In the western world, pastors have historically been identified with other clergymen (such as priests, bishops, and the like). Clergy comes from an old word (cleric), and simply refers to someone who is commissioned for Christian ministry. The commissioning of a person to Christian ministry takes on different forms among various ecclesiastical traditions; and different ecclesiastical traditions spring from varying perspectives of polity and ministry.
Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists are part of distinct denominations among Christianity, but the first two are not merely named groups of cooperating local churches. The Presbyterian Church of America and the United Methodist Church, both claim to be one “church” with many local congregations (the same is true of the Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church).
Baptist churches, on the other hand, voluntarily cooperate with other Baptist churches without any substantive oversight from outside entities. Presbyterians and Methodists (as well as Anglicans and Episcopalians) license or ordain people to ministry, according to denomination-wide standards of education, experience, and doctrinal adherence.
A person licensed as a Presbyterian or Methodist minister may carry such a license with them from one local congregation to another, because their ministerial authority comes from a denominational entity which transcends any particular church. Likewise, the denominational entity may also revoke a minister’s license, with or without the consent of any local church to which the minister might be giving service. This polity creates a kind of ordained or licensed hierarchy of ministers within the denominational structure.
Baptists have historically distinguished themselves among Protestants by practicing congregational polity, rather than presbyterian or episcopalian polity. Congregational polity holds that each local church or congregation is autonomous– self-governed – and not under the authority of any outside body. For Baptists, Christ rules each local church by His word (the Scriptures), and each body of members is responsible to collectively submit to Christ as well as exercise His authority among themselves.
While Baptists are doggedly congregational, they also understand that Christ gives pastors as gifts to lead and to care for each local church (Eph. 4:11-16; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The biblical office is that of “elder” (from presbyteros– Titus 1:5) or “overseer” or “bishop” (from episkopos– 1 Tim. 3:1), but Baptists have historically used the term “pastor” (from poimēn– Eph. 4:11).
Since each Baptist church is autonomous, the collective members must affirm their own pastors, rather than have them assigned or appointed by some other authority. Baptist church members choose men of exemplary character (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9) who are able to teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9) and lead as model Christians (1 Tim. 4:6-16).
In some way, the members are ultimately responsible for the kind of men they affirm and the sort of teaching they support (Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:1-2; 3 Tim. 4:3-4), so Baptist churches have historically exercised the authority of the members by a formal vote (based on Acts 6:5 and 2 Cor. 2:6).
For Baptists, local church autonomy does not mean that each church must isolate itself from others. Rather, Baptist churches have historically been very happy to voluntarily cooperate with one another. Baptist churches have often benefitted from the recommendations and wisdom from other Christian churches.
One example of this kind of cooperation and benefit is observed in the common way Baptist churches today hire a new pastor. Baptist church members often invite applicants who have already been affirmed by another Christian church as qualified to serve as a pastor. In other words, they look for men who are already ordained to minister elsewhere.
It is precisely at this point that many Baptists today can be confused about what it means for someone to be ordained.
Because Baptist churches are autonomous, and because each congregation is responsible for affirming and supporting its own pastors, ordination is not (biblically speaking) something that be conferred upon a man by anyone other than the congregation he is currently serving as a pastor. But, because of the common practice among churches, Baptists have become much like their Presbyterian and Methodist brothers and sisters in the way they think about ordination.
Baptist pastors and churches often act as though ordination to ministry is a rite of passage, placing the ordained man into a new category among all Christians everywhere (or at least among all others in their denomination). This simply is not true. It isn’t biblical, and it isn’t historically recognizable as Baptist ecclesiology or polity.
If a man has served as a pastor (or elder) in one congregation, then he may well be later recognized as a pastor (or elder) among another church. However, the office does not travel with the man. Each local church must ultimately affirm or reject any nominated man as a pastor (or elder).
So, are Baptist pastors licensed or ordained?
Well, Baptist churches (each exercising judgment and authority as a unique gathered congregation) in line with their biblical and historical practice set men aside for pastoral ministry by affirming their character and ability to teach and lead (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:1-10). In this way, the local church formally recognizes God’s own gifting of these men as shepherds, who are to lead by godly example the people God has placed under their care (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).
Personally, I can say that it has been one of my great joys in life to be affirmed as a pastor by those people who know and love me. I know and love them, and their tangible affirmation of God’s call upon my life to serve them is a priceless treasure.