Regarding Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination

To begin commenting now on that which Synod decided in 1973 is perhaps like trying to catch water that has already gone over the dam. Nevertheless, to continue discussing matters of principle within the church is both profitable and necessary for the church’s welfare. It is in this vein, therefore, that I wish to make some comments regarding the report on “Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination” (Report 44, Acts of Synod 1973, pp. 635–716).


The report on “Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination” is difficult material to assess. This is so because, on the one hand, it quotes Scripture and attempts to exegete Scripture. It purports to draw its conclusions from the basic Biblical material. Yet, on the other hand, there seems to be a rather subtle dis· regard for the historical development of office in the church. It is in this historical development of office that we often see how the church, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, has understood texts of Scripture which the committee now attempts to exegete.

Moreover, in the Biblical development of “office” the text of Ephesians 4:7, 11–12 “is the classic passage on the ministry in the New Testament . . . This passage, however, almost certainly names offices. The main point is that one of the great gifts of the ascended Christ to his church is the gift of ministry, and of specific persons carrying out definite functions of ministry with manifest connotations of ministerial office ( H. C. Goodykoontz, The Minister in the Reformed Tradition, p. 32). The report tends to minimize the import of this classic passage while giving much weight to the passage of I Corinthians 12–14. This appears to be a rather strange way of operating. Instead of interpreting the less clear pas· sages by the more clear passage, the report emphasizes that which arises out of a church noted for ‘its problems, namely the Corinthian Church.

Therefore, though there is much in the report to which we can subscribe, there are certain assumptions and emphases which ought to be repudiated lest we lose our traditional Reformed conception of the ministry as “the ministry of the Word” (cf. Church Order of the CRC, Art. 6a, and Acts 6:4).


1. The report asserts “that the word ordain in the King James Version docs not translate either a single term or a group of terms which convey precisely what we today commonly understand by ordination. Rather, the word ordain in the King James seems to. be a translation for words which means to ‘appoint’ or ‘to put in charge’” (Acts, 1973, p. 638).

In answer to the above assertion, let it be said that this is precisely what we do understand by or ordination, namely an “appointing,” or a “putting in charge” for a specific task, as for example, charging one with the duties of being a minister, elder, or deacon. The fact that we have come to limit the use of the word “ordain” mostly to those who preach the Word and administer the sacraments does not negate its proper and biblical usage also to the other offices. Nor does it mean that the word is wrongly used when applied to ministers.

2. In commenting on the passage of I Corinthians 12:28, the report further asserts: “What is here described is divine appointment to a wide range of functions. Some of these functions fit our common concept of office: apostles, prophets, teachers. But other functions mentioned here do not easily fit into our idea of office, and do not seem to be referring to office at all: miracles, gifts of healings, helps, governments, kinds of tongues. A careful perusal of this passage, in the context of I Corinthians 12–14 raises the question of whether the possession of certain spiritual gifts is not in itself something of a divine appointment to exercise these gifts” (ibid., p. 639).

Here perhaps the report is laying bare for us one of its pervading assumptions, namely that ministry must be looked at from the viewpoint of gifts rather than of calling to office. Traditionally we have looked at office as a divinely ordained function within the organized church, and only those may exercise this function who feel called to it and whom the church by lawful procedure appoints to it. At this point, the report seems to reduce ordination to “competence” to perform a given function. No distinction is made between that which one may do as an individual believer and that which one may do within the body of the church.

Nor is any regard given to the principle that Christ now governs His church mediately, that is through office-bearers who represent Him in the application of the Word under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Rather, the report almost leaves the impression that Christ leads His church immediately, that is by direct leading of the Holy Spirit through those to whom special gifts are given. Now I do not contend that no one believes Cod does lead His church immediately. What I do contend is that this idea is held by those who are of the Anabaptist-Quaker-Pentecostal tradition rather than by those who are of the Reformed tradition. Thus, ] believe we must also finally reject the report’s statement on page 656: “From this fact (i.e., ‘that every member who possesses a gift must employ it for the good of the entire church.’) one might possibly conclude that the proper exercise of these gift constitutes an ‘office’ in the church.”

3. The report shows a decided bias when it speaks of “The Servant Concept Underlying Office in the New Testament” (ibid., p. 661 ff.). The report tends to reduce diakonia merely to service, as though all authority is to be excluded from the idea of office. The report states: “Whereas we are accustomed to associate the word ‘ministry’ with a position of authority, the Greek term behind this word suggests the concepts of ‘service.’”

While the basic meaning of diakonia is service, and Christ came to serve rather than to be ministered to, the word does not negate the idea of authority. The sentiments expressed in this section of the report reflect the democratic age in which we live. However, the New Testament shows clearly that servanthood is not the same as servitude. Christ, the Servant of Jehovah, certainly spoke with authority when He forgave sins (Mark 2:5, 10), and when He cleansed the temple (Matt. 21:12ff.). His authority was challenged by the religious leaders of His day (Matt. 21:33 ff.). Yet the exercise of His authority was in no way inconsistent with the idea of ministry as service.

This same truth is discovered if we look at Romans 13. There we are told that governmental “authority” has been instituted by God (verse 1). That same authority is manifested in “rulers” who are called “God’s servant” (diakonos), and who “does not bear the sword in vain” verses 3 and 4). Moreover, the ruler is “the servant (diakonos) of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (verse 4). Is there no idea of authority in this concept of service? Indeed, it is strange that the report should make no mention of this!

One must question, therefore, whether the whole of point “I, Introductory Consideration of the Concepts of Office and Authority” (pp. 691–693) is not misdirected. The report seems to see the end of Christ’s work in restoring “to all believers the office which was once theirs by virtue of creation; namely, the office to serve others and to serve the whole creation” (p. 693). But isn’t it rather man’s office to serve God? And, in serving God, is he not clothed with authority to “have dominion over all things?” Isn’t the same true of parental authority? It comes from Cod and serves the interest of our children. But it is, nonetheless, authority! And just because God is concerned with His creation and serves it, does not lessen His sovereign authority over it!


In summary, it appears that the report suffers from a few basic and erroneous assumptions:

1. Because we cannot find specific texts of Scripture for our current concept of ordination, therefore, our current concept is wrong. This is a non-sequitur [it does not follow, and should be acknowledged as Biblicism outside the Reformed tradition.

2. That ministry is viewed from the standpoint of competence (“gifts”) rather than from that of calling. Christ called His disciples to follow Him. Christ governs His church through those who are properly called and appointed to office. Competence to preach does not necessarily make one a preacher. One must with Presbyterian polity, the fact of the matter is that local churches give up some of their inherent rights for the sake of the whole church (denomination). Thus, the ministers of the Word are subject to a prescribed course of instruction and must be examined by a classis before ordination can take place. The local consistory has yielded its basic prerogative of examining and ordaining a minister on its own. Synod should, therefore, insist that in the context of our Church Order and polity, the word “church” in “Guidelines 7 and 8” refers to the whole church as manifested in our denominational structure. Hence, Synod should set and maintain the requirements for those who aspire to the special office of the ministry.

It may well be that Synod will wish to vary the requirements for ordination, by combining the academic and practical experience, so that more “laymen” may qualify for “ordination.” However, the idea of maintaining a ministry for the well-being of the church is Biblical. And, for our day and age, we need ministers with more training rather than less. Those whom the church promises to support must be worthy of that support. Therefore, in my judgment any lessening of the requirements for the minister of the Word would be most unwise.