Ordination is the solemn designation of a person to ecclesiastical office with the laying on of hands. Every permanent office-bearer in the Church, whether bishop or deacon, was set apart solemnly to his office by the act of ordination. In its outward form it consisted of three things – fasting, prayer, and imposition of hands. The imposition of hands was used when spiritual gifts were conferred (Acts 18:17; 19:6); and it was also practised when the sick were miraculously healed (Mark 16:18; Acts 9:17; 28:8).
But, distinct from all such cases, the laying on of hands was used at the ordination of Church office-bearers, and when no extraordinary or miraculous gift was bestowed (Acts 6:6; 13:1-3; and 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22). The withdrawment of miraculous powers cannot therefore be any valid reason why, at ordinations, the practice should be set aside; the imposition of hands in such cases never was the medium of imparting the Holy Ghost, but only the form of investing with ecclesiastical office.
The great question regarding ordination is, whether it is the act of one individual or more, of one elder or many elders, of a bishop or a presbytery? That the Lord Jesus may give a special call to any labourer, and send him to work in His vineyard, none disputes. There can be very little doubt also that, if an inspired apostle were still upon the earth, he would have the right to ordain alone, if he thought it right to do so.
Nay, if some modern evangelist could show, as Titus could, that an apostle had left him behind for this special purpose, he, too, in virtue of the right conferred upon him by a higher power, would have the privilege of ordaining (Titus 1:5). Any one, therefore, claiming the right of doing all that an evangelist did, would require to show that, if not an apostle, he possesses, like Titus, the authority delegated to him by an apostle. But here every ruler in every Church must fail. It remains, therefore, that we examine the Scriptures to discover who it was that, in the absence of apostles, or those delegated by apostles, had the privilege of solemnly setting apart others to ecclesiastical office, and especially to ascertain if this power was lodged in one individual or in more.
First, we turn to 1 Tim. 4:14. We have there the ordination of Timothy. The Apostle exhorts his son in the faith to employ to good purpose the gift of the ministry that had been conferred upon him. He intimates that this gift had been given by prophecy – that is, in consequence of certain intimations of the prophets, who were numerous in that age of spiritual gifts, marking him out as one who would be an eminent minister. He adds that the gift was conferred with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery – that is, by the presbyters or elders in their collective capacity. The words of the Apostle are: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” These words are decisive as to the parties with whom the power of ordination is lodged.
Again, we turn to Acts 13:1-3. It appears that, in the Church of Antioch, there were certain prophets and teachers whose names are there recorded. They ministered to the Lord and fasted; and, while thus employed, it was intimated to them by the Holy Ghost that they should separate Barnabas and Saul for missionary work among the Gentiles. Both had been preachers of the Gospel previously; but now they were to enter on a new sphere, and engage in a new department of the work. It was right, therefore, that the prophets and teachers should solemnly set apart the two brethren to the missionary work by the act of ordination. We read, accordingly, in verse 3, that “when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” The act of ordination was here evidently not the work of one teacher, but of several. A plurality took part in it.
Another instance of a plurality of Church rulers taking part in this rite is recorded in Acts 6:6. We have there the ordination of the deacons. The Church at Jerusalem chose seven men to attend to the necessities of the poor, “whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands upon them.” This is particularly valuable, as it proves that, when it was convenient or practicable for a plurality of rulers to take part in the act of ordination, the apostles themselves preferred that course. Glance again at the ground over which we have now passed. It was the practice of an apostle, or one directly appointed by an apostle for this specific purpose, to perform alone the act of ordination. But they did not ordain singly where it was possible for them to associate. Where a plurality could be had conveniently, as in the case of the deacons, it was common for more than one to take part in the ceremony. In the absence of apostles we have seen, in the case of Saul and Barnabas, ordination was the act of certain prophets and teachers; and, in the case of Timothy, it was the act of the presbytery.
This conducts us to our fourth principle, namely, that, in the apostolic church, ordination was the act of the presbytery – of a plurality of elders.