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Ordination and the Unity of the Church

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


A story has been going around these days to the effect that someone was asked if he believed in infant baptism. "I not only believe in it, I’ve seen it with my own eyes!" That hint of strangeness surrounds popular understanding of the rites of the church, including ordination. Like so many traditions, ordination has felt the effects of a general assault upon uses of the past and the romanticizing of the ministry.

In a recent discussion with a group of seminary students, I was struck by the apparent confusion over the nature of ordination among young persons about to enter professional ministry. There was an uneasiness about the rite because it was deemed elitist, and seminarians eschew elitism in all its forms. Why should anyone have a special vocation?

The misunderstanding is disquieting because it reflects the widening malaise in the ministerium itself. The consequences of this misunderstanding appear to be the fragmenting of the profession itself, the further drift into "Lone Ranger" models of ministry, and a continuing isolation of the ordained minister from a sense of wholeness and place in vocation.

The recent emphases upon the laity as normative ministry have had the effect of heightening clerical anxiety about vocation. But "special" ministers have always been a part of religious social existence. The history of religions clearly reveals the continuous presence of priests or functionaries "set aside" for sacerdotal and other duties. The history of Israel is the history of the struggle between priestly and prophetic ministries, measuring each other, penetrating and withdrawing from each other, and finally, settling on what is essentially a teaching model of ministry. The New Testament church, beset with organizational dilemmas, developed systems of leadership to perfect and continue the prophetic ministry. But the church found itself moving into more clerical (housekeeping) roles. The Reformation, seeking to restore something of the prophetic emphasis, provided the basis of modern understanding by conflating four modes of ministry—priestly, kingly, prophetic, and pastoral—into one problematic, always ambiguous, but powerful model of ordained ministry.

It is the very ambiguity of the model that makes for continued restlessness with the idea of ordination. That ambiguity has heightened in the recent past as the ordained ministry in the several denominations has often become more of a guild and less than a servant people. In The United Methodist Church, until recently, the act of ordination and the benefits of security in conference membership were synonymous. Therefore, guild decisions, often more deeply impacted by economic and survival issues, frequently down-staged theological and ecclesial understandings. As long as pension and job security benefits are more obviously at stake in ordination than vocation, a certain hesitancy of purpose will be felt.

The ministry is commonly understood to be the work of the people of God. The church of Jesus Christ is the community of baptized persons who are ministers in and to the world. All Christians are theoretically in ministry. The use of the word "minister" to describe the limited class of specially ordained ministers is unfortunate. It gives the impression that a member of the people of God has been set aside for the work of ministry in the place of the people of God. That is why earlier (and still useful) terms such as "preacher" or "pastor" may well be more descriptive. If everyone is in ministry, then the minister set aside is responsible for facilitating ministry in general, and for performing designated tasks in behalf of the people. So the Reformation formula suggests that ordained ministry is a representative ministry of "word, order, and sacrament."

This threefold ministry is special in the sense that these are three responsibilities without the presence of which there would be no church. Various historical confessions clearly define the church as the locus of the Word of God, the place where the scriptures are faithfully proclaimed, and the sacraments duly administered. Recall these classical formulae:

This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. (Augsburg, VII)

Particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. (Westminster XXV-4)

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. (Thirty-nine Articles, XIX)

Fundamental to all these definitions is the recognition that the church requires continuity with its past as it perceives its movement in the present. Conventional wisdom, therefore, grounded in New Testament theology, has given us the special ministry of the people of God that we call the ordained ministry. That ministry is a group of persons who have exhibited "gifts and graces" for this special ministry, either by formal study or other evidence that they are fit and, therefore, specially called into the ministry of word, sacrament, and order.

Each of these elements takes on special significance when one ponders the trajectory of the church throughout time. For all Christian movements, the fundamental role of scripture is unshakable. Therefore, the vocation of ordained ministry includes the critical role of mediating the scriptural tradition in its purity to succeeding generations. This may take forms as diverse as charismatic interpretation (although internally criticized by the scripture itself) and highly sophisticated scientific criticism. What unites all elements of this process is the assumed centrality of the scriptures for church self-understanding and the necessity for the special ministry of study and interpretation as well as proclaiming the word in preaching.

Order in the church, a problem as old as the first New Testament community, is also a necessity. Disorder, the lack of perceived unity, is the greatest threat to the success of the Christian movement. The great ecumenical thrust of the New Testament in the Gospel of John equates unity and credibility (". . . that all may be one, . . . so the world will believe," John 17:21). How can the Christian claim for authority under pressure of the gospel have any credibility when the Christian folk themselves are so terribly fragmented? Now order may be totalitarian, as indeed it has been in some Christian generations and movements. Or order may be highly voluntaristic, as in some quietistic movements. But order for the sake of unity and momentum in the church has from earliest times been critical—and ordained ministry is set aside to provide that visible sense of the unity of God’s people. In its monarchial forms, this unity has taken on demonic shapes. In its representative forms, it has often made visible and personal the shapes of love. The emphasis upon order has less to do with ecclesiastical lock step than with what has been called "representative" ministry. The unity of the church in profound ways lies in the unity of ministry, an assertion that is before us with increasing urgency in the ecumenical movement.

The sacerdotal roles of ordained ministry have also their roots in gospel and order. Gospel and order are guardians of the integrity of the celebrations of the church. The sacraments are to be "duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance." The check and balance of scripture and tradition prevent exploitation or manipulation of the rites in ways that might compromise gospel purpose. The terrible struggles for authenticity in the leadership of worship recall to our minds the conservative wisdom of the church. The character of the priest is deemed indifferent to the validity of the sacraments as long as they are administered "according to Christ’s ordinance." Christ is the guardian of the tradition, not the priest. But the priest is necessary for careful, judicial, and thoughtful administration. In a poem by C. Day Lewis, an aged priest of an ancient cult tells a young priest not to worry about the results of his sacrifice. "Whether or not he enters into it is the god’s affair./ All we can do is make it possible." Ordination is making God’s presence in the midst of the people possible.

We all can recite the excesses of the professional ministry. They are easily and cheaply catalogued. But the survival of the church of Christ is ironically and strangely identified with the survival of the ordained ministry. This is not simply a conservative sociological principle. It has some of that flavor, no doubt. All institutions tend to place more power in the hands of the housekeepers than their rhetoric would allow. But the special kind of "housekeeping" required in the church includes the ever-present possibilities of God breaking into the institution with new power and vitality. Every generation is born again into the New Testament faith. Every act of kindness and gospel intention is a revelation of the God who is at the heart of all things. This is too big a responsibility to let fall haphazardly between the pews.

Rather than "elitism," this is a special kind of vocation not unlike the calling of Israel or the church. In some mysterious way, each vocation to ministry, whether baptism or ordination, is a calling out or a setting aside of the person for a special sensitivity to the intentionality of God in the world. The church has from earliest times reserved the right to test the spirits, to measure fidelity, and to judge the competence of persons called into the special roles. That is why being named (ordained) to this role is so important. It is the act in which the church, through whatever traditional forms have been chosen, submits itself to the judgment of God in calling out and setting aside one of the ministers of the church for this crucial relationship to all Christians.

The ecumenical church is like an onion. The church we inherited at the beginning of the twentieth century was an institution with many layers of skin, and yet it was unmistakably still an onion. As we have faced the question of "onion-ness," (i.e., what is the essential church of Christ?) we have successfully peeled off layer after layer of traditional accretion and custom. We have disposed of many supposedly essential elements, that is, elements that were thought essential, until we found sufficient trust to ask real questions about their integrity. Now, three quarters into the century, we have come near to the heart of the onion itself. And here, we have discovered that the last great question of the unity of the church is the question of the integrity and unity of its ministry. (See A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting, 1970, Chapter VII.)

Is this merely professionalism? Is it elitism? Is it somehow the attempt on the part of church administrators to carve out for themselves jobs that will be secure? No. The question of ordination is the question of the authority and integrity of the church’s ministry. The gift of ministry, celebrated in the special ministry of those set apart for the care of the household, is of the essence of the church. Without the ordained ministry, the church would quickly become a mystery cult. With the ordained ministry, the church might even become bureaucratic and immobile. With an ordained ministry sensitive to its servant role, the church will see a new surge of vitality and hope.

An ambiguous, curiously archaic, but amazingly flexible institution is ordained ministry. Its elitist impulses and professional temptations serve merely to remind us of its human shapes. But its utility in providing leadership in Christ’s church remains the best evidence we have of God’s plan for the ministry of all Christians.


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