“And it is certainly useful that by (the laying on of hands) the dignity of the ministry should be commended to the people, and he who is ordained, reminded that he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the Church.” – John Calvin.
In just a couple of days, a dear friend and colleague of mine, Greg Gunn, will be the subject of one of the most ancient rites in the Christian Church, the laying on of hands in the service of ordination.
This was practiced not only in the New Testament (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6; Acts 6:6) but also the Old Testament as well (Genesis 48:14; Numbers 27:23). I have to tell you, as the one giving the ordination sermon on this coming Lord’s Day, this terrifies me. Not because I don’t trust and respect Greg, but because of the weight of the responsibility for all who are ordained.
The ordination of a minister of the Gospel in a Reformed church is an event of great moment. In our Presbyterian tradition, this implies that a man has spent the equivalent of seven years in formal training and education. He has passed his written exams (equivalent in difficulty to the bar exam in the legal profession). He has been examined on his views and knowledge by the ministerial committee and gone before the entire Presbytery for a terrifying public examination. Imagine if in order to get your current job you had to stand on your feet for an hour or so and take questions from a field of 20 or more men more qualified and experienced than yourself!
There are some churches and traditions where the guy who is called “pastor” on the marquee is simply the guy with the largest Bible and the cleanest shirt. Today anyone can declare themselves “pastor” or “minister” or “apostle” just by garnering a small following. Many take on the mantle and yoke of ministry flippantly and completely unprepared. But Biblical ordination should prevent that from happening.
Let me ask you this: would you submit your body to surgery performed by a man who studied medicine in a lazy boy on Saturday mornings? Would you have a man defend you in a court of law who is a mere amateur in jurisprudence? Would you get into an airplane flown by a weekend hobbyist? How much more so, then, should our souls be put under the care and authority of a man who has been tried and tested first! Men should be trained, examined, and proven to have a high level of competency, and then ordained.
That day is Sunday for Gregory C. Gunn, who has become a dear friend and colleague of mine.
The promises made in this service are no less serious than marriage vows. In some sense, Greg will be publicly “marrying” the service of God. And the bond that will be forged in that moment will be no more breakable, no more escapable, than the divine merging of two persons in holy matrimony.
Yes, like a wedding there will be vows: promises made to be faithful to the Word of God; promises that the ordinand will remain faithful to the gospel and declare it with every last ounce of strength that he has. The pastor being set apart for ministry that day, as Calvin notes, is reminded through the laying on of hands that “he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the Church.”
The great reformed Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon once warned his students, “The first sign of the heavenly calling is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work. In order to a true call to the ministry there must be an irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling others what God has done to our own souls…Do not enter the ministry if you can help it.”
Those of us who have taken the ordination vows have neither time nor leisure to entertain any other dream, or pursue another calling. We are not playing around here. We are not “playing church.” This is blood-serious. We respond to the Gospel call with an urgency that requires the whole of us. As an ordained minister of the Gospel, we must preach the Word with every pulse, muscle fiber, brain-wave, and hiccup of our being.
And so I am both terrified and overjoyed at the thought of the elders laying hands upon one of my dear friends. These praying hands will place him in the tradition of thousands of years of men who have devoted their lives to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. Many of them died in the line of duty as pastors, evangelists, and missionaries.
The magnitude of the commitment is almost too much to bear; which is probably why the symbol of the placing of hands upon the candidate’s head and shoulders persists to this day: he needs many people–praying believers–to hold him up, keep him standing, prevent him from falling on his face.
Left standing alone, the weight of the duty of the pastorate would certainly crush us.
Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida.