Ministers, Elders and Ordination into Congregational Leadership

Debate about ordination often arises among groups that churches have not accepted into properly recognised leadership. They question whether the criteria for leadership and the processes used to make decisions are appropriate. Although frustration and the short-hand of debate may lead them to question the idea of ordination itself, the problem is more usually not the concept but its application. A common argument is that what we find in the bible is nothing like the processes of ordination some churches follow and the conclusion is drawn that therefore ordination is wrong. There are many ways to respond to this, but how we engage with the issue first of all depends on whether ordination is understood to mean "how some churches appoint ministers and elders" or "a system of appointing leaders." In my view the later is more correct - ordination refers to any system of appointing leaders in church. Over time it has come to apply especially those who have a particular responsibility for presiding at the sacraments, but in Presbyterian churches it also applies - confusingly - to the appointment of elders.

Ordination, like mission, is a question before it is an answer. “You don’t find ordination in the bible” seems to carry weight until you realise we don’t have mission in the bible either. What we have are various patterns of how leadership is determined (ordained) and others of how the purpose of the community of faith is understood (mission). Unsurprisingly those patterns are understood and codified differently by different traditions.

Historical debates

At the Reformation people were concerned with what was a true church and what constituted valid ministry. There were also debates about whether valid ministry affected the efficacy of the sacraments. It was common sense that who presided was important, at the very least in being helpful or unhelpful in assisting people know what was going on and in being committed to supporting that. The fact that fundamentally the spiritual transactions were between the believer and God could be used either to say that ordination was not so important since the character of the presider was secondary, or that the function belonged exclusively to those who were in a priestly role even if they did not live up to their calling.

As Presbyterianism developed concern for ordination shifted to the academic and training as well as gifted qualifications of a candidate for ordination. At times these requirements were set to exclude groups the Church did not want recognised as Christian leaders, at other times the genuine concern was to maintain a vision and standard of an educated ministry.

By mid 20th century the issues about ordination shifted to questions of gender, could woman be elders and then ministers, and could ordination address issues of equality of status for groups of theologically qualified women in ministry areas such as Christian education, and then to ecumenical concerns, whether convergence between Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Congregationalist, and perhaps even Roman Catholic theologies of ordained ministry would be possible. Congregationalists and Presbyterians were very similar. Anglicans saw themselves as a middle way to Catholicism. Methodists might be described as a unique mixture of all of the above given both the recognition of gifts at a membership level, and the authority given to those in ordained leadership in the courts of the church. Reformed Christians struggled to see how to fit their polity into an episcopal system, and those who believed they had succeeded were seldom successful in convincing others.

With the weakening interest in church union by the end of the 1970s, ordination debates shifted to either a desire to eliminate ordination altogether in the face of the need and desire to affirm a wider range of spiritual gifts and a sense that the restriction of sacramental leadership to ordain clergy had lost meaning in some circles, or to a dimension of the wider debate about the place of homosexual persons in committed monogamous relationships in Christian leadership. The homosexual debate is an issue in itself in most denominations. The ambivalence towards ordination perhaps needs to find a resolution around seeing the value and importance of ordination as a deliberate decision about key leadership roles, and finding other ways of affirming the capacity and responsibility of a wider range of Christian gifts and callings. It is important to recognise the way in which ordination has helped women as a benchmark of recognition of ministry capacity, even if of itself it has not always been sufficient to address cultural male chauvinism in the church. The charismatic sense that ordination is evidenced more by the gifts of the Spirit than by the judgement of the church is likely to turn out to be bounded by views on what sort of lifestyle should be seen as acceptably consistent with that giftedness.

What is the problem with ordination? Is it ordination itself that is the problem, or something else?

We need to understand why people find the idea of ordination difficult, and what it is they are actually objecting to.

As noted, it seems to me that the concern is fundamentally that rules about ordination seem to recognise people who are trained who may not appear gifted, and fails to recognise people who are gifted but who may not be trained. If so the question is not ordination, but the crIteria used. I think there is a confusion between ordination as recognition and commissioning for particular roles (there is ample Biblical precedent for Christian churches making decisions about leadership), and the sorts of decisions churches actually make.

What is the basic idea?

The basic concept is sorting out who is responsible for what. As we seek to recognise a wider range of roles in the church it does not get any less complex. We do not have that on our own! Check out what it means in ecology for example http://ordination.okstate.edu/index.html

Christian churches have commonly taken care over who should be leaders in the community and which leaders should be recognised and called to preside when sacraments are celebrated. Different traditions are very concerned that those recognised stand in the tradition of Jesus and the Apostles. The difficulty I see is that the boundary between those authorised to celebrate sacraments and those not is taken as the all important divide between two groups often described as clergy and laity. Certainly those recognised by prayer and laying on of hands for sacramental leadership are important, but so are a huge range of other callings in the church.

Ordained and Lay

The fundamental questions also arise in relation to lay ministries and ordination, and these are especially important as in practice laity is not defined as "laos, or the whole people of God" so much as "those who are not ordained to do certain things in the church."

Our fundamental identity is as Christians, and our setting apart for service is built in to baptism. "Lay" is sometimes an appropriate word, but it can be an unfortunate one. Although less so than some traditions, if more so than some others, even Presbyterians sometimes need a handy label for those who are not ordained as ministers of word and sacrament. However it is a negative definition, and as far as possible we will describe roles in terms of what they are not what they are not. 

What follows are edited versions of comments I have made relating to lay and ordained ministry and I would like to think they are within the range of views fairly acceptable within the Church, although others will have to decide that. They should not be treated as official statements. They can be read alongside my 2002 paper, Persistent Presbyterians available from http://www.roxborogh.com/mission.htm . For biblical and historical material, see Hans-Reudi Weber, Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: The People of God.

What might we do?

Although the concept of being ordained and its basic idea of how we order things and decide who will do what could apply to all gifts and ministries, I think there is a case arising from its usage for restricting the word ordination to those who have special responsibilities for the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. I would include elders as being ordained to this ministry, but the ordination of elders needs to reflect a connection with the wider church not just the local parish. Like "ministers"  elders should be ordained by prayer and the laying on of hands. Their link with the wider body of Christ should be indicated by the participation of elders from other parishes in the Presbytery in their ordination, which could happen now simply by the invitation of the parish.

John Roxborogh

Question: Why don't we ordain Lay Preachers?

It is ironic given the Reformed emphasis on preaching the Word that so much effort in New Zealand over the last few decades has been about authorising elders in relation to the sacraments without addressing preaching at the same time. The provisions for Presbytery training and recognition of lay preachers certainly need tidying up as well as in some cases simply being rescued from neglect. 

Churches like the Church of Scotland which used the word ordination in relation to their lay preachers (called "Readers" perhaps on the Anglican model) have created problems for themselves because although ordination in theory can refer to being set apart for any role the church designates, in practice and across many denominations, it is particularly linked to the administration of the sacraments. Perhaps we need another word to use instead of ordination to use for what we might call "recognised ministries." 

The difficulty for the Church of Scotland is that the training they set for Readers was quite high, and if others are appointed to do the sacraments with a lesser amount of training, the existing Readers will feel a bit short changed. 

The PCUSA has a parallel and more difficult debate over ordination in relation to Christian Education ministers, many of whom are women with good theological education who did not wish to be ordained but want and need some appropriate recognition from the Church. You can find some of the debates on the website of the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators http://www.apcenet.org/index.htm  It has been frustrating to many that for years the response of the church was that existing orders were sufficient. I am not sure what happened at their more recent Assemblies. The issue is complicated by ordination having a status value in the church. Something is not quite right when ordination to conduct sacraments is used as a way of resolving the need to improve the status of those who may not be called to conduct sacraments.  

I am not sure how much this applies in New Zealand. The debates over the future of the Deaconess Order had some parallels. The New Zealand solution was to ordain all the deaconesses and do away with the order.  

Looking forward, we might see Eldership as the key office in the Presbyterian Church, and then appoint different Elders to do different roles that are not differentiated in status terms. For myself I see a renewed focus on the eldership, including in Cooperating Ventures, as a key to unlocking many of the conceptual and semantic as well as practical difficulties associated with recognised ministries in a church which seeks to emphasise the value of the gifts of all the people of God.


Question: Does not our belief in the "priesthood of all believers" mean that elders should be able to preside at the sacraments?

On its own this principle could equally mean that any believer is able to preside. But even the most open of churches usually make decisions about who.

Ordination as a word is used in Presbyterian order with different associations in relation to different groups. This is understandable, but confusing. The essential idea is of being set apart for a particular role, so that ministers and elders were set apart for different roles (so we cannot say that because they are both ordained, their roles are the same). The question is then whether the basis for making those decisions is within a biblical framework and a reasonable one.

Presbyterians say that a decision about who should be a minister of word and sacrament is a regional presbytery decision, and a decision about who should be a "ruling elder" is a local congregational one. We are moving to a situation where there is some overlap in that congregations are able to propose that elders be authorised for sacraments, and some are suggesting that presbyteries have an involvement not in the selection of elders, but in their appointment or ordination. We also have seen a move over the past while for decisions about who should be ministers of word and sacrament shifting towards a national process after initial discernment and recommendation by a Presbytery.

Presbyterian ideas about ordination are much more related to a theology of order than a theology of ministry akin to Lutheran / Anglican / Catholic. However of course some prefer to emphasise the links to those church traditions.

An irony of some of this is that the "priesthood of all believers" emphasis was used by Luther as part of his challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church, but Lutherans quickly developed a high doctrine of the pastoral office.

Methodists were influenced by Wesley's sense of the authority of the ordained minister (Methodism has a much more centralised authority structure than the Presbyterian tradition) at the same time as they created places where lay Christians could exercise ministry and leadership in small groups.

A development which gives a fresh view of the whole discussion is to regard baptism as ordination - a view which fits with "the priesthood of all believers" and which also gives a focus to the discussion as being about recognition of gifts and calling and the roles that people have. Some Roman Catholic theology from Vatican II encourages this and is something we could usefully be familiar with.

The General Assembly in 2002 set in motion a process which may lead to the authorizing of some elders to administer baptism on the same basis as now applies for elders being authorized to preside at communion.

We read a lot into the term "priesthood of all believers," but it can be taken as meaning that the gifts of every Christian should be recognised. However that is a decision for the church as well as for the person (and as with all spiritual gifts the view of the church is the decider).

Some are gifted, called, and recognised as elders. Some elders are gifted, called, recognised, and trained in relation to "Word and Sacrament", some to the Sacraments, and others to Preaching, Christian Education, Pastoral Care or other recognised ministries. 

We need to go on valuing the role of elders in pastoral care, but I see others being able to offer that ministry who are not elders, and sense that the key ministry of new elders is likely to be Christian leadership. It would help if those who are elders who become ministers of word and sacrament were not ordained in their new role, but licensed or commissioned - so that their ordination as an elder is recognised. I think this is something we could usefully consider. As above we might also usefully move to associating ordination for elders, as for ministers, as a call to preside at the sacraments. At the moment it looks as if we will be saying that for elders who are trained for the role.

Updated: 6 June 2005; 11 June 2005; 24 September 2008. John Roxborogh.