Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 2, 2011

Reverend Phil?: Reflections on the eve of my ordination exam.

Tomorrow I will be having my ordination exam. I will finally be able to live up to the name plate above my door, which reads “Reverend Phil Rushton.” We sort of jumped the gun on that one! So on the eve of becoming “Reverend Phil,” I thought I would reflect on the purpose of ordination, and start a discussion on whether it is a legitimate practice or not.

There has been a strong reaction against the practice of ordination in the current missional church movement. For example, Darrel Guder writes, “the priesthood of all believers is continually undermined by the practice of ordination.” David Watson makes a similar point saying, “Not once does [the New Testament] describe a class or cast of people separate from the laity of God. Instead all God’s people are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9).”

Indeed, there is no such thing as “laity” or “common masses” in the New Testament. Instead the term that is used in the New Testament to refer to the Christian community is “laos,” which simply means “people”, and extends to all of the people of the church including the leaders. As Charles Van Engen points out, laos refers to the “people of God with distinction in gift, function and ministration – but not distinction in holiness, prestige, power, commitment or activity.”

I agree that ordination has, at times, created a different class of Christians with the church. The term “reverend,” seems to reinforce a sense of distinction or honor for ministers that I feel rather uncomfortable with. At one of the churches where I was a pastor, I had a lady say to me, “wow, you’re just a normal person aren’t you?” It was like one of those moments in elementary school where you see your teacher at the grocery store and they seem unusually normal, only this time the epiphany occurred to a grown up. Of course I’m just a normal person! I guess this clergy-laity distinction is still alive and well today.

Like Guder, then, I want to affirm that ministry ought to involve the whole people of God, not just a select group of ministers. Like Van Engen, I think the class distinction between between clergy and laity is inappropriate.

Nevertheless, I think that there remains a place for the process of ordination in the church. From the beginning of the Christian church there has always been a recognition that leadership is necessary. We see in the book of Acts that the community came together to discern and appoint leaders. The process of selecting leaders involved an examination of peoples faith and life. In Acts 6, for example, the community appointed leaders based on the criteria that they were full of the Spirit and wisdom. In the pastoral epistles leaders were evaluated on matters of life and doctrine.

Ordination, when practiced properly, is a practical way to keep leaders accountable and involve the community of faith in the appointing of leaders. The process of ordination is basically a way for us to discern whether people are fit to lead by examining their life and doctrine. Personally, I welcome this accountability. There are enough examples of self-proclaimed bishops and pastors that have lead people astray and done damage to the church.

Ordination seems to be an important practice to keep as long as it does not create a class distinction in the church. We certainly need leaders, however, biblical leadership is primarily about equipping the whole people of God to share the work of ministry (Eph 4:11-12).

So what are your thoughts? Is ordination still a good idea?


  1. Thanking God for your desire to lead and equip, not an easy task. Grateful for your humility and understanding of your title and for your awareness of the need for God’s conitnual guidance. Lifting you in prayer tomorrow and commited to pray for you as you serve.

    Peace and gratitude,


    email change:

  2. Thank you Gail! I appreciate your encouragement and prayer.

  3. Sure, go for title and no apoligy needed. But you are right, we are all in the priesthood and we all need equiping. And a division of labor is not a bad thing, we just need to remember we are all part of the Body of Christ. Besides I know a whole lot of “preacher” joke that don’t fly for layfolks.

  4. Hey Gail,

    Got the e-mail change. I can’t change it on the e-mail subscription page here, so if you want to re-route the posts to your new email address you can simply re-subscribe to the blog.

  5. I’m still wrestling through this one, for many of the concerns you outline. I think part of my hesitation relates to the lack of affirmation that goes on for other areas of giftedness. Why do we limit official discernment and affirmation to leadership? Considering the priesthood of all believers you helpfully remind us, I wish we did better at publicly recognizing all roles in the church. Might up the ante for ushering! 🙂

    All the best today!

  6. Hey Dave,

    You raise a good point. Even in the New Testament model, those set apart as leaders in the church were not just the pastors. It was the group of elders and deacons. In the reformed tradition we do have an installation of our elders and deacons, which is like an ordination process. We lay hands and call them to sign a commitment to the doctrines of the church etc.

    Miroslav Volf thinks we still need ordination, simply because it allows the community to discern and appoint leaders. He recognizes that the role of pastor and bishop are still needed. Since those roles are important, why tamper with a system of accountability that is already in place?

    But I do react against this whole ‘reverend’ language. I’ll stick with pastor. The former seems to emphasize status over role / vocation.

    • I too like the “pastor” title, rather than “reverend”. Pastor says to me that it’s someone working/walking along side us; reverend seems aloof to me.
      I think one of our difficulties in the church is that a lot of folks have come to think that it’s the paid staff that is supposed to do all the work of ministry and that we’re supposed to watch. Keep equipping and encouraging us to do ministry as we are gifted.

  7. Had an interesting discussion with someone who was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren tradition. This tradition takes the priesthood of all believers very literally, such that there are no appointed leaders in the church. However, he pointed out that when the congregation met it was always the same 2 or 3 men that dominated the meetings and swayed the decisions. Perhaps the danger of not appointing leaders is that those with the most influence and power will naturally rise to the top. Perhaps those with the most power, not necessarily those who have the gifts of spiritual leadership would end up leading the church. This discussion made me realize that leadership is necessary and inevitable. Maybe a thoughtful process for choosing leaders is important. ?

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