Yesterday, I hit one of the last major milestones on the journey to becoming a priest: I finished a handwritten letter to my Archbishop, called a “petition for orders,” asking him to call me to the Order of Deacons. He’ll then respond (hopefully!) officially asking me to present myself for ordination to the diaconate this fall. When I shared this on Facebook, one of my friends asked why it was necessary to be called by a bishop.
It’s a good question, and points to a Biblical reality to which the modern Christian world is largely oblivious. Consider two cases: first, those who complain that it’s a violation of women’s “rights” that the Church doesn’t ordain women; second, those Protestant preachers who simply started their own church because they saw a gift in themselves.
From a Biblical perspective, both of these people are entirely in the wrong. You don’t just unilaterally decide that you’re going to be ordained and then declare yourself (or demand that the Church declare you) ordained, any more than a man can declare himself married to a woman who is refusing him.
The Biblical teaching on this is entirely clear. Look at the calling of the very first deacons, for example (Acts 6:1-6):
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Proch′orus, and Nica′nor, and Timon, and Par′menas, and Nicola′us, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
St. Philip and the others didn’t just go to the Church and say “we’re deacons now,” or demand to be recognized as deacons or ordained as deacons. Rather, the institutional Church – here, the Apostles – saw a need, and called for seven men to be brought forward. The Body of Christ collectively selected seven, and the Apostles ordained them through the laying on of hands.
In this case, it was done through a mix of top-down and bottom-up selections within the Church: both the Apostles and the laity played a role in the selection process. Later in Acts, we see clergy being chosen simply from the top-down. So, for example, Acts 14:21-23 says of Paul and Barnabas:
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Ico′nium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.
This top-down dimension is indispensable (cf. Hebrews 7:7), because the sheep don’t just choose their own shepherds. And the laying on of hands is not automatic, either. St. Paul warns St. Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:22, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure.”
So thoroughly was it recognized in the Apostolic Church that no one could simply make himself a minister that St. Paul asks rhetorically, “how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:15). The answer he’s expecting, of course, is that they can’t. Unless you’re sent, you don’t get to preach. In a tiny handful of cases, including St. Paul himself, this sending comes from Jesus Christ Personally. But overwhelmingly, even in the Apostolic era, it’s the Church doing the sending.
And this was true even before Christianity, as we learn from Hebrews 5:1-4:
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.
The “Judaizers” of Acts 15 show the risk of what happens when this is ignored. Doubtless, these men thought they were doing great things for God, and that He had given them tremendous gifts and talents that needed to be shared in this way, but the truth was that their over-assessment of themselves, their lack of theological preparation, and their lack of a mission from the Church meant that they did a great deal of harm. The Council of Jerusalem writes, in Acts 15:23-27,
“The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cili′cia, greeting. Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us in assembly to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.
This, more or less, is the charge that St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) brings against the Protestant Reformers many centuries later:
Now you cannot be ignorant that they neither had, nor have, in any way at all, this mission. For if Our Lord had sent them, it would have been either mediately or immediately. We say mission is given mediately when we are sent by one who has from God the power of sending, according to the order which He has appointed in His Church; and such was the mission of S. Dennis into France by Clement and of Timothy by S. Paul. Immediate mission is when God Himself commands and gives a charge, without the interposition of the ordinary authority which He has placed in the prelates and pastors of the Church: as S. Peter and the Apostles were sent, receiving from Our Lord’s own mouth this commandment: “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark xvi. 15); and as Moses received his mission to Pharaoh and to the people of Israel. But neither in the one nor in the other way have your ministers any mission. How then have they undertaken to preach? “How shall they preach,” says the Apostle, “unless they be sent?” (Rom. x. 15)
But of course, this is a two-way process, just like in a marriage. The Church sends, but the men must accept being sent. So there it is: the reason that it’s necessary for all priests and deacons to ask to be sent by the Church.