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Living in tension: Polarities in Presbyterian polity — Ordination and ministry

Ordination and ministry may seem like a strange tension — one not really “tense” at all. After all, isn’t “ministry” what those who are ordained do? But therein lies the problem and the tension. In fact, the answer to that question is: Ministry is what the whole people of God do, not just the ordained.

Consider this language from the second chapter of the Form of Government (G-2.0102) on ordination:

“The Church’s ordered ministries described in the New Testament and maintained by this church are deacons and presbyters (teaching elders and ruling elders). Ordered ministries are gifts to the church to order its life so that the ministry of the whole people of God may flourish. The existence of these ordered ministries in no way diminishes the importance of the commitment of all members to the total ministry of the church.”

Do you notice the insistence that ordination exists so that “the ministry of the whole people of God may flourish”? That sentence goes to the heart of our understanding of ordination. It is an understanding that starts in our theology of baptism.

In baptism, we understand that each believer is called to a ministry of witness to the love and grace of God. Calvin claimed that baptism was not only about the inward assurance of God’s grace to the believer, but also was that occasion “by which we make a public declaration of our faith; that the praises of God may not only be breathed in the secret aspirations of our hearts, but may also be loudly proclaimed by our tongues, and by all the members of our body.”

Calvin insisted that God was not more gracious to some than to others, and none were more deserving of grace than others. There is no hierarchy of grace. And, he insisted, it means that the ministry exercised by some of us who may bear the mark of ordination is not more vital or important than the ministry exercised by others of us who do not. There is, therefore, no hierarchy of ministry. Rather, the basic form of ministry is that of the church, the “whole people of God.”

That said, the church long ago decided that there were some gifts that should be used for the purpose of building up the church and, as Ephesians 4 has it, “equipping the saints for the ministry of the people of God.” So it set aside – or “ordered” – some who seemed to possess those gifts, provided special training and organized their service in particular ways that lifted up those gifts and made the most of them.

So, what does living in the tension between ordination and ministry teach us?

The problem of “clericalism”

It is common in the church to assume that “ministry” is what the “minister” does. Indeed, this isn’t necessarily a problem as long as we remember that in baptism all Christians are called to ministry. The problem is the assumption that what those in the ordered ministries do is “ministry,” while the rest of us are the audience for their work. This phenomenon, which Presbyterian theologian Joseph Small calls “clericalism,” is deadly. Not only does it diminish the work force for ministry by reducing it to the ordained, but it opens the door to a sort of clerical professionalism that sees ministry as the province of the specially trained and best “left to the experts.” Worse, it invites the rest of the church to become passive at best, carping at worst — and destructive in either case.

The value of parity in church governance

The Reformed tradition has always insisted that there are two kinds of “elders” who lead the sacramental and governance life of the church: “ruling” and “teaching” elders. Responsibility for ministry – and for its facilitation – is shared between the orders. Their functions are distinguished, but they share in the work so that neither ascends to a position of absolute authority.

This is why, at least in Presbyterian polity, we do not use the terms “clergy” and “laity.” Preserving these medieval terms for the distinct classes within the church preserves the notion that one is better or more important than the other. Rather, all of us are “members” of the church, and some of us are deacons, ruling elders or teaching elders. What some traditions would call “lay” people are ordained to ordered ministries in the Presbyterian tradition, and the duties of what some would call “clergy” are shared by people whom other traditions would identify both as “clergy” and as “lay.” The fact is that these terms just don’t work for Presbyterian polity, which is why they never appear in the Book of Order, and why it would be a good thing if we stopped using them.

The qualifications for ordination

It’s worth noting that just as ordination is not a privilege reserved for the worthy, it is also not a right accessible to anyone who wants to claim it. Ordination to one or another of the church’s ordered ministries comes as a result of the recognition in an individual of the gifts and graces appropriate to that particular order of ministry. For this reason, all conversations about access to ordination as a matter of justice are fundamentally misplaced. Similarly, all efforts to deny ordination to a class or category of people simply on the basis of their participation in a particular demographic are equally misplaced. The question – the only question – proper to the decision to ordain someone is whether that person demonstrates readiness for that ministry and ability to live out the commitments of faith and practice required of all of us in ordered ministry.

The bottom line: A tension between ordination and ministry is a way of reminding us that all God’s people are ministers, that ministry belongs to the whole people of God and ordination is about the function or equipping of God’s people to do the work God has called us all – together – to do.

In conclusion, there is a great deal more to this tense ecclesiastical life of ours than a series of articles like this can cover. But I hope I’ve managed to convey two things. First, far from being a cut-and-dried collection of dusty rules from your grandfather’s Presbyterianism, the polity of the Presbyterian Church is really about negotiating the polarities that underlie many of the issues that lurk beneath the conversations and controversies of the church. And second, far from finding easy resolutions to the tensions posed by these polarities, the far more creative, productive, life-giving place for the church is to live within them and see where God’s Spirit will take us next.

PAUL HOOKER is an associate dean at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary where, among other things, he teaches Presbyterian polity.

Note: This is the third in a series of three articles.