An interview with Rev. John Vlainic on the Meaning of Ordination
(Rev. John Vlainic was ordained in 1977 and has served the FMCiC – as a pastor, teacher, writer and researcher, and informal mentor to many pastors. Since 1999 he has served as Director of Pastoral Service at St. Peters Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario.)
Q. A new Ministerial Candidate is sitting in front of you and asks: “Tell me what it means to be ordained and why it is important?” What would you say?
Put simply, to be ordained means to be identified and affirmed (“officially”) as called by God and prepared for distinctive servant leadership ministry and responsibility in the body of Christ.
Q. Can you make it even simpler?
I’ll try, for it isn’t as simple as I implied. We may be more able to get our arms around it if we would start with the basic human need (designed by the Creator God) to which “ordination” is an answer. When we study the way God has designed communities of people we may get important clues about the essential nature of “ordination.”
Q. Why are you not starting with the Bible?
The Bible does not give us clear, once-for-all prescriptions on exactly how we should structure leadership among God’s people. There is no one precise structure for the church in the New Testament. Nonetheless, I think that there are good clues from how God acted in creation which help us make sense of the foundation on which all the structures and roles are built.
On the human level (apart from God’s distinct call on a person’s life, but having to do with a phenomenon he “wired” into communities and uses for his purposes), here’s what I think lies beneath the impulse of churches and other religious communities over the years to “ordain” and set some apart (either officially or unofficially1). It is this God-created reality which underlies the fact that “priests” or “holy people” are set apart in Israel and in religious groups of all times and places.
We cannot fully explain it, but the indicator, pointed out by students of human dynamics and group relationships, is that human communities – in every time, place, society, and culture – tend to set people apart for the special purpose of mediating between the mundane and the transcendent, the practical and the mysterious, the controllable and the uncontrollable.
It takes a variety of forms, but again and again human communities tend to discover and identify such people.2 A reality that impacts the questions we are asking is that to be effective, these “set-apart” ones have to keep a foot in both places and be part of both realms without ever being completely at home in either. I wonder if this may explain some of the built-in “tension” and distinctive stress involved in being an ordained person. But our communities need us to be both “set-apart” and also “one of them.” I am sure we short-change the ones we have been called to serve both when we cease to be different from them and when we cease to be one of them.
Over the past few years I have found myself again and again in conversation with people of faith about the church and their priests or pastors and what helps them – as you may know, I do pastoral work in a hospital. The longer I reflect on ordained ministry and think about what these people say, the more I am sure that there is a basic human need among people of faith for leaders who are bothand. I keep hearing that ordained people who are not in a very real sense “one of the people” don’t really connect; they come across as too aloof, or as mere “professionals.” And I kept hearing that ordained people who are not in a very real way somewhat distinct from them at the same time don’t seem to be able to help them as much either. There is a need for leaders in touch with another dimension. A mysterious reality is at work in this bothand paradox.
But mysteries are not foreign to our faith. Think of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or marriage, for example. It is very hard, if not impossible, to pin down exactly what these realities are. Or take the trinitarian concept of God, or the full divinity and humanity of Christ—things clearly at the very heart of our faith. We do not pretend to be able to say with scientific precision what those realities are. But that doesn’t stop us from seeing that certain views are heading in the wrong direction (or are just plain wrong).
The result is that with ordination, as with other mysteries in our faith, it is only possible to say extremely clear things about what the reality is not! So while we rightly prefer positive affirmations to negative, this mysterious element in ordination makes it easier to say more about what ordination is not than what ordination is.
In not starting with the Bible I am not suggesting for a moment that “ordination” is irrelevant because the Bible is not clear about the details. Nor am I overlooking the fact that the Bible says a great deal about the spirit and nature of ordained service.
In fact, observing that God’s word is repeatedly clear about the tone and relational quality of set-apart service, and that it is less clear (with great variation) about exact forms and functions leads inescapably, I believe, to the conclusion that God cares much more about the spirit and relational quality of this distinctive service than about the external details or forms!
Q. So tell me, then, what does ordination not mean?
Ordination has nothing to do with power or prestige or pomp! It does not mean that you, as an ordained servant of Jesus, are better or wiser or more powerful or more holy, or closer to God. It does not mean that you are entitled to more dignity or respect or reward in this life – or the next! Furthermore, it does not negate our belief in the priesthood or ministry of all believers, and it should do nothing to undercut the historic belief that in baptism every believer is, in a sense, “ordained” to ministry for Christ, in Christ, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit.
Did you notice that the things we can say for sure are all about spirit and relational quality and tone?!
Q. Then what is it about? What’s at the heart of our understanding of ordination?
Many people these days have come to think that we have to see ordination as “missiological.” I know that is a current buzz-word and that people enjoy debating shades of meaning, but in this case, I think it is the right word.
All Christians agree that God has a mission for his people. The biblical data is broad and clear. “Ordaining” people to this role of distinctive servant leadership ministry and responsibility in the body of Christ is much more about getting Jesus’ task done than it is about the person being ordained. The “ordination” issue is fundamentally about what the triune God is doing in the church and through the church in our world, and not about what certain people do or do not do. To the ordained we need to say, “It’s not about you!!”
Here’s where I’m glad to report that there are a number of Christian thinkers whose works can help us today. For example, following another scholar, Daniel Migliore, Stan Grenz puts it this way.
We can see ordination as a good thing if we see it “missiologically” (commissioning people into leadership for the sake of the mission of the entire people of God) rather than “ontologically” (elevating clergy above other Christians).3
So let’s not pretend that the ordination issue is bigger than it really is. It’s not the most important thing, but we think it does help the church to get at the really important thing.
This means that if we are going to continue to “ordain,” we will have to replace the freight the word carries – at least among most churched people. Again, we already have some good guides for this task.
Pentecostal pastor and teacher Gordon Fee is recognized as one of the foremost New Testament scholars today. He makes some insightful comments that can help us to attach biblical meaning to this setting apart of leaders. In the material from which I quote he has been dealing with one of the passages we always read at ordination services, Ephesians 4.
I would urge the movement toward a more biblical view of church and leadership in which we do not eliminate ‘clergy’ — except for all the wrong connotations that the word often brings with it — but look for a renewed leadership and people, in which ordination is not so much an office as the recognition of the Spirit’s prior gifting, and the role of leadership is more often that of Ephesians 4:11-16, preparing the whole church for its ministry to itself and to the world.4
Q. That’s refreshing; it doesn’t sound “institutional.” But you’re still implying that something like “ordination” is important. Where can I access more good reflection on what the Bible tells us about the experience of being “ordained”?
I’m happy to be able to say that there is much good material. I have already mentioned Stanley Grenz. He has many good things to say on this topic. There are a few paragraphs in his book Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living that, to my mind, tackle the topic soberly and succinctly, while pointing us to several biblical passages that we ought to consider. Let me give you an extended quotation. He says it better than I can.
Because of the responsibility pastors shoulder and the crucial role they play, no one should seek this office whom the Holy Spirit has not called to it. As Timothy’s experience indicates, the Spirit’s act of choosing pastoral leaders involves two aspects—a personal sense of call and the confirmation by the church (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14; cf. Acts 13:2–3). We refer to the public confirmation of a personal call as “ordination.”
Consider this definition: Ordination is that act whereby the church sets apart persons whom the sovereign Spirit has selected and endowed for the fulfillment of special leadership tasks in service to the people of God.
Hence, ordination is a confirmation that the Spirit has called, gifted, and empowered a person for pastoral ministry (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6-7). Ordination also marks a public commissioning of someone whom the Spirit has called (Acts 13:3; cf. Num. 27: 18-23).5
Grenz then goes on to talk in clear and helpful ways about what he thinks we should see in the heart attitudes of people who are set apart through ordination. To be frank, I think that this is a good word for all who exercise leadership in the Body of Christ, ordained or not. He writes:
Positions of church leadership do not entail license to promote selfish, or even personal, goals. Instead, leadership exists for the sake of the people. The goal of leadership is to empower the whole people of God to discern and to discharge the Lord’s will (Eph. 4:11-13). Therefore, rather than seeking to dominate the people, leaders are to enter into office with all humility and with the intent of seeking the good of those under their watch care (1 Peter 5:1-3). Leaders ought to realize that they have not been set over the people, but stand with them as together the whole church seeks to be obedient to its Lord. To this end, leaders are to be “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3) “in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Jesus provided the foundation for this understanding of leadership when he instructed his disciples as to how they should relate to each other. He repeatedly contrasted the attitudes of authoritarianism characteristic of the Gentiles and the Pharisees with the spirit of mutuality he desired for his followers (Mark 10:42-43). Rather than looking for special status, Christ’s disciples are to remember that he is their sole master and they are all sisters and brothers (Matt. 23:8). Our Lord not only declared that those who would lead his people must be humble servants (Mark 10:42- 43), he also illustrated this teaching with his own example of humble service on our behalf (2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6-8).6
As with so many matters, it is easy to err on two opposite sides of an issue. There are ditches on both sides of the road. Daniel Migliore is very helpful here:
In sum, theology must avoid both a sacralizing of ministry that separates ordained leaders from the rest of the people of God and a demeaning of ministry that trivializes the importance of this office in the life of the church. If it is a caricature of ministry to pretend to be superior to and holier than other Christians, it is equally scandalous when ordained ministers ignore the disciplines of spirit and body requisite to faithful ministry of the gospel in an anxious effort to be trendy or just part of the crowd. The proper perspective on ministerial identity comes not from our idealized views of ministry, nor from secular models of what it means to be a successful leader (e.g., the manager of a corporation or a TV celebrity) but from the biblical witness to Christ and his exercise of ministry.
Every ministry of Christ must be characterized by service rather than domination. Jesus said that he came to serve rather than to be served (Mark 10:45), and he commanded his disciples to exercise authority differently from those who lord it over others (Mark 10:42-44).7
I would also recommend working through the rich chapter on ordination in William Willimon’s “Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry.” He speaks to the bothand reality I have suggested in his sections about ordination rising “from above,” as a gracious gift of the Holy Spirit, and “from below,” from the church’s need for, and wisdom in designating, leadership.8
Q. What about ordaining women? I’ve heard some Christians say that this is just a case of the church bowing to the feminist spirit that seems so prevalent in today’s culture.
I’m glad you raised that. I must admit that I get some pleasure when telling people from other faith communities that the issue of the ordination of women was settled years ago among Free Methodists. It is not the result of the contemporary church “bending” to secular culture.
In fact, B.T. Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church was so adamant about this that he was ready to leave the movement that he helped found when others tried to influence the Free Methodist Church away from its commitment to recognize that God calls and gifts women to exercise the ministry of Word and sacrament and leadership as ordained ministers.
To the General Conference 1890, B.T. Roberts offered the following Resolution.
That the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the provision which it makes, and in the agencies which it employs for the salvation of mankind, knows no distinction of nationality, condition [or] sex: therefore, no person who is called of God, and who is duly qualified, should be refused ordination on account of sex, or race or condition.9
If you want to read more, check out our denomination’s web site for a paper on Women in Ministry.10
Q. He was ahead of his time, wasn’t he?!
Yes. In fact, the more I read of him and about him, the greater confidence I have that Bishop B.T. would say a loud “Amen!” to the following thoughts from contemporary writer Migliore:
In our time, the most important development in Christian ministry is the recognition by many churches that the Spirit of God extends the call to ministry of Word and sacrament to women as well as men. This will no doubt be a point of tension among the churches for years to come. From a Reformed perspective, however, it must be stated clearly that the continued exclusion of women from the ministry of Word and sacrament by some churches under the pretext that God is masculine, or that Jesus chose only male apostles, or that only a male can properly represent the person and work of Christ to the people of God is a great scandal to the gospel, a denial of the freedom of the Spirit to work in new and surprising ways among the people of God, and an increasing impoverishment of the church and its mission today.11
Q. Any concluding summary thoughts? What’s your “bottom line”?
If the day comes when you are to be ordained, here’s what it will mean.
The body of Christ has seen in you indicators that you are one of those people God needs to serve in a distinctive bothand way in the body of Christ. They will be saying that you are clearly “just another follower and minister of Jesus” – to which you were “ordained” in baptism. And they will be saying that the Spirit and the church have also seen in you (and formed in you) a kind of servant leadership that has another dimension – one in which you “represent” the church (both the congregation and the larger church) and you “represent” Jesus in a distinctive way that discerning people can sense but not explain. For the sake of his saving purposes in this world, Jesus needs some people with this both/and calling – just as he needs every believer and her or his calling.
Ordination won’t make you more “special” than anyone else in Christ’s body. But it will mean that you are designated as slightly “different” (“set apart”) in how you are called to function – while you are still in a very real way the “same” as all your brothers and sisters in Christ. You and every one of them have been set apart as “holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God” (1 Peter 2:5, The Message).
The bottom line is that ordained people are women and men who live a paradox, a “bothand” life. They live in two worlds.
Let me conclude with a quotation from the Introduction in another important work on being a pastor, Gordon W. Lathrop’s The Pastor: A Spirituality. It hints at this mysterious dimension at the heart of “ordination.”
A responsible pastor will be learning how to value his own wisdom, while also knowing what a fool he is, how to value her own kindness, while also knowing that she cannot be the All-friend. A faithful pastor will be learning that she or he occupies a symbolic role that may be heightened by one or more of these traits, but that what the traits themselves point toward will finally be found not in the pastor but in the God to whom the meeting bears witness—and even then, often found only by faith, under a surprising form that is contrary to the thing expected. . . A competent pastor will be learning to live a way of paradox.12
People called to and well formed for this ministry can’t explain this. But they know it in their bones.
1 Of course, there are people who function as “ordained” or “set apart for a distinctive identity and service” who are not officially so named in many church or other religious settings.
2 I owe this way of conceptualizing what lies beneath the need for “ordained” people to scholar of ministry leadership and human psychology Ray Dlugos. See his “When a Light Shines in Dark Corners: A Reflection on Priesthood,” Southdown Covenant, Volume 16, Number 3, March 2002, p. 1. He is alluding to the view that some basic “archetypes” are hardwired into the human psyche. The fact that people asked to serve in this way appear so broadly in human experience makes me think that we are trying to describe something our Creator “wired into us.”
3 Stan Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 737.
4 Gordon D. Fee, “Laos and Leadership Under the New Covenant,” Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 12 1-146.
5 Stanley J. Grenz, Created For Community: Connecting Christian Belief With Christian Living (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), pp. 249-250.
6 Ibid., p. 250.
7 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, pp. 228-229.
8 William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), pp. 27-53.
9 1890 General Conference Minutes, p. 131.
11 Migliore, p. 230.
12 Gordon W. Lathrop The Pastor: A Spirituality (Fortress Press, 2006), p. 13.