Nearly 400 years after the founding of the first Baptist church in Amsterdam by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, Baptists are still debating the meaning of ordination, a topic that will be considered during six hours of formal presentations and discussions at the Baptist World Alliance meeting this week in Prague, Czech Republic.

In a document outlining the three sessions of the Church Leadership Commission, Brian Winslade, commission chair, noted that one Baptist distinctive is egalitarianism expressed in principles such as “priesthood of all believers” and “soul competence.” These principles set Baptists apart from other historical Christian communions which held to “systems of ecclesial hierarchy.”

Yet over the centuries, “most Baptist Unions/Conventions have developed (or adopted) systems of credentialing Ministers that appear similar to other historical denominations,” wrote Winslade, national ministries director for the Baptist Union of Australia.

To facilitate the commission’s deliberations, Winslade distributed a paper titled “Ordination: Does It Fit?”

“By definition, ‘ordination’ comes from the Latin root ordo or order, meaning literally to arrange in order or rank. In its historical development the word came to mean the taking of office or orders. In Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions ordination is considered a sacrament, by which special grace is imparted. Clearly Protestant traditions do not hold to such a high view,” wrote Winslade. “So what do Baptists mean when they use the term?”

Winslade said that his paper was not an attempt to answer his own question but to raise 10 questions that Baptists need to consider:

First was a doctrinal question: “Does the concept of ordination conflict with our understanding of the priesthood of all believers?”

“In Baptist thinking there is no theoretical or practical distinction in status between a pastor and any other member of the church,” wrote Winslade. “The question arises, therefore, whether the concept of separate ‘orders’ for those appointed as pastors or ministers militates against the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.”

Second was a theological matter: “To what extent does the institutional model of church, with distinctions between clergy and laity, reflect the movement Jesus began?”

Identifying Jesus’ leadership style with servanthood, Winslade questioned if Jesus would have favored a community with hierarchical authority or participatory involvement.

Third was a pneumatological question: “Did Pentecost alter the paradigm for Holy Spirit empowerment for ministry?”

Winslade asked if the experience of Pentecost replaced the “elite priestly class” found in the Old Testament.

Fourth was an historical question: “How significant do we hold the dissenting views of the earliest Baptists who argued against a clergy dominated church?”

Here Winslade noted that early Baptists “held a low view of clergy ministry.”

Thomas Helwys thought “there was no special authority for the ordinance vested in the person administering it. This was a defiant challenge to the view that holy ordinances or sacraments could only be performed by ordained clergy, as representative of apostolic succession,” concluded Winslade.

Fifth was an ecclesiological question: “To what extent does ordained ministry conflict with the Apostle Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts?”

Citing Paul’s comparative functioning of the church to the human body, Winslade pointed out the necessity of each part of the body and wondered if limiting certain “ecclesial functions to a select few with special ‘orders'” created wider passivity.

Sixth was a nomenclature question: “Have we confused ordination with credentialing of ministers and the establishing of best-practice standards?”

Readily acknowledging that good things come from higher levels of ministerial competence, Winslade wondered if other language such as accreditation would be better than ordination.

Seventh was a vocational question: “Is ordination a life calling or is it delimited to function?”

Winslate noted that ordination is a lifelong concept for priests in the Catholic tradition. But he questioned whether in an age of multiple careers if pastoral ministry should be lifetime commitment or “an episode” in one’s life.

Eight was a local church question: “Is ordination a local church function or a denominational ordinance?”

“[I]t behooves Baptist Unions and Conventions to think through where the place of ordination or credentialing best fits. If the answer is at the wider denominational level this would imply a set of common or core competencies that are measurable and acceptable, so as to allow a recognized pastor to move ministry location within the movement,” said the Australian Baptist leader.

Ninth was a missiological question: “Does the model of ordination and distinction between clergy and laity tend towards a passive missiology?”

Winslade pressed again the issue of whether “priestly elitism” hurt the mission of the church.

Ten was a postmodern question: “To what extent is organized religion and the institutional models of church being deconstructed by the generations that follow?”

Given the nature of post-modernity, Winslade said that everything is being questioned, including ordination.

“Younger members of the church are less likely to blindly accept tradition as valid reason for keeping practices going. Inherent respect for honorific roles and offices are less assumed than they once were. Churches built around systems of hierarchy may not fare as well in the years ahead than those that are more hierarchically flat or inclusive,” wrote Winslade. “That means the Baptists have a great opportunity within a post-modern world.”

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and is attending the meeting in Prague.

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