Ministry News

Ordination: A Hands-On Approach





The biblical rite of ordination serves to communicate the responsibility and spiritual authority entrusted to the fivefold ministries.

The divine call always precedes the human call. But how should we recognize and commission those in our midst who demonstrate God's direction and anointing for lives of ministry?

The New Testament offers practical models for appointing leaders to equip and advance the church. More than a mindless ritual, the biblical rite of ordination serves to communicate the responsibility and spiritual authority entrusted to the fivefold ministries.

In the New Testament, Jesus is described as "appointed" (see Heb. 3:2, NKJV). In turn, Jesus appointed 12 disciples (see Mark 3:14-15) and, later, chose 70 others (see Luke 10:1).

Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus said to His apostles, "'You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit'" (John 15:16). In all of these cases, the appointment (or ordination in the KJV) was both the setting apart and giving authority to perform some special ministry.

Paul speaks of himself as appointed by Christ (see Acts 26:16; 1 Tim. 2:7), but his ordination was mediated through the laying on of hands by Ananias, who was told by the Lord to go to Paul, "'for he is a chosen vessel of Mine'" (Acts 9:15). After Ananias laid his hands on him (see v. 17), Paul was as ordained for his ministry as any of the other apostles.

Next, we observe that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches where they had been ministering: "So when they ... appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed" (Acts 14:23). Titus was asked by Paul to do the same thing in Crete (see Titus 1:5).

IMPARTATION OF CHARISMA

One of the clearest descriptions of ordination is found in 1 Timothy 4:14, where Paul warns the young preacher, "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership." Although the word "appointed" or "ordination" is not used regarding Timothy here, this seems clearly to be his "ordination." Let us observe several points.

First, there was the impartation of a "special gift," or charisma. A charisma is a gift of grace, not a natural talent or achievement. What then was its nature? The answer seems clearly to be the gift of preaching and teaching. For immediately prior to the admonition "do not neglect the gift," Paul said, "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Tim. 4:13, NIV).

The office of ministry of the Word is a gift of God's grace. A person may surely prepare for it--indeed there could be years of preparation--but ultimately the office comes as a gift of grace. This means that there can be no claim to have earned it or merited it: it is wholly the gracious gift of God.

PROPHETIC PREPARATION

Second, the gift was bestowed on Timothy through prophetic utterance. Such utterance was doubtless inspired by the Holy Spirit and occurred while Timothy was being ordained.

A significant parallel to this event may be found in the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas for missionary work (see Acts 13:1-3). It was not that Paul and Barnabas were unaware of the call on their lives, but this was the moment when through prophecy, the Holy Spirit commissioned them for their upcoming work.

There seems to have been more than one prophecy in Timothy's case. Earlier in his letter to Timothy, Paul writes, "This command [or charge] I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience" (1 Tim. 1:18-19, NASB).

These prophecies in all likelihood refer to the occasion of Timothy's ordination when there was prophetic utterance. The prophecies at that time were of such significance that Paul could call them to Timothy's remembrance as background for the charge he was delivering to him.

Now let us try to view more clearly the scene at Timothy's ordination. Probably, as in the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas, there was worshiping and fasting. If so, this could have meant some extended time of preparation by both Timothy and those who were present to ordain him.

Then, when the moment came for the "setting apart" to occur, various prophecies came forth. They may have included words relating to the responsibilities in Ephesus that Paul was later to assign him.

In his second letter to Timothy, just after speaking again about the "gift [charisma] of God" that was in Timothy, Paul adds, "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Tim.1:7, NKJV). Perhaps prophetic utterance reminded Timothy at his ordination that, whatever his natural inclinations, God's would be manifest in these various graces of the Holy Spirit: power, love and a sound mind.

All of this has much relevance for us today. At the ordination of a minister there should be opportunity for prophetic utterance. There may be preparation through prayer and fasting, perhaps also a solemn charge to the candidate, but when the actual moment of ordination is at hand, prophecies may be freely given.

It is through prophecy that God speaks directly in human words. For the one being ordained, such words can have memorable significance for years to come. Many churches have almost totally overlooked, or looked down upon, prophesying and have allowed other ordination procedures to take its place. How much we need to recover the vital significance of prophetic utterance that Paul and Timothy knew and experienced.

HANDS-ON IMPARTATION

Third, the climactic moment in ordination was the laying on of hands by the body of elders, who essentially acted as a unit.

Paul apparently functioned alongside the elders in laying hands on Timothy, for he says in 2 Timothy 1:6: "I remind you to stir up the gift [charisma] of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands."

Paul by no means suggests that Timothy's ordination required his apostolic authority and presence, because he makes no reference to himself in 1 Timothy 4:14. It was the local body of elders who did the ordaining. Timothy was ordained "with the laying on of the hands of the eldership." To sum up: his ordination occurred through and with the laying on of hands.

It is important to recognize the importance of the laying on of hands. In both accounts of Timothy's ordination, the laying on of hands is stated. Prophecy is not mentioned by Paul in referring to his own participation, as if to say that while prophecies are indeed valuable, the critical action is the imposition of hands. Prophetic utterance assured Timothy of his call to the ministry of the Word, but it was by the laying on of hands that Timothy was placed in office.

VALID ORDINATION

We may ask, "Did the laying on of hands automatically convey the gift of ministerial office to Timothy?" The answer must be no. Three other factors need to be kept in mind as well.

Life of faith: For a valid ordination to occur, the candidate must be an individual of sincere faith. Without such faith the whole procedure is null and void. Timothy was a man of genuine faith.

Before Paul wrote to Timothy about stirring up the gift of God that was in him through the laying on of Paul's hands, he wrote the words, " ... I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also" (2 Tim. 1:5).

A "genuine" faith dwelling in Timothy was the human context for the charisma of special ministry to be received. Recall that the statements in both 1 Timothy 4:14 and 2 Timothy 1:6 speak of the charismatic gift as being "in" Timothy. Because Timothy was a man of sincere inward faith, the gift could likewise be received within.

Body of elders: Second, there was the activity of a valid ordaining body, namely the elders of the church. The elders themselves had been ordained to office, and because of this they could convey the gift of special ministry to others. While the presence of the congregation is important because it is the members whom the ordained will serve, they do not participate in the laying on of hands. It is the body of elders that has this particular responsibility.

Presence of the Holy Spirit: Third, there was the all-important operation of the Holy Spirit. While prayer and fasting may be needed for requesting God's grace in the Holy Spirit to be manifest, we must recognize throughout that the Holy Spirit alone can confer the spiritual gift that makes ordination a valid and living experience.

That prophetic utterance occurred was in itself evidence of the Spirit's presence, for prophecy is one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. In the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas the Spirit spoke through prophecy; doubtless the same thing occurred in Timothy's ordination.

The critical matter was not so much prophetic utterance itself but what it implied--that the Holy Spirit was Himself actively on the scene. The ultimate validation of Timothy's ordination was the presence and the power of the Spirit.

Let us note three additional points: First, while ordination occurs within the setting of a local church, and the one being ordained is usually installed there as minister of the Word, the ordination is at the same time an action of and for the whole church of Jesus Christ.

Thus he becomes an ordained minister of the Word to serve the whole body of Jesus Christ. Timothy himself may have been ordained earlier in his home church at Lystra (see Acts 16:1), but he is called by Paul later to serve the church in Ephesus.

Second, in ordination a real conferring of grace occurs. It is a charisma "gift given" (see 1 Tim. 4:14), namely, a gift for teaching, or ministering the Word.

Third, there is no need for further ordination. If it has been a valid ordination, repetition is unwarranted and unnecessary. Ordination is for one's whole future ministry in the church.

STIRRING UP THE GIFT

There is, however, the possibility of neglecting this gift of ministry. Paul writes, as we have noted, "Do not neglect the gift that is in you." Then he adds, "Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them ... " (1 Tim. 4:15).

The ministerial office, while a definite gift from God, is no guarantee of automatic success. Rather it is an office of high and sober responsibility that needs constant diligence and unremitting devotion. Neglect can--and often unfortunately does--happen, to the great detriment of both the minister of the gospel and his people.

A stirring up of the gift may be needed. Even to Timothy, a man with rich indwelling faith, Paul felt constrained to write, "I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Tim. 1:6). Timothy had received the gift several years before, but now it needed to be freshly stirred up and fanned into flame. The gift was not gone, but it was like embers burning low that needed to be rekindled into a fresh flame of ardor and zeal for Christ's high calling.

Paul's words are surely relevant to many ordained ministers today who may feel that they are accomplishing little for the kingdom and wonder if their ordinations mean anything. Paul's word is very timely: "The gift is in you"; you need only to "stir up the gift," the charismatic fire. Truly, the challenge of ordained ministry of the gospel can shine with renewed brightness and zeal.


J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of theology at Regent University Divinity School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. An author of several books, Williams has served as a pastor, and a college and seminary professor. He is married and has three children.

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