Ordination and the Ministry Willed by Jesus by Thomas P. Rausch from 'Women Priests'

Ordination and the Ministry Willed by Jesus

by Thomas P. Rausch

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 123-131.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Thomas P. Rausch, SJ, completed the S.T.M. at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and his Ph. D. at Duke University. His dissertation focused on the questions of priesthood and ministry. He lectured at the time in the Department of Religious Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

“In his itinerant ministry Jesus was accompanied not only by the Twelve but also by a group of women.”(1) This sentence continues the argument of the Declaration in Chapter 2, that although Jesus deliberately broke with the attitude toward women of his milieu, nevertheless he “did not call any woman to become part of the Twelve.”(2) The context for these references to the place of the Twelve in the historical ministry of Jesus appears earlier in the Declaration in what is really its fundamental thesis: “. . . the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judges it necessary to recall that the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination,”(3) or again, “the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles.”(4) Here is the crucial issue which the Declaration attempts to answer: what type of ordained ministry did the Lord intend for his Church? Several questions are in order: (1) What does the Declaration claim in respect to the type of ministry willed by Jesus? (2) Were “the Twelve” ordained? (3) What is the relationship between authoritative appointment to official ministry and the laying on of hands? (4) Did women share officially in the apostolic ministry? (5) What is the status of the Declaration?

(1) The ministry willed by Jesus. The Declaration could be read in such a way as to suggest that Jesus himself conferred ordination on men. However nowhere does the Declaration state that the historical Jesus ordained anyone. In interpreting these passages on the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is important to attend to the conventions of contemporary biblical language. Many reputable Catholic and non-Catholic Scripture scholars presume that the primitive Church, confident of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, considered its own instructions and decisions as fulfilling the mind of the risen Lord (cf. Eph 4:11; Acts 20:28). So also are the post-resurrection instructions of the Lord considered by some as coming from the primitive Church. Church documents follow this more “presumptive” school of interpretation, as Raymond Brown has noted:

. . . in speaking of the will of Christ ecclesiologists are going beyond the ministry of the risen Lord who acts through the Spirit. Classical church statements attribute the institution of sacraments and church order to Jesus Christ the Lord and not simply to what a modern scholar would call the Jesus of the ministry.(50)

Thus the Declaration should be interpreted as speaking not of the historical Jesus, but of the risen Lord acting through the Spirit in the early Church.

The ordained ministry in the Church is rooted in Jesus’ call and appointment of the Twelve. The New Testament represents Jesus as calling the Twelve as a special group within his disciples during his historical ministry (Mk 3:14-19; Mt 10:1-4; Lk 6:2-16).(6) After the resurrection he gave them the apostolic mandate, sending them forth to preach the gospel to all nations (Mt 28:19ff., Mk 16:15) and to be witnesses to his message (Lk 24:47). “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Such an appointment and commissioning of the Twelve implies and demands an enablement.(7) From the beginning of the Church the Twelve shared this ministry with others.(8) The Declaration therefore is correct in focusing not on ordination itself, but on the Twelve and the ministry of the apostles as the dominical institution from which the priestly ministry emerged.(9)

(2) Were the Twelve “ordained”? The New Testament does not picture Jesus as ordaining the Twelve by the laying on of hands. But one can ask what kind of a relation—if any—the New Testament writers perceived between the Twelve and the official Church ministers of the later New Testament. The Twelve are never called “priests” (hierei) in the New Testament, yet when Mark in 3:14 states that Jesus “appointed” (espoiësen) Twelve, he chooses a verb used in the Septuagint for the appointment of priests for Israel.(10) This same verb, again with a ritual meaning, appears in the command of Jesus at the last supper to “do this (touto poiete) as a remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19; 1Cor 11:24-25). Joachim Jeremias argues that this command “is, as can be seen from a comparison with Ex 29:35; Num 15:11-13; Deut 25:9 . . . an established expression for the repetition of a rite.”(11) According to Jeremias, “it is very probable that the command goes back to Jesus himself.”(12) On the basis of Jeremias’ research and from the usage of potein in the Septuagint for the appointment of priests, Jerome Quinn argues that “the command of the historical Jesus at his last supper with the Twelve . . . was an appointment to a ritual function that must be understood against the background of Israel’s priestly worship.”(13)

Did then the command to repeat constitute an ordination? If by ordination is understood an authoritative appointment to an apostolic function, then all the elements are here: the command to the Twelve, phrased in established ritual language, to repeat the new covenant meal. The words of institution themselves are referred back to cultic and sacrificial formulae of the Old Testament.(14) The connection between the institution of the Eucharist, the command to repeat, and the ministry of the Church is strongly suggested in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke, the synoptic narrative of the last supper events (prediction of the betrayal of Judas, eucharistic institution, departure for the garden, prediction of Peter’s betrayal) is significantly altered. Luke places the prediction of the betrayal of Judas (22:21-23) immediately after the institution (22:15-20), while the prediction of Peter’s betrayal (22:33-34) is situated within the context of the eucharistic meal, before the departure for the garden (22:39). What is especially significant is that after the institution of the Eucharist and between the two predictions of betrayal Luke rather abruptly inserts into this context of the institution a tradition on ministry and church order (22:24-32), expressed as an instruction of Jesus to the Twelve on their role of diakonia. The basic element in this ministry and church order tradition is the dispute over rank (15) which in Mark and Matthew appears in the context of the third prediction of the passion (Mk 10:35-45, Mt 20:20-28). But Luke has both transposed the tradition into the context of the institution of the Eucharist and expanded it, so that the reworked tradition includes a progression from the Church leader (hëgoumenos; cf. Heb 13:7, 17, 24) who must be like a servant (hos ho diakonon: 22:26), to the Twelve whom Jesus appoints to eat and drink at his table in the kingdom (22:30),(16) to Peter, for whom Jesus has prayed, that he may in turn strengthen his brothers (22:32).(17) It is fair then to conclude that in Luke’s Gospel this insertion of a tradition on ministry and church order into the context of the Eucharist represents a specific effort on the part of the redactor to link the institution of the Eucharist with the ministry of Church leaders and that of the Twelve, who must serve as Jesus did.

(3) Authoritative appointment and the laying on of hands. It is not certain when the laying on of hands emerged as the sign of appointment or delegation to a share in the ministry of the apostles. It is clearly present in the later New Testament books (1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6; Acts 6:6; 13:3), though the roots of this rite lie in the Old Testament.(18)

Was appointment through the laying on of hands a practice inherited from Palestinian Judaism? Many scholars hold that it was. On the basis of the Talmudic literature they argue that the custom of a rabbi ordaining his disciple by the laying on of hands (semikah) was already established among Palestinian Jews in the first century of the Christian era. The first recorded case comes from the second half of the first century when Johanan ben Zakkai, the leader of the Pharisees at Jamnia, ordained his pupils Eliezer and Joshua (J Sanh 1, 3, 19a), though E. Lohse would argue that rabbinic ordination originated earlier with the development of the scribes as a specific group.(19) Hugo Mantel states that it was after the destruction of the Temple and thus with the ending of a unified Jewish state that “R. Johanan b. Zakkai, in pursuance of his general policy of making adjustments to a new situation, introduced the institution of ordination,” in the sense of giving the individual teacher “the authority to declare a disciple a hakam” (an ordained scholar).(20) But there is evidence of an earlier practice. The Mishna (Santa 4, 4), a collection of rabbinical traditions published in 200 A.D. describes a similar procedure for ordaining or appointing (somekin, the verb form of semikah) disciples as judges to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, thus dating the practice prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.21

What can be said about appointment to ministry in the Pauline churches? Since Paul mentions neither the laying on of hands nor any other ceremony for appointing a Church minister in those letters acknowledged today as authentically his, many reputable scholars would argue that the ministries in his churches were not “institutionalized,” received through appointment. The ministries in the Pauline churches are described as “charismatic,” that is, arising spontaneously in a community through the Spirit. It is in the latter sense that Küng speaks of Paul’s churches as “associations of free charismatic ministries.”(22) Yet since all ministries are charismatic gifts of the Spirit, it is as R. Fuller points out strictly speaking incorrect, even though convenient, to contrast charismatic and institutional. The real contrast is between spontaneous and institutional ministries.(23)

It is also true that in speaking of Paul’s churches as associations of free charismatic ministries one runs the risk of over-simplification. There is a double principle of order evident within Paul’s churches: “the self-regulation of the charismatic order in charity, and the ancillary apostolic direction (24) for which Paul obviously knew himself to be responsible. The office of the apostles is constitutive for the primitive Church. But Paul’s churches also had persons in recognized ministries of teaching and Church leadership Though the functional ministerial vocabulary found in Paul’s letters is still rather fluid and varies somewhat from church to church, still there is a certain order. There is first of all the office of the apostle, Paul himself, who exercised his authority over a number of churches. Ranked under the apostles at Corinth (1Cor 12:28) are the prophets, teachers, and administrators (kaberneseis). Thessalonica has those “whose task it is (kopiontas) to exercise authority (proistamenous: cf. Rm 12:18; 16:2) in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thes 5: 12).(25) In Galatians the one “who catechizes” is entitled to material support for his ministry (Gal 6:6), as is the apostle himself (1 Cor 9:6-15). The Church at Philippi has its episkopoi kai diakonoi (Phil 1:1). The fact that these terms are almost always given in the plural suggests a collegial dimension to the ministry of church leadership.

Timothy and Titus have a special share in Paul’s apostolic ministry, being sent as his delegates to those churches over which Paul exercised his own authority.(26) Their roles as apostolic delegates are much more explicitly developed in those later New Testament letters addressed to them where they are responsible for setting up and ordaining the local colleges of presbyters in the churches of Ephesus and Crete respectively.(27)

Thus Paul himself specifically associated others with him in his apostolic ministry, recognized the authority of those who already exercised it locally in communities he had not personally established (i.e., Rome), and most probably left behind church leaders in those communities he himself had founded (Thessalonica, Corinth, Philippi). There is then some evidence for more or less institutionalized ministries (i.e., authorized or delegated, not necessarily installed with the laying on of hands) even in his earliest letters.

The Acts of the Apostles, a later New Testament book, represents Paul and Barnabas as “ordaining” (cheirotonësantes) presbyters in each Church established on their first misionary journey (Acts 14:23), but almost all scholars today see in this a highly idealized account of early Church history colored by the later Lukan theology of the ministry. There is no proof that ordination by the laying on of hands was practiced from the earliest days. However, at least one case of authoritative appointment to ministry appears to be earlier than Paul. This example of authoritative appointment appears early in the history of the original Jerusalem community. Because of a dispute between the Hebrew Christians loyal to the Temple and the Hellenist Jewish Christians, it became necessary to provide the latter group with their own leaders. Luke describes this in the institution of the Seven (Acts 6:1-6). In a recent critical study of this text, Joseph Lienhard has argued that “the kernel of the narrative derives from a historical tradition,” joined by the redactor of Acts to the Stephen episode.(28) What is significant here is that “the investigation has firmly established the fact that, early in the history of the primitive community in Jerusalem, certain members of that community were authoritatively appointed to an office,” though it cannot be affirmed with the same certitude that the dispute was mediated by the Twelve.(29)

Lienhard bases his argument for the historical character of the narrative on the following points: (1) Though the first phrase of 6:1 reflects the hand of the redactor, the dissension reported within the community in the second phrase, with the Hellenists murmuring against the Hebrews, departs from the spirit of the Lukan summary sections. (2) The preservation of the names of the two contending groups, especially since the names are not self-explanatory, points to the tradition as the source. (3) The phrase “because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” contains no peculiarly Lukan vocabulary, but does include two New Testament hapax legomena. (4) Verse 6:5, containing the names of the Seven, can only be explained as Luke’s reporting a tradition he received from the community; the very obscurity of the persons named suggests the basic historicity of the list.(30) (5) The obscurity in the established text of 6:6 as to who imposed hands, the community or the Twelve, is significant; a variant reading in the Western Text (D), clarifying that it was the apostles who laid on hands, “may indicate an early effort to fix a precedent for practices which were being established.”(31) Lienhard affirms that 6:2-4, the speech of the Twelve, should be considered a redactional composition on the basis of its Lukan vocabulary rhetorical structure, and theology.(32) But as with “6:1, 6:5-6 seem to be reporting a received tradition, and redactional elements do not have a significant role in the verses.”(33)

This historical analysis of the institution of the Seven offers a concrete instance of an authoritative appointment to office early in the history of the primitive Church, presumably before the outbreak of the persecution which drove the Hellenist Christians (but not the apostles) from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), before these refugees turned missionaries extended the gospel to Judea and Samaria (Acts 9:3), to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (Acts ll:9), thus before Paul began his own missionary work and established his churches. If Lienhard’s analysis of Acts 6:1-6 is correct, his study should provide a caution against the statement that authoritative appointment to ministry was only a later development.

(4) Women in the apostolic ministry? There remains yet the historical question as to whether or not women received an official share in the apostolic ministry. No woman is ever identified explicitly as an apostle, with the problematic exception of Junias/Junia (Rm. 16:7), (34) though this question is beyond my task here. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Declaration of the Doctrinal Commission are in agreement on the historical question regarding women in the ministry of church leadership. Although the Biblical Commission acknowledges that ‘’some women collaborated in the properly apostolic work,"(35) it points out that “all that we can know of those who held a role of leadership in the communities leads to the conclusion that this role was always held by men (in comformity with the Jewish custom).”(36) It continues, “the masculine character of the hierarchical order which has structured the church since its beginning thus seems attested to by scripture in an undeniable way.”(37) The Declaration of the Doctrinal Congregation argues from “. . . the fact that Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women.”(38) Both documents seem to be in agreement that the question cannot be settled simply on the basis of the historical evidence. The Declaration states that “in order to reach the ultimate meaning of the mission of Jesus and the ultimate meaning of Scripture, a purely historical exegesis of the texts cannot suffice.”(39) Where the two reports differ is not on the historical evidence but on the value that is to be given to the practice of the early Church as reflected in the New Testament. The Biblical Commission questions whether the rule of the early practice “must be valid forever in the church?”(40) and concludes:

It does not seem that the New Testament by itself will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.(41)

On the other hand, the Declaration of the Doctrinal Congregation bases its conclusion on what it discerns to be willed by the Lord Jesus Christ in respect to the type of ordained ministry in the Church.(42) As we saw earlier, this is not a simplistic attempt to read a definitive solution back into the mind of the historical Jesus. The Doctrinal Congregation does however give a far more definitive status to the practice of the early Church as witnessed to by the New Testament, judging this as coming from the action of the risen Lord through his Spirit in the Church. The type of ministry willed and that actually given are two different questions. Both are valid questions, but one is a question of historical evidence, while the other is more properly a theological question. In this respect, that is, in the properly theological question of the weight to be attached to the primitive practice, the Doctrinal Congregation differs with the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

(5) The Status of the Declaration. The Declaration, even though it makes its appearance “in execution of a mandate received from the Holy Father,”(43) does not necessarily represent the final judgment of the Church itself. It may indeed represent a statement of the position of the Roman Catholic Church at the present time in regard to the question of the ordination of women.(44) But as the Letter to the Apostolic Delegate by the faculty of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley suggests, this Roman Congregation has in the past committed itself to positions beyond which the Church has moved both practically and offcially in its subsequent history. The Doctrinal Congregation has at one time condemned the Chinese Rites, the Copernican understanding of the solar system, and the modern biblical movement at the begining of this century.(45) The declarations of the Doctrinal Congregation are not of themselves irreformable. Thus the Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the ordination of women does not necessarily exclude a new evaluation of this question in the future.

Summary. Though the New Testament does not picture Jesus as ordaining with the laying on of hands, it can be argued that the redactor of Luke (c. 85 A.D.) sees a connection between the institution of the Eucharist and the ministry of the Church. If by ordination is understood authoritative appointment to an apostolic function, then all the elements are here. Many scholars today argue that appointment by the laying on of hands, possibly adopted from the Jewish practice of semikah, emerged only in the Church of the subapostolic age. The laying on of hands is evident in the Pastoral Letters written according to most scholars in the 80s or 90s, though some would still hold for an earlier date. There is however some evidence for an authoritative appointment to office early in the history of the primitive Jerusalem community (Acts 6:1-6). If it can be proved that women did exercise the ministry of Church leadership in the earliest years of the Church, this would have an important bearing on the question of the ordination of women.


1. Declaration, par. 12.

2. Ibid., par. 10.

3. Ibid., par. 5.

4. Ibid., par.6.

5. Raymond E. Brown, Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), p. 58, n. 45

6. Brown, in Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections (New York. Paulist Press, 1970), notes that “the majority of scholars still find persuasive the evidence that the Twelve disciples of Jesus were considered apostles of the Church from the beginning,” p. 49.

7. See Jerome D. Quinn, “Ministry in the New Testament ” in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IV: Eucharist and Ministry, ed. Paul C Empie and T. Austin Murphy (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1970) pp.72ff

8. Ibid., pp. 69-100; “The sharing of apostolic Ministry is the historical matrix from which succession to the apostolic Ministry emerged,” p. 100.

9. The Pontifical Biblical Commission Report also speaks of the ministry of the apostles as the “urministerium from which all the others derived,” Part IV, 1. For a thorough analysis and a different conclusion see the essays by Elisabeth Fiorenza, pp. 114- 122, 135- 140.

10. 1 Sam 12:6, 1 Kgs 12:31; 13:33; ef., Heb 3:2. See Quinn, p. 77; also Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2nd ed., 1966), p. 230.

11. Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharist Words of Jesus, trans. Norman Perrin (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 3rd ed., 1966), pp. 249-250.

12. Ibid., p.255. See Also Quinn, p. 77.

13. Quinn, p. 77.

14. For the sacrificial and cultic elements of “body,” “blood,” “new covenant,” “poured out,” “for many” see Vincent Taylor, Jesus and His Sacrifice: A Study of the Passion-Sayings in the Gospels (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), pp. 125ff.; Taylor, The Passion Narrative of St. Luke: A Critical and Historical Investigation, ed. Owen E. Evans, Society for New Testament Studies (Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1972), p. 78, Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words, pp. 220ff.; Joseph Ratzinger, “Ist die Eucharistie ein Opfer?” Concilium, Vol 111 (1976), pp. 299-304.

15. John H. Elliott identifies the rank dispute as a tradition concerning ministry and church order in “Ministry and Church Order in the NT: A Traditio-Historical Analysis (1 Pt. 5, 1-5 & plls.),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. XXXII (1970), pp. 374-375.

16. “I for my part assign to you the dominion my Father has assigned to me. in my kingdom you will eat and drink at my table and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” Luke 22:29-30.

17. Cf. Heinz Schürmann, Der Abendmahlsbericht Lucas 22, 7-38 als Gottesdienstordnung-Gemeindeordnung Lebensordnung (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1963).

18. See Eduard Lohse, Die Ordination im Spätjudentum und im Neuen Testament (Göttingen: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1951).

19. E. Lohse, “Cheir,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 429. The struggle of the largely Jewish Christian community in Palestine or Syria to define itself against Jamnia Pharisaism is reflected in the anti-Pharisaism of Matthew’s Gospel, written around the year 85. See Eugene A. LaVerdiere and William G. Thompson, “New Testament Communities in Transition: A Study of Matthew and Luke,” Theological Studies, Voh XXXVII (1976), pp. 571-582.

20. Hugo Mantel, Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), p. 139. On the meaning of “hakam,” see pp. 132-135.

21. Mantel, pp. 206-207. The texts on rabbinic ordination can be found in Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, Vol.II (Munich: Beck, 1924), pp. 647ff.

22. Hans Küng Why Priests? A Proposal for a New Church Ministry, trans Robert C. Collins (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972), p.45. Küng writes that Paul “is evidently unacquainted with an institutionalized office in which one is installed and from which one then derives the obligation to be a minister.

23. Reginald H. Fuller, “The Ministry in the New Testament,” in Episcopalians and Roman Catholics: Can They Ever Get Together? ed. Herbert J Ryan and J. Robert Wright (Denville, New Jersey: Dimension Books, 1972), p.99

24. Heinz Schürmann, “Die geistlichen Gnadengaben,” in De Ecclesia Beitrage zur Konstitution “Uber die Kirche” des zweiten vatikanischen Konzils, ed. G. Baruna (Freiburg: Herder, 1966), p. 515.

25. See Myles M. Bourke, “Reflections on Church Order in the New Testament,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. XXX (1968), p. 506 for an analysis of the functional continuity between the tasks of the proistamenoi of 1Thess. and the presbyters of 1Tim 5:17.

26. 1 Cor 4:17; 2 Cor 7:6, 13ff, Phil 2 19ff

27. John P. Meier, in “Presbyteros in the Pastoral Epistles,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. XXXV (1973), argues that at Ephesus Timothy finds an already existing Church with a well established college of presbyters, among whom some (1 Tim 5:17) have been assigned to the particular duties of teaching and preaching (as well as other tasks suggested by the list of qualities in 1 Tim 3:1-7). Only such a specialized presbyter would receive the title episkopos. In the more primitive situation of the Church on Crete, presbyteros and episkopos are still equivalent terms, pp. 337-345

28. Joseph T. Lienhard, “ Acts 6: 1-6: A Redactional View,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII (1975), p.236.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., pp. 230-235.

31. Ibid., p. 236.

32. Ibid., pp. 231-235.

33. Ibid., p. 236.

34. See Bernadette Brooten’s study, “‘Junia . .Outstanding among the Apostles ’(Romans 16:7),” pp. 141-144 in this volume.

35. Pontifical Biblical Commission Report, Part III

36. Ibid., Part IV, I.

37. Ibid.

38. Declaration, par. 13

39. Ibid.

40. Pontifical Biblical Commission Report, Part IV, 2

41. Ibid., Part V, 2.

42. Declaration, par. 6.

43. Ibid., par. 5.

44. See the Commentary on the Declaration.

45. Letter to the Apostolic Delegate from the faculty of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkley, Commonweal. Vol. CIV. No. 7 (April 1,1977) p.205.

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