Although the practice of commissioning, setting apart, or ordaining is found in both the Old and New Testaments, I believe that the best understanding for Church operation today is found in the New Testament. There is a long tradition of ordination within many Christian denominations, yet the Bible must be our authority above tradition. And interestingly enough, I don't think many of our traditions hold closely to what we find in the Bible, which is why I can use commissioning, setting apart, and ordaining as interchangeable words, whereas many traditions cannot.
In Mark 3:13-19, Jesus choose and appointed twelve servants to do a number of tasks including preaching and casting out demons. Acts chapter 6 shows that seven servants were chosen to minister to the Church as deacons. Once identified, they were presented to the Apostles. The Apostles then “prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6, ESV). An event recorded in Acts 13 shows that after worshiping and fasting, the Apostles were instructed by the Holy Spirit to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2, ESV). Here, God called and set apart two individuals for His appointed tasks. The Acts 13 passage continues, “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3, ESV). We see that prayer and fasting came after God’s call but before sending Barnabas and Saul off to do the work for which they were called. A picture of submission to God’s call for Barnabas and Saul, unity among the body, and communal support, prayer, and encouragement is presented as the leaders laid hands on those called to a specific God-appointed task.
Therefore, it seems that a commissioning, setting apart, or ordination of a team or individual is a public recognition of God’s choice and calling for a specific ministry purpose, varying in qualifications, scope, duration, and authority. As we find in the Bible, this purpose may be as diverse as going ahead of Jesus and proclaiming the gospel in every town, leading as an elder, distributing bread, or embarking upon a missionary-church planting journey. Each of these callings served the church in different ways, for differing periods of times, requiring different qualifications, with different levels of necessary authority. And each of these tasks, some being more specifically defined while others less so, held criteria and qualifications that were to be met within the individual, primarily dealing with character. However, in every case, it is clear that ordination is nothing more than acknowledging a calling already set by God.
We often seek a single qualification for the role of ordination. We ask questions like, "Who can be ordained?" Often conversation turns toward the question, "Does this church or that church ordain women?" The difficulty with these single issue questions is how much broad-brush thinking they require. We need to take a deeper look at our definitions and the qualifications set for the various callings. And within the proper definitions and qualifications, understand the reasons necessary for ordination.
The ministry of a deacon, for example, greatly varies from that of the elder, as does the ministry of many other ministers within specific Church related service. By God’s design, the qualifications and responsibilities are as equally diverse as the various callings. It is my understanding that called men and women of godly character may serve as commissioned ministers within the Church, still working under the leadership of the elders. Godly men and women who meet the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:8-13 may serve the Church as deacons. And called, godly men who meet the qualifications 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-16 may serve in the leadership office of elder. All of the Lord’s faithful servants are equal in value, regardless calling, although he or she may be called to different ministries for the benefit of the Church and glory of God. And when we view ordination in this light, it helps us solidly answer many of the questions that seem so divisive lately.
* The photo of "Ordination of a Bishop" was taken by M. Bastien is registered under a creative commons license and is used by permission.