Call: Conversion or Career Guidance?

For many people, the word “call” refers to a post-conversion experience directing a person to full or part-time service in missions or church work.  Others have used the word to characterize their way of doing their wage or salary earning activity to glorify God and serve human kind.  I am not questioning the validity of the experiences these people have had and identified with the word “call”.   One can, I think, pursue the separate task of analyzing the use of the word “call” in scripture.

There are a number of verses in scripture that use the word “call” to designate a stage in one’s spiritual journey.  Several are often cited to illustrate this understanding the use of “call” to mean a special post-conversion experience.  In this experience one receives the guidance of the spirit to enter church planting, missionary activity or religious institution employment. [Calling to any employment]  In this essay I want to raise some questions about these passages and will give my understanding of them as well. 

Interpretation guide

There are several passages where the word “call” fairly clearly is a synonym for conversion. 

  1. Most of the time Paul (and others) use the word/term “call” (or “called” or “calling”) they are dealing with starting the journey with Jesus.  1Th 4:7; 1Co 1:2; Eph. 4:1, 2 Pet.1:10, 1 Cor. 1:26, 2 Thess. 1:11, 2 Tim 1:9, Heb. 3:1, 2 Peter 1:3.

            1Th 4:7  For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.

            1Co 1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:

            Eph. 4:1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.        

            2 Pet.1:10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters,[a] make every effort to confirm your calling and election.

            1 Cor. 1:26, For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards,[a] not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

            2 Thess. 1:11  To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power,

             2 Tim 1:9  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began

            Heb. 3:1 Therefore, holy brothers,[a] you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession,

            2 Peter 1:3. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to[a] his own glory and excellence

  • In the lists of qualifications for ministry, “call” is not included. (1Tim. 3:1-16, Titus 1:6-9).  
  • When writing about gifts associated with leadership in Romans, I Corinthians. and Ephesians, Paul writes about the leading of the spirit, but does not use the word “call”.

Two Ambiguous Passages

There are two passages that are often assumed that Paul is writing about his “call” as his leading to become an apostle. The  question to ask is:  How do other passages above using the word “call” help interpret these passages?

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Ro 1:1.)  Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, …. (1 Co 1:1)

With regard to these passages, does Paul mean?

–As a result of my decision to follow Jesus, I realized I was being led to reach out to the Gentiles

OR

–Sometime after my Damascus road experience, I had an experience that made it clear that I should minister primarily to the Gentiles

The Acts passage

One day as they were worshiping God—they were also fasting as they waited for guidance—the Holy Spirit spoke: “Take Barnabas and Saul and commission them for the work I have called them to do.” (Acts 13:2 Message).  The more familiar translation perhaps: “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, “Separate unto me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” KJV.

In interpreting this passage, does one assume that 1) “work” refers to Barnabas’s and Saul’s lives?  (But we know that Saul probably already has his “call”). OR, 2) the “work” has to do with the trip to Cyprus and Asia Minor?  On what basis do we decide?  Do the keys I proposed above provide guidance? Which verses are prime or basic for interpreting others?  In addition, contemporary application requires an additional step.  Is Paul’s leading by the spirit to become an apostle something unique?  Is the guidance I have experience to serve the church the same kind of experience?

Conclusion

My conclusion is that Paul uses the word “call” to refer to beginning the walk with Jesus.  This is due to the weight I give

  1. to the lack of “call” as a qualification for elders,
  2. to the absence of the term “call” in discussion of gifts, and
  3. to the frequency of the use of the word call as a synonym of conversion. 

Speaking of “leading of the spirit” to explain either a choice of a career or a desire to exercise gifts in the church seems a move in the right direction.

*I have talked to many people who have experienced the leading of the spirit to serve God through employment in missions, the pastorate and related positions.  Most of these were post-conversion, intensive experiences (sometimes, occurring over a period of time) that were life changing.  I do not question the sincerity of these experiences or the dedicated service resulting from them.  My focus in this essay is questioning how to appropriately use Biblical language.

Note: A possible origin of the use of the word CALL for full time church workers is the development of a two-tiered spirituality after the establishment of the state church under Constantine.  According to this tradition, Jesus had a special spiritual vocation/calling as Messiah.  Since it was his ‘vocation’ to suffer and die, the events of his life are not a norm or example for us to follow.  Some Christians like Jesus have a ‘spiritual’ rather than a temporal or secular vocation and receive a special “call.”   These are the people who become priests and nuns.  The laity did not need to follow Christ closely in spirituality, direction for Christian service or service in the military.  Priests, for instance, were expected to be pacifists, but not the average Christian.  At the time of the Reformation, some claimed that only the ordained were CALLED and part of the church.   Taking issue with this separation of life into secular and spiritual, Anabaptist sought to recover the sense of following Christ in all of our lives.  They insisted that those called were to follow Christ in ‘churchly’ activities, work and all of our daily lives.

One historian of ancient church history (Holl**) comments that the Greek word for “call” was not used for career choice until after 400 AD.

Does insisting on a “CALL” experience for those employed by religious institutions contribute to a separation or stratification of church members (between “clergy” and “laity”) not envisioned by New Testament writers?

** quoted in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology  22 no 1 Spr 2018, p 46-65 “Some Kind of Life to Which We Are Called of God:” The Puritan Doctrine of Vocation, Leland Ryken.

_____________________________

Calling: Not for preachers only

Living our call in all of life

During a time of leadership transition in our small church when I was in my forties, the overseer (or conference minister) asked me if I had a call to serve the church.  I thought about the question and responded to what I sensed was his question:  “I have not identified within myself a leading of the spirit to the pulpit ministry.”  He asked no further questions about how I was serving God or felt I should serve God, even though I was then wondering how I could best serve God in the church.  Sometime later a young man from the congregation began pastoral leadership in our congregation.  We were discussing some issue and he responded that his views should have greater weight because he had been ‘called.’   These experiences and later discussions with people who talked of their “call”, lead me to analyze what scripture says about “call”.

First look at call

You have all been called to follow Christ.  Just as Jesus called disciples and the Spirit called Paul at Damascus, everyone hearing the gospel has a call to follow and serve Jesus.  Most Christians would agree with these two sentences.  [This use of the word call will appear in lower case letters.]   In the Bible, there are many ordinary uses of the word “call” such as “request to come”, to beg or entreat (call on the name of the Lord) or to give someone a name.  Paul, according to this essay, uses the word ‘call’ refer to the spirit’s leading or God’s encouraging us begin to follow Jesus.  For example:

 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 1Th 4:7

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours: (1Co 1:2)

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 2 Pet.1:10

We are all called to become Christ‘s followers.  Our call includes doing as Jesus’ disciples did, whether it is holding the baskets to collect the leftovers after the feeding of the 5,000 or going to the village for food while Jesus talked to a woman of Samaria or going out like the seventy-two to announce the coming of the kingdom.  As Paul was directed to take the gospel to the gentiles, our call also includes making tents while talking about Jesus to shoppers. 

CALL as a special experience

At one point the Mennonite Church had a program to address our concern over the lack of candidates for pastoral office.  “Culture of CALL” initiative encourages people with pastoral and administrative skills to consider church ministry, usually on a full-time basis.  Historical shifts of the past century (status and difficulties of church workers, a shift away from use of the lot, and perhaps opening of the pastorate to women and probably other factors) have affected the drawing of young people to church work.  But if everyone is called, why are we speaking of CALL in the specific sense regarding Christians entering church offices?  What is the origin of the use of the word ‘call’ to mean a special leading of the spirit to service and leadership in the church? Almost always people experiencing a CALL in this sense are already Christians. [I will use the CALL to indicate this specific use.]

The word call in the Bible

Jesus uses the word call only once.  “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32) Paul refers to himself as being called to be an apostle in the salutation of two letters

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Ro 1:1.)  Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, (1Co 1:1)

These are probably references to Paul’s Damascus experience.  Was that a conversion experience, a vocation change invitation or both?  Prior to his ‘call’ was he (were Jesus’ disciples) a follower(s) of Christ?  Paul, in discussing the office of elder/bishop/overseer and deacons, does not list “call” as one of the qualifications for these positions.  These servants of the church, of course, had a call that led to their salvation.  One passage that includes both the word call and speaks of church offices is Eph. 4. 

 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Eph. 4:1

Does “calling” here refer to beginning one’s walk with God?  Or, does it refer to a post-conversion experience?  This experience or leading identified what would be one’s way of earning a living and doing God’s will.  In Acts 13:2 we are told that the Spirit has “called” Barnabas and Paul to a particular task.  Does this imply a lifetime leading?  When speaking of the leading of the spirit to church office, the Paul does not use the word ‘call’.  Is the pattern of use of the word ‘call’ in the New Testament reflected in our use today?  When Paul discusses gifts of the spirit (1 Cor. 12), he does not use the word “call”.  Finally, Paul uses the word church, ecclesia, as the distinctive term for followers of Jesus.  This word is defined as the “called out ones”

Uses of the term CALL in the church

The probable origin of the use of the word CALL for full time church workers is the development of a two-tiered spirituality after the establishment of the state church under Constantine.  It was only around the time of Constantine that the first use of word “call” is used to identify the way one earned one’s living.  According to this tradition, Jesus had a special spiritual vocation/calling as Messiah.  Since it was his ‘vocation’ to suffer and die, the events of his life are not a norm or example for us to follow.  Some Christians like Jesus have a ‘spiritual’ rather than a temporal or secular vocation and receive a special “call.”   These are the people who become priests and nuns.  The laity did not need to follow Christ closely in spirituality, direction for Christian service or service in the military.  Priests, for instance, were expected to be pacifists, but not the average Christian.  At the time of the Reformation, some claimed that only the ordained were CALLED and part of the church.   Taking issue with this separation of life into secular and spiritual, Anabaptist sought to recover the sense of following Christ in all of our lives.  They insisted that those called were to follow Christ in ‘churchly’ activities, work and all of our daily lives.

CALL and daily work

The word CALL has come to be used to identify the leading of the spirit, the thinking of the individual and counseling by other Christians directed toward individuals considering full time work in the church, especially the pastorate.  This term is infrequently used for those who are considering other careers or occupations.  (Some have proposed extending this sense of a special leading of the Spirit to all work situations. In the Reformed tradition this emphasis is strong.)  I wonder if this focus places unnecessary stresses both on those considering church work and on those considering secular jobs?   For those with gifts and skills suitable for the pastorate or full-time church work, there is pressure to expect a high intensity and memorable experience (probably datable) of the Spirit’s leading to full time church work.  On the other hand, devout followers of Christ seeking the leading of the Spirit for work direction or job change who desire to serve God in their work and in their non-vocational time may wonder how God leads them differently.  Does using the impetus of the concept of CALL accomplish in a scripturally sound way (as interpreted above) the important job of encouraging individuals into missionary or pastoral positions?  If we used “call” as a synonym of conversion, (which seems to me the primary meaning in scripture), would people entering “secular” work better understanding that work as a way of serving Christ?  The thrust of this essay should not be seen as denying the force and meaning of many peoples’ experience of the Spirit leading them to do Kingdom work with a church agency.

Living out our call

Let’s find ways of encouraging and aiding people making decisions about their life’s work.  Initial career choice or later changes are major life milestones at which fellow Christians should provide support for one another.   Finding a job in which we can honor and glorify God requires the spirit’s leading within us, as well.  To cooperate with the spirit’s leading and to work with the spirit in aiding all Christians in career choice, we should affirm that

1. Serving the church/extending the kingdom is an important responsibility of all Christians.

2. Serving Christ in one’s daily word is part of every Christian’s calling.

3. Encouraging fellow Christians to make the best use of their gifts is an important task for the people of God.

3. Challenging jobs such as the full-time pastorate or outreach in difficult areas may require encouragement from others, and extra prayer and courage by the one making the choice.

God’s call comes to all people.  Those who respond are called to salvation and a life of serving God.  Let those who answer God’s call live all their life in response to the call.

            David Alleman, Revision of an earlier posting.

Laughing at leaders/respecting leaders Two Biblical perspectives

Laughing at leaders

Making fun of those in authority has been long a way of disguising political criticism.  In our day, little effort is made to hide the criticism such as Saturday Night Live, but in the times of autocratic rulers, open satire could bring banishment, imprisonment or death.  Setting the events in long ago and far away provides additional disguise for the criticism of contemporary rulers.  There is Biblical precedent for laughing at rulers.  For the Hebrews who suffered under the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 BCE) the choices were accepting suffering in silence, accepting the Antiochus’ brutal efforts** to make them become like the Greeks or join the guerilla activity leading to active rebellion.  The later leaders of this rebellion were known as the Maccabees.   Making fun of leaders was part of the scheme by the Daniel editor to bring down the oppressive ruler.  One group of Jews relied on the stories and visions of Daniel for guidance.  That guidance included ridiculing the rulers; showing the examples of faithfulness to the Torah of Daniel and friends; and affirming the appropriateness of civil disobedience; and the teaching of wisdom.  Hope in the resurrection completed their arsenal of weapons against the oppressor.

In Daniel one food offered to idols brought wisdom according to the king.  Vegetables, Daniel’s health food, God’s food, did just as well.  The lack of details about the connection between details here and in the Levitical Code suggests that this was more than faithfulness to the food code of Leviticus.

Why would the king kill all of his of his advisors?  Did this ruler decided to fire (kill) all his advisers instead rather than being embarrassed by his forgetfulness?  The experts listed in chapter two were the king’s chief advisors, religious experts, the spokesmen of the king’s gods.  The king later praised the God whose diet gave more wisdom to the dream’s interpreter than the king’s diet.

Arrogant and boastful leaders seem to be present in all ages.  The Babylon king had been warned about taking credit for the blessings of God and the accomplishments granted him.  Our Hebrew writer (chapter three) sees God reducing this braggart to a cud-chewer for a year to help him learn humility.

Simple worship characterizes Hebrew ritual.  In chapter four, the odd statue and the variety of participants, plus the repeat in naming of them suggests that this is a weird, highly complicated worship setting.  The Hebrews would find this amusing.  This contrasts with the simple presence of the four in the furnace.  The humor of the contrast of the wild commands of the kings—contradicting his earlier threats—versus the silent power of the fourth one in the furnace is clear.

Chapter five brings the five-finger terror to the ruling classes of Babylon.  The Babylonians desecrated the temple vessels by using them in a pagan banquet.  (This paralleled the pig sacrifice at Jerusalem in 168 BCE.)  The overthrow of the Babylonian dynasty affirmed the message of the visions that God would overthrow the evil empires. Violent revolt such as the Maccabees promoted was not necessary.

The foolish Babylonian leaders jealous of Daniel thought that the “god for a month” plan (Chapter 6) would bring down their enemy. The Babylonian leaders sought the rank and status that Daniel was given.  But if they could trick the king, Daniel would be fed to the lions. Daniel’s prayers to the eternal God continued, so, it was the schemers that the lions consumed.

How God works

Throughout these accounts we see God exposing the arrogance and foolishness of lords and kings. God exposed and defeated them by various means. Faithfulness to God (and in chapter 11, the teaching wisdom), not violent action was required of Daniel and friends.  Whether violence was an option is not the question here.  The reality was that God showed how puny and helpless rulers were in the presence of God’s power.  The Daniel writer used humor (as well in the later chapters visions of God’s power) to remind his fellow sufferers that God would defeat their enemies.

 

(*My speculations about humor in Daniel were provided some scholarly support when I discovered an article on court jesters.  David M. Valeta, Court or Jester Tales? Resistance and Social Reality in Daniel 1-6, PERSPECTIVES IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES 32(2005) 309-324.) On Daniel and opposition to Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, see Apocalypse against empire: theologies of resistance in early Judaism.  Portier-Young, Anathea, Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011

 

Respecting leaders

Psalm 72

What model do we have for understanding what a leader should be?  This psalm provides important principles.  In the New Testament Mary confirms these principles in her prophecy before Elizabeth.

Actions worthy of respect:

May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure[a] as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.

May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth.

Respect will come

May the desert tribes bow before him
and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts.
11 May all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.

More actions worthy of respect

12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
and bless him all day long.

Respect and prayer

This Psalm was likely written for David, a military man and apparently a ruler with administrative ability.  The book of Samuel and Kings detail his battles and efforts to establish control over Israel and the areas conquered.  But military and administrative skills are not mentioned here.  Compassion is the main theme for which the King is praised.   We will want to respect leaders who achieve greatness by caring for the poor and helpless.  These verses should also be the content of our prayers for our leaders.