Our small church was in a time of leadership transition and the overseer was visiting. He asked me if I had a call to serve the church. I was in my forties and had 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. He didn’t seem interested in my struggle with how I could best serve God in the church and beyond. 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.’ Later a friend reminded me that Paul’s lists of qualification for ministry do not include having a 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” or to give someone a name. Paul uses the word ‘call’ refer to the spirit’s leading or God’s encouraging us 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, 2Pet.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
Gospel writers sometimes use the word ‘call’ in reporting Jesus’ inviting the disciples to follow him. Paul does refer 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)
Are these references to Paul’s Damascus experience? Was that a conversion experience, a vocation change invitation or both? Prior to his ‘call’ was he (were the 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. 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
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?
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. 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.
The word CALL identifies 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 generally not used for those who are considering other careers or occupations. (Some have worked to extend this sense of a special leading of the Spirit to all work situations.) 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” in the scriptural sense for persons entering “secular” work would they better understanding that work as a way of serving Christ?
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
- Serving the church/extend the kingdom is an important responsibility of all Christians.
- Serving Christ in one’s vocation is part of every Christian’s calling.
- Encouraging fellow Christians to make the best use of their gifts is an important task for the people of God.
- 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.