Should Elders Be Ordained?

Article
02.26.2010

In most denominations or churches, office-holders are publicly recognized when they are installed into office. The questions before us, then, are how we are to understand the significance of this act, and when should it be performed?

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ORDINATION

In order to discuss the significance of publicly recognizing an office-holder, we need to look at the different terms used in the New Testament to describe this process. We read in Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders” in every church in various cities in Asia Minor. The Greek term translated “appointed” is cheirotonço, which is a compound word taken from “hand” (cheir) and “to stretch” (teinô). In classical Greek the word meant “choose” or “elect,” originally by raising the hand. In time, however, the “hand” element became a dead metaphor.[1]

Thus, in biblical Greek, cheirotonço simply means to appoint someone to an office or designate someone for a specific task. The only other occurrence of the verb in the New Testament is found in 2 Corinthians 8:19, where a well-noted brother was “appointed by the churches” to accompany Paul on his journey. It is clear in this instance that cheirotonço means to designate or appoint one to a position.[2] Nevertheless, in Patristic Greek it again came to mean “ordain with the laying on of hands.” Because of this later usage, some interpreters read this meaning back into New Testament and maintain that Paul and Barnabas ordained men to the office of elder by the laying on of their hands, indicating some special conference of authority or ecclesiastical power. Although the laying on of hands is often associated with the appointing of elders, the author conveys such meaning by using a different term. For example, when Luke wants to speak of the laying on of hands, he uses the verb epitithçmi plus the noun “hand” (cheir) (Acts 6:6; 8:17, 19; 9:12, 17; 13:3; 19:6; 28:8; also see 1 Tim 5:22). Others claim that the word cheirotonço means to vote in the context of Acts 14:23. Although this is a possible meaning of the verb, it is not likely based on the context. Paul and Barnabas appointed, not voted, for the elders of the church.

The other verb used to convey the idea of “appointing” is found in Titus 1:5, where Titus is exhorted by Paul to “appoint [kathistçmi] elders in every town.” In both classical and biblical Greek kathistçmi is used with the meaning of appointing someone to office. For example, Jesus asks someone, “Who appointed me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14, NASB, emphasis added). We also read about how Joseph was shown favor by Pharaoh, “who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all his household” (Acts 7:10, NRSV, emphasis added).

The laying on of hands is often associated with the appointing or commissioning of someone for a specific office or task. The Seven who were chosen to serve the church in order to lighten the responsibilities of the apostles were “set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6). At the church in Antioch, the Lord chose Barnabas and Paul to perform a special task: “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). In another context, Timothy is exhorted by Paul not to neglect the gift that was given to him “by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands” on him (1 Tim 4:14).[3] It should be noted that here the entire body of elders laid hands and appointed Timothy to service and not only one elder or bishop. Finally, Paul warns Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22). Although Paul does not specify the public installation of someone to the office of elder, the context deals exclusively with elders.[4]

Prayer and fasting is also associated with the selection and appointing of leaders. The apostles followed the example of Jesus who prayed all night before choosing His twelve disciples, the apostles (Luke 6:12–13). After the church selected the Seven we read that the apostles “prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6). Similarly, when Barnabas and Paul were appointed as missionaries, the church fasted and prayed and then sent them off (Acts 13:3).

The New Testament never uses the word “ordain” (in the modern, technical sense) in connection with a Christian leader who is installed to an office.[5] Thus, it is often misleading to use the term “ordain” in our modern context if one has in mind the biblical concept of publicly appointing or installing someone to an office. Today, the word “ordain” carries with it the idea that special grace is transferred through the act of laying on of hands. Unlike the Episcopal tradition which claims that the authority of the office comes from the bishop passed to the appointee by the laying on of the hands, the authority of the office comes from God who calls and gifts men to lead his church (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). The New Testament does not teach that those chosen to lead the church are “ordained” to a sacred, priestly office. It also does not teach that only so-called “ordained” clergymen possess the right to preach, baptize, conduct the Lord’s Supper, or pronounce a benediction.

It is the church’s duty to recognize those whom God has set apart for this important duty. Grudem comments, “If one is convinced that the local church should select elders, then it would seem appropriate that the church that elected that elder—not an external bishop—should be the group to confer the outward recognition at election by installing the person in office or ordaining the pastor.”[6] Strauch warns against understanding the appointment of elders in light of the Old Testament priesthood:

Elders and deacons are not appointed to a special priestly office or holy clerical order. Instead, they are assuming offices of leadership or service among God’s people. We should be careful not to sacralize these positions more than the writers of Scripture do. The New Testament never shrouds the installation of elders in mystery or sacred ritual. There is no holy rite to perform or special ceremony to observe. Appointment to eldership is not a holy sacrament. Appointment confers no special grace or empowerment, nor does one become a priest, cleric, or holy man at the moment of installation.[7]

THE TIME OF ORDINATION

It is common for people to be given the title “pastor” without having been ordained. But if the above analysis is correct, then to rightfully be a “pastor” (or deacon) is to be “ordained” in the sense of being publicly installed into that office. The idea of separating the title from the public act of commissioning is not found in the Bible. Elders are not appointed to an office after they become elders. But by becoming elders, they are appointed to office.

Thus, to be appointed to the office of elder implies that a man has met the biblical qualifications, has been called by God, has been approved by the congregation, and consequently has been publicly recognized as one who holds that office. It does not necessarily imply that he works full-time for the church or has been to seminary. Rather, it means that God has called and gifted a person to humbly lead the church. It is also without biblical precedent to call some church leaders “pastors” before ordination and then “reverend” or “minister” after ordination.

SUMMARY

Elders should be “ordained” if by ordination we simply mean the public recognition of someone to a particular office and ministry. Perhaps a more appropriate, and biblical, term is “appointment” or “commission.” The appointment to a ministry was often accompanied by prayer and fasting and the laying on of hands. These public acts draw attention to the seriousness and importance of the appointment. In addition, elders should be appointed as soon as they take their office.

1 It is therefore unlikely that the verb means “having appointed by popular vote.” See J. M. Ross, “The Appointment of Presbyters in Acts xiv. 23,” Expository Times 63 (1951): 288–89; Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 137–39.

2 For a similar use, see Philo, De Specialibus Legibus 1.14.78.

3 Later, Paul indicates that the gift was given to Timothy through the laying on of his hands which probably indicates that Paul was apart of the council of elders mentioned in 1 Tim 4:14.

4 The laying on of hands is also found in the connection of those receiving the Spirit (Acts 8:17, 19; 19:6) and those receiving healing (Acts 9:12, 17, 28:8).

5 Banks, for example, writes, “Ordination, as we know it, does not appear in the Pauline letters” (R. Banks, “Church Order and Government,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993], 135).

6 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 925.

7 Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 285.

By:
Benjamin Merkle

Benjamin Merkle is a professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.