The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph 4:11-13).
In our previous article about ordained ministry (Ordained to Serve), we emphasized the fact that deacons, presbyters, and bishops are ordained to serve the baptismal priesthood. In other words, the church’s ministers are servants of the unity of the Body of Christ and its mission. This month’s article will focus on the biblical roots of these ordained ministries. Throughout the scriptures, God chooses priests, prophets, and kings who are charged with guiding and protecting the people of God.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants were chosen by God to carry out priestly duties on behalf of the Israelites. Because of their willingness to turn against their families in order to remain faithful to God, these Levites became a tribe that was set apart for God (Exo 32:28-29). However, only Aaron and his direct descendants were ordained to offer sacrifices to God. So, Aaron and his sons were consecrated through intricate vestments (Exo 28:2-5) and elaborate sacrificial ceremonies (Exo 29:1-37). Throughout the history of Israel, the direct descendants of Aaron were the priests in charge of offering sacrifice to God in the Temple (Num 3:7-8).
In addition to these priests, God chose kings to be leaders and protectors of Israel. These men were anointed as a way of consecrating them to the service of God (1 Sam 9:15-16). Unlike kings of other nations, the king of Israel was to lead according to God’s laws. So that the king and the people of Israel would remember and live according to God’s covenant, God chose prophets to proclaim God’s message. As with the kings, the prophets of Israel were also anointed to signify their unique role in service of God. (1 Kgs 19:16) When the Israelites began to stray from their covenant with God, prophets would come to call them back to a righteous way of living.
All of these consecration rituals were ordinations. A ritual of consecration is meant to publicly set someone or something apart for a particular purpose. By dressing priests in a special manner and by offering special sacrifices to God, Aaron and his sons were set apart as mediators between Israel and God. Similarly, the kings of Israel were anointed as political leaders, and the prophets were anointed to speak God’s message to the Israelites. Priests, prophets, and kings were ordained for unique roles among the Israelites. These clearly designated roles allowed them to focus on caring for the relationship between God and Israel. In other words, these leaders were ministers who were charged with caring for the covenantal relationship that exists between Israel and God.
In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples embodied all three of these unique roles: priest, prophet, and king. Throughout the early days of Christianity, the leaders of the Church acted as prophets who proclaimed the Gospel. Like kings, they oversaw the organization of the communities. As priests, they presided at worship. The Church used public rituals to better recognize and pray for these leaders (1 Tm 4:14)
These rituals would come to be the ordination rituals we celebrate today.
For Israel, staying true to God’s covenant was a struggle (the name “Israel” means ‘wrestle with God’). And yet, God was gracious enough to guide them through priests, prophets, and kings. Similarly, the christian church has always struggled to follow the footsteps of Christ. The deacons, priests, and bishops that lead the church are ordained so that the church might continue to grow. While God has called ordained ministers to fulfill a unique role in the church, God’s fundamental concern is still the unity of the Body of Christ.
As St. Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians, christian ministry is “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Ordained ministers are God’s tools who are used to continually transform the church into Christ.
This ministry is an immense responsibility that comes with great expectations. Speaking to his flock about his role as bishop, St. Augustine wisely wrote, “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you, I am a bishop, but with you I am a christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation.”