Why do Baptists ordain? Aren't we all priests?

A key concept in Baptist understandings of church and mission is that Baptists want to claim their authority from the New Testament and early church not from an understanding of apostolic succession.

Baptists as a group in England emerged in Spitalfields, London in 1612. Thomas Helwys, after escaping persecution from the authorities for publicly dissenting from the established church, felt a call to move back from Amsterdam to London to minister to his own people and support those who were facing persecution. In that year, 1612, Helwys wrote a defense of his beliefs called A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, in which Helwys argues that the church and state should be separate and that religion and faith is between the person who believes and their God not between the person and the state or church. Helwys writes:

"If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men's religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.’[1]

This was a radical book of its time claiming that all should be free to worship God, of whatever religion, in the way they see fit not just in the way prescribed by the state and established church.

Helwys was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation was taking root in Mainland Europe. The Roman Catholic Church was being challenged on many of its practices from the selling of indulgences to the place of the Priest in the church. It is that latter of these points that I want to focus in on. In Roman Catholic theology ordination in itself is a sacrament[2], in which the priest being ordained becomes ontologically different and becomes the representative of Christ within the church and the intermediary between Christ and his people. Martin Luther, however, argues that there is only one priest, Jesus Christ, who intercedes, forgives and administers grace. Luther writes in Babylonian Captivity:

‘…it says in 1 Peter 2, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom." In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry. Thus 1 Corinthians 4:1: "No one should regard us as anything else than ministers of Christ and dispensers of the mysteries of God."[3]

Luther clearly here argues that all those who are baptised are priests in a sense. He claims this from scripture and particularly 1 Peter 2:9 ‘You are a royal Priesthood’. This is a claim Baptists have made and clung to since our earliest beginnings. John Smyth, one of Helwys’ companions in fleeing to Amsterdam in his book ‘Differences of the church of separation’ states that all Christians are ‘Kings and Priests’[4]. It could seem then that Baptists rejected the idea of ordination as an early movement, however this seems not to be the case.

From the earliest beginnings the Baptist movement has had an understanding of and practiced ordination, if not used the word. Wm. Lloyd Allen in his article, for Baptist History and Heritage, The Meaning of Ordination, writes this:

‘Baptist churches, governed by congregational polity as dictated by the equal status of each baptized member, chose and authorized congregational leaders not as lords over them, but as servant ministers. Divine authority in Baptist beginnings did not trickle down from ordained clergy to the common Christian, but flowed upward through the members of the congregation to its chosen leaders. The very term ordination was avoided for several decades in the two original Baptist groups, Generals and Particulars, in favour of terms such as ‘set apart,’ ‘called,’ and ‘appointed.’’[5]

Ministers were indeed set apart by the congregation to lead them and for the ministry of preaching the word of God and pastoring. It seems to me that this is in practice ordination, without using the word itself that carried with it negative associations. Baptists have historically been functionalists when it comes to the areas of ordination, communion and Baptism. In other words, nothing happens to the person when these things are done, in terms of receiving more grace. Bread remains bread, wine remains wine and the person who is ordained does not become ontologically different, but that they are set apart for the purpose of serving the congregation of God’s people in a special way. Nigel Wright in his book Free Church – Free State, uses the phrase ‘the Leadership of some and the ministry of all.’[6] This certainly seems to sum up the historical view of Baptist thought around ordination and ministry. It is the work of all Christians to do the work of Christ, to offer pastoral care to one another, to look after the widow and orphan, to do the work of the evangelist and to, when needed, administer the ordinances of Communion and Baptism to believers. Tracing the origins back to the Protestant Reformation, Baptists in the earliest days reacted against the view that somehow it was only the Priest who could preside at communion and offer Baptism. This Roman Catholic view of ordination was rejected by early Baptists who held a strong view that each believer had equal authority and equality within the body of Christ.

By the middle of the 17th Century Baptists has begun to regulate and standardize the theology taught within the churches and following that how churches should be overseen, this included the role of the pastor. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, written down by the Particular Baptists, was written down to give a formal account of what these churches believed. In chapter 26 of the confession the role of Pastor or Bishop, as sometimes refereed to in the early Baptist churches, is recorded as being:

‘The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church…Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches, to be instant in preaching the word, by way of office, yet the work of preaching the word is not so peculiarly confined to them but that others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved and called by the church, may and ought to perform it.’[7]

We see from this confession of faith that the focus is not on the pastor but on the church and Christ. Although the Pastor is set apart ‘with imposition of hands’ by the Eldership of the local congregation, it is the calling of Christ on that person which is pivotal. The local church itself determines who is called by Christ and then they are chosen by the local congregation to be in that role and then they ‘ordain’ them. It is not by a Bishop or a higher authority. This is key in the understanding of Baptist ordination. In early Baptist churches the local church itself called a pastor to serve them and they themselves laid hands and set them apart. The spirit of which is still reflected today in our ordination process, whereby someone who has trained for ministry cannot, usually, be ordained until a local church has called them to be their pastor.

There have been many views within the Baptist movement regarding ordination. Charles Spurgeon, arguably the most influential Baptist pastor of 19th Century, is to have said of ordination that is it the ‘placing empty hands on empty heads’[8]. Arthur Dakin, former principle of Bristol Baptist College, famously refused to be called ‘Reverend’ when Principle as he viewed that only can one be called ‘Reverend’ when in the pastorate of a local church.

Having looked at the practice of ordination within Baptist history we now look to compare modern Baptist scholars and their view of ordination. In modern scholarship there has been a split between those who want to see ordination as a function and those who want to see it sacramentally. Paul Fiddes in his book Tracks and Traces, Baptist identity in Church and Theology, argues for and leans towards a much more sacramental view of ordination and ministry. Fiddes argues that there is something inherently Christ like in the relationship between the Pastor and the congregation of the local church. He views ministry as a process of self-emptying for the sake of the church and in doing so, through serving the local church, one mediates between others and ourselves. This is significant in Fiddes’ Theology because he notes that the self of the pastor is caught up in the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and therefore when mediating between the self and the other we are mediating also between God and the other. Fiddes writes:

‘We understand the concept of ‘being’ as the mediation between the self and other…we follow our way of being through the participating in the interweaving of the triune God, which are a constant movement of giving and receiving in love, a self-giving Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each to the other and beyond each other.’ [9]

Fiddes’ view of the role of pastor as mediator shapes the way he views ordination. Fiddes argues that there is something significant about being called to the ‘office’ of pastor, or bishop as he also calls the pastor, compared with other callings. Fiddes, it must be noted, goes to great lengths to say that this is not a higher calling than others, just a different one. I would argue that in all actuality Fiddes does present the calling to become a pastor as a higher calling. His view of ordination is that it is a special moment, not dissimilar to baptism within the Christian walk. Fiddes’ explains:

‘Ordination is a moment of special encounter with the triune God in which, like Baptism, there is grace to help shape heart, mind and character’[10]

I would argue that this grace which one meets within ordination is the same grace one receives daily from Christ and that this isn’t a special grace only received by those who are ordained. Fiddes’ also wants to view the role of the pastor as equivalent to the role of episcope or ‘overseer’ within the New Testament. This is a role, Fiddes argues, is about a way of ‘being’ not a way of ‘doing’. ‘Being’ in Fiddes’ view is far more important than the doing. One is called to the ministry because of who they are not because of what they do. The ordained person has authority towards and responsibility over the local congregation and ‘stands in the shoes of the Apostles’[11] One could argue that this reflects too much the Roman Catholic theology of apostolic succession and that rather than holding that all believers are priests who can do the work of the priest, and indeed that their own work is priestly work, this separates out far to much to pastor from the congregation and confers on them special status. Fiddes’ sums up his view of the role as Pastor, Bishop or episkopos when he writes:

‘…we may say that ministry of episkopos is characterized by being a ministry of word and sacrament’[12]

Paul Beasley-Murray in his book Radical Believers, The Baptist Way of Being the Church, wants to focus on the understanding of the ‘ministry of all and leadership of some’. Beasley-Murray, in a stark contrast to Fiddes’ writes:

‘Some would prefer to interpret the role of ordained ministry first and foremost with reference to the ‘ministry of word and sacrament’…However… there is not New Testament basis for such an understanding’[13]

We can see from this quote that Beasley-Murray takes a vastly different stance to that of Paul Fiddes, despite both being former principles of Baptist colleges, and he has a more functional view of ministry and ordination. Beasley-Murray argues in his book that all Christians are called ministry, he suggests that baptism is in itself a type of ordination. After baptism in many Baptist churches those leading the baptism, which Beasley-Murray affirms may not be the pastor but any of God’s people, will lay hands upon those who have been baptised. A prayer often said after baptism is:

‘Lord, bless these your servants and strengthen them by your Holy Spirit as we commission them for service in the church and in the world in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.’[14]

My own experience of believer’s baptism is of exactly that prayer being prayed over myself. In a sense it is indeed a prayer of ordination, all Christians are ordained in a way to do the work and will of God and to live out their calling whether that be as a teacher, politician, police officer, social worker and so on, all are called to service in the church and in the world and within all of those callings, pastor is one. Ordination, in Beasley-Murray’s point of view, is an almost celebration of a persons calling, their training and their call to serve in local pastorate. He writes:

‘Ordination accords the formal recognition and trust of the wider church to the ordained. This marks the culmination of a lengthy period of testing and training, and is the occasion when churches together publically recognise certain individuals as called of God to exercise leadership among them.’[15]

It is clear to see that Beasley-Murray rejects any understanding that within ordination someone has conferred on to them extra grace or special status. He confirms this when he clearly writes that ‘ordination does not of itself bring a person nearer to God’[16] For Beasley-Murray ordination is an almost professional rite, like with physicians who take a Hippocratic oath. Beasley-Murray strongly defends his understanding of ordination within the framework of the priesthood of all believers. He does that clearly with this observation ‘Work is more than a means of earning money, it is a way of contributing to the needs of others and as such is a form of Christian ministry.’[17]

It seems to me that Beasley-Murray is appealing to the New Testament understanding of the priesthood of all believers where as Fiddes is appealing to a view of ordination within church history and in light of ever growing ecumenism.

To conclude, Baptists strongly believe in the priesthood of all believers and it is within this framework that I feel ordination should be approached. To explain then the Baptist approach to ordination, it seems to me only logical that Beasley-Murray’s view of ordination as being significant as a recognition of calling, testing, and training, but that all are called to Christian ministry in one form or another, feels more inherently Baptist than Fiddes’ view of ordination being sacramental. It is also clear to me that there is varied opinion within Baptist thought and therefore not one clear view but many views and it is for each to discern themselves, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which is in itself, a strongly Baptist conviction.


Beasley-Murray, Paul. Radical Believers: The Baptist way of being the church, Chipping Norton: Nigel Lynn Publishing, 2006

Fiddes, Paul. Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2003

Wright, Nigel G. Free Church – Free State: The positive Baptist vision, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2005

Holmes, Stephen R. Baptist Theology, London: T&T Clark International, 2012

H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990

Helwys, Thomas. A Short Declaration of the Mistery of iniquity, 1612. Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998.

https://www.paulbeasleymurray.com/books/1/. Beasley-Murray, Paul, Call to Excellence, 1995. As retrieved on 07/03/15

http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/baptist_1689.html. Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, as retrieved 05/03/15

http://www.baptisthistory.org/contissues/allen.htm. WM Lloyd Allen, The Meaning of ordination, 2000. As retrieved on 05/03/15

http://ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/nagelnlutherpriesthoodallbelievers.pdf. Nagel, N., Luther and the Priesthood of all Believers, Concordia Theological Quarterly, 1997

[1] Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, 1612. (Mercer University Press, Georgia 1998, 53.)

[2] By ‘Sacrament’ I mean an outward sign of an inward grace and something instituted by Christ himself.

[3] De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium, 112-113. As quoted in Nagel, N. Luther and the Priesthood of all Believers, Concordia Theological Quarterly, 1997. 283. Retrieved from http://ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/nagelnlutherpriesthoodallbelievers.pdf on 04/03/15

[4] H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990, 15.

[5] WM Lloyd Allen, The Meaning of Ordination, 2000. Retrieved from http://www.baptisthistory.org/contissues/allen.htm on 05/03/15

[6] Wright, N, Free Church – Free State, Paternoster Press, Milton Keynes, 2005, 160.

[7] 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 26, Para. 9 & 10. Retrieved from http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/baptist_1689.html retrieved on 05/03/15

[8] Michael, L. Spurgeon on Leadership, Kregel Publications, 2010. 139.

[9] Fiddes, P. Tracks and Traces, Paternoster Press, Milton Keynes, 2003, 100.

[10] Fiddes, P. Tracks and Traces, Paternoster Press, Milton Keynes, 2003, 101

[11] Ibid. 104

[12] ibid. 104

[13] Beasley-Murray, P. Radical Believers, Nigel Lynn Publishing, Oxfordshire, 2006, 114.

[14] Beasley-Murray, P. Radical Believers, Nigel Lynn Publishing, Oxfordshire, 2006, 113.

[15] Ibid. 120

[16] Beasley-Murray, P. A Call to Excellence, 1995. Retirved from https://www.paulbeasleymurray.com/books/1 on 06/05/15

[17] ibid. 113

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