Ordination is a reminder of the Lord Jesus Christ’s ongoing care for his church. When we attend a service in which men are ordained to office in the church, we are witnessing the faithful love of Christ for his bride. And that is a blessing indeed!
Most Presbyterians have attended an ordination service, but many Presbyterians don’t fully understand what they are witnessing. What exactly is (not) happening when men are ordained to office in the church? What are the benefits and blessings of ordination to the church’s officers?
The PCA’s Book of Church Order defines ordination as “the authoritative admission of one duly called to an office in the Church of God, accompanied with prayer and the laying on of hands, to which it is proper to add the giving of the right hand of fellowship” (BCO 17-2). In the New Testament, we see the church’s officers doing just this. We find both examples of ordination (Acts 6:6, 13:3; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) and commands to ordain men to church office (Tit 1:5; 1 Tim 5:22). Ordination is, therefore, a biblical ordinance.
But what does ordination mean? Some might be familiar with the sacrament of holy orders in the Roman Catholic Church. According to Rome, “grace is conferred by sacred ordination” such that “a character is imprinted [upon the soul of the ordinand] that can be neither erased nor taken away.” Such a high claim rightly provoked strong Protestant reaction at the time of the Reformation. In the centuries since, some have feared that practicing ordination in any form invites superstition and ritualism into the life and ministry of the church.
The Presbyterian doctrine of ordination captures the balance reflected in the teaching of the Scripture. As James Bannerman has well stated the point, “ordination is less than a charm, but it is more than a form.” It is, on the one hand, “less than a charm.” The Bible sees ordination neither as a sacrament of the church nor as a transaction in which grace is transmitted from one or more church officer(s) to another. It is, on the other hand, “more than a form.” Ordination is not a rite of human devising that the church is free to disregard. Nor is ordination without significance in the life and ministry of the church.
What exactly, then, is taking place when a man is set apart to the office to which he has been elected and called by the church?