Today, pastors often move between churches. While this mobility does not necessarily violate New Testament requirements, it does pose special problems. How can churches know that a particular pastor possesses the calling and gifts for the responsibilities of ministry? How can they know that he has been found faithful? Ordination as it is practiced by Baptist churches today is one solution to that problem.
When a Baptist church ordains a man, it is putting its stamp of approval upon him. It is saying that he has been examined and has given evidence of doctrine, calling, and gifts that are suitable for Baptist ministry. It is saying that the man is not a novice, but that he has been tested in ministry and found faithful. Normally a congregation will call a council of messengers from other churches of like faith and order to assist in examining a candidate for ordination.
The council does not ordain, but it does offer its recommendation to the church. When the church ordains the candidate, it issues a certificate that is signed by the church’s leadership and by the members of the examining council.
Ministers who are not yet prepared for ordination can be licensed. A Baptist church issues a license to an individual who shows promise of a calling and the gifts for ministry, but who still needs to improve his gifts and gain experience. Before a church licenses a minister, it will hear him preach. It will conduct a brief examination of his doctrine and Christian experience, but it will not call a council of messengers from other churches. Typically, a license will expire after a year or two, at which time the minister can be relicensed or examined for ordination. Since the license is issued by a single church, unassisted by advice from other congregations, the license becomes void if the minister removes himself from the membership of that church.
Unlike licensing, ordination does not expire. If the minister becomes a member of another church of like faith and order, he retains his ordination. He does, however, become accountable for his ordination to the church of which he is currently a member. If he simply removes himself from any church membership, or if he becomes a member of a church not of like faith and order, then the last Baptist church of which he was a member should revoke his ordination when it dismisses him from membership.
Among Baptists, ordination serves a purpose. It identifies a minister as an individual who has been examined as to his doctrine, experience, call to ministry, and giftedness. It places upon him a stamp of approval, not only from the ordaining church, but also from the advising council. It does not, however, confer any special spiritual grace or ecclesiastical authority. Among Baptists, an ordained minister does not belong to a separate caste of Christians. He is simply one of the brethren who have been formally designated to perform the functions of vocational ministry.
The difference between ordination and licensing
Ordination differs from licensing in that ordination is portable and licensing is not. A church may license a man as a minister to improve his gifts, but the license is temporary and is tied to his membership in that particular congregation. If he moves his membership to another church, he loses his license. Ordination, however, does not expire, and it is not tied to membership in the ordaining church. When an ordained minister moves between churches, he does not need to be re-ordained.
The new church simply accepts his ordination. It can feel comfortable receiving a minister from another church because a Baptist minister is almost always examined, not simply by the particular congregation that ordains him, but also by an entire council of pastors and Christian brothers from churches of like faith and order. The recommendation of the council is what makes lifelong ordination possible among Baptist churches.
Kevin Bauder (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is research professor of systematic theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn. This article is an excerpt from Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, available through Regular Baptist Press.