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.

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