A practical theology of ordination

An interpretive model of ordination from the New Testament data.

Keith A. Burton is associate professor of New Testament at Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama.

A recent article in the Adventist Review (May 1995) stated that the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not possess a clear theology of ordination. If that is the case, then under what premise have we been ordaining over the past century and a half? I think that what the author meant to say was that the decision to ordain women as elders has obscured the theological basis under which we have conducted ordinations in the past. The semantics behind the charge not withstanding, I do believe that it is time for the church to revisit systematically the relevant biblical passages that address the issue.

Recent discussions have shown that there is a fundamental difference between ordination and "officiation." Most will agree, to some extent at least, on the universal applicability of ordination, but there is much disagreement concerning both the occupation of and the status assigned to certain offices.The problem is not only fueled by issues of gender, but also enlivened by the hierarchical question. In other words, are there really progressive ordinations for deacons, elders, and pastors? In this article I will attempt to address these issues and reevaluate our understanding of ordination in the light of officiation.

Biblical teaching on ordination

Ordination is a public recognition that a person possesses the spiritual gifts necessary for leadership ministry. The nature of the New Testament church necessitates that we not interpret its organizational structure in the shadow of the Israelite priestly system that had its locus in the Temple. Rather, the early church was structured along the lines of the diasporic synagogues with its localized organizations.

In the early Christian congregations, members who demonstrated a spiritual ability to lead were so recognized by ordination. Jesus apparently commenced this practice when He selected the 12 disciples to assist Him. Later, as the apostles saw a need for further assistance, others were chosen (Acts 6:1-7). The routine nature of this practice is demonstrated with the ordination of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:2, and their practice of ordaining elders as they established and strengthened local churches (14:23).

One notices in the New Testament that ordination was reserved for those who had specific leadership gifts. Not every gift demanded an official recognition or installation into a church leadership position. From the wording of Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5, it appears that those who were ordained fell under the general category of presbuteroi ("elders"). The ordination was not to a specific leadership position such as teacher, apostle, pastor, or evangelist. This observation is further evident in the fact that the apostles Peter and John identify themselves as presbuteroi (1 Peter 5:1; 3 John 1). Thus we see that while the church leaders may have per formed distinct functions, they all bore the generic designation "presbuteros.''

Biblical teaching on officiation

Paul informs us of only two recognized ecclesiastical offices in the early church: the episcopate (episkopos) and the diaconate (diakonos).1 These positions are categorized as offices, and should not be confused with spiritual "functions" (prophesying, speaking in tongues, administration, evangelism, etc.). The rhetorical placement of episkopos ("bishop" or "overseer") before diakonos ("deacon" or "minister") in the passages where both offices are mentioned indicates that the episcopate was the highest position. This assertion is supported by the fact that the leader of the local church in the late first and early second centuries is referred to as the episkopos. While some may wish to equate the episkopos to the contemporary conference-appointed pastor, it is more correct to view this individual as the equivalent of our local church head elder. The diakonos, on the other hand, was a support person—an assistant pastor or specialized minister.2

Selection of officers from among the ordained

Although the episkopos was the "pastor" of the congregation, the office was probably administered by the presbuterios ("presbytery" or "board of elders"), which was made up of congregational presbuteroi. As mentioned above, the term presbuteros appears to be a general designation for church leaders, and not the title of a particular office. Since the qualifications for the person who is selected presbuteros is similar to that of the episkopos, it is safe to assume that the episkopos was chosen from among the presbuteroi (see Titus 1:5-9).

The tendency to view episkopos and presbuteros as synonyms is probably a result of the assumption that both are references to church offices. However, this association is diminished if one accepts that the presbuterios comprised a body of people who demonstrated gifts for ministry, only a select number of whom were church officers.

The presbuterios was responsible for electing candidates into specific offices (1 Tim. 4:14), and its members were also involved in remunerated ministry (1 Tim. 5:17-22).Since presbuteros is a reference to a person, rather than an office, it is possible that the college of presbuteroi embodied in the presbuterios consisted of potential, current, and retired people who qualified for the offices of episkopos and diakonos.

An ordination model in the light of officiation

Having established an exegetical basis and the original context for Pauline practice, how shall we relate these words to our ecclesiastical situation as we move toward the twenty-first century?

The honest observer will immediately notice that the current model of ministry in the Adventist Church is considerably different from the biblical one. While our present model consists of a hierarchy that includes elder, deacon, and pastor, an organizational model based on the early church will contain only two levels: bishops and deacons. In fact, while apparently hierarchical, the levels themselves will be detached from the board of elders (presbytery), thus making it an "egalitarian hierarchy." The egalitarian nature of the organization stems from the fact that every member of the board of elders has received the same ordination. Further, the person elected to serve as bishop or deacon functions as a representative of the board, and not its ruler.

Additionally, the adoption of a biblical model will move the locus of authority from the administrative levels of the organization to the local church. In the early church, it was the local congregation that endorsed a person's leadership gifts. Similarly, in our time, every person who is elected to head a department or a special ministry should automatically be ordained as an elder. After all, his or her election has been based on the recognition of certain spiritual gifts. With this change in perspective, what is now called the church board would be correctly defined as the "board of elders" (presbuterios).

It is also interesting to note that the New Testament church elected the pastor (episkopos) from among the presbuteroi. The local congregation was more aware of its own needs than any external committee of centralized bishops. Furthermore, it had the added advantage of assessing more accurately whether or not a certain person exemplified the characteristics of an episkopos.

As we move toward the twenty-first century, there is a need to reevaluate the role of the local church in both the ordination and the officiation processes. In fact, in two thirds of the world, the bulk of the pastoral work is already administered by laypeople, and the "head elder" functions as the "pastor." Rather than bemoan the undesirable "pastor-to-church" ratio in many non- Western sections of the church, we need to acknowledge the people's choice of pastor and develop more programs for the formal training of the first elder, who, in a technical sense, is the elected episkopos ("bishop in resident").

This is not to say that those who choose to enter the itinerant ministry do not have a place in the biblical organizational model. However, those of us who undergo formal seminary training should be aware of our positions. The elder who is assigned to a church by the conference should recognize that his or her role is that of diakonos (assistant to the episkopos). Only if the local presbuterios so chooses should the conference representative occupy the office of episkopos. As with the ministries of Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, and Peter, the task of the conference-appointed elder should be that of evangelist and equipper. This in no way diminishes the essential nature of the function, but it puts things back into a biblical perspective. All in all, the ordination of the conference "elder" is in no way superior to that of the local elder, and does not automatically lead to installation into the office of episkopos.3

At issue: ecclesiology

In conclusion, I think I have established sufficient grounds to support my contention that a theology of ordination must operate vis-a-vis a theology of officiation. Of course, I have operated under the conviction that the administrative model outlined in the New Testament is somewhat paradigmatic for the church in consequent ages. While this conviction raises serious questions about our current organizational structure, it helps to clarify some of the ambiguities that have surrounded the discussion of ordination.

I have also argued that the fact that one possesses certain gifts for ministry does not necessitate that he or she be automatically channeled to the pastorate. The truth is that although all presbuteroi possessed the gifts and qualifications for ministry, every one did not serve in the office of episkopos. As teachers, evangelists, preachers, administrators, and counselors, their task was to support the work of the episkopos. The designation was not an indication of what they did, but who they were. As members of the presbuterios, men and women will exercise their spiritual gifts, whether in the official capacity of diakonos or episkopos, or otherwise.

At issue here is our ecclesiology. How are we to understand and interpret the roles of males and females who have been called to ministry? If indeed the Pauline admonition is to apply to the local congregation, then all who are graced by the Spirit with leadership gifts should be so recognized. The fact that they are called indicates their ordination from God, and the church has the responsibility to see to it that they invest their gifts in the nurturing of the body of Christ. Nonetheless, in affirming the gifts of our brothers and sisters, it is our responsibility to remain within biblical guidelines and not to adopt models that restrict the full ministerial potential of the total membership.


1. See 1 Tim. 3:lff.; Titus 1:5-9; and Phil. 1:1. See also Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), p. 50, who recognize that in 1 Timothy, "the existence of the episcopate and diaconate is presupposed."

2. See article by H. W. Beyer, "diakonos," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, pp. 81-93.

3. Having said this, I am well aware that in light of the wording of Acts 1:14ff., some see the apostles as episkopoi (see Samuel Koranteng- Pipim, Searching the Scriptures: Women's Ordination and the Call to Biblical Fidelity [Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventists Affirm, 1995], pp. 56f. If this was indeed the case, then the apostles' role would be something like that of a conference president who serves as the general overseer of a certain constituency. However, an examination of the territory covered by the apostles renders it unlikely that their constituency was restricted by geographical boundaries.

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Keith A. Burton is associate professor of New Testament at Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama.

November 1996

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