This is the first in a series of posts examining the LDS doctrine that God has restored the office of apostle in modern times. I will begin by examining the question of whether, or in what sense, the New Testament apostles were “ordained.”
A key element of the LDS Church doctrine concerning apostles is that all apostles receive their office through a rite of ordination, in which someone already holding the office lays hands on the man and formally inducts him to that office. Indeed, this principle of ordination applies to all religious leaders, according to LDS scripture:
No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church; But the presiding elders, traveling bishops, high councilors, high priests, and elders, may have the privilege of ordaining, where there is no branch of the church that a vote may be called. Every president of the high priesthood (or presiding elder), bishop, high councilor, and high priest, is to be ordained by the direction of a high council or general conference. (D&C 20:65-67)
Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church. (D&C 42:11)
Gospel Principles, an official curriculum published by the LDS Church, asserts that in the New Testament era apostles were ordained to the office to replace other apostles who had died:
The New Testament shows that this Church organization was intended to continue. For example, the death of Judas left only eleven Apostles. Soon after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the eleven Apostles met together to choose someone to take the place of Judas. Through revelation from the Holy Ghost, they chose Matthias. (See Acts 1:23-26.) Later, other Apostles died or were killed. Paul, Barnabas, and James, the brother of the Lord, were all ordained in their places.
This is a crucial element of the LDS doctrine of apostles, since the continuation of the office in the LDS Church from one generation to the next takes place through an institutional process of ordination. The LDS claim that this practice is a restoration of original Christianity presupposes that the first-century apostles also held their office on the basis of such an ordination. Thus, if the New Testament apostles were not ordained to their apostolic office, the entire edifice of the LDS Church and its claim to be the one true and living church on earth today crumbles.
What Does “Ordain” Mean?
In order to answer this question accurately, we must define the terms ordain and ordination. Unfortunately, the issue is likely to be clouded by the fact that the word has a narrower range of customary usage in modern English than it did hundreds of years ago. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives the following as the word’s etymology:
Middle English ordeinen, from Anglo-French ordener, ordeiner, from Late Latin ordinare, from Latin, to put in order, appoint, from ordin-, ordo order.
This usage goes back, according to the dictionary, to the fourteenth century. The most familiar usage in modern English, however, is (according to the same source) “to invest officially (as by the laying on of hands) with ministerial or priestly authority.” When the LDS Church refers to apostles being “ordained,” it is this modern, narrow, ecclesiastical definition that is operative.
The King James Version, on the other hand, routinely uses the word ordain in the earlier, broader sense of setting forth, ordering, or appointing. In most occurrences what is “ordained” is something that is not even a person, so that the idea of an ordination rite involving laying on of hands or some similar act of investiture is impossible. We see this in some 22 occurrences of the word in the KJV. God “ordained” burnt offerings (Num. 28:6). He “ordained” a place for Israel (1 Chron. 17:9). Jeroboam “ordained” a feast (1 Kings 12:32, 33). David “ordained” singing and the use of instruments in temple worship (2 Chron. 23:18; 29:27). The Jews “ordained” a two-day feast (Esther 9:27). God “ordains” his “arrows” of judgment against the wicked (Ps. 7:13). God “ordained” strength in weak humans and the grandeur of the heavenly bodies (Ps. 8:2, 3). God “ordained” the new moon feast (Ps. 81:4-5). God “ordained” a lamp for David (Ps. 132:17). Israel prays for God to “ordain” peace for them (Is. 26:12), whereas a fiery judgment is “ordained” for Israel’s conqueror (Is. 30:33). The apostles and elders in Jerusalem had “ordained” its decrees to be observed by all believers (Acts 16:4). The commandment of God’s Law was “ordained” for life but brought death (Rom. 7:10). God “ordained” the wisdom of the gospel before creation (1 Cor. 2:7). Paul “ordained” that people remain faithful to their contractual relationships (1 Cor. 7:17). The Lord “ordained” that those who preach the gospel should receive material support (1 Cor. 9:14). The Law itself was “ordained” through angels (Gal. 3:19). God has “ordained” good works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). The various features of the tabernacle were “ordained” (Heb. 9:26).
In eight other passages, persons are said to be “ordained,” but a physical rite is clearly not in view. God “ordained” Jeremiah a prophet even before he was born (Jer. 1:5). The Babylonian king had “ordained” one of his officials to destroy the wise men (Dan. 2:24). God “ordained” the Chaldeans to bring judgment on Judah (Hab. 1:12). Jesus was “ordained” by God to be the judge of all mankind (Acts 10:42; 17:31). All those whom God had “ordained” to eternal life believed the gospel (Acts 13:48). The civil authorities are “ordained” by God (Rom. 13:1). Ungodly false teachers are “ordained” by God for condemnation (Jude 4).
This leaves less than a dozen passages in which the KJV uses the word “ordained” with reference to human beings being appointed to a religious office. The kings of Judah had “ordained” idolatrous priests to burn incense in the high places (2 Kings 23:5; 2 Chron. 11:15). David and Samuel “ordained” gatekeepers (1 Chron. 9:22). Jesus “ordained” twelve to travel with him and preach (Mark 3:14). He chose and “ordained” them to bring forth fruit (John 15:16). Peter said that one of the disciples needed to be “ordained” to be a witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:22). The apostles “ordained” elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Paul was “ordained” a preacher, apostle, and teacher (1 Tim. 2:7). Paul told Titus to “ordain” elders in every city (Titus 1:5). The high priest in the Mosaic covenant was “ordained” to offer gifts and sacrifices on behalf of other people (Heb. 5:1; 8:3). As with all of the other thirty texts cited above, the word “appointed” fits naturally in all these occurrences (and that is how modern translations almost uniformly render them). Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, not one of these passages mentions any sort of religious rite, or laying on of hands, or anything else of that type.
I conclude that the word “ordained” in the KJV simply does not denote a religious rite of investiture. The word does not indicate or imply a ceremony in which one person holding an office transmits that office to another person, say, by the laying on of hands. Rather, the word “ordained” in the consistent usage of the KJV means to set in place or appoint. This conclusion does not preclude the possibility that the Bible might indicate in some other way that the apostles were “ordained” in this narrower, specific sense of having had someone holding the office of apostle lay hands on them to invest them with that office. However, the idea cannot be substantiated from the word “ordained” itself.
In subsequent posts, I will consider what the New Testament has to say on the question of how the apostles came to occupy their offices.