By Brian Gass
What is the meaning of ordination and the laying on of hands? Because of alterations in definition and practice throughout the centuries of Christian history, the biblical view is sometimes debated among different denominations and movements. The word ordain itself is really a translation of over 20 words in Hebrew and Greek that could also be translated “appoint.” A more complete definition and one that certainly invokes the reverence of the practice would be “to set apart to an office or special service.” Regardless of the English translation used, the practice has been closely associated with the laying on of hands to symbolically convey a sharing of the mantle of leadership and a calling to special service.
Old Testament Examples
Ordination has a rich history among believers, beginning in the Old Testament. The first example that most would point to is the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests (Lev. 8—9). Their selection as servant leaders was clearly from the Lord, involved an elaborate ceremony, and was done in public before the people. The Levites were set apart in a similar manner in Numbers 8, as were the 70 elders in Numbers 11, and Joshua in Numbers 27. From what we might call a “lay leadership” perspective, the example of the 70 elders is perhaps most relevant.
God gave a command to Moses who was given the task of calling out those who had already been recognized as leaders among the people. They were to come alongside Moses and help him bear the burdens of the people.
New Testament Examples
In the New Testament, Jesus appointed first the Twelve and later 70 disciples to carry out the ministry. Though there was no formal celebration mentioned as in the Old Testament examples, Jesus made clear that He was conveying authority upon these followers, and the involvement of the Holy Spirit was similar to the Old Testament cases. Despite Jesus’ apparent lack of formality in the ordination process (perhaps because He was Jesus and certainly didn’t need ceremony to leave a lasting impression!), when the disciples decided they needed helpers in ministry, they returned to a more formal Old Testament-style method of laying on hands (Acts 6:6). This was similar to the process used in the Jewish synagogues at the time as well. Whether or not their methodology was commanded by the Lord is not clear, but we can see His affirmation of the ordination itself as early as the next verse (7):
“So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.”
That the early church continued the practice is not in doubt, though variations in ordination methods can certainly be seen throughout the centuries of Christian history.
Benefits for the Church
Why is the formal ordaining of deacons beneficial to the church? Besides the biblical example, there are several reasons why ordination ceremonies have been a helpful method for the church in the setting apart of servant leaders.
- It is for the deacons themselves. It is a holy moment indeed when one realizes he has been singled out and entrusted with the care of God’s precious people. This laying on of hands by other ordained men of God is a benchmark moment in the life of a believer when he is affirmed in the presence of his fellow church members and before God. When temptation to be less than an example for the faithful comes, he will remember that many people are counting on him and encouraging him. This is similar to the public affirmation given at a wedding ceremony to a young couple.
- Ordination is significant in the life of the congregation. The people are reminded that there are examples of servanthood and leadership among them, and they have somewhere to turn in times of need. Sometimes, especially in a large congregation, deacons may also seem easier to approach than the pastor. The ordination ceremony puts a face to the help available through God’s people. It’s also helpful to God’s people to have godly role models to challenge and motivate them to good deeds.
- Beyond the local church and the individual, the ordination of deacons gives a unique opportunity for churches of similar perspectives to come together to celebrate God’s gifts to His Church. Once a man is ordained, he is ordained — set apart for kingdom purposes. While local churches differ in how they handle the transfer of a deacon from one body to another, very few would call for a re-ordination if a deacon were to change churches later. Ordination offers not only an opportunity for multiple congregations to come together for celebration but to inspect, encourage, and collaborate for the sake of the kingdom.
More than a Tradition
Is a formal ordination ceremony including the laying on of hands necessary for a church to be effective? Perhaps not necessary, but certainly beneficial.
There are biblical examples to which we can look as well as strong models throughout church history and across denominational lines to speak to the strength of the practice in our churches. Beyond that, it is quite likely that if you’re reading this article, you too have benefited from this church practice that is so much more than a tradition.