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A Short History of Ordination (Part I) – Memory, Meaning & Faith

11 months ago

722 words

A Short History of Ordination (Part I)

by Darius Jankiewicz

With few exceptions, most contemporary Christians consider ordination a legitimate rite of setting selected members apart for the purpose of pastoral ministry and oversight in the Christian Church.  It is also generally assumed that the rite finds its foundations in the Old and New Testaments.  While this is correct, it is also true that the modern rite of ordination, as, for example, practiced by Seventh-day Adventists, does not find its exact equivalent in the Scriptures; nor do we find a New Testament requirement that such a rite should take place when selected members are asked to fulfill the office of elder.  All this raises the question: from where do we get our way of understanding and practicing ordination? In this first part I will explore the etymology of the word “ordination” and then briefly address the evolution of the rite within Christianity during the second century.  In the next essay, the second part will briefly touch on third and fourth century developments.

Origin of the Word and Concept of Ordination


The modern term “ordination” comes from the Latin ordo (order, class, rank), and its derivative ordinatio appears to refer in ancient Rome to installment or induction, appointment or accession to rank.[i]  It is well attested historically that pagan Roman society was ranked according to various strictly separated classes, which were called “orders” (from the Latin plural ordines).[ii]  The historical evidence points out that already during the early phase of the Roman Empire’s existence (second century BC), society had evolved into three basic orders.  Thus historians speak of an ordo senatorum – the highest class, ordo equester (the knights), and plebs—the lowest class of the society.  It was eventually accepted that within Roman society there was ordo et plebs, i.e., the higher class of citizens and the lower class.[iii]  If, by any chance, a person was destined to move upward in rank, he was to go through the process of ordinatio.  Thus, in Historia Augusta, it is stated that Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180 AD) would never ordain anyone to senatorial rank whom he did not know personally.[iv]  Ordinatio appears to have also been used as a classical way of installing imperial officers.  Roman historian Seutonius (ca. 69-ca. 122 AD) reports therefore that, at one point of his rule, Emperor Domitian (51-96 AD) decided to ordain Mettius Rufus as prefect of Egypt. [v] At other times ordinatio was also used to promote officers to a higher rank in the army.[vi]  Finally, the idea of ordination appears to have also been used in the cultic context of pagan Roman Society.  Here, a person would be appointed to the cultic office received from the gods of the ancient world.[vii]  All this suggests that when the word ordinatio was used in the ancient world, it clearly indicated a movement upward in rank and status.[viii]  Once a man was ordained, he held some kind of office that not only separated him from ordinary people but also allowed him to exercise governmental, jurisdictional, or cultic authority that demanded submission of others.  Through the work of second-century Christian writers, and especially the writings of Latin apologist Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220 AD), these concepts and ideas seeped into the Christian psyche.  Eventually, the post-Constantinian Church wholeheartedly embraced the ways in which the Roman Empire was governed and adapted the structures of the latter to its own needs.


Tertullian was a brilliant Christian writer and apologist who saw his main task as defending Christianity against both heretical and pagan attacks.  In his zeal to defend the Christian faith and to show its reasonableness, he incorporated common words found in daily usage among the people of his time.  The plethora of nouns and verbs Tertullian introduced into Christian vocabulary also includes ordo and ordinatio.[ix]  Being intimately familiar with the way in which the Roman Empire was run, Tertullian apparently had no qualms applying these words to Christian ministry as he understood them.[x]  For him the ministry in the church performed functions analogous to the senatorial ordo of the city of Rome.[xi]  What happened to Christian ministry during the post-Apostolic era that made the use of the terms order and ordinatio so enticing for Tertullian?

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