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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Church, 1879
Ordination, or the public investiture of church officers with official authority, is clearly scriptural. It is not, however, the ultimate source of ministerial authority. This is found in the call of the Holy Spirit and the election by the church, of which ordination is the public recognition and the completing act.
This act, originally simple and beautiful as seen in Scripture, has been grossly perverted in the hierarchical systems which displaced the primitive church. In the Roman Catholic Church it is a sacrament, conferring the power of transmuting bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and of remitting or retaining sins; and even among Protestants the conception of a certain magical power conferred by it is often apparent, as if a special, invisible grace were thereby secured. No such thought is found in Scripture.
The word ordain in the New Testament never denotes the ecclesiastical ceremony of ordination. It is used six times in connection with a sacred office, and is in each instance the translation of a different Greek word. Thus, Mark 3:14: "Jesus ordained" (epoigse) "twelve to be with him;" Acts 1:22: "Must one be ordained" (genesthai) "to be a witness;" Acts 17:31: "By that man whom he hath ordained" (horise); I Tim. 2:7: "Whereunto I am ordained a preacher." (etethen).
In all these the reference is clearly, not to a formal ceremony of ordination, but to the choice or appointment to a sacred office. Thus, also, Acts 14:23: "When they had ordained (cheiroto-nesantes) them elders in every church and had prayed with fasting," where ordained denotes plainly the act of choice, while the "prayer with fasting" may refer to the formal act of setting apart to the office; Titus 1:5: "That thou shouldst ordain (katasteas) elders in every city," where the word signifies to constitute, appoint, and may possibly include the whole procedure, both the choice and the ordaining ceremony, but with evident emphasis on the former. The New Testament sense of ordain, therefore, is to choose or appoint, and does not necessarily or ordinarily refer to an ordaining ceremony.
Three instances of ordination, or the public setting apart to church office, are found in the New Testament—that of "the seven " (Acts 6:6), "whom they set before the apostles, and when they had prayed they laid their hands on them," that of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1-3), respecting whom the Holy Ghost said to the ministry at Antioch, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them they sent them away;" and that of Timothy, to whom Paul said (I Tim. 4:4), "Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery." To these actual cases there is added the injunction given to Timothy (I Tim. 5:22), "Lay hands suddenly on no man" where the reference is clearly to ordination; and the natural inference is that the ceremony was customary in setting apart to the ministry.
The following points are here to be noted:
1. The ministry alone confers ordination. In these examples, apostles, presbyters, and evangelists appear as officiating, but in no instance unordained persons. Special charge is given to the ministry in regard to the character and qualifications of candidates for the sacred office. Paul said to Timothy, "The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also;" and he solemnly enjoins the utmost care in testing their fitness for the work by the charge, "Lay hands suddenly" (hastily) "on no man."
Evidently, the ultimate responsibility of admitting to the ministerial office is here devolved on the ministry itself. They only, therefore, may act in setting apart to the sacred work. This is plainly the scriptural order, and only extreme necessity will justify a departure from it. In the apostolic churches, where each was organized with its own presbytery, there were always those competent to confer ordination.
2. In the ordination of a minister there is an evident propriety in inviting the co-operation of other churches; for it is desirable that he should be recognized as a minister, and should perform ministerial functions outside of his own church. Hence, it is customary to call an ordaining Council. This should be composed, not of select churches, but of all the neighboring churches, that it may properly represent the whole community of churches; no minister should consent to serve in a packed Council.
And as ordination is conferred only by the presbytery, or ordained ministers, the Council should not proceed to ordain without the concurrence of a majority of the ministers composing it; otherwise, it is not the act of the presbytery, and the ordination is not scriptural.
3. The form of ordination is prayer and the laying on of hands, sometimes with fasting these only are the ordaining acts. Other services may, indeed, be connected, such as a sermon, a charge, and the hand of fellowship to the candidate and a charge to the church, as is at present the custom; but these are not essential to ordination. The original form was singularly simple and striking. It consisted simply in the invocation of God's blessing on the person thus called to a sacred work, and a solemn consecration of him to it by the significant act of the laying on of hands.
4. Ordination confers no new grace or power; for the ordained person was chosen to the office because the church saw already in him the grace and power requisite for it. The presbytery, in the ordaining act, gives the solemn public sanction of the ministry to the call of the church, attesting the qualifications of the candidate for the office, and, invoking the divine blessing - consecrates him to it.
This view of ordination is opposed by the theory of an historic succession in the ministry by successive regular ordinations from the apostles. According to this, a two-fold grace is conferred in ordination:
1. The power of consecrating, offering, and ministering the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and
2. The power of absolution, or the remission of sins. The authority to confer this virtue in ordination is vested in the bishops, by whom it was received from the apostles, and has been transmitted through successive ordinations to the present day. As the result, ordination not received in this regular succession is invalid; and where there is no valid ordination there is no true ministry, no effectual preaching, no sacrament, no church, and no salvation.
To this theory I propose the following objections:
1. The sacerdotal powers, here said to be transmitted through apostolic succession, were never conferred on the apostles, much less have they been transmitted through the ages from them to us.
2. The Scriptures are silent as to any such succession and the necessity of it to a valid ministry; but surely, if this necessity existed, so momentous a fact would not only be stated, but emphasized.
3. Ordination did in fact confer no gift or power, for "the seven" were "full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom" before their election, and were chosen on account of their fitness for the office. Barnabas and Saul were called of the Holy Ghost to the missionary work before their ordination, and that act only recognized this divine call, and dedicated them to their work. The ordination of Timothy was attended with exceptional circumstances; for, when he was ordained, a distinct prophetic utterance predicted his future eminence in the ministry, and Paul, as an apostle, united with the presbytery In the laying on of hands, so that Timothy received the supernatural gift or charism of the Holy Ghost (I Tim. 4:14; II Tim. 1:6). But neither prophets nor apostles are now present at ordinations, and the special charisma of the Spirit have ceased in the church.
4. If this theory of apostolic succession be admitted, there is no evidence that a valid ministry now exists on earth; for an historic succession of ordinations from the Apostolic age cannot be proved in any individual case. Even were such a succession promised, it would then be wholly uncertain in which of the several lines claiming it this succession has descended. Archbishop Whately justly said: "There is no Christian minister now existing that can trace up with complete certainty his own ordination, through perfectly regular steps, to the times of the apostles."
5. Finally, it is incredible that God has made the salvation of souls dependent upon this mysterious invisible virtue in the ministry—a condition as to which there is scarcely one chance in a thousand that it is met in any minister in Christendom; and if met, the proof of it cannot be made out. Such a supposition is repulsive, not only to the whole tenor of Scripture, but also to our most fundamental conceptions of God.