What does the New Testament say about the ordination of priests?

This article about the ordination of priests is a follow-up of the question I answered yesterday in the article “Was there sacramental priesthood in the Church of the Apostles?“. An important aspect to be specified at the outset is that nowhere in the Bible ordination or laying on of hands is called a mystery.

The first ordination in Church history

The first ordination of ministers in the Church is mentioned in chapter 6 of the Book of Acts when the first seven deacons of the early church in Jerusalem were ordained. Scripture tells us this about the event:

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jewsagainst the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)(NASB)

From this passage we learn the following about ordination, or laying on of hands:

  • Faith, relationship with God and filling with the Holy Spirit manifested in characters and experience, were the criteria by which the Church has chosen the ministers who were later ordained.
  • The seven deacons who were ordained were elected by the Church to fulfill a specific job and need of the Church.
  • The apostles prayed for them and laid their hands on them before the congregation, so publicly consecrating them to serve as deacons from that time on.
  • The text does not say that through ordination (laying on of hands) they received the Holy Spirit or the qualities necessary to do the service of deacons well, but they were elected by the Church and the apostles ordained them just because these seven men were filled with the Holy Spirit and met the necessary qualities for the service they were ordained.

The Church of Antioch ordained Paul and Barnabas

Here’s how the Church of Antioch was born and raised:

So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:19-26)(NASB)

In this church there was an ordination that is told about in the book of Acts:

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:1-3)

Here is what we learn about ordination from the following case:

  • The first ministers in the Church of Antioch were Apostle Paul and Barnabas.
  • They taught the church for a year and therefore, they are the ones who grew up three other teachers who remained there after Paul and Barnabas left for mission.
  • We can see that the other three ministers were ordained in the service of prophets and teachers by Paul and Barnabas.
  • Having raised new ministers in the Church, the Holy Spirit spoke to the Church to set apart Paul and Barnabas for the ministry to which they had been called – the missionary ministry.
  • Barnabas and Saul (i.e. Paul) were ordained by the Church.
  • The ordination of Paul and Barnabas was their dedication to a special mission work.

Another case mentioned in the Bible is …

Timothy’s ordination

Timothy was a disciple of Paul and was ordained by him in the service of the Gospel. Paul mentions it in both of the two letters addressed to Timothy that were included in the New Testament. In the first epistle he writes:

Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:13-16)(NASB)

We find this about ordination:

  • Timothy’s ordination was performed by the presbytery (not “the high priests”, as translated in the Orthodox Bible)
  • The gift to teach Christians the Holy Scriptures was given to Timothy through the prophetic utterance.
  • The presence of this gift in Timothy was confirmed by the elders who ordained him and so, he was consecrated to the service of the teacher of the Church.
  • Now it was Timothy’s responsibility to pay close attention to his teaching, so that he may not change this teaching and be absorbed in all the service he was consecrated to.

In the second letter addressed to Timothy, the Apostle Paul made the following reference to his ordination (consecration):

For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. (2 Timothy 1:5-7)(NASB)

From this text we can understand that Timothy received this gift of laying on of Paul’s hands or that this laying on of hands (ordination) Apostle Paul confirmed this gift in Timothy and consecrated him publicly to the ministry of the gospel.

Therefore, we draw the following conclusions:

  • Ordination is a public consecration of a person in a specific job that fulfills a specific need of the Church.
  • Ordination was performed by the apostles, presbytery, and Church.
  • Ordination is performed according to the  spiritual gift the minister has.
  • Ordination brings about accountability to the Church and to the ministry of  the Gospel.

Translated by Felicia Rotaru