Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 4: Calling and the Need for Ordination

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Or, Two Questions The United Methodist Church May Need to Quit Asking

  1. Describe YOUR "call to ministry."
    The Bible comes replete with "calling" stories. God calls Abram to "go to a land I will show you." God calls Samuel to anoint a successor for Saul. God calls many prophets to declare "the Word of the Lord," most typically (though not exclusively) to or against the kings and religious establishment of Israel and/or Judah. Jesus calls disciples to follow him. The Spirit calls Peter to "take up and eat" and then sends him to Cornelius. Jesus calls Paul to be cured of his blindness through the hands and prayers of a Syrian Christian named Ananias. The Spirit sometimes calls, sometimes prevents Paul from going to certain places to continue his apostleship.There are all kinds of callings expressed in the biblical record. Not one time, ever, do we have a record in the Bible of God calling an individual to become a deacon or an elder. Not once. Ever.The closest we may get to that may -- may -- be two similar but not identical stories of Jesus' interaction with Peter. In Matthew 16, Jesus tells Peter, on the basis of his confession (it seems), that Jesus will "build his church" on "this rock." In John 21, we see Jesus telling Peter to "feed my sheep." Both of these stories would seem to explain why Peter functioned as a leader among the apostles, though as Luke tells the story of early Christianity in Acts, it was actually James (brother of Jesus) and not Peter who seems actually to have had "supreme executive power" in "Mother Church" in Jerusalem. Peter, after all, is just one witness among several (including Paul) at the "Jerusalem Council" (Acts 15). It's James who announces (with no apparent dissent) how he has decided the scriptures apply to Gentiles in Christian communities. James is clearly the "bishop" or "high priest" of the faith at this point. But we have no record of James's "calling" by Jesus or anyone else recorded anywhere in the Bible.

    To summarize: The Bible nowhere says individuals are called by God to become deacons, elders or even bishops.

    I'm trying to think of any examples of this sort of thing in other early Christian documents. Maybe there are some. I don't know of any.

    I also don't know of many in the later life of the church in the West, well past the Reformation and into the 19th century at least, with the exception of some of the more "entrepreneurial" congregationalist movements and then polities that began to spring up in England beginning in the early 17th century. Even there, among early Baptists well into the early 19th century in America, there was neither an expectation nor a demand for a "call story." Rather, the questions were more about whether the community saw signs the candidate was willing and ready to do the work and undertake the way of life, and the more typical "call experience" was of a young man being asked by the pastor or other leaders in the congregation to consider the possibility of becoming a pastor or deacon.

    Instead of people "feeling a call" to "the ministry" (meaning, in our common parlance, some form of ordained ministry, either deacon or elder), the Bible in fact describes two other processes that led people to become deacons or elders.

    One was appointment. In Acts 6, the leaders among the apostles in Jerusalem tell the leaders among the Hellenistic Jewish Christians to pick some folks they believe would serve well in the role we now call deacon. The apostles lay out a very brief list of qualifications. Not one of those qualifications was "able to articulate a sense or experience of call from God to this ministry." Rather they were "being full of the Spirit and of wisdom." The apostles told them to pick seven from among them they thought fit the description of the work to be done, and the apostles would appoint them, with prayer and laying on of hands. So it was done.

    The other was eager willingness and desire -- not calling, but, we might say, real interest and passion! I Timothy, a letter which lays out later and more specific qualifications and descriptions of the role of deacon, elder, and overseer (bishop), puts it this way. "If one is eagerly willing [to do the work of] oversight, one desires a good thing" (I Timothy 3:1). Interest and passion alone are not sufficient warrant for Timothy to pray over and lay hands on someone. But they're in the mix of qualifiers, among others.

    Still, nowhere in the Bible or early Christianity is the decision to ordain about responding to the claim of an individual that "I have been called by God to be a deacon/elder/bishop," and then requiring that person to offer some sort of narrative to justify why they believe they are so "called." The prerogative to ordain remained fundamentally appointive in character. The individual doesn't create a self-narrative that says "God's called me and here's my proof of that." Rather, in the case I Timothy describes, it becomes clear that someone is eager to do the work and live the life entailed in one of the ordained offices, and if the other qualifications check out, and Timothy (or the established ordaining authority) believes the person is ready for this, prayer is offered and hands are laid.

    I don't know where the expectation of a specific "call to X ordained ministry narrative" came from. (Do I have one? Yes! I'm a product of this culture!) I surely don't claim to know why we seem fixated on it now, when it has no biblical or early Christian support, indeed, any Christian support I can see except in individualistic cultures and primarily congregationalist polities in the past couple of centuries or so.

    So no scripture, very little tradition.

    Or perhaps just enough tradition-- which is to say we've gotten used to thinking of it this way long enough that it seems reasonable to us that candidates for ordination must be able to articulate a particular calling from God to the specific office (deacon or elder) before we will lay hands on them.

    Not exactly a compelling argument to continue the practice.

    So, a better question, perhaps?

    How about, "Tell us about your willingness and passion for this work and this way of life?"
  2. Why do YOU need to be ordained?
    Let me begin by saying there may be some legitimate reasons for asking this question. If persons do have some compulsion driving them to pursue the work and the way of life of one of the ordained ministries, which is to say they're coming into it because some psychological or spiritual instability tells them they have to do this to be validated in some way, I think anyone charged with preparing or examining candidates for ordination would want to know that-- and help them find another path of life and healing. We don't need more clergy with Messiah complexes or guilt complexes.But that's something we can actually learn without asking that particular question, right? This is part of why we do psychological testing. It's also why we have supervised ministry built into seminary and course of study curricula, as well as in the process of provisional membership. All of these are designed to alert candidates and boards alike to unhealthy patterns, to make some efforts at remediation where possible, and discern where remediation may not be sufficiently effective (or even possible) for us to consider entrusting this person to be able to engage the work and live the way of life of a deacon or elder among us.Given that these other processes are in place, why would we feel the need to ask this question at all?

    Perhaps because our own thinking about ordination is not as fully aligned with our biblical pneumatological ontology (and ecclesiology!) as perhaps it should be?

    Let me be a bit bolder and suggest, for the most part, it's simply the wrong question to ask.

    Based on scripture and tradition, and the best of Methodist ecclesiologies, it's never the candidate's need to be ordained that warrants ordination. It's the church's need for people who will carry out the work and live the way of life of deacon or elder among us that leads the church to ordain. Regardless of the depth of their skillsets, only with the Spirit poured out on them, which is what ordination is at its ritual heart, will they ultimately be able to do that work and live that way well.

    More than this, it's the wrong question because it seems to presume ordination is a sort of "commodity" or "honor" bestowed. In short, it operates on a Greek ontology, one that treats ordination as a "thing" or a "credential" the ordained have and can claim for themselves, rather than upon the action of the Holy Spirit flowing through the church and through the ones so prayed over for the sake of the life of the church and the salvation of the world.

    So let me suggest one good answer to the question for those candidates who hear this question -- one better grounded in our biblical and pneumatological ontology.

    Why do you need to be ordained?

    Because unless you as the church pray for me that the Spirit is poured out upon my life for the work and way of life of a deacon or elder, I see no way that I can hope to fulfill this role or live this way among you. But if you pray for me for the Spirit to do that, because we are the church, we believe the Spirit will say Yes. And then, together, we'll see how we can all help each other lead where the Spirit leads and flow where the Spirit flows through this work and way of life I have submitted to undertake and you and the Spirit will have set me to.

    It's not that the candidate needs to be ordained because of something in or missing in the candidate. It's that the church needs people who can do this work and live in these ways, and that won't happen unless the Spirit is set loose upon them and keeps working in, through and despite them.

    It's not that the candidate feels a need to "be ordained" and so needs to prove herself or himself trustworthy to obtain that status.

    It's that the church knows its need to ordain candidates it will entrust with its own life to the ongoing outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

    So, a better question?

    Perhaps something like, "As you look at the work and way of life of a deacon/elder, in your experiences in ministry so far, from what you've seen and heard from others who seek to do and live it, and as it is described in the questions and vows of the Ordinal and the legislation in the Book of Discipline, where do you anticipate you will be leaning most on the outpouring of the Spirit for the office and work of a deacon/elder among us?"

Part 1: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology

Part 2: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

Part 3: Ordination and "Sacramental Authority"