In the Bible, we find multiple examples of men and women who occupied various offices and functions for God's people. They received their calls for ministry or service from God, often through the community of believers, and it can also be said that God is the one who qualified them for their ministry. Appointments were confirmed or symbolized in various ways, and not all of them were by means of a laying on of hands. This raises the question as to whether ordination to ministry is the only required mode to install someone into an office or function and to give authority to that person to perform that function.
Old Testament Examples
In the Old Testament, there appears to be only two instances of “ordination” to an office. The Levites were ordained to the priesthood by a ceremony of laying on of hands and prayer done by Moses and representatives of the people (Num 8:5-26). As the divinely chosen successor of Moses, Joshua was installed as the next leader of the people of Israel by a service of prayer and laying on of hands (Num 27:12-23; Deut 34:9).
But numerous other leaders of Israel were not ordained. Abraham received a direct call from God to become the first leader of the people of God (Gen 12:1-3). Aaron and his sons, who were to serve as high priests, were consecrated to God by a special ceremony and sacrifices, and the special garments they wore symbolized the authority they had (Exod 28-29). The two skilled craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab who designed and constructed much of the earthly tabernacle in the wilderness were also divinely chosen by God (Exod 31:1-11).
Judges and prophets of Israel were directly raised up by God for their tasks also without apparent ceremonies of installation. The prophet Samuel, as the last of Israel’s judges, received a direct call from God for his appointment to ministry (1 Sam 3). Other prophets of Israel also received their appointments directly from God: Isaiah (Isa 6), Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), and Ezekiel (Eze 1:3).
The appointment of kings of Israel, however, followed a different pattern. Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam 10:1) and later David (1 Sam 16:12-13). Solomon was also anointed in a ceremony that included riding a mule (1 Kgs 1:38-39). Riding a mule or colt was still a powerful symbolic gesture of the investiture of a king of Israel when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt (Luke 19:29-40).
New Testament Examples
As in the Old Testament, the New Testament provides a variety of ways in which someone was appointed to an office or task. After a night spent in prayer, Jesus appointed twelve apostles from a larger group of disciples (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16). The text does not tell us that Jesus ordained or laid his hands on the Twelve.
A larger group of disciples of Jesus, the Seventy, was also appointed by Jesus to minister in his name (Luke 10:1-20). Later, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples, led by Peter, selected from among them another apostle, Matthias, to replace Judas. This appointment was done by the casting of lots (a verb that can also be translated as voting by lots; Acts 1:15-26).
A few chapters later in the book of Acts, the assembly of believers in Jerusalem selected seven men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, to take part of the responsibilities that the apostles were no longer able to fulfill adequately. Their selection by the assembly was completed by a prayer and the laying on of hands, the first such example of this ceremony in the New Testament (Acts 6:1-6). Barnabas and Paul were also set apart in the same manner for their missionary ministry (Acts 13:1-3). But we have no record that elders were ordained, rather it seems that they were simply appointed (Acts 14:23). Timothy seems to have been ordained by Paul and a group of elders but we are not told for which ministry (1 Timothy 5; 2 Timothy 1:4). The New Testament is silent on how people in many other forms of ministry such as teachers, pastors, evangelists, were installed into their functions.
This brief and incomplete survey indicates that there was a variety of ways in which one’s ministry was affirmed and initiated. And it is clear that few people were installed into their functions through ordination or laying on of hands.
In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, appointments to offices and functions combine a number of the attributes we see in Scripture. The church community does most appointments by a process of selection done through various committees or boards that appoint or make recommendations for the appointments of people to various functions. The authority to exercise these functions is thus granted at the moment the constitutive committees or assemblies make the decisions for appointments.
Following a decision made to appoint someone to an office or a function, by the respective church boards or conference/union executive committees, some officers are installed or ordained through a ceremony of prayer and laying on of hands, as in the case of deacons, elders, and pastors. Other officers are appointed to their ministry simply by the vote of a committee (e.g. conference and union directors of departments; college and university presidents), while others by the vote of a general assembly of believers (e.g. conference and union presidents; GC and Division officers).
During the ordination of deacons, elders and pastors, the ceremony of prayer and laying on of hands is a confirmation or symbolic representation of a decision to give them authority made prior to the ceremony. Seventh-day Adventists do not believe that ordination is a sacrament; rather, the ceremony of laying on of hands is a form of blessing in which the community recognizes the calling of God in the life of the individual and asks for God’s blessing of wisdom and spiritual strength on the individual to be able to perform the functions the person has been elected or nominated to do. The ceremony itself does not grant authority to exercise the functions of deacons, elders, or pastors; rather, it confirms that the church has already granted authority.
Of course, there is more to this ceremony. In the Adventist church, only an ordained elder can perform a baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Ordination is how we authorize someone to perform these functions on behalf of the church.
We have many examples of biblical persons who were appointed to their ministries without having been ordained, and many Adventist leaders are asked to do ministry without having to be ordained. As I see it, ordination is not for the primary purpose of granting authority but it is asking for God’s blessing on the individual who is asked to do a particular ministry on behalf of the community. Realizing the benefits of this service of prayer and laying on of hands, the Church Manual recommends that for functions and offices that do not require a service of ordination and laying on of hands, churches are invited to consider having a service of prayer and induction for all new officers to mark their installation to their new functions. I think this recommendation reveals the true spirit of what the Bible intends laying on of hands to mean. So perhaps we should reflect more carefully on the meaning of ordination as an induction and a prayer for blessing as the Seventh-day Adventist Church wrestles with its theology of ordination. It may be that we are giving too much sacramental meaning to a ceremony that for us should be an ordinance.
Denis Fortin is dean and professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Prior to coming to Andrews, Fortin served as a pastor in the Quebec Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He earned a doctorate in theology from the Université Laval, Quebec, in 1995. His dissertation was titled: "Adventism in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Implantation and Institutionalization in the 19th Century."