Councils of Ordination: Their Powers and Duties




In an age like the present, when laxity in doctrine abounds, and when men are not unf requently led by unworthy motives to desire the pastoral office, it concerns the purity and even the existence of our churches to surround with all proper safeguards the entrance to the ministry. Such safeguards may in part be found in Ordaining Councils, provided that those who compose these bodies have proper understanding of their position and responsibilities. It is the object of this paper to present a just view of the powers and duties of such Councils, and to indicate the method of procedure best adapted to secure the ends for which they are called.

When we speak of the powers of Councils, we do not mean to intimate that these Councils are self-constituted, or that they have original authority. The Council, on the contrary, is called into existence only by the local church, can determine only such questions as that church may submit for its consideration, and has power to advise the church what its action should be, but no power to compel the acceptance of this advice. The so-called Council of Jerusalem certainly gives us New Testament example for one church's seeking advice from other churches, in difficult junctures, but there was, as we may suppose, an element of inspiration in that decree of "the apostles and elders with the whole church," which cannot be claimed for the conclusions of subsequent Councils. While Scripture favors that interdependence of local churches which results from acknowledging the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in others as well as in ourselves, and the due value of the public opinion of the churches as an indication of the mind of the Spirit, it still in the last resort throws each church upon its own responsibility of ascertaining doctrine and duty by individual interpretation of the divine providence and word. Interdependence, in short, is but the qualification of a fundamental and inalienable independence. On earth there is no higher authority than that of the local church. No other church, and no union of churches, whether directly or through its representatives, has any rightful jurisdiction over the single local body which Christ has brought into immediate subjection to himself as Lawgiver and King.

Yet all the more has the Council, when rightly called and constituted, the power of moral influence. Its decision is an index to truth, which only the gravest reasons will justify the church in ignoring or refusing to follow. If there is a moral obligation to seek its advice, there is also, in all ordinary cases, a moral obligation resting upon the church to take its advice, when

* Printed in the Examiner, January 2 and January 9, 1879.

this advice is given. So much, at least, is assumed when matters of importance are committed to the decision of a Council, with no provision for a subsequent meeting of the church to review the Council's action. In such case the church virtually constitutes the Council its representative, in effect deputes the Council to act in its place, tacitly accepts the decision of the Council as its own. The fact that the church has always the right, for just cause, of going behind the decision of the Council, and of determining whether it will ratify or reject that decision, shows conclusively that the church has parted with no particle of its original independence or authority. Yet though the Council is simply a counsellor — an organ and helper of the church — the neglect of its advice may involve such ecclesiastical or moral wrong as to justify the churches represented in it, as well as other churches, in withdrawing from the church that called it their denominational or Christian fellowship.

It is but an application of these general principles to a particular case, when we say that it is the church which ordains, aud that in ordination the Council is only the adviser and assistant of the church. In ordination, as in deposition from the ministry, the church may, in extreme cases, proceed without a Council or in spite of the decision of a Council; the effect, however, being that such ordinance or deposition on the part of the single church has no ecclesiastical validity outside of its own body, and that the church may be even disfellowshiped by neighboring churches where there is manifest violation of New Testament principles in its procedure.

Ordination is an ecclesiastical act so important in itself, and so serious in influence upon other churches as well as upon the church that ordains, that the counsel of others may well be deemed obligatory before the act is consummated. In the ease of deacons, who sustain official relations only to the church that constitutes them, ordination requires no consultation with other churches. Licensure, which points only to a temporary or experimental service, may properly be left to the wisdom of the individual church. But the setting apart of a preacher of the gospel to a permanent work of ministration in the churches involves so grave responsibilities and demands such practised judgment, that the ordaining church should never fail, where this is possible, to add to its own the wisdom and experience of other churches of the same faith and order.

The Council is called, therefore, not to confer upon the candidate, by superior authority, some special grace without which he could not be denominated a true minister of Christ, but to assist the church in two respects: first, in determining whether the candidate has been called and qualified by God's providence and Spirit; and secondly, in granting to him express authorization to exercise his gifts as pastor or teacher, within certain definite local boundaries of the church or the denomination. The prior call to be pastor may be said, in the case of a man yet unordained, tx> be given conditionally, and in anticipation of a ratification of its action by the subsequent judgment of the Council. In a well-instructed church, the calling of a Council is a regular method of appeal from the church unadvised to the church advised by its brethren, and the vote of the Council approving the candidate is only the essential completing of an ordination of which the vote of the church calling the candidate to the pastorate was the preliminary stage.

It has been proposed of late that the Council of Ordination shall consist only of ministers who have been themselves ordained. The proposition seems to us to contradict not only our denominational usage and principles, but the plain tenor of Scripture teaching. That Timothy is enjoined to commit the things which he has learned to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also, by no means defines the method in which he shall fulfill the commission. The analogy of the choice of Matthias, and of the election of deacons, would indicate that Timothy obeyed the precept by setting apart those who had been previously chosen by the suffrages of the whole body of each church respectively. All this was done by the churches under the advice of one endowed with special divine gifts, and clothed with unique and exceptional authority. But who shall be the advisers of our later churches in this solemn matter of ordination? This must be determined, not from the example of Timothy, for none have succeeded to his precise place and work, but from the general tenor of apostolic teaching with regard to the duties and responsibilities of all members of the church of Christ.

Careful examination will show that there was laid, not solely upon the presbytery or ministry, but upon the whole body of believers, the responsibility of maintaining pure doctrine and practice, of preserving and guarding the ordinances, of electing their own officers and delegates, and of exercising discipline. It is not merely the apostles and elders, but the whole church of Jerusalem, that passed upon the matters submitted to them at the Council, and others than ministers appear to have been delegates. The Scripture intimates that its own simplicity and sufficiency were designed for the very purpose of inducing individual interpretation of its contents, so that each Christian might judge of the correctness with which it was preached. How, then, can it be maintained that, in deciding upon the doctrinal qualifications of a candidate for the ministry, the laity are to have no voice? In many an age of church history, as to-day in the Free Church of Scotland, the Sciiptural conservatism of the laity has been the most potent influence in preventing the general adoption of lax and erroneous views, to which the ministry have been inclined. Moreover the Council of Ordination is to pass, not only upon matters of doctrine, but upon matters of Christian experience, and of these the unordained church member is often a more sagacious judge than his pastor. As we see no Scriptural warrant for the exclusion of lay delegates from Ordaining Councils, but rather abundant evidence to show its inconsistency with the fundamental principles of a true church polity, so we reject the proposed innovation as having in it the beginnings of a hierarchy. To make the ministry a close corporation is to recognize the principle of apostolic succession, to deny the validity of all our past ordinations, and to sell to an ecclesiastical caste the liberties of the church of God.

The very first of the duties devolving upon the member of a Council of Ordination would seem to be the cherishing of a high sense of the dignity and solemnity of his office, and the determination to discharge his functions with independence and judicial fairness as in the sight of God. He has been called to be an adviser of the church of Christ in a matter affecting its very life. He is appointed as representative of another church, because in that other church the Spirit of God is believed to dwell. His business is to judge of the work of that same Spirit in the heart and mind of one who claims to have been chosen by God to be his ambassador, and he is to reach his decision by comparing the utterances and the manner of the claimant with God's revealed will. Surely no more lofty or serious task was ever set for man to do. Frivolity, party-spirit, favoritism, personal pique or resentment, over-anxiety to please — in short, the whole brood of worldly impulses and motives — what place or right have they at an occasion so pregnant with blessing or disaster to the cause of our Lord!

But it is not enough to have the right spirit. It is a duty to provide against the wrong, and by all needful precautions ensure the issuance of a true intent in wise action. The Council does not come together to ratify the immutable decrees of the local church, but rather to give to the body that called it a sound and candid judgment upon the facts presented before it. The Council should therefore be so numerous and so impartially constituted that no danger remains of its being over-awed or unduly influenced by the hopes or feelings of the community or of the church. It is obligatory upon those who call the Council to furnish, in the letter-missive, a list of the churches invited, that the churches summoned may see for themselves that the Council is to be neither so insignificant in numbers as to make possible only a show of deliberation, nor so packed as to make possible only a predetermined verdict. Neither the ministerial nor the lay element should be relatively so numerous as to make it possible for one to override the other, and for this reason each church might well be invited to send only a single lay delegate with its pastor — an arrangement all the more valuable if the limitation of the number of delegates from each church should compel the invitation of a wider circle of churches. The church calling the Council should of course be represented by its delegates, but the number of these delegates should not be so great as to give undue weight, in the general discussion and decision, to the church's previously formed opinions. Neither the church nor the Council should permit a prejudgment of the case by the previous announcement of an ordination-service. The ordination-service should never be held or expected upon the same day with the examination of the candidate, for in every case of difficulty such an arrangement unduly curtails the Council's time for deliberation, and brings a pressure to bear from without, which involves danger of a sudden and a wrong decision. Moreover, while the examination of the candidate as well as his own statements of faith and experience should be in presence of the whole church, both for the sake of furnishing him the best introduction to their respect and Christian sympathies, and for the sake of furnishing the Council the fullest opportunity of estimating his ability to sustain examination, the Council should always conduct its subsequent deliberations in private session, and that this private session may be held, either the congregation should be dismissed or a withdrawing-room should be made ready for the Council.

The suggestions already made are embodied in the following blank form of a Letter-missive, in which it will be observed that the correct view of the church as the ordaining body is expressed in the resolve to ordain in case the counselling brethren approve the candidate after examination. All question with regard to the necessity of a special vote of the church ratifying the decision of the Council is in this manner obviated.

Tfie Baptist church of to the Baptist church of:

Dear Brethren: By vote of this church you are requested to send your pastor and one delegate to meet with us in accordance with the following resolutions passed by us on the , 188-:

Whereas, brother , a member of this church, has offered himself to

the work of the gospel ministry, and has been chosen by us as our pastor, therefore,

Resolved, That such neighboring churches in fellowship with us as shall be herein designated be requested to send their pastor and one delegate each, to

meet and counsel with this church at — o'clock — M., on , 188-, and

if, after examination by the Council, he be approved, that brother be on

the next day set apart formally, by public service, to the gospel ministry.

Kcsoked, That the Council, if they approve the ordination, be requested to appoint two of their number to act with brother in arranging the ordination services.

Resolved, That printed letters of invitation embodying these resolutions, and

signed by the clerk of this church, be sent to the following churches, ,

, , , , and that these churches be requested to furnish to their

delegates an officially signed certificate of their appointment, to be presented at the organization of the Council.

Resolved, Tiiat Rev. and brethren be also invited by the clerk

of the church to be present as members of the Council.

Resolved, That brethren , , and , be appointed as our delegates,

to represent this church in the deliberations of the Council, and that brother

be requested to present the candidate to the Council, with an expression

of the high respect and warm attachment with which we have welcomed him and his labors among us.

In behalf of the church, , 188-. , Clerk.

A just conclusion of the labors of the Council may be either facilitated or hindered by the forms observed in its conduct. Although, in this, individual freedom and local usage must have their influence, yet there are advantages in uniformity of action, and it is with a view to promote this uniformity that we here suggest certain rules which already, in some portions of the country, have been found practicable and serviceable. Our present methods are too often loose and inefficient. Not unfrequently a moderator is chosen, before it can be told that there exists a Council to be moderated. Persons are counted as members of the Council, upon their mere oral declaration that a certain church has appointed them its delegates. Members of the Council are so scattered in the general audience that, in voting, they are indistinguishable from those who are not members. Candidates have been admitted to examination without presenting documentary evidence of membership in the ordaining church, or in any other properly constituted church. Severe scrutiny fails to be given to imperfect or unsatisfactory statements of the candidate, because of an undue anxiety to spare him what might be a salutary mortification. Good brethren refrain from opposing manfully the acceptance of an unsound or incompetent person, because of over-desire to gratify the church. These are ways in which the real purpose of the Council may be either endangered or altogether frustrated. There is a call for moral courage in standing squarely against either hasty or unwarranted action. Where differences from the faith on the part of the candidate are not vital, it maybe duty for a member of the Council to fall in with the general decision of his brethren. There are more serious cases, where dissent should manifest itself in protest and withdrawal.

As a safeguard against the irregularities already mentioned, as well as against other and more serious evils that might follow in their train, the following would seem to be a useful and proper order of procedure:

1. Reading by the clerk of the church, of the letter-missive, followed by a call, in their order, upon each church and individual invited, to present responses and names in writing — each delegate, as he presents his credentials, taking his seat in a portion of the house reserved for the Council.

2. Announcement by the clerk of the church, that a Council has convened, and call for the nomination of a moderator — the motion to be put by the clerk — after which the moderator takes the chair.

3. Organization completed by election of a clerk of the Council, the offering of prayer, and the invitation of visiting brethren to sit with the Council but not to vote.

4. Reading on behalf of the church, by its clerk, of the records of the church concerning the call extended to the candidate and his acceptance, together with documentary evidence of his licensure, of his present church membership, and of his standing in other respects, if coming from another denomination.

5. Vote, by the Council, that the proceedings of the church and the standing of the candidate warrant an examination of his claim to ordination.

6. Introduction of the candidate to the Council by some representative of the church, with an expression of the church's feeling respecting him and his labors. .

7. Vote to hear his Christian experience. Narration on the part of the candidate, followed by questions as to any features of it still needing elucidation.

8. Vote to hear the candidate's reasons for believing himself called to the ministry. Narration and questions.

9. Vote to hear the candidate's views of Christian doctrine. Narration and questions.

10. Vote to conclude the public examination and to withdraw for private session.

11. In private session, after prayer, the Council determines by three separatevotes, in order to secure separate consideration of each question, whether it is satisfied with the candidate's Christian experience, call to the ministry, and views of Christian doctrine.

12. Vote that the candidate be hereby set apart to the Gospel ministry, and that a public service be held, expressive of this fact; that for this purpose a committee of two he appointed, to act with the candidate in arranging such service of ordination, and to report before adjournment.

18. Reading of minutes by clerk of Council, and correction of them, to prepare for presentation at the ordination service and for preservation in the archives of the church.

14. Vote to give the candidate a certificate of ordination, signed by the moderator and clerk of the Council, and to publish an account of the t he journals of the denomination.

15. Adjourn to meet at the service of ordination.

It has been seen that ordination is essentially a setting apart, first, by vote of the church, and secondly, by vote of the advisory Council. These two votes express both a recognition of gifts conferred by God, and an authorization to exercise those gifts within the bounds of the Church and the denomination. These two votes are parts of one whole. They show the candidate to be the choice of the church and of the Council — or, which is the same thing, of the church by itself and of the church advised by its brethren. Examination is a prerequisite to the decision of the Council, because if the candidate is to bo recognized as a minister by other churches, he must give them proof of his fitness, and that all the more, if he come from a denomination whose doctrine and practice differ from our own. This setting apart by the church, with the advice and assistance of the Council, is all that is necessarily implied in the New Testament words which are translated "ordain," and such ordination by simple vote of church and Council could not be counted invalid.

But it would be irregular. New Testament precedent, which is the common law of the church, has, in the general judgment of our churches, made certain accompaniments of ordination not only appropriate but obligatory. A formal publication of the decree of the Council, by laying on of hands in connection with solemn prayer, is the last of the duties devolving upon this advisory body which serves as the organ and assistant of the church. This public service is not the essence of ordination, nor does it convey any new powers, much less any divine grace. Although, in the ease of Timothy, there appears to have been a special divine gift bestowed in connection with the laying on of hands, the communication of miraculous or spiritual gifts was not the result of this imposition of hands, nor was it the object for which hands were imposed in his ordination; for hands were imposed, as in the cases of the deacons and of Paul and Barnabas, where no record exists of the bestowment, through that act, of any spiritual or miraculous gifts at all. The imposition of hands is the symbolic and public side of ordination, just as baptism is the symbolic and public side of regeneration. As the essential thing in salvation is the new birth of the Spirit, yet the entrance of the whole man into the outward as well as inward kingdom of God is not complete until this being boru of the Spirit is formally and publicly expressed and symbolized by being born of water also,—-so the essential thing in ordination is the recognition and authorization by vote of church and Council, yet the duty of the Council is not fulfilled until it has symbolically and outwardly proclaimed this recognition and authorization by laying on of hands and prayer.

Thus the laying on of hands is appointed to be the regular accompaniment of ordination, as baptism is appointed to be the regular accompaniment of regeneration, while yet the laying on of hands is no more the substance of ordination than baptism is the substance of regeneration. The imposition of hands is the natural symbol of the communication, not of grace, but of authority. If this distinction be only well observed, we conceive that all objection to the retention of the symbol must disappear. The laying on of hands does not make Spurgeon a minister of the gospel, any more than coronation makes Victoria a Queon. What it does signify and publish is formal recognition and authorization, and in this light the continued insistance upon the holding of a public service, of which the central feature shall be prayer and the laying on of hands, may well be regarded as the bounden duty of every Council of ordination which, by vote, sets apart a candidate to the ministry.

If recognition and authorization be the essential thiugs in ordination, decreed by vote and symbolized by public service, then important light is thrown upon the question whether ministers coming to us from other bodies of Christians should be ordained. The proper inquiries would seem to be these: Have they ever been recognized by the representatives of rightly constituted churches, after examination, as doctrinally and practically qualified for the ministry? Have they ever been authorized, by the vote of such a Council, to exercise their gifts within the bounds of our denomination? If not, it would seem that they still need ordination. Surely they are not now authorized to do what they have never agreed to do,—namely, minister to Baptist churches. The view that we shouldaccept as valid some previous ordination in another denomination proceeds evidently upon the false assumption that action of every ecclesiastical body is valid, not only for churches of its own faith and order, but for all churches of every name. And no line can be drawn the moment we pass our own bounds,— Roman Catholic ordination must be valid as well as Presbyterian. Nor does our logic class us with Separatists or extreme Independents. In so far as ordination is an act performed by the local church, with the advice and assistance of other rightly constituted churches, we regard it as giving formal permission to exercise gifts and administer ordinances within the bounds of such churches. Ordination is not, therefore, to be repeated upon the transfer of the minister's pastoral relation from one such church to another. In every case, however, where a minister from a body of Christians not Scripturally constituted assumes the pastoral relation in a rightly organized church, there is peculiar propriety in that act of recognition and authorization which is the essence of ordination. And if it be proper that he be examined and his claims passed upon by vote of Council, it is equally proper that he submit to that formal service of laying on of hands and prayer, by which the previous action of the church and Council is simply published and symbolized. We are now ready to state in full that a regular ordination, conducted upon Scriptural principles, and therefore valid among all churches of our faith and order, involves three things: first, the call of a church to the candidate to become its pastor; secondly, the vote of a Council to recognize and authorize the candidate to exercise his gifts in the churches as a minister of Christ; and thirdly, a public service in which, by prayer and imposition of hands, this authority is formally and symbolically conferred. Of these three, the two former are the essentials, the last the regular and appropriate accompaniment. It is to be regretted that the word ordination, which in the New Testament covers the whole process of setting apart in all its three stages, should so frequently, even among us, be interpreted as referring only to the last. Thus the Council's final and most important vote is often a vote to "proceed to ordination." This intimates that the public serviee is the essence of ordination. The vote, as we have already intimated, should rather be a vote "that the candidate be hereby set apart to the gospel ministry, and that a formal and public service be held expressive of this fact." We have derived our denominational principles from the New Testament, but the language in which we too commonly express these principles comes to us from the usage of denominations which deny them. It will be well for us to conform our terminology to our faith, lest our faith be gradually bent into conformity with our terminology.

The true idea of the public service, as simply expressing and formally completing the ordination, will determine to a considerable extent the order and relation of parts in the service. It is evident that the central features should be the prayer of ordination and the imposition of hands. This prayer, instead of being substantially anticipated in the opening invocation, should be reserved to a single brother in the ministry; and others of the older ministers, as a true presbytery, should, in connection with the prayer, if not during its utterance, lay their hands upon the head of the candidate. The prayer should recognize in the decision of the Council the new evidence that the church has been guided by God in its choice, and should invoke upon the candidate, as he is formally set apart to the sacred office, the blessing of God that is needed to render his work successful. These being the chief portions of the service, all the other parts should be arranged with reference to them. The sermon, if one be preached, should be a general presentation of the gospel which the candidate is to proclaim, preparing the way for the solemnity of the ordaining prayer, but not anticipating or superseding the words of admonition to candidate and church which are to follow it. Before these charges and after the ordaining prayer the brother, now already ordained in the fullest sense, may well be welcomed to the fellowship of the Christian ministry, with the presentation of the right hand and a few well-chosen words of Christian congratulation. That these many services may be impressive, it is important that each should be not only appropriate but brief, and with this view the musical portion of the services should be confined within narrow limits, and the utmost punctuality secured in the assembling of the audience and the beginning of the exercises. The practical and executive ability of the candidate may find good field for its first exercise, in preparing his church for this service of ordination. Well arranged and carried out, no service of all his after-ministry can be of greater value either to himself or to the people of whom he is the pastor.

The following scheme is presented as indicating an appropriate order of exercises, as well as the relative amount of time which may be granted to each participant in a service whose total length shall be two hours:

1. Voluntary — five minutes. 2. Anthem —five. 3. Reading minutes of the Council, by the clerk of the Council — ten. 4. Prayer of Invocation — five. 5. Reading of Scripture — five. 6. Sermon — twenty-five. 7. Prayerof Ordination, with laying on of hands — fifteen. 8. Hymn —ten. 9. Right hand of fellowship — five. 10. Charge to the candidate — fifteen. 11. Charge tothe church — fifteen. 12. Doxology — five. 13. Benediction by the newly ordained pastor.

It has been intimated that deacons as well as pastors should be ordained. Although in this case, for the reason already given, the church may proceed without the advice of a Council, yet it would seem quite as clear that New Testament precedent requires the ordination of deacons to be accompanied with prayer and the laying on of hands, as that pastors should be thus inducted into office. But is ordination confined to pastors and deacons? Analogy would teach that all whose permanent vocation in life is to be that of expounding the word of God should come under the same law, and should be set apart, in like manner, to this sacred work. This is especially important in the case of those who are to teach the teachers, as in our Theological Seminaries. Theirs is a grave responsibility; it should be intrusted ouly to those who, after careful examination, approve themselves as sound in doctrine and Christian in spirit. Every such teacher is to be regarded as a minister of Christ assigned to special service by the church to which he belongs; he should therefore be ordained with the advice of a Council, not to he pastor, but to be teacher,— ordained not by the Theological Seminary, which has no such powers committed to it, but by the local church with which he is connected. In like manner, missionaries to new regions abroad should be accounted ministers of the churches to which they belong, assigned to service in foreign lands; they should therefore be ordained by these churches. Philip, baptizing the eunuch, is to be regarded as an organ of the church at Jerusalem. Both home missionaries and foreign missionaries are the true New Testament evangelists; and both, as organs of the home churches to which they belong, are not under obligation to take letters of dismission to the churches they gather. Their ordinations, like all other ordinations, should be regarded as having no continuous validity after the facts upon which they were based have ceased to exist. Retirement from the office of public religious teacher should work a forfeiture of the official character. The authorization granted by the Council was based upon a previous recognition of a divine call. When, by reason of permanent withdrawal from the ministry and devotion to wholly secular occupations, there remains no longer any divine call to be recognized, all authority and standing as a Christian minister should cease also.

There are many curious and interesting questions suggested by this discussion, upon which we have not touched, and upon which no general agreement has yet been reached among us. We are convinced, however, that the principles which have been laid down afford the true basis for the solution of these questions, and that the correctness of the principles themselves may be either proved by positive Scripturo statements or justly deduced therefrom. We have attempted to point out certain practical methods of carrying out these principles, aud of guarding them from misapprehension ami neglect. A thorough exhibition of them as centering in the direct subjection of each church, as of each soul, to Christ the Lord, aud an application of them to all the practical exigencies of our church and denominational life, is yet a work of the future.