The Apostles believed they and the Church needed ordained officers and that they couldn’t fulfill their own ministry as elders without ordained deacons. Are you stronger than the Apostles as a session?
It is becoming a more common practice in some PCA churches for sessions to make the intentional decision not to ordain the deacons of the church. I could spell out in more detail my understanding of why that is, but instead I’d like to do something more focused. I’d like to explore the idea of ordination and ask the question: what does ordination do? Why would someone want to be ordained? Why not just serve the church without being ordained? What are we missing out on as a church if we have officers functionally serving without the church actually ordaining them?
Perhaps one of the most helpful discussions of the nature of ordination itself comes from James Bannerman’s magisterial work, The Church of Christ. In this book Bannerman spends a chapter dealing with two errors regarding ordination: on the one hand, those in independent churches who refuse to practice ordination at all; on the other hand, those in the high church party who make it a sacrament with an ex opera operato (latin for “from the working of the worker”) character. To combat these two errors he lays out the Presbyterian position, which skews to neither extreme.
First, Bannerman asks, what is ordination? He defines it as “the solemn act of the Church admitting a man to the office of the ministry, and giving him a right and title to the discharge of its functions” (Bannerman, James. The Church of Christ, Banner of Truth, 2014, 496). Bannerman then adds an important rejoinder: “In all ordinary circumstances it is necessary to a man’s entering to the work of the ministry lawfully; and without it he has no authority to exercise his office” (496).
Bannerman uses this “ordinary circumstances” qualifier because he is concerned to defend the Reformers, arguing that it was lawful for them to “revive the office of the ministry, and, without seeking ordination from those previously ordained, to set apart men to its duties” (496). Notice, though, how important ordination is: “without it he has no authority to exercise his office.”
Does ordination do anything? In one sense, Bannerman is careful to say no. “[The act of ordination itself] does not confer the office. Christ confers the office by His own call, addressed to whom he will….the act of ordination itself does not, and cannot, confer the blessing as if ex opere operato. It is not a charm.” On the other hand, Christ still uses the act of ordination and the laying on of hands just as he uses people as instruments in other areas of life. Says Bannerman:
[I]n the act of investiture, or admission by the Church with the laying on of hands, and prayer, we have warrant to believe that, in answer to prayer, all the promises connected with the office are fulfilled, and the special blessing or grace suited to the office will be conferred. (496)