Recently on Facebook (attention-getting opener NAILED IT) someone I like and respect said
The false distinction between “clergy” and “laity” is perhaps Satan’s most effective tool to both prevent the spiritual maturation of believers and to maintain division within the church.
There are a few ways you could interpret that, and below you’ll find me agreeing with one of them. But it seems to me like he’s saying that there should be no clergy or laity– no distinction at all. Certainly there are people who feel this way. When I was ordained we had some friends who wouldn’t come to the service because they believed ordination itself was an unbiblical concept. They said, “You know we don’t think he needs a special title to serve God!”
So it’s a fair question: Is ordination biblical? Short answer: Yes.
In the OT we see God calling specific people to specific tasks. Often there’s even a ceremony, we might say, in which that person is installed in their role. So God tells Moses (Ex 28-29) exactly how Aaron should be installed as high priest over Israel, and that same procedure is repeated for Aaron’s descendants. God also chooses kings for his people. Saul (1 Sam 10) and David (1 Sam 16) are both anointed by Samuel, God’s representative, just as Aaron was anointed by Moses.
Under the New Covenant, Jesus is our Prophet, Priest and King. There is no other mediator between God and his people. But Jesus rules his people, his church, through human beings. We see this as he sends out the apostles with this commission: “Whoever receives you receives me” (Matt 10:40). So when we read the words of Paul, Peter or the other apostles, we’re reading Christ’s commandments to his church.
As it happens, both Peter and Paul speak of offices, or roles of leadership in the church to which some Christians are called and some are not. Addressing the church at large, Peter refers (1 Peter 5:1) to “the elders among you,” and to himself as a member of that group: “I exhort [the elders] as a fellow elder”. Paul speaks (e.g. 1 Tim 3, Titus 1) of both elders and deacons, and he gives instructions for how to select them: they must meet certain qualifications, they must be “tested,” then they may serve.
We also know from Acts that Paul’s normal church-planting procedure was to “set apart elders in every church” (Acts 14:23) and when that was done, he considered his pioneering work complete (Rom 15:23). He found this process so important that he left Timothy and Titus in Ephesus and Crete, respectively, to shepherd the churches there in large part by identifying and training leaders (Titus 1:5). Paul spends a good chunk of the pastoral epistles telling Timothy and Titus how to select and evaluate officers. And if it’s the “ceremony” that bothers you, notice that Paul specifies that the laying on of hands is a key element of setting apart elders, referring to Timothy’s receiving a spiritual gift “when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:12) and warning him not to “be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22).
To say that some Christians are called to vocational ministry, and most are not, is not to set up a special class of extra-spiritual people. (I am a pastor with lots of pastor friends, and let me tell you, we ain’t extra-spiritual.) Elders and deacons don’t have a special hotline to God; he doesn’t love us more than he loves the teachers or the computer programmers or the stay-at-home moms among us. God calls all of us to serve him in different ways. One of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation was that we serve him just as nobly in a secular calling as in an explicitly Christian one.
So if that’s what my friend is getting at, then yes. It is bad to say that the only way to really serve Jesus is by becoming a pastor (/missionary/nun/church secretary). But to say that there are some who have a particular calling to teach, lead, and shepherd God’s people is simply to affirm what all of Scripture teaches. Discerning who these people are, acknowledging their calling, training them to serve, and installing them in their office is a very natural and biblical way to go about things.
In fact, the Bible doesn’t just permit this, it commands it.