Ordination in Baptist Life

by Dr. Robert Creech, Ph.D.

Pastor, University Baptist Church in Clear Lake, Texas

According to no less an authority on Baptist life and ways than the late Herschel H. Hobbs, ordination is “The ceremony [emphasis mine] whereby those who have a vocation and have given some evidence of ability for the ministerial office are set apart for the work of their calling” (Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, s.v. “Ordination”). I would like to clarify my understanding of the basis, meaning, and practice of that ceremony among Baptists.

The Basis and Meaning of Ordination

(1) First, it is my understanding of the NT and the early church that ordination, as defined above,  is not instructed by the New Testament.  Neither is there evidence that the NT church practiced it.   Hobbs says that it is “based upon scriptural practice,” however.  Even that claim seems to stretch the texts he cites. The only texts that he calls upon to base such a practice upon apply indirectly at best. Hobbs mentions four:

John 15:16  (Jesus speaking) You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-- fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.

Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

1 Tim 2:7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle-- I am telling the truth, I am not lying-- and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles.

Titus 1:5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

The word “ordain” in the technical sense used above is not found in our English translations, and further, in none of the original Greek words in these references is the idea of ecclesiastical ordination present (Hobbs). The references to “appointing” elders simply refers to their being selected from among the people in the congregation based on their ability, character, and gifts. As in the passages that follow, Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5  seem to envision a time of prayer for these people as they take on a new role in their congregation. They do not become “ordained” people at this point, at least not based on anything in the texts of the NT.

The inclusion of 1 Tim 2:7 in the list above is inappropriate in my reading of Paul.  The appointment to his being a herald and an apostle had nothing to do with any human agency whatsoever, in his mind (Gal 1-2). He would react strongly to the idea that that sentence in his writing to Timothy had anything whatsoever to do with a human action. His appointment came from the Risen Christ on the Damascus road. Period.

The earliest church’s activity, however, has provided a basis for some to see a scriptural basis for ordination. The use of these passages as being anything other than suggestive of “ordination,” is problematic to me.

Acts 6:6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them

Acts 13: 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

1 Tim 4: 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

2 Tim 1:6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.

These passages reflect a practice of the earliest church of laying hands on and praying for people who were about to embark on a specific assignment from the Lord. Acts 6:6, is, of course, a reference to the Seven selected to free the apostles to do the work of “prayer and the ministry of the word.” This has been applied to the office of deacon, although, the Seven never are called by that title in Acts.

Acts 13:3 is a reference to the Antiochan church’s response to instruction from the Holy Spirit to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). This could hardly be considered Paul and Barnabas’ “ordination.” They had been practicing missionary church planting, evangelism, and pastoral ministry for years at this point. They receive prayer and the laying on of hands to bless this new calling to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Never does Paul imply that this prayer meeting had anything to do with his calling, authority, or ministry.

The two references to laying on of hands in the life of Timothy (1 Tim 4:4 and 2 Tim 1:6) imply a similar moment in Timothy’s ministry, perhaps at the point referred to in Acts 16:1-3 when, on Paul’s second missionary journey, Timothy is invited to join the missionary team. Acts tells nothing of such a ceremony, but Paul alludes to it in his letters to Timothy. Church leaders (elders) and Paul laid hands on Timothy and prayed for him as he embarked on this new direction in his life. To say that he was thus “ordained” to the gospel ministry at this point would be to read the much later practices of the church back into the experiences of the earliest church.

Edward Hiscox, an expert on Baptist polity from many years back, writes:

“But the high regard, the almost sanctity, in which our churches hold the ceremony of setting apart, of the inauguration of the clergy, finds no parallel and no sanction in the New Testament. The New Testament meaning of the word ‘ordination’ is choosing, electing, appointing a man to the office of bishop or pastor and has no reference to a ceremonial setting apart, or investiture with the functions of the office. Our churches, unfortunately, have come to apply the term ‘ordination’ exclusively to the ceremonial induction, and not to the election, which was its primitive and is its proper meaning. No reasonable objection can be made to our usual forms of ordination service, however, providing these forms are rightly understood and held at their right value. (The Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches, Judson Press: Valley Forge, 1964, pp. 53-54).

Had we only these passages and no practice of ordination to justify, I doubt we would develop such a practice. We would probably choose to lay hands on and pray for all those whom God called to take on new ministries, projects, or enterprises in their lives. The act of laying on of hands in these NT passages does not seem to imply the assumption of an office.

(2) Ordination is a practical matter of one church, who has had ample opportunity to observe a person's performance, call, and gifts, to place their blessings on that one's life as they pursue full time vocational ministry. As Hobbs summarizes it, “The silence of the New Testament as to the form and meaning of the rite of ordination tends to indicate that it was nothing more than a setting apart or approval of the ordained for the work of the ministry.[emphasis mine]” (Hobbs) This is a kind of "union card" allowing other churches of like faith and practice to know that someone who knew the person has placed their blessings on their ministry.

(3) Ordination is "to the gospel ministry," not to preach or pastor. Those are decisions local churches make about calling a person to their staff. The “Certificate of Ordination” we use reads, “We, the undersigned, upon the recommendation and request of NAME OF CHURCH, which had full and sufficient opportunity for judging and examining the God-given gifts, Christian experience, call to the ministry, and view of Bible doctrine, hereby certify that  NAME OF CANDIDATE, was solemnly and publicly set apart and ordained to the work of the gospel ministry.”  There is no ordaining a person to be a pastor, or ordaining a person to preach. The call to serve as a pastor or to preach is extended by the church who is seeking a pastor or a preacher, not by the church doing the ordaining.

(4) Ordination bestows no spiritual grace or authority and makes one no different spiritually than the unordained.  As Hobbs says, “Baptists do not hold to the ecclesiastical tradition which leads some to consider ordination the channel through which the ordained receives special ministerial grace or powers not afforded to others.” (Hobbs).  The ordained person “possesses no power denied to any Christian who is thoroughly consecrated to the will and purpose of God; he exerts no authority beyond that earned by the influence of character and ability.” (Hobbs)

(5) Ordination does not declare that the person ordained is fully mature (I hope not. I was ordained at 25). This is typically a step a church takes at a very early stage in a candidate’s ministry. The candidate is not expected to have achieved perfection, but to have chosen a direction in life that will mean spiritual maturity and growth.

Ordination and the Role of Women in Church Leadership

The issue of ordaining women, in light of the above, is moot.  The question of whether a woman should or can serve as the senior pastor of a congregation is a question settled by a local church when they call a senior pastor. The only question is do we believe after observing and examining the candidate that their theology is sound, that their calling, gifts and character are in line with the gospel ministry? If so, then are we prepared to lay hands on the candidate in prayer and bless their pursuit of their calling?

The citing of the NT passages that raise questions about the role of women in the church is also moot (1 Cor 11:1-16; 1 Cor 14:34-35; and 1 Tim 2:12-14) at UBC, since we have clearly decided by practice and precedent that we believe those passages to be rooted in a culture setting that is far different than our own and that, like greeting one another with holy kisses and keeping slaves, we are free to adapt. We do not insist that women cover their heads in church. We do not insist that women be silent in worship services. We do not refuse to allow women to hold positions of authority in our congregation. The practice and precedent is set in these areas.

Further, we have by practice and precedent already determined that we are supportive of women pursuing the calling God places upon their lives in full-time vocational ministry. We have repeatedly affirmed certification to Texas Baptist universities and to Baptist seminaries of our students, both male and female, who are in pursuit of ministerial training. On several occasions we have taken the step of licensing them to the gospel ministry. This has always been done by the vote of the church in a Focus Meeting and is part of our minutes. The practice and precedent of encouraging both men and women who believe themselves to be pursuing a call of God into the gospel ministry is already firmly set at UBC.

The question of ordination is only the further step of what we have by practice and precedent already established. When the call of God to a particular place of ministry comes along for one who has been following that calling, we have always proceeded with ordination. That should be our practice whether the candidate is male or female.

The Procedure of Ordination among Baptists

It might be helpful to include some of Hobb’s observations about the various practices of ordination in Baptist life.  Church’s have not always followed the same pattern. At one time, associations ordained ministers. In England and in most Baptist bodies, other than the SBC, ordination is the responsibility of a standing ordaining council.

In Southern Baptist practice, ordination is the act of a local congregation. No binding rule covers the procedure in ordination. But in general the procedure looks like this: When one senses a call to the gospel ministry, the individual requests their church to license them for the ministry. If the church does so, it has approved them as a candidate for ministry. Customarily one is ordained upon being called to a full-time position of ministry. At that time the candidate or the church may request ordination.  (Hobbs)

The practice has often been for the local church to call an ordaining presbytery, composed of ordained ministers from sister churches, which proceeds to examine the candidate as to their Christian experience, call to the ministry, doctrinal beliefs, and proposed conduct as a minister of the gospel. After the presbytery has approved the candidate, they are recommended to the church for ordination. (Hobbs) Hiscox more appropriate describes the relationship between the ordaining presbytery and the local congregation as “advisory.” (Hiscox, p. 55)

I take issue with the use of an ordaining presbytery. Such a practice contradicts our Baptist belief in the autonomy of the local church and of the priesthood of all believers. Having ordained people determined who gets ordained smacks of the Roman Catholic practice of apostolic succession. When only ordained people determine who is ordained, one struggles to maintain that ordination bestows no special grace or authority. The cleft between clergy and laity is widened.

Hobbs recommends a practice that seems wise to me as we think through what policies or procedures should be written and followed by University Baptist Church. He says that the candidate should have proven themselves over time. The examination should be thorough. The examination should also be conducted prior to any announcement of an ordination service so that the candidate can be instructed, when necessary, and proved prior to the ordination. This has not been widely practiced among Baptist churches, though I am sure many have chosen to follow this more cautious path.



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