(While the following story is true, names, addresses, and particular details have been changed for obvious purposes.)
While on the internet the other day, my friend came across a pastor whom he thought had some interesting comments. This pastor had the title of “Reverend.” This means one of two things: 1) he is a self-proclaimed minister, or 2) he has been ordained in an official capacity by an organization that has the legal right to declare someone a minister.
Theoretically, an ordination gives the ordained party the approval of an established community to minister in the Church. From the standpoint of the government, this party is then recognized as a “religious worker.” Once the approval is official, the newly ordained Rev. has many benefits; among those is tax exempt status with regards to housing allowance (whatever bills you pay with respect to your home, you don’t get taxed on). In the Christian church, they are recognized as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and can lead, pastor, or even start a church with more legitimacy.
My friend went to the website of the organization that ordained this individual and noticed that they take ordination applications online. Here is what it said:
“Get ordained fast and easily, and begin your own ministry! As a legally ordained reverend, you will be able to conduct weddings, perform funerals, baptisms and other functions of the ministry.”
This was a bit confusing to him; even though he did not know anyone from the ordination committee, and they did not know him, they were going to allow him to apply?
I know what you are thinking—there must be a catch. Money has to be involved somehow. But this is not the case. The website says:
“There is no charge or obligation connected to your ordination. Ordination is for life, without charge . . .”
You heard right: “no obligation.” (How would you like to go to a doctor who got approved to practice medicine by this type of group?)
“Well,” you might say, “this cannot be that easy. How would this group know whether or not I have been truly called into ministry?” The answer is that your ordination will be reviewed by a team of pastors (who may have been ordained by the same organization!) who will carefully and prayerfully consider your application. Here is what they say:
“Your ordination request will be reviewed by pastoral staff.”
Just in case you thought this was a little fishy, the committee adds,
“Please understand that instant online ordinations do not exist. The internet cannot ordain you. Your ordination request must be reviewed before your ordination can be legal. You cannot be given your credentials automatically by a computer!”
Phew! And I thought this smelled of the famous St. Peter’s Basilica ordinations of the 16th century. No, this is serious business, folks!
Oh, one more thing. I forgot to finish the sentence earlier. This would be a good time to do so for those of you who fear you still might not be qualified for ordination into ministry.
“There is no charge or obligation connected to your ordination. Ordination is for life, without charge and without question of faith.”
No question of faith? What does this ordination committee review? I guess they just make sure that your name is spelled correctly and that you are a real person. Hold that thought. No, scratch that thought. They don’t even check to see if you are a real person. Hang with me…
Here is the response my friend received within an hour of his application (with some alterations to protect the parties involved): _________________
1239 Morton Rd Leslie TX
has been ordained as a minister of the ________ ____ Church, USA.
Date of Ordination: 1/29/2008 by ________ _______, Pastor
What you did not know was that after prayerful consideration by the pastoral ordination committee of this Church, my friend had just ordained his dog. Rev. Butch now has the legal right to pastor or start a church and is tax exempt from all housing.
Folks, this is serious stuff. And it is not really funny. There are many individuals out there, leading God’s people, who simply are not qualified to do so in any way. They are running around starting churches. They are shepherding the flock of God. Ordination is serious business (or it should be). Cracker Jack ordinations are simply immoral in my opinion.
This is happening in our communities. I know of a very well-known evangelical church that has over over fifty pastors without any training or valid ordinations. Yes, everyone is a priest and everyone is charged with Gospel proclamation, but this does not mean that you are automatically within the succession of the Apostles’ teaching, much less called to full-time ministry. If we don’t go to doctors who have not been through medical school or been approved (i.e., properly “ordained”) to practice medicine, why should we give a pass to ministers of the Gospel, especially when we believe that our spiritual well-being is more important than our physical well-being?
So what is the solution? After all, we are Protestants. We don’t have any formal structure or approval process to hold us accountable. There is no one who signs the checks for Evangelicals. Therefore, aren’t we sleeping in the bed we made? While I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, I don’t really think the outlook needs to be so grim. I simply believe we need to think deeply about these issues. There is a way we can keep ordination “organic,” yet ensure that we are not ordaining unqualified hounds.
I am an ordained minister. I was formally ordained in 2001 at Stonebriar Community Church under the guidance and leadership of Chuck Swindoll. Formally, I cannot trace my ministerial lineage back any further. I don’t know who ordained Chuck. Maybe it was Dwight Pentecost? If it was, that is as far back as I can go. It is not too impressive to some, I know, but I believe that my ordination is legitimate nonetheless. I will return to this in just a moment. . . .
I am a committed Protestant Evangelical. Even with the talk of Evangelicalism’s demise (which always seems premature and overstated), I believe that Evangelicalism continues to maintain the fullest and purest expression of the Gospel. Having said this, Evangelicalism is certainly not without its problems. We have difficulty defining ourselves and we have difficulty regulating from within. These problems are interrelated.
Being an Evangelical is supposed to carry with it an internal assumption that the Gospel is being proclaimed in a way that is true to the Scriptures. However, we have a problem regulating what “being true to the Scriptures” actually means. Where do we go to make sure we are being true to the Scriptures? Billy Graham? Jonathan Edwards? John Wesley? John Calvin? Martin Luther? St. Augustine? While these leaders may provide a regulatory force in some sense, there is no pressure—real pressure—for Evangelicals to look toward anyone for their regulation. In fact, many Evangelicals are completely ignorant of any lineage whatsoever.
I have commented before on the need for the Evangelical church to have a higher degree of accountability. However, this accountability cannot be anything with an institutional formality, as there will never be a formal structure to a trans-traditional entity such as Evangelicalism (nor should there be). Yet accountability does not need formality to be functional, it can be assumed.
Some would look at my ordination into ministry as an exercise in futility. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans would all reject my claim to ministerial status. These all have a ministerial ordination structure that relies on what is called “Apostolic Succession.” You cannot be a minister without it. In the sense that these traditions define apostolic succession, I, indeed, am not qualified to be a minister. I don’t have their type of apostolic succession.
Basic Origins of Apostolic Succession
The idea of apostolic succession first came to prominence in the history of the church as a functional way of combating heresy. It was (and is) a wonderful thing. Irenaeus was among the first to refer to apostolic succession as he battled the Gnostics of his day. In contention for the truth of Christianity, both Irenaeus and his opponents referred to the Scriptures to justify their claims to truth. But Irenaeus referred to more than just the Scripture to make his stand; he referenced his lineage of faith. In essence, he argued that his view of Christ was true because he could trace his beliefs back to the Apostles’ teaching. He did not simply use the Scriptures, but he also referred to those who have gone before him and traced their teaching back to the Apostles. His opponents, on the other hand, could not boast of such a lineage. They devised doctrine of their own imagination, disregarding the fact that their beliefs were never held by anyone before them. If it is new, according to Irenaeus, then it is, by virtue of its novelty, not admissible as a viable option for belief. The Holy Spirit works in and with the church, and the church is made up of those living (ecclesia militans) and dead (ecclesia triumphans). Therefore, those who have gone before us create an accountability structure and we cannot separate ourselves from their testimony, even if we believe the Bible is on our side. In other words, the Holy Spirit is not going to teach something essentially different to the present church than he did to those who have gone before us—no matter how special you think you are and no matter who (or what) ordained you.
Thus Irenaeus articulated what is now known as “apostolic succession.” We have the true Christian faith because we can trace it back to the Apostles. Our faith is dependent upon our lineage. And our ordination is qualified by our faith.
I agree with this concept very much. I believe in apostolic succession. I don’t think we emphasize this concept enough (if at all) in Evangelicalism. In fact, I agree with Orthodox theologian Bradley Nassif, who says that the biggest problem he sees in Evangelicalism is that we have “historic amnesia.” However, I don’t agree that the accountability principle Irenaeus fought for is necessarily found in or exclusive to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglicans. Each of these traditions places heavy and necessary emphasis on a definition of apostolic succession which necessitates a minister be able to trace his lineage, person by person, in unbroken succession back to the Apostles. Indeed, impressively, each of these traditions can do this. And I really do appreciate what is going on here. However, the problem has always been that this does not guarantee anything. This becomes obvious, as each one of the traditions can trace their lineage back, yet they all differ substantially on many very important issues.
However, this does not mean that apostolic succession is not needed in a very real sense. I believe that Evangelicals should be able to trace our lineage back to the Apostles. Did you get that? I believe that Evangelicals should be able to trace our lineage back to the Apostles. Now, I am not saying that we should be able to do this by carrying around our ministerial genealogy in our back pocket, but we do need to be able to trace our faith, teaching, and doctrine back to the Apostles, finding harmony in faith with those who have gone before us. I believe this is an avocation of apostolic succession in its truest form. It recognizes a succession of teaching, not simply a succession of person, and creates an accountability structure that cannot be ignored.
When we ordain ministers, we are not simply advocating their kindness, usefulness, and general likability. Neither are we ordaining them because they are good preachers, counselors, or encouragers. We are first ordaining them because they are representatives of the historic Christian faith. They are successors to the Apostles in that their beliefs and teachings have historical continuity and biblical integrity—the two of which should never be separated.
If we had this type of assumed accountability, to be Evangelical would mean something again. As well, a whole lot of self-proclaimed Evangelicals (and ordained dogs) would fall off the roster due to disqualification. They can then call themselves whatever they please, but “Evangelical” would be taken. No, I can’t trace my lineage from person to person in unbroken succession back to the Apostles, but I can trace my faith through those who have gone before me. It is to them, through the power of the Spirit, that I am still held accountable. I am in line with the historic Christian faith on all issues that have defined Christianity everywhere, always, by all (ubique, semper, omnibus).
Evangelicals: we need to rethink ordination and apostolic succession.