Previous article in this series: October 15, 2015, p. 44.

And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. Acts 14:23

In our last three articles we have emphasized the need for elders to be officially put into office in a public ceremony. Public ordination (we have been using “ordination” and “installation” interchangeably) is significant both for the elder and for the congregation.

Having finished our treatment of the necessity of ordination, we turn to the manner of ordination: How must this ordination take place? Of what must this public ceremony consist?

Biblical and Reformed direction

Scripture gives us clues to answer this question. Acts 14:23, quoted above, is helpful, particularly because it deals with the ordination of elders explicitly. Other passages, though speaking particularly to the ordination of missionaries and pastors, should not be overlooked. One of them is Acts 13:3: “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” Another is I Timothy 4:14: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.”

Also our Church Order helps us, for it speaks directly to this matter in two places. First, in treating the election and installation of elders in Article 22, it says that they must “be installed with public prayers and stipulations.”1 Second, it speaks more fully to the matter in Article 4 in treating the election and ordination of ministers, particularly of those entering the office of minister for the first time:

Finally, in the public ORDINATION in the presence of the congregation, which shall take place with appropriate stipulations and interrogations, admonitions and prayers, and imposition of hands by the officiating minister (and by other ministers who are present) agreeably to the form for that purpose.2

We are helped in implementing the guidelines of Scripture and the Church Order by using the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons.” We view this form as a “minor” confession. In distinction from a major confession (confessions such as our Three Forms of Unity, which set forth the teachings of Scripture on a number of foundational matters), our Church Order and liturgical forms set forth the teachings of Scripture regarding particular matters in the government and worship of the church. So the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons” faithfully sets forth the teachings of Scripture regarding ordination of officebearers, and summarizes the duties of the elders and deacons toward the church, and of the church toward them. Its use in the ordination ceremony ensures that we abide by the principles of Scripture regarding how to ordain elders.

Let us note more closely the different aspects of the ordination ceremony as set forth in Article 4 of our Church Order. Of course, that article treats specifically the office of minister, not that of elder. But the fact that the offices are equal in authority is reason to use this Church Order article as a guide to understanding the best manner of ordaining elders.

Appropriate stipulations and interrogations

The public ceremony should include a declaration of what is expected of the elder-elect (“stipulations”), and questions to him regarding his willingness to carry out what is expected of him (“interrogations”).

When someone begins a secular vocation or task, he is clearly informed what duties are expected of him. Likewise, when an elder begins his work, the church insists that he hear a summary of what that work involves. Our “Form of Ordination” is both comprehensive and concise in setting forth the work of the office of elder. First, it involves “the oversight of the church,”3 which includes the oversight of individual members in their doctrine and life, the guarding of the Lord’s table, and the work of discipline as needed. If the first aspect of the elders’ work regards oversight, the second involves pastoral care: being “assistant with their good counsel and advice to the ministers of the Word,” and serving “all Christians with advice and consolation.” Third, their work involves guarding the church against error, particularly by taking oversight of the minister’s doctrine and life.

Before her installation of these men, the church reminds her new elders that such is their duty. Those elders who shirk their duty are neglecting their office and failing to serve the church as she expects them to.

These interrogations are the church’s way of ensuring that the elders fully realize this. The “Form of Ordination” requires the church, through the officiating minister, to put three questions to the elders-elect: first, whether they believe they are truly called of God and of His church, and therefore, obligated to carry out their work; second, whether they believe the sixty-six books of the Bible to be the complete Word of God, and reject all doctrines that oppose the teachings of Scripture; and third, whether they understand what is required of them and promise “faithfully, according to [their] ability, to discharge [their] respective offices as they are here described”—so that they have a clear idea of what their work entails, and promise to do it faithfully.

By answering “yes” to these questions, the elder-elect expresses before God and the church that he will do his work faithfully and to the best of his ability. He may not later claim ignorance regarding what that work is. He may not later suggest that he was not called of God or the church. He opens himself to the charge of sin, which makes him worthy of suspension and deposition if he fails to do what he promised, or tries to do the work of another office.

Does the Bible provide any rationale for these aspects of the ordination ceremony?

It does, even if it is by implication, as well as by the application of passages that do not directly relate to the work of the elders.

When the Lord called His disciples to be apostles, He made clear what their work was (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-18; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8). When the apostles instituted the office of deacon in the early church, they set forth clearly what the sphere of the deacons’ labor would be (Acts 6:2-3). When the church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries, all understood what was that work to which God had called them (Acts 13:2). Concluding his third missionary journey, the apostle Paul reminded the elders of Ephesus of their calling (Acts 20:28-32). To Timothy, Paul said, “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (I Tim. 4:14), and “…Stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by putting on of my hands” (II Tim. 1:6).

All of these passages presuppose that officebearers in God’s church, whether pastor, elder, or deacon, clearly know at their ordination what is expected of them.

Admonitions and prayers

The public ceremony should also include exhortations to the elders to do that which they have said they would do (“admonitions”) and fervent supplications to God on behalf of the elders (“prayers”).

The latter point is no implication from Scripture; it is explicit. The early church set the deacons they had chosen “before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6). When commissioning Paul and Barnabas, the church at Antioch “fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them” (Acts 13:3). And Acts 14:23, quoted at the beginning of this article, indicates that prayers were part of the ordination of the elders.

The admonitions are fitting. The elder has been told what is expected of him; he has vowed to do what is required of him; now he is admonished to do as he has vowed. The admonitions are not only the church’s directive to the elders; they are God’s admonitions to the elders through the church.

Nor are the admonitions for the elders only. As we noted in our last article, the ordination ceremony is significant for the whole congregation. Accordingly, the “Form of Ordination” directs admonitions to the congregation regarding how to receive their officebearers.

To these prayer is added, not only because the work of the elders is God’s work, but also because the power to do the work, and the grace to heed the admonitions, comes from God Himself. On the elders’ behalf, the church prays that God will “replenish them more and more with such gifts as are necessary for them in their ministration—with the gifts of wisdom, courage, discretion, and benevolence.” She prays further that God will give them grace “that they may persevere in their faithful labor, and never become weary by reason of any trouble, pain, or persecution of the world.” The goal of the prayer is threefold: that the elder know that his power comes from God; that the church receive these men as from God; and that God’s name be glorified.

A beautiful prayer! How fitting that with it the installation ceremony in Reformed churches concludes!

Fasting and laying on of hands

One cannot help but note that our Church Order makes no reference to fasting prior to an ordination ceremony, or to the laying on of hands during the ceremony. Especially this is noteworthy because the Scriptures mention fasting and laying on of hands in several places. Fasting in connection with ordination is mentioned in Acts 13:3 and Acts 14:23. The laying on of hands in connection with ordination is mentioned in Acts 6:6, Acts 13:3, I Timothy 4:14, and II Timothy 1:6.

Because of these passages, our Church Order’s silence may not be taken to mean that fasting and laying on of hands in connection with ordination into office are improper. Others have defended the proposition that fasting, when it accompanies prayer, has a legitimate place in the life of the child of God in the New Testament.4 The elders of an individual congregation may call their members to prayer with fasting before electing or ordaining new officebearers. And the elders may lay hands on new elders.

Why, then, do our elders not lay their hands on elders-elect?

In our next article, God willing, we will begin answering that question.

1 The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 387.

2 Confessions, 379.

3 All of the following quotes are from the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons,” found on pages 290-294 of Confessions.

4 See Rev. Dale Kuiper’s article “Fasting” in the Standard Bearer, vol. 69, p. 17 (October 1, 1992), and Rev. Ronald Hanko’s article “Prayer and Fasting” in the Standard Bearer vol. 81, p. 402 ( June 2005).