The first and best founded is that the development of Jewish ordination con firms our assertion that the Christian description of ministers as presbyters was derived from the title of the members of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. The second is that in the matter of ordination the church and the synagogue appear not in the relation of son and mother, but as half-brothers, like Isaac and Ishmael (Gal. 4:22f.), both in their way appropriating the Old Testament example. The third is that it may be wise, especially with regard to the rites of imposition of hands and enthronement of bishops, to allow for a period of development ex tending right down to the middle of the second century." 14

A third view proposes an origin that is purely Christian, a distinct New Testamental invention. Everett Ferguson associates the laying on of hands, not with the Hebrew samakh, but with  s'im, which ex pressed the transfer of a blessing. He agrees that "on the surface there appears to be good reason to connect Christian usage with samakh. It was used for appointment to office in the Old Testament and be came the technical term for ordination in Judaism." 15 But the deciding issue is "the question of the category to which Christian ordination belongs." "The basic idea in early Christian ordination was not creating a substitute or transferring authority, but conferring a blessing and petitioning for the divine favor." 16

Further, Ferguson finds "confirmation that Christian ordination is rooted in s'im and not in samakh... [in] the fact that laying on of hands in the church occurs only as an accompaniment to prayer. There is no indication that prayer was a part of Jewish ordinations." 17

The laying on of hands in the NT

Of the numerous texts in the New Testament that deal with the laying on of hands, only six are related to ministry: two in Acts (6:6; 13:3) and three relating to Timothy.

The two accounts in Acts are found within the same context. According to Marjorie Warkentin, the significance of the two events are found in the evidence that God has renewed His covenant. The Moses-Joshua and people-Levites samakh experiences are now repeated. In Acts 6:6 the apostles laid their hands on the seven, even as Moses laid his on Joshua. In Acts 13:3 the people laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas, as in the case of the Levites. Warkentin underscores the once-and-for-all significance of these events and rests the case there.18

The laying of hands upon the seven. Who placed their hands upon the seven and why? The first question is easily answered: "These they presented to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:6, NEB). In the Greek, the construction is such that those who "laid their hands on" could equally well be the ones who presented them. The only Greek manuscript that has a reading that makes it definite that it was the apostles is Codex Bezae, also named Codex D, a late manuscript from the fifth or sixth century, and according to scholars, marked by variations from others.

The change in Acts 6:6 of Codex Bezae reflects a historical development beginning in the third century, when only the bishop in apostolic succession could ordain, followed by the assertion that bishops are the vicars of Christ—a claim later applied to the pope. 19 This does not necessarily mean that the apostles could not have placed their hands on the seven, for the text can be interpreted both ways. Eduard Schweizer asserts that the laying on of hands, both on Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3) and on the seven, was for special service and "blessing." He there fore states: "It is not a matter of ordination, as both already belonged to the company of 'prophets and teachers.' It is therefore an 'installation,' i.e., a placing in a particular sphere of service which differs in some respects from that previously occupied." 20

The commission of Paul and Barnabas. The laying on of hands upon Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3) is clearly a consecration service for a special missionary task. They were themselves among the group of prophets and teachers in Antioch, but while the group was praying and fasting, the Holy Spirit impressed them to set apart Barnabas and Paul for a missionary work.

The language used here corresponds to the consecration of the Levites (who by the samakh represented the people). God told Moses: "You shall separate the Levites from among the sons of Israel" (Num. 8:6, 14). In Acts the Holy Spirit directed the Antioch church: "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (Acts 13:2). The Levites were also set apart for a special work (Num. 8:11, 15; the Septuagint has the same word for "work"—ergon as the New Testament).

Torrance suggests that Paul and Barnabas "were not ordained as 'rabbinic' pupils or disciples, but rather sent out as 'apostles' or authorized messengers of the community on a limited mission.... It does not seem to refer to ordination in the proper sense." 21

The laying of hands in Epistles to Timothy. In the two Epistles to Timothy we find three references to the laying on of hands. Two speak of laying of hands on Timothy: "Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery" (1 Tim. 4:14); "I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Tim.1:6).

The third one is a counsel to Timothy: "Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others: keep yourself free from sin" (1 Tim. 5:22).

The obvious meaning of the first is that the presbytery placed their hands upon Timothy; in the second it was Paul. Another plausible explanation for the first is that the presbytery ordained Timothy, while Paul presided over the occasion. Timothy was not only a convert of Paul, but a close ministerial associate for nearly 20 years.

The act of laying of hands on Timothy no doubt took place early in his service. His career followed that of Paul and was not that of a local elder or overseer (bishop). The latter was "appointed"; no mention is made of hands being placed upon a local elder. That Paul should have ordained Timothy, who as a bishop in later years would ordain another, thus establishing apostolic succession, cannot be true to the historical situation.

In the unique historical situation and work of Paul in the early church, in which Timothy was closely related and often represented Paul personally, Paul may have laid his hands upon Timothy, even as a rabbi does on his pupil (if that was the custom in Paul's time). One thing is certain: Timothy represented Paul and the church universal; the presbytery as a whole had placed their hands upon him, and with Paul no doubt among them and possibly presiding over the rite. That's the background to 1 Timothy 4:14. Second Timothy 1:6 may refer to the same event. Whether there were one or two occasions of the laying on of hands is of minor importance; the significant fact is that Timothy was chosen by the Holy Spirit, commissioned by Paul, and sent as an emissary (apostle) by the people.

The injunction of 1 Timothy 5:22. Among the many injunctions Paul gave to Timothy, one is this: "Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin" (1 Tim. 5:22). This passage is often interpreted to mean that Timothy could ordain another bishop. In fact, the church in later years based its case of ordination on the basis of this and other passages in Timothy and Acts.

Some translations do not help clear the confusion. The New English Bible reads: "Do not be over-hasty in laying on hands in ordination"; The Living Bible: "Never be in a hurry about choosing a pastor; you may overlook his sins and it will look as if you approve of them"; and Philips: "Never be in a hurry to ordain a man by laying your hands upon him."

But the context makes the meaning clear. Paul is speaking about a person who has been under church discipline. Kenneth S. Wuest writes: "The words 'Lay hands suddenly' have to do with the restoration of a sinning church member back into the fellowship of the local church. ... In verse 19, we see the accusation, in verse 20, the conviction and sentence, and in verse 22, the restoration to church fellow ship. Expositors say: 'Timothy is bid den to restrain by deliberate prudence the impulses of mere pity. A hasty reconciliation tempts the offender to suppose that his offence cannot have been so very serious after all; and smooths the way to a repetition of the sin.... Those who give letters of recommendation with too great facility fall under the apostolic condemnation.'" 22

Thus the Timothy and Acts pas sages do not deal with church ordination as generally perceived. We can not use them as a precedent for a concept that developed in the third century establishing a monarchical bishop and his role in performing the rite of ordination. As Birger A. Pearson notes: "The ecclesiological situation in Paul's churches . . . seems to be one of free, charismatic expression, and we find no concrete evidence of hierarchical organization, nor anything at all about 'ordination' to church offices." 23

Early historical sequel

The earliest description of an ordination service can be traced back to the third century, and is recorded in The Apostolic Tradition, by Hippolytus (d. A.D. 236), a presbyter in the church of Rome. His description of ordination confirms the changed concept of ministry that took place by the third century and expressed in the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian.

A distinction between the bishop and the presbyter is clearly drawn. A new bishop can be ordained only by other bishops, who alone "lay their hands on him, and the presbytery shall stand by in silence." In the ordination prayer the bishop is called God's "high priest"; the ordination granted him "the Spirit of high-priesthood" by which he had "authority to remit sins."

The distinction between the bishop and the presbyter was further widened by the fact that only the bishop could ordain the latter. "But when a presbyter is ordained, the bishop shall lay his hand upon his head, while the presbyters touch him." 24

In the case of the ordination of a deacon, only the bishop places his hand upon him, for "he is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to carry out the bishop's commands. He does not take part in the council of the clergy; he is to attend to his own duties and to make known to the bishop such things as are needful. He does not receive that Spirit that is possessed by the presbytery, in which the presbyters share; he receives only what is confided in him under the bishop's authority. For this cause the bishop alone shall make a deacon." 25

Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. The fourth century saw the appearance of a church manual, the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,26 which claims to tell us what the apostles supposedly said and did. "But being taught by the Lord the series of things, we distributed the functions of the high-priesthood to the bishops, those of the priesthood to the presbyters, and the ministration under them both to the deacons; that the divine worship might be performed in purity. For it is not lawful for a deacon to offer the sacrifice, or to baptize, or to give either the greater or the lesser blessing. Nor may a presbyter perform ordination." 27

Constitutions emphasizes the distinction between the laity and the priesthood: "Let the layperson honour him [bishop], love him, reverence him as his lord, as his master, as the high priest of God, as a teacher of piety. For he that heareth him, heareth Christ; and he that rejecteth him, rejecteth Christ." 28 Further, the bishop is "the mediator between God and you in the several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit. He is your ruler and governor; he is your king and potentate; he is, next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honoured by you... . For let the bishop preside over you as one honoured with the authority of God, which he is to exercise over the clergy, and by which he is to govern all the people." 29

The bishop is ordained "by three bishops" in the presence of presbyters, deacons, and the people who "give their consent." When it comes to a presbyter and deacon, they are "ordained by one bishop." 30 Provision is also made for ordination of deaconesses. The deacon and deaconess serve the bishop.31

Augustine of Hippo. Augustine (A.D. 396-430) followed the main tenets of Cyprian's ecclesiology, but furthered the development of the so-called Christian priesthood by "his sacramental concept of the ministry whereby the validity of a cleric's sacramental action was seen to be independent of his personal character." Roman Catholics adhere "" to this principle when asserting that by the sacrament of ordination the priest is marked by an indelible character. Regarding ordination, Augustine made it "wholly a permanent possession of the individual apart from the community in which and through which it was conferred." 32

The sacerdotal aspect of the new Christian high priest changed the New Testament concept of the ministry and appointment to it. Eric G. Jay expresses it well: "This view of the ministry, as it gained acceptance, doubtless aided by the common use of sacerdotal terminology, inevitably led to a new ecclesiology which sees the church as essentially a hierarchical body. The concept of the church as the whole people of God lost ground, and the distinction between clergy and laity was highly sharpened as the latter were relegated to the role of passive dependents. This ecclesiology was to come under formidable attack in the sixteenth century." 33

Luther and Calvin's concept of ordination

Luther's early attack on the Roman sacramental system includes his criticism of ordination as a sacrament. Luther states: "The church of Christ knows nothing [of ordination as a sacrament] ; it is an invention of the church of the pope. Not only is there nowhere any promise of grace attached to it, but there is not a single word said about it in the whole New Testament. Now it is ridiculous to put forth as a sacrament of God something that cannot be proved to have been instituted by God." 34 Accordingly, for Luther, "ordination, if it is anything at all, is nothing else than a certain rite whereby one is called to the ministry of the church." 35 To Luther the "indelible character" of ordination is a "fiction." Ministers can either be "suspended temporarily, or permanently deprived of their office." 36

Calvin likewise attacks the Roman Catholic sacramental idea of ordination, which is supposed to confer upon the recipient the power of "offering sacrifice to appease God." Accordingly "all are injurious to Christ who call themselves priests in the sense of offering expiatory victims." 37

Ordination and the priesthood of believers. The call to the ministry is connected with the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. Through baptism and faith "every Christian possesses the word of God and is taught and anointed by God to be priest" 38 wrote Luther in 1523, and that concept he never changed. In 1535 he introduced ceremonial ordination in Wittenberg, but even after that he wrote (1539): "It is enough that you are consecrated and anointed with the sub lime and holy chrism of God, with the Word of God, with baptism, . . . then you are anointed highly and gloriously enough and sufficiently vested with priestly garments." 39

Every Christian through baptism is assured "that we are all equally priests, that is to say, we have the same power in respect to the Word and the sacraments." Yet no one should use that "power" on his own initiative, for "what is the common property of all no individual may arrogate to himself, unless he is called." 40 Here is Luther's bridge to an official or public minis try.

Luther's concept of the priesthood of believers grew out of his Christology and soteriology: "Because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people." 41 In turn, because of the ekklesia being the priesthood of believers, the official ministry is a representative ministry, also referred to as the delegated or transferral ministry.

The Reformers' common view of the priesthood believers was brought into practice in a special way by Calvin in his presbyterian form of church organization. Calvin emphasized that as believers in Christ "we are all priests." Here the pastors and the elders (who outnumbered the pastors) exercised paternal criticism, counsel, and discipline. The appointment of a new minister came from a suggestion of the ministers who had their own council, but the consent had to be obtained from the body of believers and finally from the city authorities. The pastor was installed or commissioned by the people, their church councils, and the civil government.42

Importance of the call and the com mission. To Luther, the call, rather than the ceremony of laying on of hands, is decisive in ministry.

Schoenleber comments: "Luther denied the idea that ritual ordination at the hands of a bishop is a necessary prerequisite for holding and exercising the office of the ministry. A call, not ritual ordination, is the only theological prerequisite for holding the office of the ministry. A ceremony using prayer and the imposition of hands may be used to install ministers in their congregations (as a public affirmation of their call), but it is optional and repeatable each time the ministers change congregations." 43

For Calvin too the call is important, not the rite of ordination: "There fore, if any one would be deemed a true minister of the church, he must first be duly called." Together with "the external and formal call which relates to the public order of the church," we also have "that secret call of which every minister is conscious to himself before God." 44

Calvin continues: "We see, then, that ministers are legitimately called according to the Word of God, when those who may have seemed fit are elected on the consent and approbation of the people. Other pastors, how ever, ought to preside over the election, lest any error should be commit ted by the general body either through levity, or bad passion, or tumult." 45

Ritual ordination. In Luther's endeavors to establish an evangelical church prior to 1535 "ritual ordination was not required for holding the office of ministry, and no regular method of ordination for the new church was introduced until 1535." 46 Even when that happened there "is no evidence to indicate that before 1535 Luther either tried to persuade the elector to authorize ordinations or ever claimed that ordination is necessary for holding the office of the ministry." 47 Indeed, Melanchthon, the systematizer of Protestant theology, was a lay theologian.

Calvin found biblical support for the laying on of hands in installing a minister. Luther did the same. How ever, Calvin, like Luther, looked at it as a mere rite or ceremony, "agreeing unto order and comeliness," but having "of itself no force or power." 48

Formal ordination. In the spring of 1535 the elector of Saxony mandated that formal ordination was to be a prerequisite for holding ministerial office in his territory. Candidates for the ministry were to be examined and ordained by the theological faculty in Wittenberg. "It seems that the elector doubted that unordained people were truly able to hold and exercise the office of the ministry. He evidently saw a theological necessity for ritual ordination and so finally mandated ritual ordination as a legal precondition for holding the office of the ministry." 49

Luther accepted the elector's man date without changing his theological concept of ritual ordination as long as the preaching of the Word could be enhanced. Pragmatism seemed to have been Luther's motive. He saw the man date as an opportunity by which a needed ministry could be developed with higher morality, better education, and reasonable salary, and a recognized and respected professional and social status in society; a worthy goal— but achieved with the assistance of secular powers. In the autumn of 1535 Luther delivered an ordination sermon in which he explained the new ordination arrangement. "Luther noted that Saxony faced a major threat from false teaching in its parishes and that the ordination mandate was a proper step towards rooting out false teaching since it gave Wittenberg control over the quality of new pastors." 50

Meanwhile in Geneva Calvin found it best to abstain from laying on of hands. When Calvin returned to Geneva from Strassburg in 1541, the city council had promised to cooper ate with him, but as Francois Wendel has pointed out, only "on condition that this did not infringe any of the prerogatives of the civil power, or affect certain customs that the Genevan church observed in common with the Bernese churches, and which had to be maintained for political reasons." One of these conditions was that "the installation of new pastors could not be accompanied by the laying on of hands according to the example of Strassburg; they had to be inducted simply by a prayer, and with a sermon upon the pastoral functions. These were, after all, details of minor importance, and Calvin gave way." 51

Thus Luther introduced the rite of laying on of hands under the influence of civil power, while Calvin withheld it because of civil power. But Calvin returned to the issue again. In the last edition of the Institutes (Latin, 1559, and French, 1560) Calvin endorsed the laying on of hands by referring to the New Testament. He says that pas tors, teachers, and deacons were consecrated in this way. He admits that "there is no fixed precept concerning the laying on of hands," but he considered it a useful symbol by which "the dignity of the ministry should be com mended to the people, and he who is ordained, reminded that he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the church. Besides, it will not prove an empty sign, if it be restored to its genuine origin. For if the Spirit of God has not instituted anything in the church in vain, this ceremony of his appointment we shall feel not to be useless, provided it be not superstitiously abused." 52

Early development in the Reformed Churches. J. L. Ainslie, in his extensive study of the ministry in the Re formed churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, says: "Opinions have differed in most of the churches, both Reformed and others, as to the rite [of laying of hands] being essential in ordination or otherwise. Some have held it to be an absolute essential, while others have considered it better omitted, or, at the most, not essential, but only to be used as a helpful out ward indication of ordination." 53

Ainslie cites a number of examples to illustrate the different concepts. The Scottish First Book of Discipline speaks against the imposition of hands. 54 In 1581 the Second Book of Discipline "definitely authorized the rite, though . . . the wording does not indicate any enforcing of it in ordinations. And it was not enforced. Ministers were admitted freely." 55

The Reformed Church in Holland also found the rite unnecessary. In its Canons of 1577 "the omission of laying on of hands in ordinations" was decreed, but at the Synod of Dort in 1619 the imposition of hands was stipulated. 56 Where the imposition of hands was practiced there were variations regarding who should lay on the hands: one minister, several ministers, or ministers and laymen.57

These examples may tell us two things: first, that the call and the appointment, not the ceremonial rite, are of basic significance, and second, that God, under specific circumstances, calls people to unique tasks through the Holy Spirit (like Melanchthon and Calvin, who were never ordained).

History tells us that ordination has been performed with diverse concepts of church-society relationships in mind. As Warkentin writes: "The church of Jesus Christ has continued to seek its patterns for church office in the society in which it is placed, in spite of our Lord's warnings that He is initiating a new society with its own unique authority structure." Further, "if we are convinced that the individual believer can be or is being trans formed by the Spirit of God, then the church too must demonstrate to the world that it is the community of the redeemed. Its political structures must reflect the transformed character of the community as a whole if the world is to take its gospel seriously." 58

Adapted from V. Norskov Olsen, Myth and
Truth About Church, Priesthood and Ordinanation
(Riverside, Calif.: Loma Linda University
Press, 1990).

* Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture
passages in this article are from the New American
Standard Bible.


1 Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Geneva:
World Council of Churches, 1982), p. 31.

2 David Daube, The New Testament and
Rabbinic Judaism (London: University of Lon
don, 1956), pp. 224-246.


3 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible
Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Her
ald Pub. Assn., 1953), vol. 1, pp. 653, 654.

4 See Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol 14 (1972
ed.), pp. 1139-1147, s.v. "Semikhah"; The
Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 9 (1905 ed.), pp.
428-430; s.v. "Ordination"; Encyclopedia of
Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (1960
ed.), pp. 552-554, s.v. "Ordination (Jewish)."

5 Hastings, Vol. IX, p. 553.

6 Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-
Historical View (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans, 1982), p. 17.


7 Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 14, pp. 1140,
1141.

8 The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. IX, p. 429.

9 Ibid.

10 See Hugo Mantel, "Ordination and Appointment
in the Period of the Temple," Harvard
Theological Review 57 (1964): 325-346.


11 Ibid., p. 341.

12 Arnold Ehrhardt, "Jewish and Christian
Ordination," Journal of Ecclesiastical History
V(1954): 131.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., pp. 137, 138.

15 Everett Ferguson, "Laying on of Hands:
Its Significance in Ordination," Journal of
Theological Studies XXVI (April 1975): 2.

16 Ibid., pp. 1,2.

17 ————"Jewish and Christian Ordination,"
 Journal of Theological Studies XXVI
(April 1975): 15.

18 Warkentin, pp. 109-152.

19 H. Burn-Murdoch, The Development of
the Papacy (London: Faber and Faber, 1954),
pp. 76, 77.

20 Eduard Schweizer, Church Order in the
New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1961), p.
208.

21 T. F. Torrance, "Consecration and
Ordination," Scottish Journal of Theology (1958):
235, 237.

22 Kenneth S. Wuest, The Pastoral Epistles
in the Greek New Testament: For the English
Reader (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans,
1953), pp. 87, 88.

23 Birger A. Pearson, "Ministry and Ordination
in the Early Church," in Ecclesia Leiturgia
Ministerium (Helsinki, 1977), p. 133.

24 R. Newton Flew, Jesus and His Church: A
Study of the Idea of the Ecclesia in the New
Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1938), p. 38.

25 The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus,
trans. Burton Scott Easton (Archon Books,
1962), p. 38.

26 "Constitutions of the Holy Apostles," in
Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts
and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans, 1951-56), VII, pp. 391-505.

27 Ibid., Book VIII, Sec. V, par. xlvi.

28 Book II, Sec. Ill, par. xx.

29 Book II, Sec. IV, par. xxvl.

30 Book III, Sec. II, par. xx; Book VIII, Sec.
II, par. iv.

31 Book II, Sec. IV, pars, xxvi, xxix-xxxi;
Book VIII, Sec. Ill, pars, xvi-xx.

32 George H. Williams, "Ministry in Late
Patristic Period," in The Ministry in Historical
Perspectives, eds. H. Richard Niebuhr and
Daniel D. Williams (New York: Harper Broth
ers, 1956), pp. 74, 75.

 

33 Eric G. Jay, The Church: Its Changing
Image Through Twenty Centuries
(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), p. 58.

34 Luther's Works (St. Louis, Concordia
Publishing House, 1958-1967), vol. 36, pp. 106
107.

35 Ibid., p. 116


36 Ibid., p. 117

37 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,
trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans, 1957), Book IV, Chap. XIX, Sec. XXVIII

38 Luther's Works, vol. 39, p. 309.


39 Ibid., vol. 41, p. 152.

40 Ibid., vol. 36, p. 116.

41 Ibid., vol. 44, p. 127.

42 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church
(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1910),
Vol. VIII, pp. 480-484.

43 Richard W. Schoenleber, "The Sovereign Word:
The Office of the Ministry and Ordination
in the Theology of Martin Luther" (Ph.D. diss.,

University of Iowa, 1983), pp. 169, 170.

44 Calvin, Institutes, X, XI, Book IV, Chap.
III, Secs. X, XI.

45 Ibid., IV, iii, 10, XV, Sec. XV.

46 Schodenleber, pp. 194, 195.

47 Ibid., p. 198

48 John Calvin, Commentary Upon Acts of the Apostles,
ed. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. 
Eerdmans, 1957), vol. 1, p. 238.


49 Schodenleber, pp. 240, 240, 241.

50 Ibid., pp. 246, 247.

51 Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and
Development of His Religious Thought, trans.
Philip Mairet (London: Wm. Collins, 1963), p. 71.

52 Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, Chap. III, Sec. XVI

53 James L. Ainslie, The Doctrines of Ministerial
Order in the Reformed Churches of the 16th and 17th
Centuries (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1940), p. 159.

54 Ibid., p. 177.

55 Ibid., p. 176.

56 Ibid., p. 177.

57 Ibid., p. 185.

58 Warkentin, p. 186.


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V. Norskov Olsen, Th.D., Ph.D., is a church historian and a former president of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

April 1995

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