by Thomas W. Currie
There are very few liturgical moments in the worship of most Presbyterians that require extensive choreography. As a rule, we don’t genuflect before the cross or kneel when receiving the Eucharist or bow our heads when the triune name of God is invoked. More often we sit or stand and listen and sing.
However, when we ordain elders (both ruling and teaching) and deacons, we do something different. We lay on hands. On such occasions those who are being ordained kneel before the congregation, often placing their hands on Scripture and Table. Then there is an ordination prayer during which the hands of other ordained officers are placed on the shoulders or head of the one being ordained, and hands of still others are placed on the shoulders of those in front of them. The drama of this liturgical gathering is as simple as it is biblical. Luke describes the laying on of hands as both a sign of being called to a specific task (Acts 6:6) and as the physical action that signifies the Holy Spirit passing from apostle to believer (Acts 8:17). In 1 Timothy, the work of ministry receives ecclesial blessing and is described as the gift “given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders” (1 Timothy 4:14).
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
The answer is not obvious. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters regard ordination as a sacrament of the church, by which the priest is infused with a special grace that gives him authority to present the salvific virtues of the Eucharist to the congregation. In this tradition the sacramental nature of ordination renders the priest different from you and me. He alone is authorized by the church to present Christ to the people.
For a variety of reasons, we may object to this notion of ordination — but before we do, we ought to note how seriously it takes the church’s understanding of its own mission and life. Here, ordination, whatever else it does, signifies the role the church plays in Christ’s self-giving “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). The question, to be sure, is whether in this view, Christ becomes a kind of commodity whose effect is dependent upon the church’s authority and the sacramental nature of the priest’s ordination.
Other traditions have sought to understand ordination in less ecclesial ways, locating it in the context of a believer’s religious experience or particular gifts. Here, ordination signifies a degree of sanctification that commends one for ministry and authorizes leadership in the church. Although in this view ordination does not indicate a special infusion of grace that sets a candidate apart from others, it does locate the whole matter of ordained ministry in the individual’s experience of faith, focusing on the quality of his or her piety.
ARE WE ANY DIFFERENT?
From the time of the Reformation our tradition has insisted that there are no “un-called” Christians. That is the meaning, at least in part, of baptism. To be baptized into Christ is to be claimed by him and called to serve him all our days, bearing witness with all we have and are to his lordship. There is no superior calling to this, no special experience or ecclesiastical blessing beyond this basic baptismal vocation. Since the church is understood here not as the authorized dispenser of salvation nor as the collection of pious individuals, but rather as that community given birth by the Word of God, ordination can only be interpreted as the way the church seeks to order its ministry in service to this Word.
On the surface that may appear as something of a comedown, especially in comparison to the authority of one who is allegedly able to dispense salvation through his priesthood or one who is gifted with certain extraordinary charisms beyond the common believer. However, the theology of ordination in the Reformed tradition does not derive from the status of the individual, nor is the individual really the focus of concern here. Ordination is for the sake of the church’s witness to Jesus Christ, the living and active Lord. He saves. He is faithful. He is at work in our world. The church diminishes itself when it presumes that its role is to do what Christ does. The hard work, the challenging and truly joyful work, is to bear witness to Christ’s presence in the world. The church ordains a variety of people with diverse gifts to undertake different but related tasks in order to help the church witness more faithfully to Jesus Christ. That is why ordination, in this tradition, is to service and not privilege or distinction. But that is also why one measure of the seriousness with which the church understands its own calling is the dignity it accords this service.
WHY DO WE ORDAIN?
In the Presbyterian Church, ordination encompasses more than those who are called to preach and teach the Word. The church also has an interest in how that Word is heard and received and followed into the world. Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, also called “teaching elders,” serve with and alongside other ordained elders, called “ruling elders,” who assess how the Word is heard in the church and how the life of the congregation is shaped by the gospel. These elders are assisted by ordained deacons, whose special task is to care for those in particular need and to serve the congregation in other ways. Here, the ordained ministry of the church is divided and dispersed and shared among a variety of servants, recognizing the different skills and gifts that the church requires in order to render faithful witness to Jesus Christ. However varied these skills may be and however different the tasks, the ordination of all concentrates the church’s witness on its Lord. “This is how one should regard us,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 4:1), “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” What the Second Helvetic Confession says of Ministers of the Word at this point might as well be said of all those who are ordained: The apostle calls these ministers “rowers, who have their eyes fixed on the coxswain” (Book of Confessions, 5.155). To be ordained is to become a “rower” in the church’s boat, listening to the word of the coxswain, Jesus Christ, as he gives direction and marks the tempo for the way forward.
In his writings, Joe Small, former director of the PC(USA) office of Theology, Worship and Education, called attention to the fact that the questions put to those who are to be ordained follow a certain pattern. Whether one is called to serve as a minister of the Word or as a ruling elder or deacon, eight out of nine questions are the same. The first and most important question asks if the candidate trusts in Jesus Christ. That is where both membership in the church and the matter of ordination begin. But then follows a series of questions that are not asked of members. Does the candidate accept the Scriptures as the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ; does the candidate promise to be guided by the confessions of the church; will the candidate be governed by the polity of our church; and finally, will the candidate serve in a collegial manner, using his or her gifts in service to the peace, unity, and purity of the church? The order is plain and hierarchical: Jesus Christ, Scripture, confessions and life together. Ordination serves Jesus Christ by attending to the way Christ the Word gathers his people through the word written, proclaimed, confessed and lived out in unity. In serving Jesus Christ in this way, those who are ordained build up the church as a community whose life together and mission in the world witness to the One who is truly Lord. The focus here is on Jesus Christ, the coxswain, whose words call and direct the crew.
That is the theory, anyway. But the reason that ordination has become problematic in our own day is because the service it is intended to render has become diffuse and uncertain. We have dispensed with ordination as a sacrament and we have denied that it requires some extraordinary religious experience, but we have difficulty in stating what ordination is for and to whom it is rendered. In this vacuum, we have tended to ape the culture. Sessions are tempted to become more like corporate boards, pastors more like CEOs, and congregations more like religious nonprofit agencies doing good in the world. But of course, nonprofit agencies that do good in the world do not need the confessional baggage the church brings along. For them, the whole matter of ordination seems baffling if not pointless. Their “service” is self-evidently good and self-justifyingly purposeful. Why does one need to be ordained to fulfill such a mission? Indeed. When Christ is no longer seen as the center of the church’s life and mission, things do tend to fall apart: theology and mission, worship and service, faith and action. And one might add, ordination and the particular gift that is the church.
Ordination assumes that the way the church orders its life is not obvious or self-evident. Like the gospel it proclaims, the church is different, even strange. That does not mean it is obnoxious or willful but that its life is not easily assimilated to the rhythms and patterns of the prevailing culture. As Stanley Hauerwas has famously observed, the church does not have a social ethic; it is a social ethic. And the reason it is a social ethic is that Jesus Christ chooses to proclaim himself in no other way than through the ministry and the life of this strange and to us, clumsy and often clueless thing called the church. Ordination only makes sense if one believes that the church’s own life is an essential part of the gospel it proclaims. Otherwise, a religious nonprofit agency would be vastly more preferable and certainly more efficient.
In a recent essay appearing in the book “Conversational Theology: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Barth,” George Hunsinger quotes Jürgen Moltmann: “Today in all dimensions of life, faith is urged to prove its relevance for the changing and bettering of the world. Under the pressure to make itself useful everywhere, Christian faith no longer knows why it is faith or why it is Christian.” Hunsinger concludes: “Christian faith that no longer knows why it is faith or why it is Christian has little to offer to the world.”
Part of the reason for this lack of self-understanding is that the church no longer sees its own life as essential in conveying the gospel’s message. We no longer see the church’s life together as essential either, as we find it so much easier to proclaim the gospel while splitting apart. If ordination has an urgent mission today, it is to help the church rediscover its own strangeness, particularly in living out a life together whose commitment to unity in Christ cuts against the grain of the culture’s divisions.
HOW MIGHT WE DO THAT?
Perhaps we might begin in a modest way by re-acquainting ourselves with some of the un-modest claims of the faith.
In that same essay, Hunsinger notes that the Reformation was saved from disarray and confusion by the institution of catechisms. Memorization was less important than understanding, but the result was the building up of congregations who knew what they believed. I would argue that the first task of any person ordained to office in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is to become well acquainted with the Study Catechism that our General Assembly approved in 1998. I don’t pretend that the memorization of its excellent questions and answers will renew the church or save us from our own captivity to the culture’s divisions, but if ordination is to mean anything beyond presiding over a low-commitment, half-hearted, washed-out Protestantism that believes in nothing more than its own niceness and good works, then it must begin with the basic and rather large claims of the faith that have sustained the church’s life and given hope to the world. Otherwise, we will deserve the damning trivialization promised by that quite churchless god so well described by H.Richard Niebuhr, who is forever “without wrath” and who has “brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
But one of the things Jesus Christ has delivered us from is the boring and tedious service such a god demands. Ordination in Christ’s church is a more surprising and joyful service, at once more narrow and more generous, more difficult and more substantial. It is a gift of that freedom that is found only in his service.
THOMAS W. CURRIE served as pastor of two congregations in Texas before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, to serve as dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus. There he taught theology and ethics for 13 years, being named professor emeritus in 2015.