Christians, by definition, are followers of Christ. They just differ on “how.” How should Christians walk daily with Christ? How closely? Every Christian falls in a different place along a wide spectrum of discipleship practices and intimacy with Christ.
Churches, by definition, are groups of Christ’s followers, disciples supporting each other and joining together for worship and ministry. Again, they differ on “how.” What Christian practices should churches follow? How strictly?
Historically, Baptists have valued priesthood of believers and autonomy of churches. As individuals and churches forge unique paths of worship and discipleship, problems arise when some confuse authentic Christian practices (following Christ) with mere religiosities (patriarchal traditions).
Ordination of women has long been a source of controversy among Baptists. Some churches believe there are no gender barriers to ordination. Others believe that ordination is reserved for males only.
For centuries, Baptists have laid aside their differences, cooperating to facilitate larger ministries. However, divisions over women’s roles (among other issues) have recently prompted fundamentalist Baptists to disfellowship from associations and state conventions any churches who ordain women.
The only “autonomy” evident among these ousting churches is that some object to ordination of women as pastors; others draw the line at women ministers; still others object to any women being ordained, beginning with women deacons.
The word “deacon” comes from the Greek “diakonos,” meaning “servant.” In the early church, deacons were chosen by their peers in recognition of their gifts of servanthood.
Baptists’ perception of ordination has become skewed over time. It has shifted from a recognition of humble servanthood to a position of authority and power, perceived as an election into a class of spiritual elitism.
I once witnessed a misguided deacon candidate “campaigning” for ordination, approaching church members with, “I hope you’ll vote for me.” Ordination candidates should be selected, not elected. Ordination is not an admission requirement into an exclusive club of elevated spiritual status.
Baptists have never had consistent criteria for ordaining deacons, ministers or pastors except for a sense of calling by the candidate and an affirmative vote by a congregation. The process has always been up to the ordaining congregation.
Baptists have no age or education requirements for ordination. Candidates in individual churches may be ordained pre-seminary or post-seminary, or with no education at all. I know of some pastors who were ordained in their early teens.
Some ordination councils grill candidates about doctrine; some question candidates’ stances on hot-button issues. Others simply say, “Tell us your story of how you’ve followed Christ.”
Oddly, though the IRS recognizes ordination and/or licensing as credentials for professional ministers (pastors/ministerial staff), many Baptists make a big distinction between the two. Both licensing and ordination require an affirmative vote by a church, recognizing a candidate’s spiritual gifts and calling. Ordination adds the laying on of hands.
All Christians are ministers. Professional ministers, licensed or ordained, are those called to vocational ministry. They make all or part of their living doing ministry with churches, denominations or other Christian-related institutions.
Some Baptist churches hire licensed ministers as clergy, not requiring ordination. Others regard only ordained ministers as clergy, whereas licensed ministers are considered laity, reflecting hierarchical thinking that considers ordination a “higher calling” than licensing.
Ordination itself is not divine; it is a human tradition of affirmation. Technically, the word “ordination” does not even appear biblically in the context of choosing deacons.
As far as we know, Jesus was never ordained by humans, just chosen by God. And the disciples whom Jesus chose (including some women) were never formally ordained, just chosen by him to help with his ministry on earth.
1 Timothy 3 is the passage most often quoted by inerrantists as the primary guideline for selecting deacons for ordination. Verse 12 in the King James Version states that deacons “must be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well,” a statement often used to disqualify women, or men who are divorced, or married to divorced women. (I once heard of a Baptist congregation that even rescinded the ordination of a deacon who remarried after his first wife died; he was no longer “husband of one wife.”)
A closer look at verse 12 reveals a huge dilemma for inerrantists. A strict, literal interpretation would disqualify even Jesus, the ultimate personification of a servant leader, as a candidate for ordination, because Jesus is thought to have been single, having no children. What a loss for any church.
(Jesus probably wouldn’t be ordained or hired by a church, anyway. His treatment of women and his style of ministry were anathema to the hierarchical, patriarchal systems that have prevailed for thousands of years.)
When it comes to disallowing ordination of women, inerrantists must rely on increasingly elaborate theological gymnastics in order to justify their patriarchal practices. Baptist autonomy notwithstanding, when such religiosities prevail, Jesus’ way of leading, thinking and living becomes less and less evident among some who call themselves Christians. What a loss for everyone.
Naomi K. Walker is an ordained Baptist minister. Now retired, she served as music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, from 1995 to 2017.