Monday, July 26, 2010


I have seen the assertion which is the title of this blog many times in church.   Many congregations print them in the church it is an integral part of Protestant ecclesiology.  We say we believe in the “priesthood of all believers.”  Frankly our practice says that this assertion is suitable for fertilizing the pasture.

One of the fundamental principles that we all should have learned and put into practice is that there is only one class of people in the Church: the “Laos.”  Laos is a Greek word for people.  Unfortunately we have imported the word into English as “laity” which was not the intention of Paul.  There is no separation between laity and clergy in the New Testament.  There is only the laos or the people of God or the body of Christ.

Paul makes this clear in the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians.  Christians are not and cannot be divided by rank.  To do so is to deny the very truth of the Gospel.  All are sinners, all come to the gathering of the people of God as equals: all are sinners that have been forgiven through Christ.  Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 12 is that different people have different gifts.  We can argue with our Pentecostal friends as to whether the lists of gifts in Ephesians, Romans and 1 Corinthians are extensive or whether there are other gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Paul’s point is that being blessed (or cursed) by the Holy Spirit with one gift or another does not raise one Christian above others and that all gifts are necessary.  The hand cannot say to the eye “I have no need of you.”  All gifts are needed and no matter how spectacular one gift seems that gift is the equal of all the other gifts including the seemingly mundane gift of “hospitality” which, if one were to rank gifts, I believe should be most honored.

None of this is to say that the Church should encourage sin.  As Paul says in Romans 6 we died with Christ and our sinful selves died with him.  We rose to new life.  But as Paul points out in Romans 7 we don’t always do what we want to do.  What he doesn’t say is that sometimes we even want to do and choose to do what we know we shouldn’t do!  So while Christ sets us free from sin we struggle seeking sanctification.  But sin does not necessarily disqualify someone from membership in the Church or being blessed with a gift of the Spirit.  Although Paul had to go and make it complicated in 1 Cor. 6 by talking about excommunicating a man who had sex with his stepmother (or maybe his biological mother?).  It seems that there are sins and the affirmation that they are not really sinful can be the cause of separation from the Body of Christ.  But what about ordination?

The word “ordained” enters the picture in our ecclesiology and messes up the whole vision of the Church as one people, one body in Christ.  Yes when ordaining deacons, elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament we say that some are called to particular duties in the Church and that these duties do not make someone more important than others.  Those duties are dependent on gifts of the Holy Spirit.  And yes, Jesus calls on those who would be great to be the servant of all.  So when the church ordains someone they are told to be the servant of all.  But is that how we really see elders, deacons and Ministers of Word and Sacrament (MWS)?

We say that the ordained are actually the servants of the people of God.  Frankly this statement while well intentioned is a lie at least as we practice our ecclesiology.  Church members think that ministers of Word and Sacrament are an exalted class with elders and deacons one step below..  Our education sets us apart.  Our apparel in worship sets us apart.  In Bible studies when we come in as merely “members” of the Bible study when a tough question comes along everyone’s head turns toward the MWS.  After all we have the training.  We know.  We got all that education so that we would know.  We are the resource for the Church.  We are the ones who truly know how to do evangelism.  If the pastor doesn’t visit you in the hospital the Church has not really reached out to you.  Curiously this is even truer in a multi staff congregation.  If the “senior” pastor doesn’t visit you in the hospital then the Church has not really come to you.  (Thank God for Stephens’ Ministries that is overcoming this prejudice!)  Prayer by the pastor is considered more effective.  Flowery prayer by the pastor is considered to be better than the simple prayers of church members (which frankly are often more profound in their simplicity than the most eloquent prayer of a pastor praying extemporaneously or reading from the Book of Common Worship!).

And sadly being a deacon is considered a step toward becoming an elder even though these callings have different gifts!  A deacon who knows who is in the hospital and always sends a card or makes a visit clearly has different gifts than an elder.  Some elders would make terrible deacons but are superb elders.  Some deacons would make horrible elders.  And some MWSs would be terrible elders or deacons.  Elders are called to be spiritual leaders of the Church (and not just those who run the financial business of the Church).  Deacons are called to be servants to the people and those who point to injustice in the community.  Too often these roles with their accompanying gifts are considered the true role of the pastor. 

In so doing we destroy the central concept of the Church that all have gifts and all are to use their gifts for the good of the body of Christ.  We believe, in effect, that Paul was wrong.  If the pastor is the big toe of the body the big toe cannot say to the eye “I have no need of you.”  Yet that is the practice of our ecclesiology!  The pastor is held up as the person with all the gifts and “regular” church members do not have gifts and do not have any calling other than to come to worship and listen and maybe sing quietly.  The robes and the stoles the pastor wears mark him or her as different from the “regular” church members.  The very apparel of the pastor underlines a false ecclesiology!

Should pastors not receive proper education?  I suspect that there are many out there sitting in the pews that would make better pastors than the person in the pulpit.  But since we in the Presbyterian tradition have valued education we seem to think that those who get good grades in seminary and pass all their ordination exams are fit to be pastors.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While it is wonderful to be able to study the Bible in Greek and Hebrew and be able to quote the early Church Fathers those abilities will not make one a good pastor.  Most true pastoring is learned in the first few years of ministry after seminary or not at all.  Why do so many MWS drop out in the first few years?  Maybe it is because they don’t have the gifts to be pastors. 

I therefore ask the critical question: is ordination a good idea or even a Biblical idea?  In the Old Testament God called Moses to lead the people of God.  But even Moses had to be told that he wasn’t the be all and end all and that he needed help.  So the first elders were called.  These elders served as judges in the case of conflict between Israelites.  Prophets spoke the word of God to the people and most particularly to the social elite.  The kings and the priests had their callings and their roles.  How then did the pastor become prophet and priest (and in some congregations also the king!)?  Through false ecclesiology. 

In the New Testament Jesus calls disciples by merely saying “Follow me.”  There was no kneeling and laying on of hands.  Any seminary training the disciples received was through following Jesus and making a lot of mistakes.  Notice that the disciples were not the most educated or most holy people in Israel in their day.  They may have been illiterate!  But they followed. 

And yes, there were those seven Helenistic Jews chosen to make sure that all widows got their food.  Here we see real Presbyterianism in action.  The people chose the seven.  The Apostles laid their hands on the seven and prayed over them.  This is one of the two passages that come closest to our ordination ceremonies.

But these men then go off and do other things besides making sure the widows get fed!  Stephen preached the gospel in Jerusalem and died for it.  Granted what he said was offensive.  Philip preached in Samaria and then to an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza.  Clearly calling to a particular task by the Church by the voice of the Church did not necessarily mean that one could only operate in that role.  (Although strangely enough the Samaritans didn’t receive the Holy Spirit because they came to faith through Philip’s teaching.  Peter and John had to go down to give the Spirit to the Samaritans?)

The other ordination we see in the New Testament (also in Acts) is when Paul and Barnabas are chosen by God through the voice of the Holy Spirit spoken by what one could call a session.  The Spirit spoke, the elders laid hands upon them and Paul and Barnabas went out as apostles.  We have no idea why God chose these particular people although it seems that God had a joke in mind by sending Paul the Pharisee of the Pharisees out to preach to the Gentiles.  But as far as we can tell Paul and Barnabas were not chosen because their Greek was better than that of others or because they knew the Old Testament better than others. 

If what we see as the actions of God in calling people to particular tasks in both Old and New Testament God seems to have an insidious method of choosing the least likely, the ones with no power and the big sinners.  Jacob would be no one’s choice to be a patriarch of Israel.  If Jacob came to dinner you would count your silver spoons after he left!  Moses was a murderer who begged God not to send him down to Egypt because he just didn’t have the gifts or frankly the desire.  Against all cultural norms God chose Deborah as a Judge.  God called Ruth the Moabite to be the great grandmother of David the king (through the scheming of Naomi and some planned hanky panky on the side) yet the law in Deuteronomy specifically says that Hebrews shall not marry Moabites!  Samuel the child was called.  David the youngest was called.  Amos the trimmer of date trees was called.  And Jesus, whose female ancestors named in Matthew were all notorious and whose mother had the gossips of Nazareth buzzing because she clearly got pregnant before she should have (at least as the gossips counted out the months) was the Messiah! 

Put to death on the cross Jesus was the equal of criminals.  But he was also the only one who is truly prophet, priest and king, the one Messiah. 

So what are the requirements for ordination?  The Book of Order says that those who are ordained are to be held to a higher standard.  But should they?  If we really believe that all members of the congregation are ministers (or what we say about ministry is a lie) then call to service in the Church is given at baptism and confirmed when a child or an adult has reached the point where she can understand God’s calling to her.  And if all who are called to ministry are sinners (and we all are, ordained or not) what sin is too great so as to disqualify someone from a particular calling from God?  The only thing that seems to disqualify someone is continuing in sin that is known to be sin to the point that the Church excommunicates the individual. 

I have been ordained for over 30 years.  If education and ordination exams mean anything I am empowered to officiate at weddings, administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and to preach the Word because theoretically I know more about those actions than someone who has not been to seminary.  I do think such knowledge is necessary for someone in a congregation but I am not sure that one needs to be ordained to be able to explain the meaning of marriage, baptism or the Lord’s Supper. 

So we come back to the beginning: is ordination good for the Church?  I suspect not.  Ordination seems to be a holdover from Roman Catholic tradition that says ordination is a sacrament and that only those have received that sacrament are able to perform the miracle of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.  And only those who have received the sacrament of ordination (named the sacrament of orders, actually) are able to offer the forgiveness of God to others. 

Theoretically we Presbyterians left all that behind.  Isn’t it time to let go of the vestiges? 
If we have to have a ceremony for those who take on tasks according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and receive what education is needed to use those gifts maybe we should commission them to the task?  And we should do it for all who have received particular gifts of the Spirit, no matter what those gifts may be.


Christine Kooi said...

I fervently agree that everyone should be held to a higher standard, not just ordained folks. Otherwise we've just entered a new clericalism.

You've talked eloquently about the pastor role for MWSs, but what about the preacher role? It seems to me that that is where the Reformed stress on education comes from. From my pewsitter's perspective, my preferences (biases?) are for a preacher who's educated, who knows more than a little about church history, exegesis, biblical languages, etc. Of course that doesn't necessarily justify the current seminary system as we know it. As you say, we all have different gifts.

So, are you going to propose an overture for next GA to abolish ordination? As if all of our current arguments weren't fun enough already! :)

Pastor Bob said...

I was thinking of preaching as part of the role of pastor. But seriously some may have the gift of preaching and not the gift of being a pastor and vice versa.

Alan said...

Interesting how we emphasize the need for education, yet from a completely non-scientific sampling of blogs, etc., I continue to be interested in the number of pastors who claim that they're either uncomfortable or actively prevented from sharing what they learn in seminary with their congregation, particularly regarding history and higher criticism.

But I agree Bob that it is hard, if not impossible to fit ordination and "the priesthood of all believers" together in any meaningful way.

Christine said...

I have to admit I found my own ordination as elder a few years ago to be a moving and meaningful experience. But I imagine I would have had the same reaction if it had been called "commissioning" instead.

Alan: My congregation serves (partially) a university population, so our pastors don't have that problem, fortunately. But I can well imagine there are congregations out there that have no interest in what the pastor learned in seminary, alas.

Pastor Bob said...

I can't speak for other pastors but taught a variety of Kerygma classes to those who wanted to learn and came out for the classes. They learned all about 2 Isaiah, Paul's letters as over against Pauline letters, etc. I admit I don't talk about that in sermons (although I will talk about what the problems were that the NT writers were working against like Gnosticism. Preached on that yesterday).

I do think, contrary to some scholars, that Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians were written by Paul but not the pastoral letters.

Having said that the discipline changes constantly and you have to keep up.

One other thought: how many MWS keep up with their Greek and Hebrew? I have with Greek but really need to take a refresher course in Hebrew.

Pastor Bob said...

Oh, I should add the effect of archeology on historical criticism. I keep up with that but as a layman (LOL).

Pastor Bob said...

@ Christine

"So, are you going to propose an overture for next GA to abolish ordination?"

Alas I think we are so busy arguing about who should or shouldn't be ordained that no one will hear the question should we ordain at all.

Christine said...

True enough. One of the unseemlier aspects of the arguments about who may be ordained is how invested some folks (on any side of the issue) are in the status of ordination. On the other hand, a radical proposal to abolish ordination may be one thing that would unite them all (against the proposer, that is).

Pastor Bob said...

@ Christine

Wow, I could unite the whole denomination against me! Bring the right, left and the middle together!

Aric Clark said...


I am not in a university town. I am in rural Colorado - the plains not the mountains, and I have been doing historical critical stuff in Bible Study every week. I'm getting a great response. It is an overgeneralization, but I think most pastors who feel like they can't teach historical critical method in their churches it is because of their inadequacy, not because the lay people are intolerant.

On the ordination issue, I am with you Bob, with some regret because I for entirely selfish reasons want to be paid to preach and teach and lead worship as they are my passions.

Pastor Bob said...

Aric I'm with you on preaching and teaching (to say nothing of earning a salary. I would say that both preaching and teaching are gifts of the Spirit. How we decide who gets paid and who doesn't is a problem, isn't it?

BTW I taught Kerygma classes in So Cal, Upstate NY and now in the Philly area. I also taught a critical class on the book of Revelation in rural PA. We spent a lot of time on different ways of reading the text.

Beloved Spear said...

I wrassle with this one myself. On the one hand, seminary and the process of preparation and discernment are profoundly helpful if you're going to teach and preach. It's really useful for the whole "Minister of the Word" thing.

I serve a congregation that's almost entirely from an evangelical background, and I've found that teaching historical critical method works. Once folks realize you're not trying to undercut the Bible, but giving it depth and context that makes it even more real and relevant, they seriously glom on to it.

On the other, I think the sacramental part of my ordination...meaning, I'm the guy who baptizes and serves communion...isn't really something that should be limited to me, any more than I should be the only one out there telling people about the transforming grace of the Gospel.

Pastor Bob said...

Beloved et al. I have a suspicion that part of the problem with teaching people historical, literary, etc. criticism is that the folks that translated geschichte into English used the word "criticism" rather than "academic study." I know lots of folks would have objected in any case but for the poor Christian going to college and hearing the word "criticism" referring to the Bible in her first Bible class in college was too much of a shock. It took me a whole year at Fuller Seminary before I would start using higher criticism after I learned it in college from someone who studied in Germany! (kidding)

Those Reformed types from the Netherlands (who were also doing higher criticism but didn't use the term) were totally accepted. Go figure.

Pastor Bob said...

And to be frank the folks from the Netherlands were the real radicals. They wanted to write a Christian Philosophy AND organize Christian associations for everything from labor unions to chemistry classes. Back in the 1880's Abraham Kuyper insisted that labor unions have seats on the boards of corporations because the laborers brought just as much to the table as did the investors! Here in America Kuyper would have been considered a socialist!

For the historians in the crowd he taught a truly great series at Princeton Seminary back around 1910 that has been called the Kuyper Lectures ever since. Alas almost no student at PTS ever finds out who Kuyper was without asking.

Right Alan?

Pastor Bob said...

Oh, and Alan you may have noticed that in this blog I cut the gordian knot about ordination. :)

Christine said...

Reading Dairmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (which I highly recommend) reminded me that Calvin himself was ordained by no church, and probably preferred to refer to himself as doctor (i.e., teacher) rather than pastor.

Pastor Bob said...

Thanks Christine. Calvin actually wanted teachers for the Church to be ordained as a separate group from pastors/preachers. Interesting, isn't it, that we aren't willing to do so for Christian Educators? Personally I think it is a power issue. MWS don't want to share their power. And they (and the Sessions of the congregations they serve) definitely don't want presbyteries to set salary minimums for Christian Educators.