Marion D. Aldridge
Recently, the Reverend Doctor Randy Wright, one of my best friends and a person I admire as much as any pastor I know, celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination. I’ve heard of such remembrances in Roman Catholic churches where priests don’t have wedding anniversaries to celebrate, but I’d never heard of this in a Baptist context.
One reason for the lack of such occasions is that, in some churches and denominations, ordination is no big deal. In Baptist life, a young person feels “called to preach,” consults a pastor and proceeds through a more-or-less informal interview process with several seasoned pastors.
They ask questions about doctrines, beliefs, experiences and the “call.” The “call,” at a deep level and at its best, is a lifelong vocation to serve God in the “Gospel Ministry,” a term which includes but is not limited to preaching.
People respond to a call into ministry for dozens of legitimate and illegitimate reasons. Some people want to make their momma happy. Some suppose they’d enjoy the celebrity status of standing in front of a congregation of hundreds (or thousands). Some react to a moment of spiritual insight or passion, and indulge in a long-range response to a short-term emotion. These pseudo-callings, ordinarily, don’t go well. In a sermon celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination, Randy said, “It didn’t take long to realize ordination is not some divine personal protective equipment.”
Fiftieth anniversaries of ordinations into the Christian ministry are also rare because there are hundreds of distractions, temptations and detours along the way. The Big Three are sex, money and power. Of course, there’s no shame in leaving the ministry and selling insurance or teaching high school. Those can be vocations; but they don’t require ordination by a Christian church.
One of the first articles I ever published explored the question of de-frocking or dis-ordaining someone in the evangelical tradition. While it can be done, such a step is rare. Rare.
Randy had an exemplary 50 years of ministry. He was the pastor of two local churches for the majority of those decades, though he also served as a chaplain at the beginning and end of his ministry. Rather than pastoring a local congregation, chaplains serve in an institutional setting, for example, a hospital, a prison or a retirement village.
Randy was ordained by the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina, while he was a seminarian. First Baptist was one of the biggest and most prestigious of South Carolina’s “big steeple” churches. Their pastor was a tall, handsome, wise South African immigrant with a charming and distinguished brogue. Nothing was done in that congregation that was any less than excellent. First Baptist of Spartanburg was as high church as Southern Baptists were in the mid-20th century. Randy’s certificate of ordination displays beautiful calligraphy, suitable for framing, signed by each man on the council after the examination. (The examiners were all men in the 1970s.) I’ve seen it on the wall of Randy’s study whenever I’ve visited him.
Contrast that with my ordination experience. Our blue-collar congregation was as “low church” as church could be. For example, we had never heard of Advent or Epiphany, but we celebrated Mother’s Day and July Fourth enthusiastically. The pastor of my home church was a sincere good man and was better educated than many rural Baptist pastors in our area.
Preparation for the ordination inquiry lacked the gravitas one might expect. I had not yet attended seminary, and had only vague plans to do so. Employed by a fine Christian organization called Young Life, a non-denominational outreach to high school students, I was moving into a role working with young adults in a large downtown church, First Baptist of Columbia, South Carolina. Ordination was a credential required for my new job. Notice there is not one word of “calling” or “vocation” in this paragraph. I was as theologically clueless as could be, an uneducated evangelical. God help us all!
My preparation for the ordination council was primarily concerned with the trick questions some preachers were known to ask during the investigation: “If a person is converted on his death bed in a hospital, how would you baptize that new Christian by immersion?” I’m grateful my pastor shepherded the council and me through the process without any major snafus. A week later, I was ordained. My certificate of ordination, with all the relevant information typed in, has no signatures. It was never framed. I placed it in a folder in a filing cabinet. I didn’t remember the year or the date as time provided distance from the event. The primary result at that time, seemed to be I was legally allowed to officiate at weddings.
My ordination at Immanuel Baptist Church in North Augusta, South Carolina, made my mother and daddy proud; but, at the time, it meant little to me. On February 25, 1973, the ordained men present in Sunday morning worship (deacons and a few retired pastors, if memory serves), stood in line to place hands on my head or shoulders as I knelt in front of the congregation. They did this silently and reverently with a few whispered words of encouragement. This should have meant more to me than it did. I was young and ignorant, wet behind the ears; but I also blame a Baptist system that didn’t seem to take ordination seriously.
Some Baptist laity mistakenly believe only ordained ministers can serve the Lord’s Supper or perform baptisms; but that’s local custom and not Baptist theology. Some laity (and some ordained clergy, unfortunately) believe ordination is only about a “call to preach,” by which they mean preaching in a local church. I’ve had friends who became chaplains, or seminary professors, who received condolences from their childhood Sunday school teachers for “leaving the ministry.”
Roman Catholics endorse seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist (the Lord’s Supper or communion), reconciliation, anointing of the sick, matrimony, and holy order (ordination). Baptists are taught there are only two ordinances, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. According to Baptist theology and tradition, these are the only two rituals approved by Jesus during his life and ministry on earth. The distinction is also made that these events are merely symbolic.
As a better-educated person nowadays, I understand the desire of early Baptists to put some distance between their doctrines and the transubstantiation theology of Catholics, who believe the bread and wine turn into the real body and actual blood of Jesus.
Over the years, I became tired of the word “merely” to limit what happens when God gets involved in the Lord’s Supper, a baptism or an ordination. Nowadays, I pray that something more than meager human activity is going on. God’s sacred and holy presence makes a difference! I don’t believe the Almighty automatically overpowers human activity to make a mundane process (a ritual bath and a ritual meal) spiritual. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes grape juice is just grape juice. Legendary Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon believed ordination consisted of putting empty hands on an empty head.
That’s our Baptist heritage, and my own ordination reflected this tradition. Randy, however, has, through the years, claimed a more robust theology of ordination. What transpired at his ordination was important enough for him to mark the date and to celebrate on its 25th and 50th anniversaries. Randy preached a sermon on the 50th anniversary of his ordination with the title, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” Eugene Peterson authored a book with that title. The phrase is originally from the Frederick Nietzsche volume, Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is … that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
The rituals of the Christian church, Randy discovered before I did, have value in the long term. As we recently compared notes about our ordination experiences, I realized the biggest differences were in the two people being ordained and not in the ordaining churches, nor in the ordination councils, and not because his certificate had lavish calligraphy. Candidly, Randy was wiser than I was, sooner than I was.
Randy was attuned to the mystery of ordination earlier and better than I. Maybe Roman Catholics call this holy orders for good reason. The sacredness of the event was alive and well even if I was merely seeking ministerial credentials. I’ve discovered a mystical component is inherent in all the rituals of the Baptist tradition, even if we call them ordinances rather than sacraments. God is working.
For some being immersed in the baptistery pool, the experience is like water off a duck’s back.
For others, the event is transformative and life-changing. When I was a young pastor, our church in Louisville, Kentucky, scheduled a baptism for a recent adult convert. The weather was literally freezing and the water heater had broken, so the baptistery water was icy cold. I suggested we postpone the baptism. The lady being baptized rejected that idea. This baptism meant something to her. It was not a rite of passage for a 12-year old child to make mom and dad happy. What transpired was more than a mere symbol, and I remember the experience 40 years later. Something important and life-altering happened that day!
I’ve participated in baptism and ordination services over the years that have varied from “going through the motions,” to “standing on holy ground.” I’ve even changed the words of wedding ceremonies at which I officiate to acknowledge I am representing God rather than the state of South Carolina.
In understanding ordination, a rearview mirror view isn’t particularly helpful. Who knows on the first day of the freshman year of college which student will drop out and die an alcoholic at age 35, or which will discover a cure for cancer? Who knows if the individual being ordained will serve God magnificently or poorly, or not at all over the next 50 years?
At this point in our respective ministries, there’s not much of a contrast in our theology of ordination. Like Randy, I’ve come to believe that ordination, and other ordinances (or sacraments) are at their best when the divine and the human work together. I do my part. God does God’s part. That’s worth celebrating.
— Marion Aldridge is a writer. He studied English at Clemson University, served as pastor in several churches, retired as the leader of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. He lives with his wife, Sally, in Columbia, South Carolina.