Blog Post

Calling: A Misunderstood Concept

            Among evangelical churches, the call to ministry is often misunderstood. Some view the call to ministry as an altogether personal, individual decision. If one believes themselves to be called to ministry, that settles it. What gives the church, or any other deliberative body, the right to question what God called me to do? If a person self-identifies as called to ministry, that is evidence enough, so the argument goes.

            Others view God’s call as an entirely mystical, subjective experience. They believe that to evaluate one’s call to ministry in objective terms is altogether unspiritual. They shrug off biblical expectations for ministry, such as I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. They view God as too big, too dynamic to confine himself to his written Word. If someone thinks the Spirit is leading them into ministry, one need not be held up by biblical or congregational expectations.

            What is more, others view the call to ministry in human, professional terms. They view a seminary degree, or some other ministerial credential, as sufficient qualification for ministry service. Just like attorneys, physicians, and other professionals are marked out by their formal training, so are ministers to be. Earn a degree or gain a license for ministry and then pursue religious work accordingly. It is as simple as that.

            Still others view the call to ministry as a one-time experience, and the biblical qualifications for ministry a one-time threshold to cross. They believe calling to be a past-tense reality. Perhaps on the front-end of ministry one needed a church’s affirmation and to meet biblical qualifications found in places like I Timothy 3:1-7, but now it is a settled matter. Additionally, so goes the argument, God leads you into ministry, as a life calling, but is indifferent to where and how you serve throughout your life. In other words, you are free to move and maneuver the ministerial ranks as you desire, not as God leads.

            Lastly, many evangelicals view the call to ministry as something one does not pursue; but reluctantly surrenders to undertake. In fact, the common phrase “surrender to ministry” suggests as much. Yes, God initiates the call to ministry, not man. Moreover, in a sense, the spiritual office is to seek the man and not vice versa. But the Apostle Paul makes clear that “If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.”[1] Note the words, “aspire” and “desire.” It is not only appropriate, but necessary, for one entering ministry to desire the work of ministry!

       Clarity out of Confusion

            As a college student wrestling with the call to ministry, I was confused. It all seemed imperceptibly mystical and mysterious to me. I thought I sensed God’s call to ministry, but was unsure of precisely what I was to be looking for. I desired to serve in ministry, but thought that desire inappropriate, perhaps a sign of pride or unhealthy ambition.

            In God’s kind providence a friend pointed me to I Timothy 3:1-7 and Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. Reading Spurgeon’s book, especially his section on the call to ministry, and meditating on I Timothy 3:1-7 were of enormous help, giving me a breakthrough of clarity and certainty.

Paul’s words to Timothy (and similarly to Titus, in Titus 1:6-9) framed my call to ministry then—and still do. Read and reflect carefully on this passage.

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,not addicted to wineor pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity(but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?),and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnationincurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.[2]

Additionally, Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students is a timeless work on ministry service. In fact, I deliberately played off of Spurgeon’s classic in the title of this book series, Letters to My Students, as my own tribute to Spurgeon, who is widely acclaimed as the prince of preachers. Spurgeon helpfully unpacks signs of the call to ministry, most especially the first sign as “an intense, all absorbing desire for the work.”[3] For me, this point was clarifying—and even liberating and compelling for my life and my call to ministry. I learned God had placed that desire in my heart. That assurance propelled me forward, launching me to the next stage of reflection and deliberation.

The Gravity of the Call to Ministry

As I continued to pursue ministry service, I increasingly sensed the gravity of that calling. Doing so did not dissuade me, but it did awaken me to the majesty of ministry service. I found myself resonating with Charles Bridges, who wrote on the gravity of ministry some 200 years ago. Consider his words with me.

Who, whether man or angel, ‘is sufficient’ to open ‘the wisdom of God in a mystery’–to speak what in its full extent is ‘unspeakable’–to make known that which ‘passeth knowledge’–to bear the fearful weight of the care of souls? Who hath skill and strength proportionate? Who has a mind and temper to direct and sustain so vast a work? If our Great Master had not himself answered these appalling questions by his promise–‘My grace is sufficient for thee;’ and if the experience of faith did not demonstrably prove, that ‘our sufficiency is of God;’ who, with an enlightened apprehension, could enter upon such an awful service; or, if entered, continue in it?[4]

In order to find our balance here, we should review the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian believers. He writes in Ephesians 4:11-15,

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.

In the context, Paul unpacks for us how God is building his church, and how essential pastors and teachers are to his plan. Furthermore, he shows how Christ equips his church and how the church is central to God’s eternal purpose and redemptive plan.

Notice what Paul says in verse 11. He begins by unpacking specific offices Christ has established for the church. The first two, apostles and the prophets, have long been understood to be first-century offices given for a season until the church was established and the canon of Scripture was closed.

But in verse 11, we see that Christ has given his church leaders today and for all times in the form of evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These leaders have been given their proper role and function by none other than Christ himself. If this calling by Christ is not weighty enough in and of itself, Paul goes on to state the reason Christ has given his church these leaders is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (v. 12). This results in a church that is

[1]  1 Timothy 3:1

[2] 1 Timothy 3:1-7

[3] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 26.

[4] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958), 4-5.


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