Leadership and Ordination

by Mark M. Mattison

If, as we have argued in Authority in the Church, there are no valid "offices" of authority within the body - only Spirit-designated gifts and functions - then where does "ordination" fit in when we talk of the church's leadership? Is "ordination" an appropriate term to describe the recognition of elders, or is this too bound up with the question of "the priesthood of all believers"?

The concept of "ordination" in the Scriptures is rather slippery. The King James Version uses "ordain" for 21 different Hebrew and Greek words bearing every shade of meaning from "decide" to "delegate" to "predestine."Reference1 In Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, based on the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary, the definition of " ordain" is given as "To establish by appointment, decree, or law; to enact; esp., of the Deity, fate, etc., to destine; predestine," as well as "To invest with ministerial or sacerdotal functions; to introduce into the office of the Christian ministry." If this is what we mean by "ordination" then clearly it is God, not a church council, who ordains ministers.

For that matter, God has ordained all believers to priestly ministry (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6) in His spiritual temple (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21,22). Like the Levites under the old covenant, the first Christians ministered to God (cf. Matt. 12:3-5). Church leaders, far from doing all the "ministering" in the churches, are told to equip the body for ministry (Eph. 4:12,13). Based upon the gifting of the Spirit, all Christians are told to minister to one another (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12; 1 Pet. 4:10). This is the Scriptural basis for the priesthood of all believers, and it is compromised by formal notions of ordination.

In that light, it is best to regard the "ordaining" (or better, "appointing") of elders by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:23 as a formal recognition of what the Spirit had already manifested. The pattern is clearly stated: First they evangelized in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, organizing churches (Acts 13:13-14:20). But they did not at that time designate leaders. Rather they returned later to those cities (14:21) and then appointed elders (v. 23). Evidently they gave the churches time to manifest the giftings of the Spirit so that they could recognize those who had emerged as spiritual leaders (cf. the qualifications of 1 Tim. 3:1-7). Titus' appointment of elders in Crete (Tit. 1:5) was based on the same principle (Tit. 1:6-9).

If we are right in our interpretation of ordination and ministry, then, authority in the church is based upon both the charismatic model of gifting and the sober recognition of spiritual wisdom. Again, leadership is a function, not an office. But in any case priestly prerogatives and ministerial responsibilities are equally shared by all who have been ordained of God in Christ, i.e., all Christians.


Leadership in The House Church Setting

The social context of the early church's structure may help to clarify the role of early Christian leaders. In his book The House Church, Del Birkey describes the typical Roman household:

A typical household included a somewhat wealthy principal family with its head, friends, and other dependents, together with enough slaves for its daily administration and operation. In his discussion of Roman social institutions, Tidball adds a further insight to the household unit. He notes that such a mixed community needed a strong binding agent. This solidarity was further expressed in the adoption of a common religion chosen by the household's leader. Tidball says that "religion then served them in a classic Durkheimian way in that it provided the means by which the collective soul of the family re-created itself and bound itself together." In this sense, then, the households had a kind of unified system of beliefs and practices in relation to sacred things.Reference2

This certainly illuminates the many Scriptural references to people and their entire households believing in the gospel message (cf. John 4:53; Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31-34; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16). It also illuminates the social context of the early churches, which were almost invariably hosted by middle- to upper-class patrons who could provide the necessary facilities and resources to maintain the infrastructure of the local church (cf. Rom. 16:5,23; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). Thus the household setting provided not only intimacy but organization as well.

In the next chapter Birkey applies this insight to the specific question of church leadership. He writes that:

The house church positively influenced the development of the church's leaders. The hosts of the churches became the natural leaders of the church. They were most likely persons of sufficient education and practical administrative ability. Filson notes that many of the hosts of the earliest Gentile churches were "God-fearers." They had already demonstrated their initiative by leaving their ancestral situations and aligning with the synagogue. Rather than inheriting leadership, the house church structure imparted, through the hosts, actual leadership which in turn determined the form of church life (cf. 1 Cor. 16:16).Reference3

This last Scripture is most informative. There Paul writes:

You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service (diakonian) of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it (1 Cor. 16:15,16, NIV).

This Scripture states explicitly what is implicit elsewhere in the New Testament: those who host churches are in some way involved in its administrative affairs. Contemporary experience confirms this. Normally when a couple or a family starts a house church, a fellowship group, or a Bible study, the host family functions in some leadership capacity.

This confirms our teaching that leadership and authority in the church is not grounded in an institution or an office, but in function, gifting, and service. Stephanas and his household stepped into leadership roles simply by "devot[ing] themselves to the service...and...join[ing] in the work" (NIV). Notice also that Paul writes nothing here about church constitutions, formal structures, or ecclesiastical ordination. The first church in Achaia sprang from the conversion experience of Stephanas and his household. When men and women were evangelized and baptized in a given location, the church was essentially founded. When converts received the Holy Spirit, they automatically received the variegated gifts they would need to function as part of the body (1 Cor. 12). If we seek the simplicity of this type of relationship-based church apart from traditional structures, we may find that many difficult ecclesiological issues and concerns can easily be sidestepped.



1Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1982, p. 4.

2(Scottdale, PA: Herald Press), 1988, p. 39.

3Ibid., pp. 58,59.

Presented by:
True Grace Ministries

Home | Email | Main Library
Open House Church Articles