Ordination: Right, Privilege or Delusion?

[Photo by Joseph Williams]

All people have access to God, but does that mean everyone should be allowed to or is equipped for any role in the church?  And why then ordination?

Seems to me that these are some of the fundamental questions that many today struggle with in today’s church.  And while some would accuse some of us mainliners of taking the whole idea of “ordained” clergy way too seriously, I would suggest that this is a modern dilemma that has created a situation where we just have a warped understanding of ordination.

DISCLAIMER: I fully understand that ordination has been used as a way to unjustly keep people out of certain areas of the church: women, GLBT, people of color, etc. And Yes, there are many ordained people – pastors, elders and deacons – who may or may not, in my opinion, exhibit all of the virtues that I or others would like to see in those who hold those offices.  Still . . . I am not ready to say that the concept and practice of ordination should be done away with.

And here are a few thoughts why . . .

Ordination does not mean “holier than anyone else.”  Even those who say ordination does not matter have in some way bought into the thinking that there is an inherent higher value and worth in a person because they are ordained.  Yes, clergy must get over ourselves and stop thinking that we know Jesus any better than anyone else, but at the same time laity must stop thinking that we do in fact think we think we know Jesus any better than anyone else.

Ordination in my tradition – Presbyterian – means that a community of people have discerned that particular people have been called to particular roles.  Just because a person is not in that role does not mean that they never will or are not able . . . but it MIGHT!   Despite our human and somewhat American individualist nature, I trust the body to discern better than I who is called to what and when.  Honestly, it scares the CRAP out of me to think about a community where just because one feels called to a particular role in the church, they should just be able to do it.  I think traditions that practice this method of ordination have just messed it all up.   This is one of the major reasons I choose to be Presbyterian and not an independent congregationalist.   I want to know that there has been a process of more than a conversation in your head that has brought you to this place of leadership and activity in the church.   I think one of the roles of community, congregationally and beyond, is to help people discern their gifts for ministry.  This means to help people discover what those gifts are, to nurture those gifts to equip people to use those gifts and when appropriate challenge folks to publicly use those gifts for the work of the Gospel.

Ordination is also not just about Ministers of “Word and Sacrament” but also about Elders and Deacons, all church roles that require different gifts.  Generally Ministers of Word and Sacrament care for the spiritual well-being of a community, Elders to provide sustained congregational leadership and Deacons are to be a healing and reconciling presence.  As you look around the church and get to know folks, is everyone equipped to pastor a church?  Is everyone equipped to be a teacher or to be a nurturer.  Certainly not . . . even if we think we are.  Our personalities, experiences and/or skills all inform our roles in the church community.   That does not mean that we will not grow into that role at some point and time, but it does reinforce the idea that church leadership is NOT a right, but a privilege bestowed upon folks by a community of faith that has said, “we too sense God’s calling upon you.”

And finally, I don’t believe that ordination devalues the Biblical idea of the Priesthood of all believers.  The priestly nature of our faith says that we all have access to God and that one need not have a human mediator in order to know God and experience God.  Of course people may THINK this is the case, but in my role of Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament . . . I have no delusions that I have any better access to God than anyone else and I think most clergy feel the same way.  Has a community of people said that I may have the gifts and temperament to lead and pastor, sure, but privy to God, nope.

At the end of the day, I actually don’t take ordination all that seriously.  Take for instance, the serving of the Lord’s Supper.  Does God really care who says the magic words and blows the fairy dust that, in our tradition, publicly acknowledges the presence of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup?  I think not.  At the same time, should any yahoo be allowed to preside over this holy practice without some permission and confirmation from the community that is being served?  I think so.  Just where those boundaries lie is the dreaded gray area.  Such is life.

So . . . ordination.  It is what it is.  Some will appreciate and value it while others will dismiss it as an institutionally self-inflicted delusion.  Some will shun it while some some will pursue it.  Some will abuse it, while others will bring honor to the office.  Such is the fun of navigating the church as lived out by us ordinary human beings.


  • Jnichols  

    thank you Bruce!  your article really hit home!  as someone who is ordained and has many times ordained others, i found your thoughts and your words to be excellent!

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  • breyeschow  

    Clint . . . what about all those poor scribes who have gone generations without any credit ;-)

  • Clint  

    I think that Scripture has some part to play in this as well. Something like ministers, elders and deacons are talked about in the New Testament and these offices are held in high regard. As per Shawn’s comment, I think that there is a similar precedent for educators, but not church secretaries.

  • Mark  

    I would add that at different times in our lives we have levels of potency of our gifts.
    I served as a deacon a long time ago, but today I’m not sure that this role would fit me well.

  • pligg.com  

    reyes-chow :: FAITH: Ordination: Right, Privilege or Delusion?

    An interesting personal take on the theological understanding of ordination.

  • breyeschow  

    Shawn – Good point. I guess, there are some lines/boundaries that I would draw. Yes, i do have SOME. Mine would be around roles that have some kind of communal discernment process. So . . . if there was an equivalent “Care Process” for all roles, bring on the Ordination! It would also help that the particular role could be biblically justified, though one could probably justify any position, church DJ and online social networking included!

  • Shawn  

    I think I pretty much agree on your perspective on ordination. But here is where ordination leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths:
    In the PC(USA) ordination serves to identify someone who fulfills a certain role. It doesn’t make them more holy or closer to God or anything like that. So why aren’t other roles designated/honored like this? Why don’t Christian Educators, Church Musicians, or Office Secretaries get something on par with ordination that shows they fulfill certain vital roles in the life of the church?

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