Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church

NPUC Women in Leadership Ad Hoc Committee Offered by the Subcommittee on Theology (John McVay, Al Reimche, Sue Smith) 9 October 2012 Current discussions about the “ordination” of women afford an opportunity to reflect afresh on the wider theology of “ordination.”1 Is it possible that our own practices have begun to shape our understandings of the Bible on this matter rather than the reverse? Would we benefit by considering whether or not our current theology of “ordination” is a fully Protestant and biblical one? With such an examination in view, would we be better positioned to examine our current practices and to approach questions about the roles of women in the church? A Fully Protestant Theology of Ordination We gain a view of a fully Protestant theology of ordination in the work of William Tyndale, the great Bible translator who is often called, “The Father of the English Reformation.” From his passionate study of Scripture and his gifted work in translating the Bible into English springs a lucid critique of medieval theology and the practice of “orders” and “ordination.” It is stated succinctly and eloquently in his 1528 book, Obedience of a Christian Man. 2 Tyndale offers the following points in his critique: 1. 2. 3. Ordination is not a sacrament. It does not confer special grace or imprint an indelible character on the soul. The various orders or titles—sub-deacon, deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal, patriarch, and pope—are simply “names of offices and services.” Faithfulness to duty under inspiration of the Spirit is what really matters (“If they minister their offices truly, it is a sign that God’s Spirit is in them, if not, that the devil is in them”). With regard to priests and priesthood, Christ is “a priest for ever, and all we priest through him, and need no more any such priest on earth . . .” The “elder”, the New Testament counterpart of a priest, is to be carefully distinguished from the Old Testament office. An elder is “nothing but an officer to teach, and not to be a mediator between God and us. This needeth no anointing of man.” Those who “make themselves holier than the lay people” and take advantage of their position for financial gain are condemned by the teachings of the NT (Tyndale refers at some length to numerous passages to make his point: Acts 20; 2 Pet 2; 1 Tim 6; Matt 7; John 21; 1 Pet 5; 2 Cor 2, 12).

4. 5.


Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination, p. 2 7. No office or “ordination” bestows any special status before God: . . . the truth is, that we are all equally beloved in Christ, and God hath sworn to all indifferently. According, therefore, as every man believeth God’s promises, longeth for them, and is diligent to pray unto God to fulfil them, so is his prayer heard; and as good is the prayer of a cobbler, as of a cardinal, and of a butcher, as of a bishop; and the blessing of a baker that knoweth the truth is as good as the blessing of our most holy father the pope. 8. Case studies in the NT point to a simple pattern of appointing people to minister in Christ’s name. When “Christ called twelve up into the mountain, and chose them, then immediately, without any anointing or ceremony, were they his apostles . . . ministers chosen to be sent to preach his testament unto all the whole world.” Similarly, after the resurrection, Christ “sent them forth with a commandment to preach, . . . And that commandment, or charge, made them bishops, priests, popes, and all thing.” A similar pattern is in view in the appointment of Matthias (Acts 1) and the seven (Acts 6). “Neither is there any other manner or ceremony at all required in making of our spiritual officers, than to choose an able person, and then to rehearse to him his duty, and give him his charge, and so to put him in his room” (or office).

Tyndale’s critique was certainly appropriate for his time. It had the ring of truth in 1528. And it still does today. For Tyndale, it is crystal clear that the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers profoundly impacts the understanding and practice of “ordination.” Decades of developing and implementing organizational policies and structures can dim that clarity. Without being fully cognizant of it, we can drift toward a medieval, sacramental view of ordination. Policies that, from an organizational point of view, may seem appropriate and helpful can become theologically toxic if they are not ruled by this truth: “We are all equally beloved in Christ, and God hath sworn to all indifferently.” From the divine point of view, there is no difference in status or worth between “pastor” and “lay person.” Indeed, pastors are themselves members of the laity, the laos, the people of God. “Ordain” and “Ordained” in the New Testament While the history of people like William Tyndale is instructive and provides important guidance, it is ultimately to the pages of the Bible that we must turn. Because our church’s shared understandings of “ordination” were shaped in an era when the KJV predominated, it is helpful to attend to the ways “ordain” is used in that translation. It is our sense that many Seventh-day Adventists, reading the biblical terms “ordain” and “ordained”, have assumed these reflect an ordination service (Note: The term “ordination” does not occur in the KJV). In fact, “ordain”/”ordained” in the KJV NT translates a variety of Greek verbs that are generally better translated “appoint”/”appointed” and have in view the moment when a person is “appointed” to a position of service. This becomes obvious as we review all the passages where the term “ordain” or “ordained” is used to describe humans (other than Christ) in the KJV NT:

Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination, p. 3

Mark 3:14

And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach . . . Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity. For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee . . For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins:

And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach . . . You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out 22 among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection." And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you . . . For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

Verb / Meaning poieō, to do or to make; Here, to appoint tithēmi, to put or to place; Here, to 3 appoint or assign

John 15:16

Acts 1:21-22

ginomai, to become

Acts 14:23

cheirotoneō, to elect, 4 choose or install

Rom 13:1

tassō, to put in place, put in charge 5 of, appoint tithēmi, to put or to place; Here, to appoint or assign kathistēmi, to appoint, authorize or 6 put in charge kathistēmi, to appoint, authorize or put in charge

1 Tim 2:7

Titus 1:5

Heb 5:1 (cf. 8:3)

In other words, none of these passages gives us a detailed sense of any procedure or ritual for “ordination” other than affirming that Tyndale is correct: The NT everywhere bears witness to a simple pattern of appointing people to minister in Christ’s name.

Consecration/Appointment Ceremonies in the New Testament

Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination, p. 4 What, though, of the incidents in the Bible when various ones are “ordained” through the “laying on of hands” or other ceremony? How do these stories inform our understandings of “ordination”? Could it be that we have imagined these incidents in ways that conform to our practice? Do these narratives deserve fresh scrutiny apart from the history and presuppositions we bring to them? When we approach them on their own merits, we find a variety of settings, most of which are quite different from the “ordination” of Gospel ministers as we practice it today. The stories are few and it would be easy to make too much of them on some counts. What we cannot miss, though, is a deep, spiritual commitment to God, expressed through fervent prayer, that moves through these brief stories. The passages are these: 1. Jesus’ Selection of the Twelve. Jesus appointed (KJV “ordained”, see above) the twelve apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15).7 Luke’s version of the narrative includes the important note that Jesus prayed all night before making this significant appointment (Luke 6:12-13). There is no mention of laying on of hands or other ceremony, though the mention of night-long prayer and the listing of the names of the Twelve help to communicate the importance and deep spirituality of the moment.8 The Selection of Matthias. After the Ascension of Jesus, Matthias is selected to replace Judas (Acts 1:15-26). The selection involved a public meeting (v. 15), a speech by Peter (vv. 16-22), nominations (v. 23), prayer (vv. 24-25) and, curiously enough, the casting of lots (v. 26). Following his selection, Matthias “was numbered with the eleven apostles” (v. 26). The Appointment of the Seven. When a conflict arose among members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem, the twelve ask the believers to choose seven men to be “appointed” to the duty of overseeing the distribution of food to Christian widows (Acts 6:1-7). Having selected the seven (note that they are not called “deacons” in the passage), the believers “set [them] before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” What is intriguing is that a strict reading of the grammar of the passage would suggest that it is the entire group that “prayed and laid their hands on them”, though this act may have been limited to the apostles. The Consecration of Paul and Barnabas. In a worship service at Antioch, the Holy Spirit commands, “‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” The command is followed: “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3). This brief narrative has much to teach us as it again highlights the characteristics of deep spirituality and simplicity. The act of laying on of hands seems clearly an act of consecrating Paul and Barnabas to God and inviting God’s blessing on their missionary efforts. The setting is either a worship service of the whole church with church members performing the “laying on of hands” (which is the now usual view of the passage) or a prayer meeting of local church leaders in which those leaders perform the “laying on of hands”. Either way, it is instructive to note that local church members participate in the act.9




Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination, p. 5 5. Paul & Barnabas Appoint Elders in Galatia. In Acts 14:23, already mentioned above, Luke discusses the actions of Paul and Barnabas among the Galatian churches of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Antioch: “And when they had appointed [KJV, “ordained”, see above] elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” The Consecration of Timothy. In 1 Tim 4:14 Paul exhorts Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.” It is a little difficult to know with any precision when this event occurred or what was its context: Was it a prayer band of leaders gathered around a youngster and envisioning God’s hand in his life? Or was it a later and more formal entry into ministry? 1 Tim 1:18 (which refers to “the prophecies previously made about you”) and 2 Tim 1:6 (where Paul describes “the gift of God” being “in you [Timothy] through the laying on of my hands”) may refer to the same event. Assuming 1 Tim 4:14 represents a formal entry of Timothy into ministry, this is the story that most closely parallels the “ordination” or consecration of pastors today. Timothy’s Selection of Elders in Ephesus. A little later in the same letter Paul advises Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands . . .” (1 Tim 5:22), apparently with regard to the selection of elders (v. 17).



Reflections on Seventh-day Adventist Theology and Practice of Ordination The above review of biblical passages using “ordain”/”ordination” in the KJV NT and narratives where various one were consecrated to service suggests some possible ways that we might revise Seventh-day Adventist theology and practices to be more attune to divine revelation:   Are our “ordination” services the deeply spiritual and prayer-bathed events that are discussed in the NT? Does the practice of having only ordained pastors participate in the laying on of hands at ordination services risk communicating a doctrine we do not hold, namely “apostolic succession”? Would it not be better, especially in view of Acts 13:1-3 (and possibly Acts 6:1-7 as well), to invite members of the church(es) served by the pastor to participate in this symbolic act? Should it not worry us when terms like “ecclesiastical” and “sacerdotal” are being used to defend some current practices?10 Does this not betray a latent, medieval, Roman Catholic strand to our theology of ordination? Should we not make a decided effort to move closer to the simple acts of prayer and laying on of hands that we see in the Bible? The terms “ordain” and “ordination”, which are no longer used in the common English of our day, are easily misunderstood. Would it be better to adopt a set of more precise terms and policies such as the following?:

Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination, p. 6 o o Appoint/Appointment – The local conference, in conversation with local congregations, “appoints” pastors to serve in specific roles. Consecration Service – In view of the biblical narratives, more could be made of the moment when a pastor is appointed to serve in a specific place. A simple service of dedication—not unlike our current ordination/commissioning service—could mark this important moment. Certification – A pastor is “certified” or “receives certification” when he or she has met the standards of training, experience, performance and character required by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One advantage of “certification” would be to move away from ordination as a once-in-a-lifetime event (which the laying on of hands does not seem to be in the NT) and to allow for periodic “re-certification”, encouraging goals for continuing education, personal development and performance to be met.


Woman as Church Leaders We believe that a renewed understanding of “ordination” allows for a fresh vantage point from which to reflect on the “ordination” of women. “Ordination” is not a sacrament. It does not lift the “ordained” person to a new status relative to the people of God. From a biblical perspective, “ordination” aligns with what we are already in agreement is appropriate for women (and men!): As their commitment and experience indicate and the need of the church demands, to appoint them to positions of leadership and trust within local congregations and in the wider administration of the church. With regard to this point, some difficult passages exist, just as is the case with other Bible topics (1 Cor 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:11-15). However, the overall bent of the New Testament is clear. Women are to be acknowledged fully and celebrated as “fellow workers” for the Gospel (Rom 16:3; Phil 4:2-3). In the NT, women participate fully in worship by praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:5). Just as do men, they receive the gift of prophecy as part of the eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit, whose descent upon “all flesh” signals Christ’s exaltation and coronation (Acts 2:18; cf. 2:33-36). Some women become known for possessing and exercising the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9). Women are the leaders/patronesses of churches (Acts 12:12; Rom 16:1-2, 3-5; 1 Cor 16:19). They are the first proclaimers of Christ’s Resurrection (Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:11-18). They are teachers (Acts 17:24-26).11 We see no biblical teaching that prohibits the church from appointing women to any position of ministry or leadership and much that suggests such actions to be entirely appropriate. As Seventh-day Adventists, we have good reason to acknowledge women as full partners in church leadership given that we believe Ellen White to be a messenger of God—a “prophetess”—and gladly acknowledge her as a founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. From the early days, Eph 4:11-14 was a foundational passage for affirming her work. We could have a prophetess in our midst because the NT allowed for the continuity of the gifts until the Return of Christ. And if there has ever been anyone in our midst who was a leader and a person of authority, it has been Ellen White. In the context of Eph 4:11-14, it becomes difficult to imagine “ordaining” those exercising other gifts/offices in the

Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination, p. 7 church—apostles, evangelists, pastor-teachers—without also being willing to “ordain” those deemed to be “prophets.” Our history and a consistent application of biblical insights on the continuity of the gifts of the Spirit encourage us to remain supportive of the ministry of Ellen White to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and to acknowledge fully other women who lead us.

In all of these discussions we dare not miss a significant, biblical insight. As one reads the Book of Acts with the themes of leadership, authority, ordination, anointing and the like in mind, one conclusion is obvious: The Book of Acts is everywhere interested in Jesus Christ as the anointed, ordained/appointed, coronated, exalted One. While we have tended to become fascinated with the details of the “ordination” of various believers in the book, Acts itself is carried away with the importance of Jesus as the “ordained” and exalted Son of God who now shares the divine throne of the cosmos. From the perspective of Acts itself, the “ordination” of human leaders is relegated almost to the footnotes. Our discussions and concerns about the appointment of human leaders must never dampen our confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

As will become evident, we regard the terms “ordain” and “ordination” as imprecise, dated and largely unhelpful terms. As a result, we often place these words in scare quotes in this document as a way of saying to the reader, “Be careful as you consider what these terms really mean.” This survey and citations are drawn from the section “Of Order”, pp. 254-59 in William Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures, ed. Henry Walter, Parker Society ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1848).
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The term is used with similar meaning in Acts 13:47; 2 Tim 1:11. For the use in 1 Tim 2:7, see below. The term is used with similar meaning in 2 Cor 8:19; Titus 1:9. The term is used with similar meaning in Acts 13:48.

The term is used with similar meaning in Matt 24:45, 57; 25:21, 23; Luke 12:42, 44; Acts 6:3; Heb 2:7. For the uses in Heb 5:1; 8:3, see below. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Bible passages are drawn from the English Standard Version (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2001). Note Ellen White’s expansion of the scene: “When Jesus had ended His instruction to the disciples, He gathered the little band close about Him, and kneeling in the midst of them, and laying His hands upon their heads, He offered a prayer dedicating them to His sacred work. Thus the Lord’s disciples were ordained to the gospel ministry” (Desire of Ages, p. 296). Ellen White affirms the second view: “. . . when the ministers of the church of believers in Antioch laid their hands upon Paul and Barnabas, they by that action asked God to bestow His blessing upon the chosen apostles . . .” That she has a fully Protestant view of ordination is in no doubt as she writes, “Both Paul and Barnabas had already received their commission from God Himself, and the ceremony of the laying on of hands added no new grace or virtual qualification.” In the same context she repeats the idea, “At a later date, the rite of ordination by the laying on of hands was greatly abused; unwarrantable importance was attached to the act, as if a power came at one upon those who received such ordination, which immediately qualified them for any and all
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Reflections on the Theology and Practice of Ordination, p. 8

ministerial work. But in the setting apart of these two apostles, there is no record indicating that any virtue was imparted by the mere act of laying on of hands. There is only the simple record of their ordination, and of the bearing that it had on their future work.” (Acts of the Apostles, 161-62; Gospel Workers, 442) Ellen White uses the phrase “full ecclesiastical authority” in a positive way in the context of the ordination of Saul and Barnabas (Acts of the Apostles, 161). Since she uses it in the context of the early days of the Christian church when organization was simple, it seems to carry a rather different meaning than would be true at later points in church history. Elsewhere she primarily uses the terms “ecclesiastical” and “ecclesiastical authority” in a negative way to describe the abuse of authority. And likely, a woman, Junia, is listed with others who are “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom 16:7, NASB; Most English translations use these or very similar words). However, the gender of the name and the precise meaning of the phrase are contested (cf. the ESV, “well known to the apostles”).
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