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.