‘Tis the season for ordinations. Last Saturday a dear friend from the Evangelical Free Church was ordained. This Sunday, another dear friend from an independent Pentecostal Church will be ordained. Reminded me of my own ordination. Can’t remember exactly when it happened. It was in the late ’80s. But I remember who was in my ordination council: Roger Capps, Thomas Chin, and Lawrence Khong. So, yes, I am an ordained Baptist pastor, which is why I sometimes use Rev. in front of my name. I confess that the Rev title has been a useful union card that has opened some ministry doors. But I have mixed feelings about the practice of ordination. Different denominations and ecclesiastical traditions have their own takes on this. Usually, a candidate for ordination has to go through a period of study and testing. If he or she is deemed suitable, there is a ceremony that usually includes the laying on of hands, when that person is officially set apart for his or her ecclesiastical ministry.
I have two concerns. I understand that, with the passing of time, practices evolve to address new situations. But does the New Testament give support to this practice? My second and more serious concern is will the practice of ordination, that sets apart people to be official clergy, perpetuate the clergy-laity divide? This divide is symbolised by the fact that the ordained dress differently, are addressed differently, and allowed to do certain spiritual things the laity are not allowed to do. Here I am talking about all denominations. While such a practice is clearly taught in the Old Testament, where the priests and Levites are clearly set apart for certain spiritual duties and responsibilities, is this practice to be carried over to the New Testament?
Pentecost was a game changer. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit only came on certain special individuals like kings and prophets, for special occasions. The regular Israelite did not expect a personal anointing of the Spirit. But in Acts the Spirit came on all of God’s people who were assembled. The implication is clear. Now all of God’s people are special and all are empowered to serve Him. There is a democratisation of ministry. It is not just for a special class. It is for all. We are now, all of us, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). And the Holy Spirit manifests different spiritual gifts in all of us so that all of us can serve (Romans 12:5–8; 1 Corinthians 12:7).
I am not arguing against the need for leaders in the church (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). Clearly some are called to the ministry of leadership and we need to be careful who we recognise as leaders among us. They need to have the requisite leadership giftings (Romans 12:8) and maturity in character (Mark 10:35–45; 1 Timothy 3:1–13). But leadership in the New Testament is more ministry than office. There is no situation where leaders are deemed as more important and therefore should take their ministry more seriously than regular members. Perhaps that is why in the list of gifts in Romans (12:8), Paul puts “leadership” second last. One of the reasons the early church was so dynamic and grew so fast was its commitment to every-member ministry. The gospel was a call to follow Christ and recipients of the gospel knew they were to be witnesses for Christ through word and deed. They didn’t wait for some special ordination to activate them for serious ministry. Their baptism was also a call to ministry.
I don’t think the practice of ordination will go away anytime soon. And if there is anyone who deserves to be ordained it will be my two friends. I have the highest regard for their character, their giftings, and indeed their commitment to every-member ministry. I only hope that clergy and laity never forget that one of the main duties of church leaders is not just to do ministry but to prepare and equip God’s people for ministry. We have all been given the Spirit. Ministry is everyone’s responsibility.