Would you entrust your legal affairs to someone who had never studied law? Or would you take medical advice from a friend who "earned" his medical credentials by filling out a few forms on the Internet?
I didn't think so. Apparently, however, large numbers of people are willing to trust their spiritual affairs to people who have been "ordained" to pastoral ministry without ever having studied theology or the Scriptures or submitted to an ordination exam.
Millions of people are receiving ordination credentials from various Internet sources. In most cases, this is done for the purpose of being able to perform the marriage of a friend or family member. However, one organization - called the Universal Life Church - has "ordained" some 18 million people to the ministry since 1962, according to the Associated Press (Monica Rohr, 12/7/10). It takes all of "about 24 hours for the church to process an ordination request," we are told; and we're assured that all applications "are reviewed by a live person."
Well, hey, OK.
Another group, American Marriage Ministries, has helped facilitate over 10,000 marriages through their online ordination service. To be sure, most of these express "ordinations" are granted only for the purpose of the new "minister" being able to conduct a marriage service. Nevertheless, this is troubling for at least two reasons: what it says about the public's view of the ministry, and what it says about our understanding of marriage.
Has the Christian ministry fallen on such hard times that now anybody with an inclination can legally aquire his or her "Rev." with just a few clicks of the mouse? The reasoning, obviously, is either, "Hey, I've seen these guys do weddings, and I could do as well as that," or "You don't need to know theology to unite two people in marriage." Both of these indicate an attitude toward pastoral ministry which is disturbing.
Even worse, however, the notion that my brother or best pal is just as qualified to officiate at my wedding as any degreed pastor indicates a frivolous view of marriage. In such a view, a wedding is not a act of liturgy marking the beginning of a solemn covenant entered into before God. It's just another fun thing to do with your friends.
I won't try to determine who's to blame. I'll just ask if serious Christians - especially serious Christian ministers - are good with this practice? And I'll call each of us who holds proper ordination credentials to consider whether or not anything we've done or are doing is sending a message to the public which says that ministry is not a serious vocation? People are getting that view from somewhere; let's just make sure it's not coming from us.
T. M. Moore
Additional related texts: 1 Timothy 3.1; 2 Tim. 4.1-5; Titus 1.5-11
A conversation starter: "What do you understand to be the requirements for one who wishes to serve in pastoral ministry?"