Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ordination for Life?

I have always been sceptical of the so-called "indelible character" of ordination to the ministry. If find the idea nowhere in the Bible. The popular notion is that once a man is ordained he is "ordained for life." Now, true enough, this is God's intent and calling in ordination—that a man will be faithful to this special calling all his life, through thick and thin.

But what if he proves to be faithless and by the judgment of the church he is deposed? Or what if he changes his mind or cannot find church that desires his ministry? If he is faithless, then he is deposed. If he is unable to find a call, then he leaves the ministry and demits voluntarily.

In either case, this means that his ordination, his is call to the ministry, is removed. He is stripped of his office. Period. He can't go around saying, "I'm still ordained" or "I'm a minister for life." Phooey. A minister's calling is not something that he holds independent of the judgment of the church, except of course in extraordinary circumstances where the church herself is faithless.

I base my comments on converasations, even disputes with men who have been deposed, but who still believed the are "called to the ministry," or "once a minister, always a minister." My response to them is: if a congregation calls you and you are approved by the church for service in that parish, then you are indeed called to the ministry. Until that happens you are not. You are a former minister of the Gospel.

I have Luther on my side. In speaking against calling ministers "priests," according to the late Medieval Roman Catholic understanding, Luther says, "If they are merely ministers, the 'indelible character' also perishes, and the eternity of their priesthood is nothing but a fiction. A minister may well be deposed if he ceases to be faithful. . . In fact, the minister of matters spiritual is more subject to removal than any civil servant, because if he turns unfaithful he becomes more unbearable than any civil servant, who can work harm in matters of this life only" (LW 40, pp. 35-36).


Anonymous said...

Pastor Meyers,

If there was one thing I learned from my Conflicts of Law class at WashU, it was (in addition to the tragically precarious legal situation of risk-averse lesbians) that these sorts of questions are best asked in a specific context.

In the case of "ordination for life," I can think of a few hypothetical situations where affirming this concept would be helpful. For example, what if a man ordained in, say, the Methodist church and then demitted (not sure what the term would actually be under their Discipline?), and then several years later was called to the ministry in the PCA? Here, I think refraining from re-ordaining him makes sense for a few reasons. Granted, they all amount to treating ordination as "for life," but that might only be a *functional* predicate that is itself resting on deeper considerations. Here are a few:

1. While not a sacrament, ordination is sacrament-al. Accordingly, like other sacrament-al institutions/vocations (marriage, parenthood), it is dependent not on the will of man but the will of God (as expressed in his general norms AND in the historical unfolding of his providence). Just as Jesus is able to deny divorce (without cause) because "God has joined together" a man and a woman who, in the nature of the case, were joined in history by his providence according only to his general norms (no specific revelation), so we might also say that a man called to the office of the ministry and so set apart remains such even if he is not specifically engaged or called to a specific ministry at present.

2. Accepting the continuing validity of his earlier ordination is Catholic -- it affirms the objectivity of God's Word which was spoken, and it affirms that where two or three are gathered in his name his Spirit is there also.

3. When a man is divorced, he is an ex-husband. No, he's not married any longer, but he the reality of his having been married continues. Even if his wife DIES, he is called a widower -- not "some guy who was never married." Same with deposition. A man who is deposed is a deposed minister. A man whose ordination is validly annulled, was never a minister in the first place.

I hope this is helpful. Thanks for the post.

"Veni, Domine Iesu."


Anonymous said...

P.S. I agree with you that men who have been deposed should not go around saying they are called to the ministry. That might be true "in some sense" - ha! - but not in the way it sounds. The call has to be both internal and external, and, in any case, to say that one is called (present tense + participle) generally is not understood to mean that one was once called but screwed up and was deposed. I.e., I agree with your point, but am just not sure that it requires throwing out the "ordained for life" concept altogether.