Ordination in the New Testament?

A perceptive view of biblical ordination.

Nancy Vyhmeister, PhD, is professor emeritus of missions, at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

The elders were kneeling in a circle I around George, who was about to I become a deacon. The pastor was I praying for George, for his family, for his ministry to the church. As laying on of hands was mentioned, each elder reached out to touch George.

Was this the way ordination took place in the times of Peter and Paul? I went home and turned to my Bible that afternoon.

Unfortunately, the New Testament gives little specific information about services such as the one I saw that morning. Twelve pas sages speak of some kind of appointment or commissioning, but none uses the word "ordination." To understand the topic, let's briefly review the biblical terminology for commissioning, followed by an analysis of these 12 passages.


The term "ordination" comes from the Latin ordinare, "to put in ordo," with ordo meaning "row, rank, or order." In ancient Rome, ordo referred to a category of people, as in the "order of senators," distinguished from the plebe.

In ecclesiastical Latin, ordo refers to the "holy orders" and ordinare to the ceremony of induction into holy orders. According to Canon Law, the "sacrament of holy orders" constitutes some faithful Christians as "sacred ministers by means of the indelible character with which they are marked."1

While the English verb "ordain" can mean to "issue an order," its ecclesiastical meaning is "to invest with ministerial or priestly authority." Such a meaning is not present in the New Testament.

Biblical terminology for induction into office, especially in the Old Testament, includes anointing and laying on of hands. For commissioning or induction into office, the New Testament uses additional words, none of them associated with "ordination" in the ecclesiastical sense.


In the Old Testament, things, places, and persons are anointed to make them holy, to set them apart for a holy use. For example, Jacob anointed a memorial stone at Bethel (Gen. 28:18) and the Levites anointed the tabernacle and its contents (Exod. 40:9) in order to "consecrate" them.

At the beginning of their priestly service, Aaron and his descendants were anointed with fragrant oil (Exod. 30:30-32). While there is no specific mention of the ordination of each of the kings of Israel and Judah, there is evidence that anointing the king at the beginning of his reign was habitual. This was done either by a priest, such as Jehoiada who anointed Joash (2 Chron. 23:11) or by a prophet, such as Elijah who anointed Jehu (1 Kings 19:16). The verb used is mashach, to smear, to anoint with oil. The king thus became a mashiach, an "anointed one." This Hebrew term was equivalent to "Messiah."

In the New Testament, two different Greek verbs are used to convey the meaning "anoint." One is aleipho,2 which appears eight times. Four refer to the anointing (with per fume) of Jesus by a woman (Luke 7:38, 46; John 11:2; 12:3), two to the use of oil in the healing of illness (Mark 6:13; James 5:14), one to the burial of Jesus (Mark 16:1), and one to cosmetic anointing (Matt. 6:17). None of these examples has any connection to ceremonial anointing for induction into office.

The second verb is chrio, "to anoint," from which comes the title Christos, "the anointed one," corresponding to the Hebrew mashiach. The verb itself is used only five times, always referring to anointing by God. In four cases, God anoints Jesus (Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38; Heb. 1:9). In the other, God gives spiritual anointing to believers (2 Cor. 1:21). A related verb, egchrio, appears in the invitation to Laodicea to anoint their eyes to regain sight (Rev. 3:18).

Laying on of hands

Laying on of hands can refer to giving a blessing (Gen. 48:8-20). It also appears in two Old Testament examples of induction into office. At the beginning of their ministry the Levites were purified by washing and shaving; then they received the laying on of hands by the whole congregation.

Their induction ceremony was completed by their laying hands on the bulls to be sacrificed (Num. 8:5- 26). According to Numbers 27:12-23, Moses appointed Joshua as his successor by laying his hands on him. Even though Joshua had authority and was endowed with the Spirit of God, he was to receive divine instruction through Eleazar the priest.

The Greek phrase equivalent to "laying on of hands" occurs 26 times in the New Testament. In the largest number of times (12) the phrase is used in the context of the laying on of hands to bring about healing. Of these occurrences, eight have to do with Jesus: He lays hands on a person who then receives healing (Matt. 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:23; 8:25; Luke 4:40; 13:13). Once the disciples are promised the gift of healing through laying on of hands (Mark 16:18). In Acts, three verses speak about healing brought about by the laying on of hands (Acts 9:12, 17; 28:8).

Closely related to the idea of healing is the reception of blessing through the laying on of hands (Matt. 19:13, 15; Mark 10:16). The reception of the Holy Spirit and of the gifts of the Spirit is linked to the laying on of hands (four times each). In Acts, new converts were filled with the Spirit when the apostles laid their hands on them (Acts 8:17-19; 19:6).

Paul speaks of the spiritual gifts Timothy received with the laying on of his own hands (2 Tim. 1:6) and the laying on of the elders' hands (1 Tim. 4:14). In Hebrews 6:1-2, "laying on of hands" is one of the basics of Christianity, along with baptism and resurrection, suggesting that this ceremony may have been part of the initiation rites of new believers.

Laying on of hands is mentioned three times in relation to appointment to office. The apostles commissioned the Seven by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6). The teachers and prophets at Antioch laid hands on Paul and Barnabas at their commissioning for ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 13:3). Paul instructs Timothy to be cautious in commissioning local church leaders by the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22).

In the New Testament, inductions into office or commissioning for mission involve four distinct groups of people: (1) the disciples who become apostles, (2) the Seven of Acts 6, (3) Paul and Barnabas, and (4) local church elders.

Several different Greek verbs are used in passages that describe these ceremonies. In the analysis that fol lows, specific Greek words are given for each instance.

Disciples to apostles

Three texts refer to Jesus' appointment of the twelve disciples. In Matthew 10:1-5, Jesus calls (kaleo) the Twelve to Himself and gives them power over disease and evil spirits. While in verse 1 they are "disciples," in verse 2 they are "apostles." In Mark (3:14-19), Jesus "makes [poieo] twelve" and "names" them apostles. He does this so that they may be with Him and go out to preach. Luke tells of Jesus' calling or choosing (kaleo) twelve of His disciples after a night spent in prayer. He thus made them into apostles (Luke 6:13-16).3

Jesus also appointed the Seventy (or seventy-two) to ministry. According to Luke 10:1-9, He "point ed them out" (anadeiknumi), gave them power, and sent them before Him to preach and to heal. Their appointment is similar to that of the Twelve.

After Jesus' ascension, the eleven decided to replace Judas. Following prayer they cast lots for Matthias. He was chosen (eklego), then "enrolled" or added to the eleven (Acts 1:21-26). His task thus became the same as that originally entrusted to the Twelve by Jesus.

Although they do not report any specific ceremony, these passages show a transition. The disciples become apostles; they form the inner circle of Christ's followers; they receive power to heal and preach, as they further Christ's mission.

The Seven

Acts 6:2-6 tells of the excessive work load for the Twelve and the ethnic disputes that led to the selection of seven wise and Spirit-filled men to "serve tables" and care for the widows. Thus the Twelve would be free to dedicate their time to prayer and preaching.

These men were chosen (eklegomai) by the church; the appointment ceremony included prayer and the laying on of hands. While their first task was to "serve tables," two who figure in later events are noted for tasks other than the care of the physical needs of church members: Stephen was a great preacher, martyred for his Lord (Acts 7); Philip was an evangelist (Acts 8:5-40).

This ceremony approaches the ones we see today in Seventh-day Adventist and other churches. It marked the commissioning of seven men to a specific church appointment. Interestingly, these Seven are not called "deacons." In the Pastoral Epistles, deacons appear as church leaders (1 Tim. 3:8, 12), ones who serve the church (diakonos). There is no mention of their ordination.4

Paul and Barnabas

Acts 13:1-3 narrates the appointment of Paul and Barnabas to ministry for the Gentiles. While the prophets and teachers in the church of Antioch were worshiping God and fasting, the Holy Spirit told them to "separate" (aphorizo) Barnabas and Saul for the work to which they had been called.

Verse 3 says that they fasted and prayed and layed their hands on them but fails to specify who "they" were. This commissioning includes more elements than any other recorded in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit takes an active part; the local church leaders do the commissioning. Prayer, fasting, and the lay ing on of hands are included.

In his later years, Paul writes Timothy about his own appointment to service. He claims that he was "placed" (tithemi) as a preacher, apostle, and teacher of Gentiles in witness to Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:7). He repeats the same assertion in 2 Timothy 1:11, noting that he was "put" (tithemi) or appointed as preacher, apostle, and teacher for the sake of the gospel. No additional details are given, but one may rightly suppose he was thinking of the appointment described in Acts 13.

Ellen White calls this appointment an ordination. She indicates that this ceremony marked the beginning of Paul's apostleship.5

Church elders

Three passages speak about the appointment of church elders, all in relation to Paul's ministry. As Paul concludes his first missionary journey, he and Barnabas revisit the places they had evangelized. Among other activities destined to "strength en" the "disciples," they appoint (cheirotoneo) elders in the churches, after fasting and prayer (Acts 14:23).

The verb used for "appointing" is used only this once in the New Testament. In classical Greek usage, this word meant raising the hand as to vote. Whether it meant anything different, such as laying on of hands, in Paul's Christian ecclesiastical usage, we have no idea. In any case, the appointment of local church elders as part of church organization seems to be clearly in view.

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul delineates the spiritual qualifications for church officers bishops, deacons, and "women." But he gives no instructions on any induction ceremony until a passing mention in 1 Timothy 5:22. Here he warns Timothy not to "lay hands" (cheir epitithemi) prematurely on anyone as by doing this he might "share responsibility for the sins of others." Evidently he is pleading for mature Christians to be church leaders.

Paul left Titus in Crete to set the church in order. Among others, the matters he was to "put in place" (kathistemi) was the function of elders in the different cities. This Titus should do "as I have directed you" (Titus 1:5). Unfortunately, Paul's specific directives on this issue have not come down to us in Scripture.

To these three cases might be added Timothy's experience. Paul reminds this young minister of the gift he received with the laying on of hands by the presbytery or elders (1 Tim. 4:14). Whether this was induction into office, a healing service, or the reception of the Holy Spirit is not specified. We can assume that at some point Timothy was made an elder, but no details are given.

Information about the work of elders, especially concerning their commissioning, is scarce. We know that these were church leaders, whose task was spiritual. They were called elders or presbyters because older persons were traditional leaders. Some kind of ceremony installed them in their church office. This installation seems to have included laying on of hands.

So what did I learn?

You have just read the results of my study only partly completed that Sabbath afternoon. The information I gathered was not as much as I would have liked. There was practically nothing on the organization of the church. Yes, there were apostles, elder/bishops, and deacons. But how did they relate to each other? Apostles and elders were commissioned; nothing is said about deacons. Was there a ceremony for them?

Yet, I found enough information on New Testament appointments to ministry to be reasonably sure of the following:

(1) Qualified believers were appointed to specific ministries or tasks.

(2) Some kind of empowering took place: The ones invested became what they had not been until then.

(3) The appointments had distinct spiritual overtones: the Spirit led, Jesus called; there was prayer and fasting; thus the commissioning was not entirely human.

(4) The appointments were made by the church for the benefit of the church.

(5) Certain qualifications had to be met by those appointed.

(6) The ultimate object of appointment was mission the spreading of the gospel.

What I did not find was any notion of hierarchy or power. Having hands laid on them prepared apostles and elders to do more work, to be better servants, to be more responsible for their actions. This responsibility seems to have been to the congregation rather than to a central church authority, which of course did not exist as it does today.

Instructions on how, when, where, and even why believers were commissioned to specific tasks or offices may not be clear. However, it is evident that ecclesiastical appointment was and is part of the church's legitimate activity. It seems to be one of those items which the church "binds on earth" (Matt. 16:19).

The church is empowered to make decisions and carry out appointments in order to fulfill its mission. George's ordination was appropriate, yet we cannot affirm that it was done "exactly as in the New Testament." Neither should we insist that current Seventh-day Adventist Church organization and ceremony are modeled directly after the pattern of the New Testament.

Finally, I cannot help but consider the gospel commission (Matt. 28:18-20), "Go and make disciples," as the ultimate commission, given to every Christian. This appointment parallels that received in ordination. It makes believers what they were not before (as Ellen White so poignantly notes: "Every true disciple is born into the kingdom as a missionary"6), and empowers them for ministry.

This appointment takes place at baptism and includes those "upon whom human hands have never been laid in ordination, [who] are called to act an important part in soul-saving."7 To fulfill this commission all not merely the priests and kings of Israel may be qualified by the anointing of the Holy Spirit. After all, we are, says Peter, a royal priest hood (1 Peter 2:9).

1 Canon 1008, Canon Law of 1983.

2 To facilitate typesetting, no distinction is made between long and short Greek vowels.

3 At the beginning of chapter 30 of The Desire of Ages, Ellen White quotes the KJV of Mark 3:13, 14: "He ordained twelve" (290). Although she does call this their "ordination" (293), she says nothing about any ceremony.

4 Ellen White uses the term "ordain" to refer to what happened in Acts 6 (Acts of the Apostles, 90). In Acts of the Apostles the Seven are called "deacons" (90). In the Spirit of Prophecy (3:293) and The Story of Redemption (260), they are "chosen men," not identified as deacons.

5 Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 164.

6 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 195.

7 Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, 355.

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Nancy Vyhmeister, PhD, is professor emeritus of missions, at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

May 2002

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