On Ordination and Acknowledgment of Overseers

“And when they had ordained them elders in every church.”—Acts 14:23.

It is contended by some that the Greek word here rendered “ordain” signifies to appoint by holding up the hand, and that it implies appointment by the vote of the church. It only occurs in one other place, viz., 2 Cor. 8:19, “who was chosen of the churches.” In the latter case, whatever was done was the act of “the churches;” in the former it was the act of the apostles Barnabas and Paul. The fact that this particular word is used cannot make that which was done by the apostles to be the act of the church. Whatever form was gone through, whatever was done, it was the apostles who did it, and it was not confined to some churches—it was “in every church.”

In Titus 1:5 we find that he (Titus) was authorised by Paul to ordain elders in all the churches in Crete. Timothy was specially cautioned to “lay hands suddenly (or hastily) on no man.” Whoever appointed, whether it were Paul or Titus, or possibly Timothy, there was to be no doubt as to the fitness of the person for the work. There was to be no hasty action; otherwise he might, in a sense, make himself “partaker of other men’s sins “(1 Tim. 5:22). In certain passages the laying on of hands is manifestly connected with the conferring of spiritual gift (Acts 8:17; 2 Tim. 1:6). The theory of this is still maintained in Roman Catholic and Episcopal procedure in ordaining to “holy orders.” It is part of the service of the ordaining bishop to say, as he lays his hands on the head of the novice, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost for the work of the ministry.” With the light I have from the Word of God I cannot regard this as anything else than a pure assumption and, if believed in, an utter delusion. I cannot find that power to confer spiritual gift is vested in any individuals now, or in any body of men. The apostles had this power, but there is not a hint in Scripture of this power being transferred to others. Apostolic succession in this sense has no existence.

In 1 Tim. 4:14 we again find the laying on of hands; not here as conferring gift or ordaining to office, but as the form in which the whole body of the elders signified their assent and consent, their entire fellowship with Timothy as the one designated by prophecy for the special endowment of gift which he received by the laying on of the hands of the Apostle Paul.

So also in Acts 13:3: the laying hands on Paul and Barnabas was neither ordination nor the conferring of gift, but a hearty expression of fullest fellowship with those whom the Holy Spirit had called to special service. A happy thing it was for those sent out to be thus assured of the fellowship of the church expressed through those who were the guides.”

So far, then, we find that as the conferring of gift was a special apostolic function, so was the power to ordain. There is no record of the ordination of elders by any but an apostle, or one, as Titus, specially delegated by an apostle. It is not a church act, but an apostolic act. I never have seen from Scripture that there remains any ordaining power in the church. I do not believe it exists, or else Scripture would have clearly shown us in whom such power is vested.

If, then, the power to ordain was only in the hands of apostles, if it was only temporary and in no way transmitted for the permanent ordering of the church, what was the good of it? What end did it serve? Why was it not continued, and what now answers the ends that were temporarily served by ordination? At that time the churches had not the entire Scriptures as we now have them. They had not the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, or the Epistle to the Corinthians. They were therefore ignorant as to the nature of rule in the assembly, and as to the qualifications necessary ere any could be owned as guides. They therefore required some one in the full knowledge of the mind of the Lord to “set in order the things that were wanting.” In our day the needed work is rather to “strengthen the things that remain.”

What end, then, was served by ordination? Clearly, by this means God pointed out who were the fit persons in their midst to have shepherd or pastoral responsibility, so that these infant churches might not be—shall I say it?—cursed, by having the wrong persons to rule over them.

Surely ordination guided by divine perception on the part of the apostles thus served an important end. But only those specially gifted by God with discernment for this service dare have so acted. To appoint one thus authoritatively to rule or oversight in an assembly who was not fitted would have resulted in irreparable mischief. They were churches before elders were ordained in them. Overseers are not necessary to the existence of a church, but they are essential to the well-being of a church. They were none the less churches, albeit things that were yet wanting had to be set in order.

The word “elder” is found in connection with the Old Testament economy. It does not occur in the New Testament from the first of Romans to the end of 2 Thessalonians. When it is used in the New Testament, as in 1 Peter 5:1, it appears to refer to the man’s fitness as a mature Christian to exercise the function of oversight, being sharply in contrast with “the younger” (see verse 5). I use the word “function” rather than “office,” for the word “office” is not in the original—it is always in italics. Officialism is foreign to the spirit of the New Testament. No amount of official authority will impart one atom of fitness for such a ministry; it must be of the Holy Spirit.

A bishop, overseer, pastor, guide—words all descriptive of the same ministry—must not be a “novice,” or one newly come to the faith. It is an important ministry, and puts him who exercises it necessarily in a position of prominence in the church, which constitutes him at once a mark for the devil. Hence the necessity for his having had experience of God, of the deceitfulness of his own heart, of Satan’s subtlety, and this involves time. One such as Timothy, comparatively young but many years in the Lord, might be well fitted; another, old in natural life, might have been only lately saved, and be a mere babe in experience. But, as a rule, it was the elder men, and not the younger, whom the apostles ordained to oversight work. I conclude, then, that there is no ordaining power at present existing in the church, neither is there any power vested in men to confer spiritual gift.

Ordination never constituted a man a shepherd of the sheep. It pointed out with divine certainty the man who was fitted, but unless qualified by the Holy Spirit putting the earnest care into his heart (see 2 Cor. 8:16), neither ordination, nor education, nor anything else could ever qualify him at all.

What God does desire and look for is that every Christian of mature years, every man that has long known the Lord, should be going on to have the shepherd heart that cares for others. But the Scripture shows clearly that many who, for the time, ought to have been teachers or pastors were mere babes. Age alone won’t do. What is wanted is maturity, growth in grace, spirituality. Even in Acts 6, where it was not a question of pastoral work but ministry in temporal things, the qualifications were exceedingly high. They were to be men of honest report, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. So when the apostle ordained a man, would he not look out the most mature, the one who had most of the Spirit of Christ, in whom the likeness and lineaments of Christ were most clearly seen? This I believe was the object of ordination: that the right persons, divinely fitted and qualified, might be set in the place of responsibility, and that the church might be led to recognise such.

Sheep are never supposed to elect their own shepherds; the shepherd is set over them by the owner of the flock. It is the Holy Spirit alone that can make an overseer (see Acts 20:28). Only by the Holy Spirit can God confer the necessary wisdom, love, and patience to exercise shepherd care in the flock of God. Unless a man be thus qualified, it is not merely mockery, but it is mischievous and destructive to recognize him in such a position.

But although there is no ordaining power, there is that which we can do. According to 1 Thess. 5:12, we can “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” Not for their office’ sake, or position’s sake, but “for their work’s sake.” That means that their works have been a blessing to the saints, and they have thus discovered in them the marks of a true shepherd. In Heb. 13:7 the word is in the past tense, “Who had the rule over you—who spoke unto you the Word of God.” Possibly some who had passed away are here referred to. They were men of faith whose end and aim was the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and the spiritual well-being of His saints. In Hebrews 13:17 we are taught the divine responsibility that attaches to this ministry: “They watch for your souls, as those that must give account.” It was thus that Jacob acted; if any of Laban’s flock were torn of beasts, he bore the loss himself (Gen. 31:38-40). To take oversight of the flock of God is no light thing, but a solemn responsibility, a serious trust, to be accounted for to the Lord at His judgment-seat.

I believe that not a few who are ordained by man in the denominations have a deeper and truer sense of the responsibility they incur as pastors than many among us whose chief function seems to be to attend oversight meetings rather than to watch for souls. But where true shepherds are seeking, in lowliness, patience, and love, to care for the souls of the believers, responsibility rests on the churches to acknowledge such, to pray for them, to hold up their hands, and to submit to them. How little of this there is among us!

But how can the churches do so unless those who go before them as guides or shepherds are men in whom they can distinctly trace the characteristics of the Lord Jesus Christ?—unless they are men of experience, wisdom, lowliness, patience, love, men ready to say, like Paul, “I am ready to die and live with you.” If such be not their character, how is it possible for the saints to acknowledge, submit, and esteem them very highly in love?

I am persuaded that one thing which has caused us most sorrow and shame, and has brought most dishonour on the truth, is that men who were never qualified by the Holy Spirit have been acknowledged as overseers. There ought to be no recognition of men who are manifestly in a false position.

If there be only one in an assembly divinely fitted, and ten who take the place but are not, better a thousand times that the one only be recognised, and the ten go to their seats and be sheep and not shepherds. I believe we have missed the divine thought in ordination, and not perceiving its significance, we have deprived ourselves of much blessing. Novices have sat unchallenged in oversight meetings, young or carnal persons have visited applicants for fellowship, leadership has drifted into the hands of the forward, the carnal, the inexperienced, and confusion and barrenness have been the result.

May we have grace to own our error and our shame, and to seek of the Lord that fitted persons be raised up in every assembly to exercise shepherd care, and that the sheep may have grace to acknowledge them and submit to them.