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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

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the act of conferring holy orders, or of initiating a person into the ministry of the Gospel, by prayer and with or without the laying on of hands. In the church of England, ordination has always been esteemed the principal prerogative of bishops; and bishops still retain the function as a mark of their spiritual sovereignty in their diocess. Without ordination no person can receive any benefice, parsonage, vicarage, &c. A person must be twenty-three years of age, or near it, before he can be ordained deacon, or have any share in the ministry; and full twenty-four before he can be ordained priest, and by that means be permitted to administer the holy communion. A bishop, on the ordination of clergymen, is to examine them in the presence of the ministers, who in the ordination of priests, but not of deacons, assist him at the imposition of hands; but this is only done as a mark of assent, not because it is thought necessary. In case any crime, as drunkenness, perjury, forgery, &c, is alleged against any one that is to be ordained, either priest or deacon, the bishop ought to desist from ordaining him. The person to be ordained is to bring a testimonial of his life and doctrine to the bishop, and to give an account of his faith in Latin; and both priests and deacons are obliged to subscribe to the thirty-nine articles. In the ancient discipline there was no such thing as a vague and absolute ordination; but every one was to have a church, whereof he was to be ordained clerk or priest. In the twelfth century the bishops grew more remiss, and ordained without any title or benefice. The council of Trent, however, restored the ancient discipline, and appointed that none should be ordained but those who were provided with a benefice; which practice still obtains in the church of England.

The reformed held the call of the people the only thing essential to the validity of the ministry; and teach, that ordination is only a ceremony, which renders the call more August and authentic. Accordingly the Protestant churches of Scotland, France, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, &c, have no episcopal ordination. For Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Melancthon, &c, and all the first reformers and founders of these churches, who ordained ministers among them, were themselves presbyters, and no other. And though in some of these churches there are ministers called superintendents, or bishops, yet these are only primi inter pares, the first among equals; not pretending to any superiority of orders. Having themselves no other orders than what either presbyters gave them, or what was given them as presbyters, they can convey no other to those they ordain. On this ground the Protestant Dissenters plead that their ordination, though not episcopal, is the same with that of all the illustrious Protestant churches abroad; and object, that a priest ordained by a popish bishop should be received into the church of England as a valid minister, rightfully ordained; while the orders of another, ordained by the most learned religious presbyter, which any foreign country can boast, are pronounced not valid, and he is required to submit to be ordained afresh. In opposition to episcopal ordination, they urge that Timothy was ordained by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery, 1 Timothy 4:14; that Paul and Barnabas were ordained by certain prophets and teachers in the church of Antioch, and not by any bishop presiding in that city, Acts 13:1-3; and that it is a well known fact, that presbyters in the church of Alexandria ordained even their own bishops for more than two hundred years in the earliest ages of Christianity. They farther argue, that bishops and presbyters are in Scripture the same, and not denominations of distinct orders or offices in the church, referring to Php_1:1; Titus 1:5; Titus 1:7; Acts 20:27-28; 1 Peter 5:1-2 . To the same purpose they maintain, that the superiority of bishops to presbyters is not pretended to be of divine, but of human, institution; not grounded on Scripture, but only upon the custom or ordinances of this realm, by the first reformers and founders of the church of England; nor by many of its most learned and eminent doctors since. See Stillingfleet's Irenicum, in which the learned author affirms and shows this to be the sentiment of Cranmer, and other chief reformers both in Edward VI, and Queen Elizabeth's reign, of Archbishop Whitgift, Bishop Bridges, Lee, Hooker, Sutcliff, Hales, Chillingworth, &c. Moreover, the book entitled, the "Institution of a Christian Man," subscribed by the clergy in convocation, and confirmed by parliament, owns bishops and presbyters by Scripture to be the same. Beside, the Protestant Dissenters allege, that if episcopal ordination be really necessary to constitute a valid minister, it does not seem to be enjoined by the constitution of the church of England; because the power of ordination which the bishops exercise in this kingdom, is derived entirely and only from the civil magistrate; and he authoritatively prescribes how, and to whom ordination is to be given: that if an ordination should be conducted in other manner and form than that prescribed by him, such ordination would be illegal and of no authority in the church. Accordingly the bishop at the ordination of the candidate asks, "Are you called according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the due order of this realm!" The constitution and law of England seem to know nothing of uninterrupted lineal descent, but considers the king vested, by act of parliament, or the suffrage of the people, with a fulness of all power ecclesiastical in these realms, as empowering and authorizing bishops to ordain: and this power of ordination was once delegated to Cromwell, a layman, as vicegerent to the king. They farther think it strange, that the validity of orders and ministrations should be derived, as some have contended, from a succession of popish bishops; bishops of a church, which, by the definition of the nineteenth article of the church, can be no part of the true visible church of Christ, and bishops, likewise, who consider the Protestant clergy, although ordained by Protestant bishops, as mere common unconsecrated laymen.

On reviewing the whole of this controversy, says Dr. Watts, that since there are some texts in the New Testament, wherein single persons, either Apostles, as Paul and Barnabas, ordained ministers in the churches, or evangelists, as Timothy and Titus; and since other missions or ordinations are intimated to be performed by several persons, namely, prophets, teachers, elders, or a presbytery, Acts 13:1; 1 Timothy 4:14; since there is sometimes mention made of the imposition of hands in the mission of a minister, and sometimes no mention is made of it; and since it is evident that in some cases popular ordinations are and must be valid without any bishop or elder,—I think none of these differences should be made a matter of violent contest among Christians; nor ought any words to be pronounced against each other by those of the episcopal, presbyterian, or independent way. Surely all may agree thus far, that various forms or modes, seeming to be used in the mission or ordination of ministers in primitive times, may give a reasonable occasion or colour for sincere and honest searchers after truth to follow different opinions on this head, and do therefore demand our candid and charitable sentiments concerning those who differ from us. Among the Wesleyan Methodists, the ordination of their ministers is in the annual conference, with a president at its head, and is by prayer without imposition of hands. The latter they hold to be a circumstance of ordination, not an essential. They sometimes therefore use it, and at others omit it. The missionaries sent out by that body, if not previously ordained by the conference, are set apart by a few senior ministers; and ordinarily in this case, the service of the church of England, with some alterations, is used, with imposition of the hands of the ministers present.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Ordination'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​o/ordination.html. 1831-2.
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