By Ordination is meant that solemn rite, or act by which a candidate for any office in the Church of Christ, is authoritatively designated to that office, by those who are clothed with power for the purpose.
It cannot require formal argument to prove, that this rite, or something analagous and equivalent to it, is indispensable in conducting all regular ecclesiastical government. If certain officers have been appointed in the Church by Jesus Christ, her King and Head;-if certain qualifications have been declared by Him indispensable to fit men for serving the Church in these offices, without which they ought not to be permitted to occupy them;-and if an extraordinary and immediate designation to office by Jesus Christ himself, be not now to be expected in any case;-if these things be so, it inevitably follows, that some person or persons must have power committed to them by the Head of the Church, to examine or try candidates for these offices, to judge of their qualifications; and, if approved, to invest them with office. The idea that, with such directions as the New Testament contains on this subject, men should be left at liberty to take these offices upon themselves, by their own act, and at their own pleasure-is full of absurdity; and, if realized, would undoubtedly lead to endless disorder and mischief. Only suppose the secular offices of a nation to be thus assumed by men at will; and by none more readily than the vain, the ignorant, the self-sufficient, and the ambitious;-as would inevitably be the case, if such were the path of access to office;-and there would be an end of all order. But if it be neither safe nor permitted for men to intrude into official stations uncalled; and if an immediate investiture by the Master himself be out of the question; we are driven to the conclusion, that all regular and lawful introduction to office, must be through the medium of human ordainers, acting in the name of Christ, and governing themselves by his declared will.
Accordingly, while the Saviour himself, in the days of his flesh, immediately invested with office the twelve Apostles, and all others whom he personally called and sent forth; no sooner had He ascended to heaven, than the practice of introducing to office by the instrumentality of men, began, and, so far as we are informed, was uniformly continued. Then the ministers of Christ began to act upon the principle afterwards so explicitly communicated to Timothy, and enjoined upon him:-"That which thou hast heard of me, among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." Here we are plainly taught that men are not to seize upon the sacred office themselves. It is to be "committed to them;" and that not by every one; but by those only who have regularly "received" it themselves. We find, too, that the method of ordination which had been in use in the Jewish Synagogue, and to which all the first Christians had been accustomed was transferred to the Church, and became a stated part of ecclesiastical order. Paul and Barnabas were set apart to a particular service, by a plurality of ecclesiastical men, with prayer, imposition of hands, and fasting. When they, in their turn, went forth to execute the work to which they had been called, we find them, wherever they went, "ordaining Elders," and committing to them the care of the Church. Timothy was invested with office "by the laying on of the hands of the Presbytery." And even the Deacons, were called to their offve in the same manner. It was referred to the people to "look out" and elect the candidates; but having done so, they brought them to the Apostles, who "laid their hands upon them," and conferred on them the important office to which they were appointed.
It is no part of the belief of Presbyterians, that Ordination imparts any direct influence, either physical or moral, to him who receives it. They have no idea that, in this act, by a kind of opus operatum, according to the Romanists, an "indelible character" is communicated. They do not suppose that any hallowed energy proceeds from the hands of the ordainers to him on whose head they lay them, in the act of imposition. But they regard it simply as that official act, by which a man is pronounced, declared and manifested, to be actually put in possession of the office to which he has been chosen. It is, in one word, the actual induction into office of one elected to fill it. The case is precisely analogous to that of civil rulers. The man who is appointed to the office of Judge on a secular bench, has no real addition made, either to his intellect, his learning, or his moral excellence, by taking the oath of office, and complying with those formalities which actually introduce him to his official station. And yet, so important are these formalities, that his power lawfully to act as Judge absolutely depends upon them. Before they take place, he is not really in office; and after they take place, he is clothed with that plenary power, which qualifies him for the regular discharge of every official duty. And so of every other civil officer in the land. Thus it is in the Church. Ordination is the essence of a lawful external call to ecclesiastical office. It is that act, before which, the ecclesiastical officer is not prepared, regularly, to discharge a single function appropriated to the station to which he is elected: but after which, he is prepared for their regular and valid performance.
That Ruling Elders, besides being regularly chosen to office, should be ordained;-that is, publicly and solemnly designated and introduced to office by appropriate formalities-our ecclesiastical Constitution requires, and prescribes a Form for the purpose, concerning which I shall only say, that, as far as it goes, it is well devised, impressive and excellent. I say, as far as it goes;-for it has been, for many years, my settled conviction, that the Ordination Service in question, in not making the imposition of hands a stated constituent part of it, is chargeable with an omission, which, though not essential, and, therefore, not a matter for which it is proper to interrupt the peace of the Church; yet appears to me incapable of a satisfactory defence; and which it is my earnest hope may not much longer continue to be, as I know it is with many, matter of serious lamentation.
The "imposition of hands," as a constituent part of Ordination, in an old and impressive rite. It was, notoriously, a familiar mode of designation to office, through the whole of the Old Testament economy. It is, if I mistake not, universally acknowledged to have been employed in ordaining all the Elders of the Jewish Synagogue. We find it is used in every Ordination, without exception, the particulars of which are detailed in the New Testament history. And even in setting apart the Deacons, nothing can be more explicit than the statement, that is was done with the "imposition of hands." So far, then, as we are bound to reverence and follow ancient, primitive, and uniform usage, I know of no solid reason why it should be omitted in any case.
Some, indeed, have attempted to defend the omission of this rite by alleging, that the imposition of hands, in the days of the Apostles, was connected with the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were then common; and that with those special gifts, it ought to have ceased. In support of this allegation, they commonly adduced such passages as those recorded in Acts viii. 17, 18; xix. 6; Heb. vi. 2, &c. This argument however, if it have any force, ought to banish the imposition of hands from all ordinations; but can never justify the omission of it in ordaining Ruling Elders and Deacons, while it is retained in the ordination of those who "labor in the word and doctrine." But the validity of the whole argument, it is believed, may be set aside without difficulty.
We read in the New Testament of four cases, or kinds of "laying on of hands." The first, by Christ himself, to express an authoritative benediction; (Matt. xix. 15; Mark x. 16;) the second, in the healing of diseases; (Mark xvi. 18; Acts xxviii. 8;) the third, in conferring extraordinary gifts of the Spirit; (Acts viii. 17, xix. 6;) and the fourth, in setting apart persons to sacred office; (Acts vi. 6, xiii. 3; 1 Tim. iv. 14.) The venerable Dr. Owen, in his commentary on Heb. vi. 2, expresses the opinion, that the "laying on of hands," mentioned in that passage, is to be considered as belonging to the third kind or class of cases, and, of course, as referring to the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit. Others have supposed, that it rather belongs to the fourth example here enumerated, and, therefore, applies to the ordination of ministers. On this point I decide nothing. But my reasons for supposing that the imposition of hands in the ordination of Church Officers, had no reference to the imparting of supernatural gifts, and consequently ought not to be deemed an extraordinary and temporary rite, are such as these-1. This rite has been employed in all ages of the Church in setting apart persons to ecclesiastical office. 2. It is one of the most natural and significant modes of designating a person who is intended to be consecrated or devoted to a particular service. 3. It was manifestly employed in a number of cases which occur in the sacred history, where no special gifts were intended to be conveyed; and, therefore, though sometimes connected with those gifts, yet we are sure it was not in all cases thus connected. 4. When hands were laid on Paul and Barnabas, at Antioch, it was not that they might receive these gifts, for they were possessed of them prior to this solemnity. 5. In this case, too, it is remarkable that they seem to have been ordinary pastors and teachers who laid their hands upon one, at least, of extraordinary gifts and character. 6. And, finally, in 1 Tim. v. 22, the whole rite of ordination seems to be comprehended in this act;-"Lay hands suddenly on no man," &c. And if we consider the act of laying hands on the head of the candidate for sacred office, as intended, at once, solemnly to designate his person, to express an official benediction; and to indicate his entire consecration to the service of God:-we could scarcely conceive of an Act more simple, and yet more appropriate, and full of meaning. And although those who lay on hands in this transaction altogether disclaim, as was before stated, the power of conveying the Holy Ghost to the individual ordained; yet as an emblem of what he needs, and ought unceasingly to seek, and of what his brethren desire and pray for on his behalf, it is, surely, in a high degree expressive, and by no means open to the charge of either presumption or superstition. I would say, therefore, concerning this part of the solemnity of ordination, in the language of the venerable Calvin: "Although there is no express precept for the imposition of hands; yet since we find it to have been constantly used by the Apostles, such a punctual observance of it by them ought to have the force of a precept with us. And certainly this ceremony is highly useful both to recommend to the people the dignity of the ministry, and to admonish the person ordained, that he is no longer his own master, but devoted to the service of God and the church. Besides, it will not be an unmeaning sign, if it be restored to its true origin. For if the Spirit of God institute nothing in the Church in vain, we shall perceive that this ceremony, which proceeded from Him, is not without its use, provided, it be not perverted by a superstitious abuse."
But if this rite be so reasonable, so scriptural, so expressive, and so generally adopted by almost all Christian denominations, in ordaining those Elders who, "labor in the word and doctrine;" how comes it to pass that it should be so generally, not to say universally omitted in the ordination of Ruling Elders? I have long deplored this omission; and cannot help believing that, the restoration of so appropriate and impressive a part of the ordaining service would, in all probability, be attended with beneficial effects.
It is not easy to ascertain the origin of the omission in question. The apostolic office of Ruling Elder, was preserved, as we have seen, by the witnesses of the truth, during the dark ages. Whether the pious Waldenses and Bohemian Brethren were in the habit of setting apart this class of officers with the imposition of hands, cannot now, so far as I know, be determined. The Reformers received the office under consideration from those pious Waldenses; and were well aware, as their writings evince, that all ordinations in the Synagogue, and in the primitive Church, had been accompanied with the laying on of hands. Still, however, while they with one accord, retained this rite in the ordination of Teaching Elders, they seem, quite as unanimously, to have discarded it in the ordination of Ruling Elders. Of the cause of this, their writings give us no intimation; nor has it ever been my lot to hear, from any quarter, a single reason for the omission, which was in the least degree satisfactory. To be told, that the omission has "long been established;"-that, while all the Protestant Churches in the world, except that of England, receive this class of officers, in one form or another, they are "nowhere ordained by the imposition of hands;"-that this is "the custom of the Church;"-that to depart from it would be "to innovate" and "give offence," &c.-that this rite "may be omitted without injury, not being an essential part of ordination," &c.-is surely little adapted to satisfy an inquiring mind, desirous of receiving, as well as of being able to give, a reason for every practice. But although, as has been already said, no reason is formally assigned, or even hinted, in the writings of the Reformers, for laying aside the imposition of hands in the ordination of Ruling Elders; it is not, perhaps, difficult to conjecture how it happened. One mistake, I suspect, naturally led to another. They began by considering the office as a temporary one; or, rather, to decline allowing those who bore it, if they saw fit, sustaining it for more than a single year. There was a new election of these Elders annually. The same individuals, indeed, if they were acceptable to the people, and were willing to continue to serve the Church, might be reelected for a series of years, or, if they consented, even for life. But this seldom occurred. There was, for the most part, annually, a considerable change in the individuals, and, annually, a new ordination. The tenure of the office being thus temporary, and, in many cases, but for a single year;-no wonder that there should seem to the discerning and pious men who took the lead in organizing the Reformed Churches, some incongruity between this annual renewal of the official investiture and obligation, and setting apart men to the office in question, each time, with the very same formalities which attended the ordination of ministers of the gospel, whose tenure of office was for his. This incongruity, it is probable, struck them with so much force, that they could not reconcile it with their feelings to set apart to their office, these temporary incumbents, with the same rites and solemnity which they employed in ordaining ministers of the Word and Sacraments. Nor is it matter of wonder that such feelings should have had an influence on their minds. Those who take such a view of the tenure of the office in question as they did, will never be very cordial or decisive either in addressing those who bear it, or in setting them apart, as men consecrated for life to the service of the Church. But that in the Church of Scotland, and in the Presbyterian Church in this country, where, it is believed, correct views of the office of Ruling Elder, as perpetual, are universally received, the scriptural mode of setting apart to this office should have been so long and so generally disused, is a fact for which it is not easy to assign a satisfactory reason.
We are now prepared to take a brief survey of the arguments by which the propriety of ordaining Elders by the imposition of hands may be maintained. They are such as the following:
1. We find, throughout the whole Jewish history, that, solemnly laying the hands on the head of a person who was intended to be particularly honored, blessed, or devoted to sacred functions, was a rite of frequent, not to say constant use; and even in cases in which the conveyance of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, could not possibly have been designed.
2. The inspired Apostles, in organizing the New Testament Church, took as their model the Synagogue system of government, to which the first Christians had been all their lives accustomed.
3. It is certain that in every Jewish Synagogue there was a bench of Ruling Elders; and it is just as certain that these Elders were always ordained by the imposition of hands.
4. There is not a single instance of an ordination, to any ecclesiastical office whatever, of which we have any account in the New Testament, in which the ceremony of the laying on of hands does not appear to have been used.
5. The first Deacons, though not intrusted with an office so purely spiritual, or so arduous, as that of Ruling Elder, were yet, as all acknowledge, set apart the Diaconate by the imposition of hands. Of course, those who bear a superior office ought not to be introduced to it with less solemnity.
6. To imaging that there is any peculiar meaning or mystical influence in the laying on of hands, which is above the dignity of the Ruling Elder's office, involves, at once, a superstitious estimate of a simple, emblematical act, and an unworthy degradation of an important order in the Christian family.
Accordingly, it is observable, that almost all classes of writers whose judgment in reference to this matter is worthy of particular notice, freely concede the propriety of setting apart both Ruling Elders and Deacons in the manner for which I contend; and scarcely offer any other reason for omitting it, than that such has been "long the custom" of the Reformed Churches, and that the ceremony is not "essential" to a valid ordination. The following specimen of the manner in which the subject is treated by such writers, will be quite sufficient to establish my position.
The very learned authors of the Theses Leydenses, who were zealous Presbyterians, in speaking of the biennial election of Ruling Elders and Deacons, in the Church of Holland, acknowledge that, in the Apostolic Church, those offices were both perpetual, and concede that the different plan adopted among themselves was an imperfection; plainly intimating, that their mode of ordaining these officers had grown out of this imperfection.
The foreign Protestants, who established themselves in London, during the reign of Edward the sixth, not only had Ruling Elders and Deacons, in all their Churches; but also uniformly ordained them by the imposition of hands, as we have seen in the preceding chapter.
The Rev. John Anderson, of Scotland, the able and zealous defender of Presbyterianism against Rhind, who lived a little more than a century ago, speaking of the ordination of Ruling Elders by the imposition of hands, has the following passage. "Nobody doubts it is very lawful; and, for my own part, I HEARTILY WISH IT WERE PRACTICED; but I deny that it is absolutely necessary, there being no precept enjoining it."
The Rev. Archibald Hall, also of Great Britain, and a thorough-going advocate for Presbyterian order, speaks on the same subject in the following terms. ``The call of Ruling Elders, like the call of the Elders who "labor in the word and doctrine," consists in two things, viz., election and ordination. Their election should be popular, and their ordination judicial, and performed WITH LAYING ON OF HANDS." And, in a subsequent page, he expresses an opinion that Deacons ought to be ordained in the same,manner.
The venerable John Brown, of Haddington, one of the most decisive, consistent and devoted Presbyterians that ever lived;-after giving an account of the nature and warrant of the office of Ruling Elders,-observes;-"Their ordination ought to be transacted in much the SAME MANNER, as that of teaching Elders, or Pastors."
The learned and pious Dr. Cotton Mather, delivers the following opinion on the subject before us. "The imposition of hands in the ordination of a Church officer, is a rite not only lawful to be retained; but it seems by a divine institution directed and required; so that although the call of a person to Church office may not become null and void, where that rite may have been omitted, AS IT IS IN THE SENIORS AND DEACONS IN MOST OF THE REFORMED CHURCHES; YET WE CANNOT APPROVE THE OMISSION OF IT. A ceremonial defect may be blameworthy."
Our excellent and eloquent countryman, the Rev. President Dwight, gives an opinion concerning the ordination of Deacons, which is decisive of his opinion concerning that of Ruling Elders, in favor of which latter class of officers, he very explicitly, as we have before seen, declares his judgment. He speaks thus:--
"Deacons are to be ordained by the imposition of hands, and by prayer."
"When the brethren had set these men before the Apostles, St. Luke informs us, `they prayed, and laid their hands upon them.'"
"This also is an authoritative example of the manner in which Deacons are to be introduced into every Church. It is the example of inspired men; and was, therefore, the pleasure of the Spirit of God. There is no hint in the New Testament nor even in ecclesiastical history, that they were ever introduced in any other manner. At the same time there is no precept, revoking, or altering the authority, or influence of this example. It stands, therefore, in full force; and requires that all persons chosen by the Church to this office, should be consecrated to the duties of it in the same manner."
"It is to be observed, further, that if any such alteration had existed in periods subsequent to the apostolic age, it would have been totally destitute of any authority to us. This mode of consecration has, in fact, been disused in New-England, to a considerable extent. For this, however, there seems to have been no reason of any value. So far as I have been able to gain information on the subject, the disuse was originated at first, and has been gradually extended by mere inattention; NOR IS IT CAPABLE, SO FAR AS I KNOW, OF ANY DEFENCE."
These are a few of the authorities which might be quoted in favor of the same general position. In fact, I have met with no Presbyterian or Independent writer, who believed in the propriety of the imposition of hands in any case of ordination, who did not either explicitly or virtually grant, that there was no reason for withholding this ceremony in the case of Ruling Elders, but the custom of the Church, or some similar consideration.
On the supposition, then, that the imposition of hands ought always to be employed in the ordination of Ruling Elders, the question naturally arises;-WHOSE HANDS ought to be laid on in such ordinations? And here, if we attend to the simplest principles of all government, it would seem that we could scarcely be at loss for a satisfactory answer.
It seems to be a fundamental principle in every department, both of the natural and moral world, that every thing must be considered as capable of begetting its like. If this be so, does it not follow, as a plain dictate of common sense, that, in ordaining Ruling Elders, the members of the session already in office should lay on hands, with the Pastor, in setting apart an additional number to the same office? In other words, if there be such a body already in existence in the Church, THE HANDS OF THE PAROCHIAL PRESBYTERY ought to be laid on, in adding to its own number;-and the "right hand of fellowship" given, at the close of the service, by every member of the Session, to each of his newly ordained brethren. This appears to me equally agreeable to reason and Scripture, and highly adapted to edification. And if there be no Eldership already in the Church in which the ordination takes place,-then the Presbytery, upon proper application being made to them, ought to appoint at least one minister, and two or more Ruling Elders, to attend, at the time and place most convenient, to perform the ordination. How much more impressive and acceptable would be such a scene, than the cold and naked manner in which this service is too often performed!
A question may here arise in the minds of some, whether those Elders who, when ordained, had no hands laid on them, may, without impropriety, join in the imposition of hands on the heads of their younger brethren, who may be ordained in this manner? To this question, beyond all doubt, we may confidently return an affirmative answer. They may unite in the imposition of hands, without the least scruple, and with the utmost propriety. All reasonable men grant, that the rite in question, though rational and scriptural, is not essential to a valid ordination. Our venerable Fathers of the Scotch Reformation did not deem the imposition of hands necessary, even in the ordination of Ministers of the gospel; and, therefore, in their First Book of Discipline did not prescribe it. Elders, therefore, who have been regularly set apart to their office, agreeably to the Formula prescribed in the Presbyterian Church, have received an ordination completely valid. They are fully invested with the office, and with all the powers and privileges which it includes. It is contrary to the whole genius of the gospel to make a mere ceremonial defect fatal to the substance of an otherwise regular investiture. If Elders who have been thus ordained, be deemed competent to any part of their official work, they are competent to every part; and, of course, to partake in the solemnity which I am here endeavoring to recommend.
If the foregoing principles be correct, then Ruling Elders ought also to lay on hands, with the Pastor, in the ordination of Deacons; their office as Rulers vesting them with full power for this act, and rendering it strictly proper. But inasmuch as Deacons make no part of the parochial presbytery, and are not vested with any portion of the function of spiritual government; it does not seem proper that, they should lay on hands in any case of ordination. In that of Ruling Elders, it would be manifestly incongruous; since their office is altogether unlike. But even in the ordination of Deacons, it would be inconsistent with regular order. Ordination is an act not only official, but also authoritative. It is an act of government: but to no participation in this are Deacons appointed. This office, as we have seen, is highly important, and requires much, wisdom, piety, prudence, and diligence; but their sphere of duty is entirely different from that of those who are "set over the flock in the Lord," and who are appointed to "watch for souls as they that must give account."
If, after this whole discussion, any should be disposed to ask, what additional advantage may be expected to flow from ordaining our Elders by the imposition of hands, and with similar external solemnities to those which are employed in setting apart ministers of the gospel?-I answer-It will be a return to scriptural example, and primitive usage,-which is always right, and will, we have reason to hope, by the grace of God, be connected with a blessing. It will be doing warranted and appropriate honor to a class of officers too long deprived of their due estimation and authority. When the people see those whom they have elected to this office, devoutly kneeling before the Lord, and the hands of the parochial Presbytery laid on their heads, with fervent prayer, and with a solemn charge and benediction;-they will naturally attach to the office itself more importance, and to those who bear it, more reverence. Nay, perhaps it is not unreasonable to believe, that such solemnities may be made the means of salutary impressions on the minds even of their immediate subjects. If the writer of these lines does not greatly mistake, he has known the solemnities attending the ordination of Pastors, productive of deep and lasting impressions, both on the ordained, and the spectators. But he has no recollection of ever witnessing any such result from our comparatively cold and lifeless mode of setting apart the official Rulers in Christ's house. "This is a lamentation, and shall be for a lamentation."
1.Imposition of hands was a Jewish ceremony, introduced, not by any divine authority, but by custom; it being the practice among those people, whenever they prayed to God for any person, to lay their hands upon his head. Our Saviour observed the same custom, both when he conferred his blessings on children, and when he healed the sick, adding prayers to the ceremony. The Apostles likewise laid hands on those upon whom they bestowed the Holy Ghost. The priests observed the same custom when any one was received into their body. And the Apostles themselves underwent the imposition of hands afresh, when they entered upon any new design. In the ancient Church imposition of hands was even practised on persons when they were married; which custom the Abyssinians still observe." BURDER's Oriental Customs. ii. 25. [back]
2.Institutiones, Lib. iv. Cap. iii. 16. [back]
3.More than twenty years ago, the author of this volume, under the deep and unwavering conviction that he had scriptural authority to sustain him, when called upon to ordain Elders and Deacons in a vacant Church, added to the usual solemnity on such occasions, the act of "laying on hands" in the ordaining prayer. Finding, however, that many of his Brethren considered it as an innovation, and were by no means prepared to introduce the practice; believing that diversity of practice in relation to this matter would be very undesirable; and persuaded, moreover, that the act in question ought not to be deemed an essential in any ordination,--he resolved not to repeat it, until it could be used without offence, and with better prospects of edification to the Church. [back]
4.It is worthy of remark that our Independent brethren, at early periods of their history, adhered more closely to the scriptural methods of ordaining Ruling Elders and Deacons, than even Presbyterians. See the Cambridge Platform, chapters vii. and ix. See also a Confession of Faith, adopted by some Anti-paedobaptists, (to the amount of 100 congregations,) in England and Wales, in 1689; and ratified and adopted by a Baptist Association met at Philadelphia, in 1742; chapter 27. Also a "Short Treatise on Church Discipline," appended to it by the latter. Chapters 3 and 4. [back]
5.This representation is not wholly gratuitous. It appears from the Compendium Theologiae Christianae of Marck, and from the opinion of Frederick Spanheim, quoted with approbation by De Moor, the Commentator on Marck, that all three of these Divines of the Reformed Church had no other objection to the laying on of hands in the ordination of Ruling Elders, than that which I have suggested. DE MOORI Com. Perpet. Vol. vi. p. 330. [back]
6.At what period in the History of the Church of Scotland it was that the annual election of Elders was laid aside, and the office made permanent, it has not fallen in the author's way to obtain information. He is disposed to believe, however, that the change took place either late in the sixteenth, or early in the seventeenth century. [back]
7.Synopsis Purioris Theologicae. Disput. 42. p. 621. [back]
8.Defence, &c. Chap. ii. Sect. vi. p. 179. [back]
9.Scriptural View of the Gospel Church, Chapters 12 and 15. p. 67. 102. [back]
10.Compendous View. Book vii. Chapter ii. p. 640. [back]
11.Magnalia, Vol. ii. p. 218. [back]
12.Theology explained and defended. Vol. iv. p. 291. [back]