Examining the “Call” to Ministry

In almost every ordination board meeting, the inevitable question arises, “Will you share with us your call to the ministry?” On many occasions candidates for licensure or ordination fumble a bit and then share how they “felt” the call of God on their life for the ministry. But is it sufficient to be “called” in this way? Does the calling require more? What is the biblical basis for the call to ministry? And is a subjective call (“feeling” that you’ve been called) the way God leads people to ministry today in lieu of those experiences others have had—such as the prophets and ministers in Scripture, for example? Did these “feel” called, or was their call something altogether different?

On the one hand, the “call” to ministry is applicable to any Christian who has placed their faith in Christ. Christians everywhere are “called” to serve Christ’s kingdom by engaging in ministry-oriented tasks. This is the universal call to ministry and is for all Christians.  However, the effectual “call” to the gospel ministry (preaching, teaching, and ministry of the Word) as a vocation is an entirely distinct and daunting call. It is this call that we must discern in our own lives from that general call given to all believers.

The Biblical Call

First, the call to gospel ministry must be biblical. This is of the utmost importance. The Word of God must confirm the call. We must be able to ask of ourselves and others if the qualifications listed in 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1 have been met. To be sure, “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work!” (1 Tim 3:1). In addition (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7), we must consider whether the candidate is blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, and able to teach? Is he not given to wine, violent, greedy for money, quarrelsome, covetous, and a novice? Does he rule his own home well? Are his children in submission with reverence? And does he have a good testimony of those outside of the church and within.

However, there are other questions that must be asked as well. Is the candidate mature? Does he have the necessary gifts? Is he committed to laboring in the Word of God and in doctrine? Or might he have disqualified himself through moral or doctrinal compromise?

In addition, a biblical call will necessarily be given by God. Most evangelical ministers believe they are in ministry by divine appointment. God calls them to do the work of a pastor, teacher, leader, and shepherd. It is not just another occupation that one may select. In truth, it is both a divine choice and a human choice. I will offer several examples of  “calls” in Scripture to illustrate this point.

Consider Moses and Isaiah as contrasting examples: Moses was drafted, Isaiah volunteered. God summoned Moses in the wilderness by a strange sight of a bush that burned, but did not burn up. God called Moses from the burning bush, “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exod. 3:10). Similarly, Isaiah’s experience with God was as dramatic as Moses’ encounter at the burning bush. Isaiah saw a vision of the God of glory in the temple and heard the voice of the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” However, Isaiah volunteered: “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa. 6:8). A reluctant Moses wanted to argue with God’s selective service system, but Isaiah was eager to serve.

Other examples pervade Scripture. Samuel was just a boy when God began to speak to him, and he began to hear. Amos was a grown man, pursing his career as a shepherd and a farmer when God called him. Although he was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, he said, “But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’” (Amos 7:15). Jeremiah felt the need to minister the word shut up in his bones as a fire (Jer. 20:9). Paul had an exhilarating Damascus Road experience unlike anyone else before. Jesus told His twelve, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). From time to time, God still taps men on the shoulder for this special ministry. It is the responsibility of that man to hear and obey. Jesus says, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt. 4:19). Simply put: He calls, and we follow.

The call to ministry is more than just a noble calling. Indeed, it is a glorious task—but a task it is. To be an “undershepherd” to the Great Shepherd is a wonderful work, but make no mistake: It is work! [1] Yes, it must be given by God, and it must be biblical. The Bible offers numerous examples for modern-day ministers to follow. To be sure, all modern-day calls to ministry are not as “spectacular” or unique as those in biblical times. Nevertheless, God still gifts people for His service, calls them to those gifts, and calls the church to participate in the recognition of these servants.

What Does the “Call” Entail?

The biblical idea of God’s calling is twofold: (a) He summons men by His Word; and (b) He lays hold of them by His power to play a part in and enjoy the benefits of His gracious redemptive purposes [2]. Yet, allow me to state my own personal definition of the call to ministry: God’s call is an inner conviction given by and through the Holy Spirit and confirmed by the Word of God, the body of Christ, and the character of the called.

A person’s yearning to do ministry is first a conviction within the one’s heart and mind. Beyond this, they must adhere to Scripture, and their characters must be above reproach. In Erwin Lutzer’s words, “The character is not all that is necessary for a minister to be called, however it is the most basic indispensable ingredient” [3].

Still, what have other celebrated bible scholars had to say about the “call”? Charles Haddon Spurgeon in his book Lectures to My Students provides insight into the serious nature of the call. He asks, “How may a young man know whether he is called or not? That is a weighty enquiry, and I desire to treat it most solemnly. O for divine guidance in so doing! It is a fearful calamity to a man to miss his calling, his mistake involves an affliction of the most grievous kind” [4]. Spurgeon continues by stressing the importance of recognizing the call, “It is imperative upon him not to enter the ministry until he has made solemn quest and trial of himself as to this point” [5].

William Gordon Blaikie also saw the importance of a call to the ministry, even giving six criteria for evaluating a call: salvation, desire to serve, desire to live a life conducive to service, intellectual ability, physical qualifications, and social elements [6]. Similarly, John Calvin divided the call into two parts, “If one is to be considered a true minister of the church, it is necessary that he consider the ‘objective or external’ call of the church and the secret inner call ‘conscious only to the minister himself’” [7].

Thomas Oden concluded his chapter on “The Call to ministry” with a solemn discussion on the correspondence between internal and external characteristics of the call.  He writes, “The internal call is a result of the continued drawing of eliciting power of the Holy Spirit, which in time brings an individual closer to the church’s outward call to ministry. The external call is an act of Christian community that by due process confirms that inward call. The inward and outer call is so crucial for both the candidate and the church” [8].

Why is it necessary that a person experience both an internal and external call to ministry? In his classic work, Charles Bridges gives his take:

To labor in the dark, without an assured commission, greatly obscures the warrant of faith in the Divine engagements, and the minister unable to avail himself of heavenly support, feels his “hands hand down and his knees feeble” in his work.  On the other hand the confidence that he is acting in obedience to the call of God – that he is in His work, and in His way – nerves him in the midst of all difficulty, and under a sense of responsible obligations, with almighty strength. [9]

Finally, candidates must have confidence in their callings. If the man is confident that God has commissioned him for this task, then only the power of God can sustain him at this task. Sugden and Wiersbe state, “The work of the ministry is too demanding and difficult for a man to enter it without a sense of divine calling. Men enter and then leave the ministry usually because they lack a sense of divine urgency” [10]. The conviction that God has called a man to the ministry must accompany the outward approval from other ministers and the local church.

Conclusion

The circumstances of one’s calling will vary from person to person. For some, the conviction may be sudden. For others, it may be gradual. A person may sense no call at all until a discerning church member or even a minister encourages him. Despite these differences, the focal point is the same: While the candidate must decide themselves whether to accept, the call itself is from God. The call of God to vocational gospel ministry should never be taken lightly and should be honored and respected. And even as we pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers, we trust that the Caller will never stop calling.

_______________________________________

[1] Austin B. Tucker, A Primer for Pastors. (Grand Rapids, Kregel). 2004. 13

[2] Walter Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 184.

[3] Erwin Lutzer, Pastor to Pastor (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 12.

[4] Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 22.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] William Blaikie, For the Work of the Ministry: A Manuel of Homiletical and Pastoral Theology (London: J. Nisbet, 1896), 18-25.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962), 2:326.

[8] Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1982), 25.

[9] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 101.

[10] Howard F. Sugden and Warren Wiersbe, When Pastors Wonder How (Chicago: Moody, 1973), 9.

Author: Ryan Johnston

Share This Post On

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Top Blog Posts of the Week | SBC Today - [...] “Examining the ‘Call’ to Ministry,” by Ryan Johnston on the Helwys Society Forum blog, with a thoughtful discussion of …

Leave a Reply