Ordination to Christian ministry is a conversation that continues to engage evangelical Christians. For some, it’s the debate about women’s ordination. For others, as we reported last week, it’s about the legitimacy of online ordinations.
Each of these debates has a uniquely American context. The US is more progressive than most countries when it comes to women’s issues, and that cannot but influence the debate in the churches. Add to that, the unique relationship of the church and state regarding marriage—that is, the federal and state governments generally have delegated to churches and their clergy the legal task of marrying people. If you are not a member of a traditional faith, you now can nonetheless jump that hurdle by instantly getting ordained through online services. This has raised uniquely American debates about who can marry and what constitutes legitimate ordination.
To broaden and deepen this conversation, we want to explore what ordination looks like across the globe. How do various Christian movements practice ordination, and what requirements do they expect of their clergy? What are the ordination controversies across the globe? How can the practice of global Christianity inform the American debates?
Our guest for this episode is Mel Robeck, senior professor of church history and ecumenics and special assistant to the president for ecumenical relations at Fuller Theological Seminary. His work with Fuller has allowed him to travel the world and talk with Christians in all sorts of movements, from Catholic and Orthodox to Free Church and Pentecostal. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God, and among his many books, he co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism.
Robeck joined editor in chief Mark Galli and CT Pastors editor Kyle Rohane to help us understand the global context of ordination to Christian ministry.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Promise Keepers. The Christian men’s ministry that filled stadiums across America is, once again, calling on men to stand up and be counted. For more information, go to promisekeepers.org.
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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 168
Ordination is a conversation that continues to engage evangelical Christians. For some it's the debate about women's ordination, for others, as we reported last week, it's about the legitimacy of online ordinations. Each of these debates has a uniquely American context. More than most countries, the US is progressive when it comes to women's issues and that cannot help but influence the debate in churches. Add to that the unique relationship of church and state regarding marriage, that is the federal and state governments generally have delegated to churches and their clergy in the US the task of marrying people. However, if you're not a member of a traditional faith, you can now nonetheless jump that hurdle by instantly getting ordained through online services. This, of course, has raised uniquely American debates about who can marry and what constitutes legitimate ordination. So this week on Quick to Listen, we want to broaden and deepen this conversation and talk about what ordination looks like across the globe. How do various Christian movements practice ordination? And what requirements do they expect of their clergy? And how can the practice of global Christianity inform the American debates?
Our guest today is Mel Robeck. He is the senior professor of church history and ecumenics and special assistant to the president for ecumenical relations at Fuller Theological Seminary. His work for Fuller has allowed him to travel the world and talk with Christians in all sorts of movements, from Catholic and Orthodox to Free Church and Pentecostal. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God and among his many books, he co-edited the Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism.
Can you give us an understanding of what type of things you've done through your work that have exposed you to global Christianity?
Mel Robeck: I've been involved in ecumenism since 1983. It began here at the United States with requests for me to serve on the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches. At the time, I was a Pentecostal and not an Evangelical. [delete] Which at that time was pretty scary to me because I didn't know these people. I didn't even know I was a Pentecostal, actually, not an Evangelical. Although we're kissing cousins, if you would, but there are significant differences between us as well. [delete] I wasn't sure about liberal Christianity. I wasn't sure what I could expect, whether there would be tricks or anything like that. But I went ahead with the permission of my district superintendent and general superintendent and have been involved ever since. In 1985, I was invited on the steering committee of the International Roman Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue and have chaired it on the Pentecostal side since 1992. I've also been involved with the Secretaries of Christian World Communions. Every major tradition, whether it's Reformed or Anabaptist or Roman Catholic or even World Council of Churches, has a general secretary, and the general secretary is a member of this particular group. Because no Pentecostal would participate in that, I was invited by that group and given permission by my superintendents to participate in that group, and I've been with them now for 26 years.
Through these groups, I've been a part of a lot of international dialogues, which hasn't been easy since a lot of the different churches don't really understand one another. And so even if you had a topic like ordination, you'd have a variety of positions in the World Council of Churches, and yet you might have a more homogeneous relationship within the Pentecostal churches.
What is generally meant by ordination across the world?
Mel Robeck: Ordination is a recognition of a call by God. It's a recognition that there's a certain educational level that has been met, that the boundaries and processes of a particular denomination or church are clear, and that this person is ready and equipped to be able to conduct the sacramental rights or ordinance rights within the Christian community. Often there's a laying on of hands, either to recognize that or to ask the Spirit to give special gifts to make that possible. It's a granting of authority to an individual who has been recognized by the community of faith, at one level or another, to carry on the work of the faith.
What would be the major traditions across the world and what are their differences when it comes to ordination?
Mel Robeck: Well, I think all traditions understand that one must have a personal testimony about how they came to faith and why it is that they are seeking ordination. And usually there's a long process in that, but not always. Also, there's the expectation that one has a call. That can be a pretty subjective thing—it can be anything from an audible voice, which is very, very rare, but it really comes as a result of spiritual formation within the tradition. If you have a testimony and a call, those are the two basic things. But educational requirements are very, very different across the board. With Roman Catholics, for instance, every priest has a minimum of seven years of theological education before he is ordained to the priesthood—and that's highly philosophical, its historical, it's based in many of the documents that have been passed by various councils of churches, it takes very seriously the Fathers of the church. Whereas in the Protestant tradition, that's far less common. Instead, mainline Protestant churches—Presbyterians, Episcopal or Anglican, and to some extent Methodists—all generally require a bachelor’s degree, followed by a three-year Master of Divinity degree or its equivalent.
There are even differences on who actually confers the status of ordination. For instance, Quakers or The Friends, they don't ordain. They say God ordains, what we do is record the gifts that people have, and we keep a record. Or Plymouth Brethren, they don't talk about ordination either. They talk about personal responsibility. They talk about a person's relationship to God, but they call each other brothers and they teach the Bible and a lot of them are very much self-taught.
Whereas if you look at the Catholic church or the Orthodox church, you're being ordained into an order, an order of clergy. It separates you from laity completely, unlike Quakers and the Plymouth Brethren, so that they have "holy orders" into which they are ordained. And that gives them permission then to be involved in the sacraments, to conduct the Eucharist, and so forth.
I would say the laying on of hands is often a consistent part of the ordination process. Although the laying on of hands means different things in the different groups. In some traditions, it is simply a recognition and a setting apart. In other places, it's actually a dispensation of grace. In the Orthodox and in the Catholic traditions, it's understood to be a sacramental act by which the Holy Spirit grants the gifts or the grace necessary to perform the act. So there's a very different understanding of what that means.
We've mentioned a couple of the ordination disputes and debates in the US. What were some across the globe?
Mel Robeck: Well, I think the issue of women's ordination is still very much a part of the global discussion. It's not simply a North American one. Although I would say it started pretty much in North America. And within the North American context there are variations. Most of the mainline churches ordain women to full-time ministry within their churches; the Assemblies of God has ordained women since 1932. But the rationale behind ordination for women may vary. With Pentecostals, we always look to Joel 2: "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, you're young and the old, and the men and the women." And we look at Acts 2 as a repetition of Joel's prophecy, and we look at ourselves and say this applies to us and therefore women should have the right to be ordained. But not all of them ordain women to be senior pastors, maybe just as evangelists or missionaries. Around the world, there is still a great deal of struggle on whether or not women should be ordained in some of these churches, and I would say specifically in Africa that's the case.
I would say also that the LGBTQ+ issues are with all of our churches. And we saw close to a split in the Anglican World Communion as a result of the American Church, the Episcopal Church in the United States, ordaining gays and lesbians. But a lot of mainstream churches now do that to some extent, and we have been aware of the major arguments in the Methodist church in the last year, changes have come about among Presbyterians, the Lutherans. All in America. But the Anglican church is a global church in which that is really a huge issue. And even if you look at the Catholic church, they've been struggling with this now for about 25 years, about whether they should be admitting gay people to seminary. Is there a difference between attraction and action? And I think what Pope Francis has been trying to say is, look, we need to treat gays and lesbians like they're human beings, and they have sinned just like the rest of us, and we need to be pastors to them. But I don't think what he is saying is that what we ought to do is run out now and encourage them to apply for ministry positions. And in fact, I think we're seeing in a sense a very clear control of that it. Even in the seminaries, they've made changes to the kinds of applicants they have, and they have been watching the formation process of people who claim to be gay.
Do we see trends across denominations globally concerning ordination standards? Do people seem to want tighter or looser standards for ordination?
Mel Robeck: I'm not sure I know the answer to that. I mean it's not an easy question to think about because I think standards are pretty stable. They have been for a long time. Now there are changes that are going on, especially in the Free Church tradition, the Pentecostal tradition, where I think standards have been lowered rather than raised. But with the constant problems that we're seeing in the media, ethical breaches of all kinds, I think what probably drives it is that need to make clear that we want people functioning in ministry who are ethical and moral. And unfortunately, there's a lot of people that seem to slip through that process.
I think in this day and age, with complicated cultural interactions from around the world, I don't see how less education is better than more education. So I would expect those standards to be raised. But I still am committed very strongly to the ordination of people who are consistent in their faith, who understand the boundaries and the processes of their particular tradition or denomination, and really are willing to dig deeply into the Scripture.
As a person who has spent his entire life in theological education—I've been here at Fuller for 45 years—and for me to see the downgrading in so many places is sad. And I do look at it as a downgrading. I mean, when you come to faith and you are in a community of faith, the question is who is able to lead the people in that community of faith? Let's say you don't have a pastor, what do you do? Well, you usually rely upon mature lay people to carry on with the worship service until you find a person that suitable for that. And I am not looking for people to simply be trained in seminaries or in college, I'm looking for people who know God. And I want them to understand the Word of God. But our culture is such that I don't know how you get by with simply that for a very long period of time.
I education for them, but at the same time, I recognize that they can lose things in education as well. I mean seminary's not a cure-all for anybody that's already troubled. But it does provide a series of tools that people can use that can expand ministry and enable people to understand. One of the things I fear the most is our inability to remember where we've come from. Why do we hold the positions that we do?
What would be some of the more pressing needs that we can be praying for and supporting in our own churches and denominations?
Mel Robeck: If I limit myself to the United States, it's obvious that our political situation—regardless of what side we’re on or whether we're not on any side—is desperately in need of prayer, and action to the extent that we can give it. I also think that our confusion in terms of our sexual culture is something that absolutely needs to be prayed for. I think the question of how the United States relates to the rest of the world, the kind of foreign policies that we have—and I don't mean this for President Trump or for President Obama—but our foreign policy looks always to self-interest rather than to the interest of others, and there's an enormous amount of people out there that need our help and need our care without all kinds of strings being attached that are for our good only. And I think we have a constant need of people in our own culture and in our own churches that are desperate for good leadership. I fear we are a culture that prides itself on training leaders, and we need more followers and we need less business models for leadership and more a question of following God so that he provides the kinds of leaders that we actually need.
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