Calling to ministry & mission

I have been re-reading the criminally under-read book Only Servants by Clifford Pond. In it he outlines many of the principles of good order for local churches. Here he speaks about the issue of calling to eldership.

Many people speak of a ‘call’ to the ministry. By this they mean that they have received a special command from God to preach. The command is given in different ways; it may be be an impression on the heart and mind during a time of prayer, reading the scriptures or listening to a sermon. Sometimes this impression is received suddenly and unexpectedly. At other times is a gradual pressure on the conscience that this is the will of God, and then a scripture is given to to confirm ‘call’.

To question such experiences will be surprising and even objectionable to some people, so I hope a personal testimony will encourage you to read on. From the age of ten I was often asked the usual question ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ My normal reply was, ‘I don’t know.’ If I had dared to be honest I would have said, ‘one day I will be a preacher.’ This feeling became gradually persistent until in the mysterious providence of God I found myself in Bible College. At the end of the course an invitation was received to become the pastor of the church at Cransford in Suffolk. It was then that the Lord gave me a Scripture to confirm that I should accept the invitation.

So why do put ‘call to the ministry’ in quotation marks and question the concept which this implies? I do not mean to reject the Lord’s leadings to me or to others, but to face real problems in this area arising from a wrong understanding and use of this kind of experience. Problems arise because men become so convinced of their ‘call’ that they become bitter and disillusioned when they are not invited to join an eldership or to become a pastor; or a church does invite them but the result is a disaster, and they blame the church or other factors when all the time the mistake is their own. It is very easy for us to deceive ourselves with our own inclinations, the misuse of Scripture, failure rightly to evaluate ourselves and our gifts, and by misunderstanding the Lord’s dealings with us.

Another pitfall into which many have fallen appears when a man seeks the recommendation of his church to go to a Bible College, or accepts preaching engagements with a view to an invitation to a ‘pastorate’. The man tells the church of his ‘call’ and the church says ‘Well, if he’s had a call what can we say? We mustn’t stand in his way.’ So the man is encouraged to proceed without serious biblical screening. This can work the opposite way also. A church may refuse for unworthy reasons such as jealousy or an unwillingness to lose a useful worker to encourage a man, who gives true evidence of a gift to preach. Or the church may demand evidence of an inward ‘call’ which the man cannot give though he may have every evidence of the appropriate gifts.

I believe another misuse of the inner feelings of a ‘call’ is the tendency for a man in a difficult situation to say, ‘If I were not certain of my call I would have given up long ago, I could not go on’. This argument has given nerve to many a Christian worker and I would not wish to undermine the confidence of any hard-pressed servant of Christ. But I am convinced that even more solid ground for confidence and encouragement to persevere is to be found in God himself and in his promises (Isaiah 43:1-2; Matthew 28:18-20; Hebrews 13:5-6).

Satan is very easily able to convince us that we were mistaken after all in the ‘call’ no matter how sure we may have been up to the point. It is also true of course, that Satan can undermine our confidence in the Lord himself. But whereas ‘the call’ is not ultimately proveable, God’s power and faithfulness are written large throughout the whole of the Scriptures. It is in him we must trust.

No system can prevent mistakes or even terrible disasters but the problems I have mentioned compel us to ask whether our understanding of the idea of a ‘call’ is well-grounded in Scripture. I believe it is a mistake to use the apostles and their actions in appointing leaders and elders as a pattern for the appointment of elders today. Paul was ‘called to be an apostle’ (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1). He was not chosen by a church; God equipped and appointed him apart from any human involvement (Galatians 1:15-17). Are we right to use this example for ourselves today?

Robin Dowling writes:

The word ‘call’ is sometimes used to speak of a strong sense of vocation coupled with the outward ordering of circumstances by God. This is taken to be God’s normal way of leading people into ministry and mission -although, in fairness, involvement of the church in all this is not usually denied.

However, this not a biblical use of word ‘call’. The word ‘call’ is used theologically in the scriptures in two main ways. It is used of the outward call of the gospel by which all are invited to receive God’s salvation through repentance and faith (Matthew 22:1-14). It is also used to speak the inward call of grace by which some are enabled to respond to the outward call (Romans 8:28-30). Now the verb ‘to call’ is used few times in connection with ministry and mission always with reference to the apostle Paul. (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; Acts 13:2; 16:10). Study of these examples shows that the word ‘call’ in this sort of context always has to do with external, supernatural occurrence. In the case of Acts 13:2 we find the Holy Spirit saying at Antioch, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ The Holy Spirit spoke, either an audible voice or through one of prophets referred to in Acts 13:1. Furthermore such ‘callings’ were not God’s normal way of leading believers into ministry and mission but occurred at key points in the unfolding of God’s saving process. The use of the word ‘call’ then to speak of a strong inward impression as God’s normal method of leading people into ministry and mission must be questioned.

Instead, the New Testament emphasises the appointment of men to pastoral ministry through the recognition by the church of certain qualifications (i.e. gifts and spiritual-human qualities) in those men. Guidelines about this are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 (and reflected in 1 Peter 5:1-4). The normative nature of these guidelines is implied in the phrase ‘the overseer must be…’ The prospective pastor (i.e. overseer or elder) is not passive in all this. He will be person who aspires to and desires such work (1 Timothy 3:1), and will consequently have some awareness of his gifts and potential. However, just as the church, in Acts 6, chose ‘seven men’ with certain known qualities, so it is the responsibility of the local church to ascertain whether a person has the qualifications for pastoral ministry in that church.

Grace Magazine, November 1984

There is a view that says ‘once a pastor, always a pastor’. A man has a ‘call’ and no matter whether he is actually functioning as a pastor/elder or not, he is still “Pastor Pond’. This is a hangover from ecclesiastical traditions in which laity and clergy are separated and a ‘reverend’ is always a ‘reverend’. I believe a man is only an elder in so far that he has been called by a church to exercise a pastoral ministry in that church, and is continuing to do so. The whole notion of a man being ‘ordained’ by a college apart from a local church, and then sometime later being assigned to a church or called by a church seems to me to be indefensible.

A man may believe in his heart that the Lord is equipping him for eldership ministry of some kind but until a church also believes that, he should beware of self-deception. He may not be deceived, but many men have lost their way and their families have suffered because they have come to a decision about themselves before a church has called them.

Pond, C., ‘A “call”‘, Only Servants, Grace Publications Trust, London, 1991, pp.56-59