“Ordination in the Bible”Categories: Meditations
A few months ago, one of the members at Jackson Heights asked me if I would write a blog about ordination in the Bible. Apparently, she had been talking about the subject with one of her friends and wanted to know what the Scriptures have to say about it.
First of all, it’s worth observing that the system of religious hierarchy that is present in so many denominations is absent from the Bible. Jesus says it best in Matthew 23:8, where He instructs us, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.”
In the New-Testament church, there is no distinction between clergy and laity. Instead, all disciples share in a fundamental equality. Neither the most venerable elder nor the most famous preacher are in any way superior to the single mother sitting in the pews. We all serve in different ways, but we are all servants, and we are always to regard one another as more important than ourselves.
However, there are several places in Scripture where we do see men set apart for particular tasks, usually with a ceremony involving the laying on of hands. In Acts 6:6, when the seven are presented to the apostles, the apostles pray for them and lay hands on them before they begin their ministry. Similarly, in Acts 13:1-3, the prophets and teachers in Antioch dedicate Saul and Barnabas to the work of proclaiming the gospel through fasting, prayer, and the laying on of hands.
First-century Christians took the laying on of hands quite seriously. From the evidence available to us, we can infer that it was a symbol both of blessing and of fellowship. Those who laid hands on the worker took a share in his work. For this reason, Paul warns Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:22, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others.” Before you dedicated a man to a task, you needed to make sure he was the right man.
Today, we often think of the laying on of hands as the way in which miraculous spiritual gifts were transmitted, but in reality, its significance was much wider than that. As a result, it is appropriate for us to continue the practice today.
Most commonly, I’ve seen it during the appointment of elders and deacons. It is often the case that when a man is called forward, he will be welcomed by the one doing the appointing with a handshake and a shoulder clap. Though many onlookers don’t realize it, this is nothing other than the ancient practice of the laying on of hands, carried out in a way suitable for our culture.
The practice has value, though, even beyond the selection of shepherds and servants. For instance, before brethren travel to preach the gospel in a foreign country, it would be fitting to send them on their way with prayer and the laying on of hands. Does this make them “ordained”? No. However, it does do something much more meaningful. It ensures God’s blessing on them and on their work, without which no servant of God can hope to succeed.