Some of the initial leaders of the Reformation, who presumably ordained later Protestant clergy, were ordained priests in the Catholic Church. But, in (denominational, rather than congregationalist) Protestant ecclesiology, is this necessary? If no ordained priests had joined the Reformation, would it still have been possible to ordain clergy?

Also, what exactly happened in the Reformation? Were all mainstream (ie non-Anabaptist) Protestant clergy ordained by clergy who had clerical ordinations? In other words, do present-day denominational Protestant clergy have a lineage of ordinations that extend back to the Catholic Church, and thus back to the Apostolic Church?

  • I recognize that the Catholic Church regards such ordinations by excommunicated persons as null and void, and that many Protestants regard Catholic ordinations, in turn, as either null and void, or entirely irrelevant.

  • I'm more interested in what what the mainstream Reformers, especially of the 16th century, believed on the topic.

3 Answers 3


John Calvin, whose theology heavily influenced every Reformer (here I exclude the Anabaptists and other such groups), has a chapter in his Institutes of the Christian Religion which discusses the clergy generally, and has some paragraphs on the ordination of clergy. I suggest you read the entire chapter for better context (and the entire book for good theology!), but I will quote the relevant section.

It remains to consider the form of ordination, to which we have assigned the last place in the call (see chap. 4, sec. 14, 15). It is certain, that when the apostles appointed any one to the ministry, they used no other ceremony than the laying on of hands. This form was derived, I think, from the custom of the Jews, who, by the laying on of hands, in a manner presented to God whatever they wished to be blessed and consecrated. Thus Jacob, when about to bless Ephraim and Manasseh, placed his hands upon their heads (Gen. 48:14). The same thing was done by our Lord, when he prayed over the little children (Mt. 19:15). With the same intent (as I imagine), the Jews, according to the injunction of the law, laid hands upon their sacrifices. Wherefore, the apostles, by the laying on of hands, intimated that they made an offering to God of him whom they admitted to the ministry; though they also did the same thing over those on whom they conferred the visible gifts of the Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6). However this be, it was the regular form, whenever they called any one to the sacred ministry. In this way they consecrated pastors and teachers; in this way they consecrated deacons. But though there is no fixed precept concerning the laying on of hands, yet as we see that it was uniformly observed by the apostles, this careful observance ought to be regarded by us in the light of a precept (see chap. 14, sec. 20; chap. 19, sec. 31). And it is certainly useful, that by such a symbol the dignity of the ministry should be commended to the people, and he who is ordained, reminded that he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the Church. Besides, it will not prove an empty sign, if it be restored to its genuine origin. For if the Spirit of God has not instituted anything in the Church in vain, this ceremony of his appointment we shall feel not to be useless, provided it be not superstitiously abused. Lastly, it is to observed, that it was not the whole people, but only pastors, who laid hands on ministers, though it is uncertain whether or not several always laid their hands: it is certain, that in the case of the deacons, it was done by Paul and Barnabas, and some few others (Acts 6:6; 13:3). But in another place, Paul mentions that he himself, without any others, laid hands on Timothy. “Wherefore, I put thee in remembrance, that thou stir up the gift of God which is in thee, by the putting on of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6). For what is said in the First Epistle, of the laying on of the hands of the presbytery, I do not understand as if Paul were speaking of the college of Elders. By the expression, I understand the ordination itself; as if he had said, Act so, that the gift which you received by the laying on of hands, when I made you a presbyter, may not be in vain.

Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 3, Section 16

In short, only already-ordained ministers could ordain clergy (whether ministers, elders, or deacons).

The Reformers did not consider themselves to be schismatics creating a new church, but rather considered themselves as the continuation of the true church, with the Roman Catholic Church being the schismatic drifting away from true theology. As such, those ordained as priests under the Roman Catholic Church would not be expected to cease their duties in the event that they converted to Protestantism. This is evidence at the very least in both Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, who were both ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and who both continued their duties as clergy after taking their stance in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.

It is most likely that most, if not all Reformed clergy could then theoretically trace their ordination back through to a Roman Catholic ordination at some stage.

It is another matter entirely as to whether they considered it necessary or important to have an unbroken line back to the Apostles (and presumably not just the Apostles, but the Jewish clergy who "became" Christian, as they would also not be re-ordained at that time).


Martin Luther denies the necessity of such an ordination. In Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, written in 1520, he argued:

If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness , and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him. That is why in cases of necessity any one can baptize and give absolution, which would be impossible unless we were all priests. This great grace and power of baptism and of the Christian Estate they have well-nigh destroyed and caused us to forget through the canon law. It was in the manner aforesaid that Christians in olden days chose from their number bishops and priests, who were afterwards confirmed by other bishops, without all the show which now obtains. It was thus that Sts. Augustine, Ambrose and Cyprian became bishops.

Since, then, the temporal authorities are baptized with the same baptism and have the same faith and Gospel as we, we must grant that they are priests and bishops, and count their office one which has a proper and a useful place in the Christian community. For whoever comes out the water of baptism can boast that he is already consecrated priest, bishop and pope, though it is not seemly that every one should exercise the office. Nay, just because we are all in like manner priests, no one must put himself forward and undertake, without our consent and election, to do what is in the power of all of us.

Thus, ordination by other ordained clergy was unnecessary according to Luther. Instead, only the consent of one's peers was required for performing tasks that all were equally qualified to carry out.

That being said, Luther believed political leaders had special power over the church:

Therefore, when necessity demands, and the pope is an offense to Christendom, the first man who is able should, a faithful member of the whole body, do what he can to bring about a truly free council. No one can do this so well as the temporal authorities, especially since now they also are fellow Christians, fellow-priests, "fellow-spirituals," fellow-lords over all things, and whenever it is needful or profitable, they should give free course to office and work in which God has put them above every man.


Different Protestants have different views. I would not wonder if I meet a Protestant which would claim that always a "clergy" should be ordained by another "clergy".

Now I will present my own opinion on this issue, which accordingly my experience (sorry, I cannot point particular references) is the same as the opinion of most Protestants:

Bible teaches to respect elders. We should thus seek blessing of these who are in Christian ministry before us. If we can receive such a blessing, then we should.

But accordingly Protestant theology, all believers are priests. So there is no need to be ordained to become a priest (maybe except of to be baptized).

Get the blessing from other if you can, but this is not a 100% must.

Accordingly Pentecostal and Charismatic theology, there are not only 12 apostles, but some people living today bear the service of apostles. Bible says that "Holy Spirit is delivered by laying hands of apostles". Therefore Pentecostals believe that to enter into a service one needs to get blessings from apostles. (But Bible seems not to say that Holy Spirit is delivered only through laying hands of apostles.)

The only issue is to get the anointment of Holy Spirit. Whoever has the anointment can serve spiritually.

Personally I preach and publish Christian books in Internet without any ordainment.

The most essential thing for a Christian ministry is to be called by God.

I don't know what the mainstream Reformers, especially of the 16th century, believed on the topic.

  • This sounds like an appropriate explanation of what some Christians believe. If you can tell us very specifically what denomination or church leader you have heard this from, I would be willing to look for references for you to edit into your answer, since you had trouble finding any.
    – Bit Chaser
    Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 1:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .