As Mike and I are preparing to be ordained in the next few months, I’ve been reflecting on the theological meaning behind ordination. So far the best explanation I’ve come up with is this: Ordination is a formal confirmation of a call to ministry and the presence of spiritual gifts necessary for that ministry, recognized by the Church in historical continuity with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in all ages and places. It does not indicate a change in being or essence, but rather calls out and highlights the missionary identity implicit in our baptismal identity.
In our Pastoral Care class at the seminary, we read Thomas Oden’s Pastoral Theology. For Oden, ordination is similar to baptism in that it’s not repeated “since it has reference to a lifelong covenant relationship.” This connection with baptism is implicit even in the ordination service, which includes a reaffirmation of baptismal vows. Those baptismal vows include a prayer for the Holy Spirit to empower us to “proclaim the gospel to all nations and serve [God] in a royal priesthood.” Hence there’s a missional element to baptism, and also to ordination. This is why, in Daniel Migliore’s words, ordination should be “understood missiologically rather than ontologically” (Faith Seeking Understanding p. 297). It indicates a change in function, but not identity.
Oden also connects ordination with the spiritual gifts imparted for ministry, which relates to the missiological change that Migliore’s talking about. But those spiritual gifts come to someone who is already united with Christ in baptism, and thus do not necessarily change that person’s identity which already exists in Christ. This is why I like Jurgen Moltmann’s connection of ordination to the missiological meanings of baptism. As Moltmann writes, “Ordination can only display and emphasize in visible terms what is already implicit in baptism both as a confession of faith and a call” (Church in the Power of the Spirit p. 314).
Our baptismal identity is the identity of a missionary. Because of this, there is no further ontological change: only a specific commissioning related to that missional baptismal identity. (Moltmann argues that only adult believers should be baptized because only they can do so in conscious response to God’s call to mission. This is where I part company with Moltmann on baptism. Jeremiah certainly didn’t have a choice to consciously respond to God’s calling on his life; he had been consecrated since before his birth. As I understand it, baptism of both infants and adults is a sign not just of inclusion the the covenant-community of God’s kingdom, but of God’s call upon us to serve.)
But if this is true, then why is ordination necessary? First, for the sake of order. It formalizes the church’s outward confirmation of an individual’s calling to ministry. To quote Andrew Purves from one of our Pastoral Care classes, the reason we only allow ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament to celebrate the Lord’s Supper is “purely for the sake of order.” When Mike and I are each ordained, our callings to ministry (and particularly to new church development) will be confirmed by the church, and that means that within the “decency and order” of the Presbyterian church. There’s nothing special about us that makes us righteous enough or holy enough to celebrate the sacraments, but within our denomination we will have been designated as people who may do so legitimately for the sake of order in the church.
But there’s more to ordination than order: There’s also the idea of an historical or spiritual connection to the original apostles (Oden 31), a doctrine much more important for Catholic theologies of ordination than for Protestant, but still upheld to some point by most traditions. And, though I don’t understand it, I believe there is an element of spiritual gifting that takes place in ordination: whether it is the actual reception of a new gift (as 1 Timothy 4 implies) or simply the awakening of something latent within the ordinand, the Holy Spirit does something. But that something is a mystery, as far as I can tell.
Again, this is the best I can understand ordination right now, but I’m eager to understand it more. Is anything missing in this picture of ordination? What could be added from other parts of the Church’s tradition?