By Joseph D. Small
Within the ministry of the whole people of God, persons may be called to perform specific functions that are important to the life of particular communities of faith. However, some functions are considered to be necessary to the spiritual health and faithful life of every Christian community. The church gives order to these necessary functions by regularizing their shape, their duties, their qualifications, and their approval. These “ordered ministries,” and the persons who are called to them, are established in ordination — the whole church’s act of setting apart for particular service.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), following the development of Reformed ecclesiology, ordains persons to three ordered ministries: ministers, elders, and deacons. These three ministries represent two ecclesial functions: ministries of the Word performed by presbyters (pastors and elders) and ministries of service performed by deacons.
Ministers, traditionally called “teaching elders,” and elders, traditionally called “ruling elders” are both “presbyters.” Identifying ministers by their teaching role emphasizes the primacy of the Word and the centrality of the “teaching church.” The designation ruling elder is easily misunderstood, however. The historic understanding of the “ruling” exercised by elders has less to do with managerial governance than with ruling out or measuring the work of ministry, the fidelity of communal and personal lives, and the progress of the gospel in the church. The service of deacons is to lead the church in its ministries of compassion (distributing aid, caring directly for the poor, the sick, refugees, and prisoners), and justice (working for equity in society).
Ordination to one of the church’s ordered ministries is not the simple recognition that a person possesses “gifts for ministry,” or that an office suits a person’s abilities. It does not follow naturally from a person’s “sense of call.” Ordination is certainly not about access to position, influence, and power in the church. Ordination is the church’s act of recognizing the movement of the Holy Spirit in the interactions among the whole church’s ordering of ministries, its standards for these ministries, and its current needs, together with prayerful discernment by persons, congregations, and presbyteries.
Ordination is a gift, not a right. The “spiritual welfare of the church” depends, in large measure, upon its recovery of an understanding of the ministry of the whole people of God, the ordered ministries of the church, and the gift of ordination.