Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

Ordination and Congregational Leadership

Debate about ordination in Presbyterian churches usually arises in relation to four sets questions:

1) Why do people need to be ordained in order to do ministry in the church, particularly the sacraments. Anyway ordination is not in the bible.

2) Ministers and elders are both ordained, therefore elders should be able to do the same things as ministers.

3) Why is Presbyterian ordination not recognised by some other Christian traditions?

4) The criteria for leadership and the processes our church uses to make decisions do not seem appropriate. We should make decisions on the basis of gifts and character not training.

Some people feel these issues mores strongly than others. Some points need to be made:

1) Ordination is first of all a name used for a process of appointment to some roles. People who reject ordination still have to make decisions about who does what. There are many examples of people in the bible being called and chosen for particular roles.

2) We should not confuse questions about whether the criteria and process for appointment to a role is appropriate with the need to make decisions about who does what.

3) In our different histories different churches have developed different theologies of ministry. It is up to other churches to decide whether ours is regarded as equivalent to theirs or not.

4) Presbyterian churches today have often have provision for elders to be authorised for sacraments, and for people who are gifted to exercise gifts of ministry in the congregation. In the past "the minister" did everything, that is now seldom the case.

Historical debates

At the Reformation people were concerned with what was a true church and what constituted valid ministry. There were also debates about whether valid ministry affected the efficacy of the sacraments. It was common sense that who presided was important, at the very least in being helpful or unhelpful in assisting people know what was going on and in being committed to supporting that.

The fact that fundamentally the spiritual transactions in the sacraments were between the believer and God could be used either to say that ordination was not so important since the character of the person presiding was secondary, or that the function belonged exclusively to those who were in a priestly role even if they did not live up to their calling.

As Presbyterianism developed concern for ordination shifted to academic  training of a candidate for ordination. At times these requirements were set to exclude groups the Church did not want recognised as Christian leaders, at other times the genuine concern was to maintain a vision and standard of an educated ministry.

By mid 20th century the issues about ordination shifted to questions of gender, could woman be elders and then ministers, and could ordination address issues of equality of status for groups of theologically qualified women in ministry areas such as Christian education, and then to ecumenical concerns, whether convergence between Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Congregationalist, and perhaps even Roman Catholic theologies of ordained ministry would be possible. Congregationalists and Presbyterians were very similar. Anglicans saw themselves as a middle way to Catholicism. Methodists might be described as a unique mixture of all of the above given both the recognition of gifts at a membership level, and the authority given to those in ordained leadership in the courts of the church. Reformed Christians struggled to see how to fit their polity into an episcopal system, and those who believed they had succeeded were seldom successful in convincing others.

With the weakening interest in church union by the end of the 1970s, ordination debates shifted to either a desire to eliminate ordination altogether in the face of the need and desire to affirm a wider range of spiritual gifts and a sense that the restriction of sacramental leadership to ordain clergy had lost meaning in some circles, or to a dimension of the wider debate about the place of homosexual persons in committed monogamous relationships in Christian leadership. The homosexual debate is an issue in itself in most denominations. The ambivalence towards ordination perhaps needs to find a resolution around seeing the value and importance of ordination as a deliberate decision about key leadership roles, and finding other ways of affirming the capacity and responsibility of a wider range of Christian gifts and callings. It is important to recognise the way in which ordination has helped women as a benchmark of recognition of ministry capacity, even if of itself it has not always been sufficient to address cultural male chauvinism in the church. The charismatic sense that ordination is evidenced more by the call and gifts of the Spirit than by the judgement of the church is likely to turn out to be bounded by views on what sort of lifestyle should be seen as acceptably consistent with that giftedness.

Is ordination itself  the problem, or something else?

We need to understand why people find the idea of ordination difficult, and what it is they are actually objecting to.

As noted, it seems to me that a common concern has been fundamentally that rules about ordination seemed to recognise people who are trained who may not appear gifted, and failed to recognise people who are gifted but who may not be trained. The question is not ordination, but the crIteria used. There is a confusion between ordination as recognition and commissioning for particular roles and the quality of the decisions churches actually make.

What is the basic idea?

The basic concept is sorting out who is responsible for what. As we seek to recognise a wider range of roles in the church it does not get any less complex. We do not have that on our own!

Christian churches have commonly taken care over who should be leaders in the community and which leaders should be recognised and called to preside when sacraments are celebrated. Different traditions are very concerned that those recognised stand in the tradition of Jesus and the Apostles. The difficulty I see is that the boundary between those authorised to celebrate sacraments and those not is taken as the all important divide between two groups often described as clergy and laity. Certainly those recognised by prayer and laying on of hands for sacramental leadership are important, but so are a huge range of other callings in the church.

Ordained and Lay

The fundamental questions also arise in relation to lay ministries and ordination, and these are especially important as in practice laity is not defined as "laos, or the whole people of God" so much as "those who are not ordained to do certain things in the church.

Our fundamental identity is as Christians and our setting apart for service is built in to baptism. "Lay" is sometimes an appropriate word, but it can be an unfortunate one. Although less so than some traditions, if more so than some others, even Presbyterians sometimes need a handy label for those who are not ordained as ministers of word and sacrament. However it is a negative definition, and as far as possible we will describe roles in terms of what they are not what they are not.


Persistent Presbyterians

Hans-Reudi Weber, Towards a Common Understanding of the Theological Concepts of Laity/Laos: The People of God.

Responses to questions

These are personal responses, not church policy.

1) How would you explain ordination to youth group which believes they should be able to baptize new converts and celebrate communion together?

I would seek to explain ordination as anchored in two great traditions.  The first has to do with the need for the church, in all its forms, needing to ensure the orthodoxy, capacity, character and calling of those who represent its message and interests.

Even the newest and most charismatic of movements would be chagrined to find that its name and reputation were connected to leaders and churches that were not teaching the truth, were involved in immorality, or were abusing or mismanaging people or resources.

The need will soon arise, in any such venture, to be able to control the quality of its expression and representation.  This is a great tradition in the church as well.  It can be seen to be at the heart of the second great tradition- that being the teaching of scripture itself.

When Paul made a point to set apart and install elders over his missionary congregations and when the Jerusalem church assembled Apostles and elders, they were reflecting the long Jewish tradition of placing the decisions and affairs of the community into the hands of proven and trusted individuals. 

The implication is that these “trustees” would be the ones to insure the quality and well-being of the community and they were solemnly charged to that end. I think these two traditions are easily identified. 

It is harder to argue, from a Biblical perspective, that the sacraments must be administered by permanently ordained ministers or elders alone.  It is unlikely that John was able to personally baptize all that responded.  He probably had helpers.  Jesus and Paul certainly did.  Though it is impossible to say that all proper baptisms or communions were carried out by formally ordained celebrants, it is probably accurate to say that Jesus, or John, or Paul etc. were the guarantors and guardians of the occasion and thus represent the need for a connection with church leadership and discipline.

John Rush, 2009

2) Why don't we ordain Lay Preachers?

It is ironic given the Reformed emphasis on preaching the Word that so much effort in New Zealand over the last few decades has been about authorising elders in relation to the sacraments without addressing preaching at the same time. The provisions for Presbytery training and recognition of lay preachers certainly needs tidying up as well as in some cases simply being rescued from neglect.

Churches like the Church of Scotland which used the word ordination in relation to their lay preachers (called "Readers" ) sought to maintain the value of high standards. The training they set for Readers was quite high, but now when elders may be appointed to do the sacraments with a lesser amount of training, and others invited to preach to take services without special training, the existing Readers feel a bit short changed.

The PCUSA has had a parallel and more difficult debate over ordination in relation to Christian Education ministers, many of whom are women with good theological education who did not wish to be ordained but want and need some appropriate recognition from the Church.   The issue is complicated by ordination having a status value in the church. Something is not quite right when ordination to conduct sacraments is used as a way of resolving the need to improve the status of those who may not be called to conduct sacraments. 

The debates over the future of the Deaconess Order had some parallels. The New Zealand solution was to ordain all the deaconesses and do away with the order. 

Looking forward, I see a renewed focus on the eldership, including in Cooperating Ventures, as a key to unlocking many of the conceptual and semantic as well as practical difficulties associated with recognised ministries in a church which seeks to emphasise the value of the gifts of all the people of God. Lay Preachers are particularly important among Pacific Island Presbyterian churches, and among Methodists.

The future, and the naming, of those as a group who are called and recognised as lay preachers is a decision for them and for the church. However I do think the word "lay" is an unfortunate relic here. Although technically we could use the word ordination I think it is so much associated with the sacraments, and so confused with issues of status, it is also best avoided. Licensed Preacher might be quite sufficient.

John Roxborogh

3) Does not belief in the "priesthood of all believers" mean that elders should be able to preside at the sacraments?

On its own this principle could equally mean that any believer is able to preside. But even the most open of churches usually make decisions about who.

Ordination as a word is used in Presbyterian order with different associations in relation to different groups. This is understandable, but confusing. The essential idea is of being set apart for a particular role, so that ministers and elders were set apart for different roles (just because they are both ordained, does not mean their roles are the same). The question is then whether the basis for making those decisions is within a biblical framework and a reasonable one.

Presbyterians say that a decision about who should be a minister of word and sacrament is a regional presbytery decision, and a decision about who should be a "ruling elder" is a local congregational one. We are moving to a situation where there is some overlap in that congregations are able to propose that elders be authorised for sacraments, and some are suggesting that presbyteries have an involvement not in the selection of elders, but in their appointment or ordination. We also have seen a move over the past while for decisions about who should be ministers of word and sacrament shifting towards a national process after initial discernment and recommendation by a Presbytery.

Presbyterian ideas about ordination are much more related to a theology of order than a theology of ministry akin to Lutheran / Anglican / Catholic. However of course some prefer to emphasise the links to those church traditions.

An irony of some of this is that the "priesthood of all believers" emphasis was used by Luther as part of his challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church, but Lutherans quickly developed a high doctrine of the pastoral office.

Methodists were influenced by Wesley's sense of the authority of the ordained minister (Methodism has a much more centralised authority structure than the Presbyterian tradition) at the same time as they created places where lay Christians could exercise ministry and leadership in small groups.

A development which gives a fresh view of the whole discussion is to regard baptism as ordination - a view which fits with "the priesthood of all believers" and which also gives a focus to the discussion as being about recognition of gifts and calling and the roles that people have. Some Roman Catholic theology from Vatican II encourages this and is something we could usefully be familiar with.

The General Assembly in 2002 set in motion a process which may lead to the authorizing of some elders to administer baptism on the same basis as now applies for elders being authorized to preside at communion.

We read a lot into the term "priesthood of all believers," but it can be taken as meaning that the gifts of every Christian should be recognised. However that is a decision for the church as well as for the person (and as with all spiritual gifts the view of the church is the decider).

Some are gifted, called, and recognised as elders. Some elders are gifted, called, recognised, and trained in relation to "Word and Sacrament", some to the Sacraments, and others to Preaching, Christian Education, Pastoral Care or other recognised ministries.

We need to go on valuing the role of elders in pastoral care, but I see others being able to offer that ministry who are not elders, and sense that the key ministry of new elders is likely to be Christian leadership. It would help if those who are elders who become ministers of word and sacrament were not ordained in their new role, but licensed or commissioned - so that their ordination as an elder is recognised. I think this is something we could usefully consider. As above we might also usefully move to associating ordination for elders, as for ministers, as a call to preside at the sacraments. At the moment it looks as if we will be saying that for elders who are trained for the role.

John Roxborogh