I am part of a free church tradition. As most of you probably know, “free church” is a generic term for those Christian traditions that lack an official structured hierarchy or, conversely, are governed by their own local congregational polity. Within my tradition, the independent branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement, this free church structure does not mean that congregations are wholly disconnected from one another. Indeed there are various means of connection between churches in my tradition (publishing companies, mission organizations, conferences, colleges and seminaries, and periodicals). “Free church” in this case simply means that there is no governing body that can give directives to a local congregation.
There are things that the free church is uniquely suited to do well. These churches are traditionally more resistant in aligning with the ethos of Christendom than churches of the magisterial variety. They also seem to be able to discern more naturally the shape of radical discipleship within a local context. Moreover, free church traditions have an historically better track record for questioning the Christian support of war than magisterial traditions (this might not be as universally true since the mid-20th century).
However, there are things that the free church, because of its structure, struggles to do well. The one thing that I want to key in on here (as you may have gathered from the title of this post), is the practice of ordination.
I attend a seminary within my tradition. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of my friends end up being ordained at some point during or after their time here. What perhaps should come as a surprise is the impetus for most of the ordinations that I’ve seen. Most are not the result of a long conversation and careful discernment between a congregation or its leadership and a candidate. Most are hastily planned after the candidate has been asked by a friend to perform his or her wedding. While performing weddings within the church is an important duty of ordained ministers, the desire to do this should hardly be the primary (let alone only!) consideration for ordination. I will proceed by addressing what I see as the three most common failures of the practice of ordination within a free church context. Under each point, I will suggest an alternative vision.
Theology of Ordination
One of the marks of the free church tradition is their historical recognition of the universal charisms of the Spirit. This has often resulted in a radically democratic theology, one that sees all believers as standing on the same plane. There might be different roles within the church, but there is not a categorical or hierarchal difference between those who preach or preside at the Eucharistic table and those who sit in the pews. In a strange way, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers all too often results in an aversion to the priesthood. Since all the baptized are priests, there is no need to talk anymore about priesthood and certainly no need to have a unique group of Christians set aside to be ministers of Word and Sacrament.
This strange idea becomes stranger still when we consider the biblical witness. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was to be a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). They were called as a nation to represent YHWH to the world and to bring the world to YHWH. And yet, this clearly did not mean that there was not a specific role for priests within the nation of priests. Priests and prophets were given unique vocations to represent the people to God (priests) and God to the people (prophets). No one saw a contradiction between the recognition of individuals with unique and honored vocations and the vocation of the whole nation to be a nation of priests.
Peter applies similar language, “a royal priesthood,” to the church. He is clearly invoking the image of the commission of the people of God from Exodus 19. And, like we saw there, this does not eliminate or diminish specific vocations of honor within the church (see 1 Peter 5:1). The church has a vocation to be a priestly, but that does not mean that all people embody this communal vocation in the same individual way.
Likewise, in Acts 6, the apostles devote themselves to their unique vocations within the church’s larger vocation. They clearly see the task given to them by the Spirit as more important than other good tasks which might detract from it. A further example comes from Acts 13. In the midst of righteous prophets and teachers, the Holy Spirit calls out two of them in particular to be set apart for a specific work.
This brief overview of some of the biblical witness on these matters has hopefully called into question the aversion that many in the free church have to a vocational priesthood. Now, I recognize that there are few in the free church who are willing to recover the language of priesthood understood as a specific vocation of authority and ministry within the church. I am not here lobbying for that recovery. I am rather arguing that the free church traditions need to recover the biblical, but un-American idea of unique individual vocations charged with the prophetic and priestly leadership within the church.
We don’t like the idea of certain Christians being placed on a higher plane than others. And yet, the New Testament is bursting with references to people who are set apart to fill these roles. Until we revisit the Scriptures and question our aversion to anything reminiscent of Roman Catholicism† we will have an inadequate theology of ordination.
So my first point is that our theology of ordination is deficient. Because of that, the primary impetus for ordination within our tradition seems to be to perform those quasi-civil actions that are vestiges of Christendom (e.g. weddings) or to otherwise be able to be counted among ministers of the Gospel (e.g. for tax purposes). Until we return to the Scriptures and the Christian tradition by examining our practice and theology, our understanding of ordination will remain anemic.
The Practice of Ordination
Having discussed the need for revisiting our theology of ordination I want to now discuss some of the ways that we can practice ordination better as members of the free church. In my experience, the practice of ordination varies wildly within my tradition. Sometimes all it takes is for a candidate to call up his home church after a semester or two at Bible college to tell them that he needs to perform a wedding so he’d like to be ordained.‡ Other times it requires a marathon examination of the candidate’s beliefs so that the ordaining congregation is sure that he is theologically up to snuff. And sometimes the candidate is interrogated on both theological beliefs as well as his own personal ethic and integrity. In nearly every case that I know of, it takes one meeting (or no meeting) with the elders of a congregation to move from a candidate’s inquiry to confirmation and scheduling an ordination service. The ordination service can also vary wildly. Sometimes, it is an addendum to the normal Sunday worship service of the church. In these cases, after the obligatory invitation hymn, the elders come forward to lay hands on and pray for the candidate. I know of other congregations that prefer to have ordinations during a service around which they are centered. This can happen on Sunday morning or Sunday evening.
My suggestions for the practice of ordination are not going to surprise you. I think that, in general, the above practices demonstrate a lack of respect for the weightiness of ordination. I firmly believe that something actually happens at ordination. When the elders of a church lay their hands upon someone and pray for the Holy Spirit to set that person apart for ministry, I believe that that actually happens. Because of this, I do not think that ordination should be considered lightly by either the candidate or the ordaining congregation. Rather, it should be considered over a long period of time through prayer, discernment, communal fasting, and silence. I would hope that the candidate already has a good relationship with the ordaining congregation, but ideally the ordination process is a beautiful and painful process whereby the candidate becomes much closer. This should be a weighty process. After all, the elders are confirming the call of God on this person to be a leader in the church. They are responsible if they send out a wolf instead of a shepherd. However, it should be said, this does not mean that the discernment process should be a series of questions surrounding theological shibboleths. There should be some element of doctrinal examination, of course, but not everything is a theological essential for ordination.
Finally, I would contend that the service for ordination should be rethought in most of our traditions. The service is a chance for everyone in the congregation to pray for and receive ministry from the newly ordained. Whether in the morning or evening, it should be within the normal worship gathering of the church. Ideally, I would like to see the candidate receive the laying on of hands and anointing after the service of the Word (Scripture readings and the sermon). Following this, the candidate should then preside at the Eucharistic table so that the congregation present can receive from the ministry to which they have just commissioned him or her.
Ordination after the Service
By ordaining a minister, a church is saying to the wider church that they recognize this person as a minister of the Gospel. It is strange, then, that most congregations do not maintain a vital connection to the life and ministry of those they ordain after they send them out. I know of one minister who called the church that ordained him to let them know that his travels were putting him back in their area. He said that he would like to meet the elders to discuss the 20+ years of ministry that they had commissioned him to. When the elders met with him, they were perplexed as to why he wanted to let them know about his life and ministry. This is far from an uncommon story.
I would argue that, in ordination, a church is binding itself to a minister. This is not a relationship that should be entered into lightly or forgotten quickly. The commissioning church should be intentional about continuing the relationship after the minister has been sent out. Practically, I would like to see churches pray for those they have ordained on a regular basis. I would also like seem them check in with their ministers periodically (at least yearly) to see how their ministry is progressing and to ask if there is any thing that they can do to support them in the commission they have been given.
†Roman Catholics, of course, are not the only ones that practice ordination in a way that better aligns with what I’m suggesting than my tradition’s practice. In fact, most Christian denominations practice ordination in a more careful and theologically robust way than my own tradition. I mention Roman Catholicism because of the strong aversion most free churches have to any practice that seems “too Catholic.”
‡Most all congregations within my tradition do not ordain women. Thankfully, there are a few exceptions to this, but, in general, ordination is a process done by men to a man in the church.