PCA Digest
Position Papers: 1973 - 1993

7th General Assembly, 1979,7-23, p. 77



Biblical Study on "Ordination"

Don Clements

Except for a few journal articles in the past several decades centered mainly around merger talk between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, there is very little in current writing on the specific of "ORDINATION." Many respected works on theology have no reference at all to this subject. The articles in Bible dictionaries are uniformly brief and nonspecific. Apparently there is now, as there has been historically, little agreement in this area of theology/ecclesiology. One is therefore hesitant to make any final, definitive statements and is forced to more general conclusions.

For the purposes of this brief paper, we will first examine the use Biblically (principally in the KJV) of the English word 'ordain' to determine if there is any basis for a consistent Biblical position in this area. We will then examine the basic rites or ceremonies which historically accompanied ordination, especially that of the 'laying on of hands.' Finally, we will try to develop a tentative 'Doctrine of Ordination.' Much of the material contained in this paper is taken directly from three primary sources: First, a report of a special committee of the Christian Reformed Church to their 1970 Synod entitled: "Biblical Study on Office and Ordination". It will be referenced throughout as "CRC". Second, an article in the 1958 Scottish Journal of Theology by Professor T. F. Torrance, entitled "Consecration and Ordination." This will be referenced "TFT". Finally, Charles Hodge's book The Church and its Polity, 1879, Thomas Nelson and Sons, London. This will be referenced "CH".

In the KJV, the English word "ordain" occurs fifteen times in the Old Testament, and twenty times in the New Testament. Five of the OT occurrences and eight of the NT involve the appointment of a man to some sort of ecclesiastical duty. However, in the OT there are four different Hebrew words involved and in the NT five different Greek words. A review of the NT usage will be helpful at this point:

A. "Titheemi", used in three different instances:
1) Paul's appointment by Jesus Christ as an apostle, as a preacher and teacher of the Gentiles (1 Tim. 1:12; 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11).
2) The appointment of the Ephesian elders by the Holy Spirit as bishops over the flock (Acts 20:28).
3) The appointment of believers to a variety of spiritual ministries (I Cor. 12:28).

None of the above sheds any direct light on the subject of ordination to office in the ecclesiastical sense.

B. "Kathisteemi", used twice to describe appointments within the Christian fellowship:
1) The appointment of the seven (Acts 6:3)
2) Titus being instructed to appoint elders in every Cretan town. (Titus 1:5).

In the Acts passage we see the direct connection of the laying on of hands, which will be discussed later in this paper. In the Titus passage, little is given to help understand the details of the situation, but there is a clear connection between one existing church officer, Titus, and the coming into office of others.

C. "Cheirotoneoo", used only twice in the New Testament:
1) Used to describe the choice of a representative to accompany Paul on his journey to receive the saint's offerings for the needy at Jerusalem (II Cor. 8:19).
2) Paul and Barnabas appointing elders during their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23).

The first case clearly involves an election, which fits the root meaning of the word, 'to show hands.' Thus we have some evidence in the Acts passage that the coming into office of at least some church officials involves election by the people. Aside from this, nothing more specific can be derived from the use of this word.

D. "Eklegomai", which has as its essential meaning "to choose" is used more frequently in the New Testament:
1) to describe the choosing of the twelve to be apostles (Luke 6:13, 2) John 6:70, Acts 1:2, 24; etc)
2) God's choice of Peter to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 15:7)
3) Choosing of envoys to accompany Paul and Barnabas after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7)
4) Choosing of the seven by the congregation in Jerusalem (Acts 6:5). Once again we find some strong indication of election by the people involved in the process of the coming into office of men in the church. In addition, we find a connection between the election and the ceremony of the 'laying on of hands' in the Acts 6 passage, which involved Deacons (but is not necessarily limited to Deacons).

At this point we may come to some general findings:
1. "Ordination" or "Appointing" to office involved a choice by the people.
2. "Ordination" involved other office-bearers.
3. "Ordination" involved some sort of rite or ceremony.

II. We turn at this point to examine the ritual and ceremonial aspects of our study. There are basically two possibilities: anointing and the laying-on of hands. While anointing was essential in the Old Testament, there is general agreement among those of the Reformed traditions that this always pointed toward the coming of the Messiah, THE 'Anointed One', Jesus Christ. This ceremony does not continue in the New Testament.

Thus the most important ceremony to study is that of the laying-on of hands. It too clearly has a basis in the Old Testament. There are three different words used for a rite of blessing in the OT.
1. "Nasa" describes the priestly blessing with the hands lifted up, as in the Aaronic benediction.
2. "Sim" or "shish" describes the act of placing hands upon someone else for blessing, as in Jacob blessing Joseph's sons.
3. "Samakh" is the most important. It describes the laying on (literally leaning) as applied to sacrifices when sins were symbolically transferred to a victim, or the laying on of hands where the transference of guilt or responsibility was indicated.

The most important OT illustrations of the laying on of hands will teach us much about this ceremony.
1. In Numbers 8 we find the laying on of hands through which the Levites were ordained to their office. This was an act carried out by the people, presumably through their elders, and thus was a 'lay' oriented act in which the Levites were inducted into responsible representation of the people, appointed to stand for the first-born of the people in their ministry in the Tabernacle.
2. In Numbers 27 (cf. Deut. 34:9) we see the act of Moses ordaining Joshua as his successor in the leadership of the people. This was somewhat different. Joshua is chosen because he has already been endowed with the Spirit. Since God commands Moses to invest Joshua with some of his authority, it would appear that in some way Joshua will represent Moses while the latter is still alive. To this degree the laying on of hands indicates to Israel that Joshua is Moses' rightful successor and therefore representative of him.

In summary, then, the Old Testament usage teaches us that the laying on of hands was:
1. a public rite
2. to designate a representative (or successor)

Turning next to the New Testament, the first case we encounter is in Acts 6. Here hands were laid on the seven by the congregation, not by the Apostles alone. There is no reason to infer from Acts 6 that the Apostles did not take part in this ceremony, but it is clear that they did not do it alone. This then becomes a very strong parallel to the lay-ordination act of the Old Testament ordination of the Levites. One other item we notice in the Acts 6 passage that is important is that it is accompanied by prayer.

The next case of this rite is found in Acts 13, with the laying on of hands on Paul and Barnabas prior to their missionary journey. This is a difficult passage in that, in all probability, Paul and Barnabas were already functioning in an official church office (Apostle, Elder, Prophet, etc.), and this laying on of hands is merely to a special embassage. History teaches us that this was common Rabbinic practice during this period, thus it is not surprising to find it in a still primarily Jewish church.

The most important example is the ordination of Timothy. It is described in two separate verses, and this presents to us a challenge to put them together and arrive at a proper interpretation. The verses are I Tim 4:14 and 2 Tim 1:6. Professor Torrance's remarks at this point are very helpful:

I make the meaning to be as follows. Timothy has been carefully instructed in the faith and trained in the didaskalia which he exercises; in that training it was clear that he was called to the ministry, that the Word had imparted to him a gift for its ministry; at the same time that gift was regarded as imparted formally through the act of laying on of hands, authorizing him as an accredited teacher and minister, but used by God as the means of imparting to him a spiritual gift from God, a charisma for the ministry; the act of laying on of hands was carried out by Timothy's teacher, Paul, and by the Presbytery acting together (TFT, p. 238).

Two important points to make on this example: First, that ordination was a corporate act. No matter where the Presbytery was located - locally, regionally, whatever - it was a corporate act. And second, it was more than mere symbolism. Not in some magical way, but rather in a truly spiritual sense there was an impartation of a gift - a 'charisma' as Professor Torrance refers to it. Thus we must note the great importance of accompanying prayer.

At the same time a contrasting note of caution must be set forth. The CRC report does it well:

Whenever the New Testament does speak of a laying on of hands in connection with an appointment, the context does not suggest that some new gift was being received, or that the ceremony communicated to the recipient a new status or a new quality of life. In other words, the ceremony of the laying on of hands did not produce a "clergy" which had gifts, status, or a quality of life differing from those found in "lay" people. Neither does the Bible give us any warrant for using this ceremony only for people being set aside for the work of teaching and preaching. In fact, to allow only pastors to lay hands on people in a ceremony of this sort is a departure from biblical example, since it was the elders who laid their hands on Timothy. (CRC, p. 432)

This is not to say that those ordained are not to exercise and exhibit the Christian gifts to a higher degree than others in the church. The qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 1 and Titus 3 make it clear that they must be 'blameless' in every respect. But there is no qualification no requirement, no 'gift' that is required of a church officer that is not also found to a lesser degree in others in the church. What is essential is that these gifts are found in abundance and in special combination with those to be ordained to office.

In brief summary then, we can say that the ceremony of the laying on of hands essentially is a symbol of the appointment of a person as the representative primarily of the God whom he serves and who has called him, and to a lesser degree of the people, the group which has laid hands on him. However, if any case would arise, where the people would desire their representative to act out of accord with the will of God as expressed in the Scriptures, it is first and foremost as the representative of God that the ordained one is to act. Hodge puts this so well: "Ordination is the public, solemn attestation of the judgment of the Church that the candidate is called of God to the ministry; which attestation authorizes his entrance on the public discharge of his duties." (CH, p. 144)

Following the outline set forth by Professor Torrance, let us conclude this study by setting forth the following three essential points, and then discussing each briefly:
A. The Source of Ordination
B. The End of Ordination
C. The Act of Ordination

Looking first at the source, we must state forthrightly that it is Jesus Christ himself. Ordination is His act, and it is His authority that stands behind it, and therefore it can be done only in His Name. But having said this we must be sure to see that Christ always ordains WITHIN His Church. Torrance calls this a 'fundamental duality'. 'It is the Risen and Ascended Lord who acts directly through His Spirit ordaining His servant to the ministry, but He does that in and through the Church which He has once and for all established.' (TFT, p. 242)

The example of Timothy's ordination is most important on this point. The gifts Timothy possessed clearly came from God, but they were recognized by the Church. And in the physical act of ordination not only is there a recognition of those gifts, but a true 'charisma' is laid upon the ordinand. I believe the best analogy for this is that of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The Zwinglian concept of the sacrament is less than the truth. The Lord's Supper is more than a mere memorial - There is a real feeding on the body of Christ, spiritually, by the communicant. On the other hand, the Catholic concept of the sacrament is more than the truth, in stating that there is a radical change in the elements to something other than they were previously.

The same can be said for ordination. Those who claim it is merely a symbolic act, e.g. the CRC report, do not say enough. And those who say that it is some magical act (e.g., the Catholic sacrament of ordination) say too much.

Having come this far, we can apply this concept to several areas. First, the whole discussion, rampant in British circles and to some degree in the U.S., concerning the validity of certain orders is a moot point. For validity must refer absolutely to the fact that it is Christ the Lord who truly ordains. There is no need to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the source of ordination can be traced without a break to the Apostles (as if in fact anyone can really do that). This speaks also to Hodge's problem. He claims that it is the minister's office which gives him the right of laying on of hands and no one else has that right. But the truth is that since the source of ordination ultimately is Christ himself, the efficacy of the act does not depend on those taking part in the ceremony.

But we must also apply this to the other extreme and say that self-ordination, or ordination by those with no qualifications within the church, is also not Biblical. Christ has passed the keys of the kingdom to His church. His church must use them correctly and wisely. There must be order in the act of ordination, and therefore it is proper for the church to set forth specific requirements for ordination.

Turning now to the end of ordination, the simplest thing we can see is to repeat with the Westminster divines in their Directory of Church Government: "Ordination is the solemn setting apart of a person to some public Church office." The end is clearly to some office. We will leave the discussion as to which offices exist in the church to another time. But the end of ordination is to an office.

This does not deny the appropriateness of laying on of hands at times other than ordination. The Acts 13 passage gives us freedom to lay-on hands for a special commissioning service, such as with missionaries. (I believe this could be done with other specialized ministries, such as Chaplains, as well.) But the totalness of the laying on of hands, the prayers, the recognition of qualifying gifts, the passing, spiritually, of the 'charisma' - all this taken together is a true ordination.

Finally, we must discuss briefly, in summary form, the act of ordination. It is to be performed by those who are in the church, who are themselves gifted and qualified to judge anothers' gifts and qualifications. It is to be performed (save in rare instances) by a plurality of officers. And it is to include both the laying on of hands and prayer. There has been much discussion historically concerning the order of these two items. Westminster puts the laying on of hands first. The Second Book of Discipline, along with both Knox and Calvin, puts the prayer first. In more recent history, it is not uncommon to find them done simultaneously. The main thing to keep in mind is the actual laying on of hands is secondary to the true ordination that comes from God and is not to be raised up to a higher level. An ordination that did not include the laying on of hands might be a bit irregular, but would not be necessarily invalid. In fact for a considerable period in Scotland in the 16th Century it was left out of the ceremony in order to show that this act was distinctly different from the Romish act.

In summary, then, let us recognize that the current traditions in Presbyterian circles, especially in the PCA, are quite in keeping with the Biblical position, and there is no clear rationale from Scripture to make any major modifications to our tradition and practice in the church.