It is common in modern evangelical circles to speak of one’s “calling” to this or that.
A call to preach.
A call to mission work, and/or a specific country or people group.
A call to fulfill a certain ministry.
A call to carry out a certain task.
A call to speak to a specific person at a specific time.
Such language is sometimes used to explain why one is taking a specific course of action, or sometimes to defend one’s choice of behavior. Often it seems to me it is thrown out there with little thought to the necessary preconditions for the existence of “callings” as the term is used. Rarely do proponents of this idea wrestle substantively with the idea that such a thing would mean that God is specifically revealing His will in an extra-biblical way to the object of the revelation. And since the person who claims to have received the calling often refuses to consider that they might have been mistaken about what they received or whether they received it or whether it did indeed come from God, the calling is de facto treated as on par with Scripture, even though if challenged the claimant will almost always deny the equivalence.
We would expect, if God is in the business of dispensing specific callings to people about this or that ministry, to find guidance and wisdom about divine callings in the pages of Holy Writ, so that we could be sure that we were indeed hearing these callings from God and not the burblings of our flesh, fanciful imaginations, or the after-effects of yesterday’s burrito. To see if God has indeed left us any sure and solid guidance in His Word, I searched using Bible software for every single instance I could think of related to “calling”, “call”, “called”, “calls”, etc. I then threw out all the unrelated hits, such as Acts 28:1 – “After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta.” What remained I combed through and checked to see what it meant in its context. Did God intend to communicate in His Word that He would continually send individual people specific callings to specific tasks or ministries, going forward throughout the ages during which the church would subsist?
Before I continue, let me say that I think it is probably true that God does want people to carry out a specific ministry. In particular, in the United States, it is a far better work to carry out Gospel-centered agitation of the culture and of the church and to set apart assistance for helping women and children in the context of putting an end to the rampant murder and sacrifice of tiny image-bearers of God in the modern abortion Holocaust than it is to be in charge of your church’s laser light show, playing lead guitar for your church band’s rendition of AC/DC songs, or organising the helicopter-drop of 25,000 candy eggs on Easter Sunday.
The point here, however, is that there is no indication in Scripture that individual believers should expect to receive direct divine guidance about whether to move to Country X, marry Person Y, or do Ministry Z. Such things are not communicated via internal “senses”, or “nudges”, or “impressions”. There is no biblical teaching that would lead us to expect that such is the case.
I organised my findings into categories that capture pretty well the meanings of each of the occurrences. Namely:
SPECIAL ONE-TIME CALLING FOR A SPECIFIC TASK
SPECIAL ONE-TIME SETTING APART AS APOSTLE
PAUL DISCUSSING HIS SPECIAL ONE-TIME SETTING APART AS APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES
INVITATION TO BE BORN AGAIN
EFFECTUAL CALL, ie, REGENERATION
SELECTION OF ISRAEL
A GENERAL COMMAND TO FOLLOW
INVITATION TO HEAVEN
There is a bit of overlap between some of these, particularly the setting apart as apostle and Paul’s discussion of his own calling as apostle to the Gentiles, and also the invitation to be born again and the effectual call, and I would not argue if someone desired a different arrangement of the passages contained therein.
What I did not find, however, is any indication of any kind that God “calls someone to preach” (ie, to be a pastor/elder), or that Christians should expect any other kind of divine revelation on a normative, recurring basis that God wants a specific Christian to perform a specific task or carry out a specific ministry.
What about 1 Corinthians 12?
This chapter was written to fulfill various purposes. One of them is to set forth the fact that the Holy Spirit “distribut(es) to each one individually just as He wills” the different spiritual gifts mentioned. Yet in what sense does this have to do with a “calling” as is frequently meant in modern churchianity? Someone who “felt a call to preach” could have any number of spiritual gifts. Administration, teaching, prophecy, word of knowledge, or some combination of those or of others. The same is true of one who “felt a call” to be a missionary in Morocco or Brazil. Spiritual gifts do not directly coincide with that action or ministry the person “feels called” to take or do. Rather, they are supernatural gifts that the Holy Spirit gives such that the gifted person may edify his or her neighbors and especially other Christians throughout their lives, no matter what they do.
The other main reason for this chapter is to build up in the sight of the Corinthian church the gifts that seemed to them less attractive. While they were, as Paul says later, to “pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1), yet they were also to remember that “the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:22-25). In the particular case of the Corinthians, they held the gift of speaking in tongues in too high regard, which may be why the Apostle Paul lists tongues last in the order of God’s appointments in the church in v. 28. It is not difficult to see how a church that is so captivated by the gift of tongues might overlook and dishonor another Christian with the gift of mercy, or hospitality, which are less spectacular in their exercise, especially since chapter 11 reveals that many, especially the rich, in the church were very prone to overlooking and dishonoring their fellow church members. We see the same thing today with the gift of teaching and those who excessively glorify the gift of teaching and the office of elder.
Yet one will search in vain through this chapter for any kind of promise that God will somehow directly reveal to people what specific ministry they should take up in their lives. Even verse 28 – “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues” – does not help the pro-“calling” position, as it merely identifies the fact that God has appointed teacherS and such. It does not go on to say “…and God will make sure that each of them receives theopneustos nudgings and impressions, veritable burblings from deep within, confirmed by other witnesses, friends, and elders, that will confirm that’s what s/he’s supposed to do to serve Him”. Nothing of the kind is indicated.
Rather, what is the first qualification for an elder in a church? 1 Timothy 3:1 – “if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” If a man aspires to the office of overseer. If he does not, then he should not somehow be coerced into it; how well would he fulfill the responsibility in that case? Why does not Paul take the golden opportunity in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 to explain that a man aspiring to the office of overseer must be called, must feel burblings deep within his soul that must be confirmed by external witnesses? Very simply, it is because Paul never had such a notion. It is a creation of human imagination from a later time, a human tradition.
What is the first move toward mission work? “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'” (Matthew 28:18-20). Why is more justification needed for going to seek out lost people with the Gospel and saying “we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20) than that Jesus commanded us to do so and that people are dying without Jesus every day and going to Hell? Why dress up a desire to move to Zimbabwe with a phony baptismal certificate that “God called me to go to Zimbabwe”? Why not look at that place and say “Golly, nobody in ___ even knows the Gospel. I intend to do what I can by God’s power and grace to rectify that situation”?
Talk Like the Bible Does
Let us be careful and make an effort to use biblical language when we’re discussing spiritual realities. It is one thing to talk about, say, the Trinity, since the doctrine of the Trinity is heavily supported all throughout Scripture, from the first book to the last and everywhere in between. There is nothing necessarily wrong with introducing new vocabulary to encapsulate biblical concepts (such as the word “regeneration” or “hypostatic union”) to assist in communication, but shouldn’t there be a goodly amount of biblical backing for such a move? Using the word “calling” in the way that so many evangelicals use it today is what amounts to twisting the word as it is used in the Bible, which we should refuse to do at all costs.
In conclusion, I invite you to reconsider that the Scripture instructs us nowhere to listen to internal urgings or impressions as coming direct from God. Rather, does it not teach us that “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)? What are our instructions, given the untrustworthiness of our hearts? “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). The murmurings of our hearts, which we can’t infallibly distinguish from fleshly lusts and desires, are most certainly things that are on earth. The Scripture is sufficient. Let us find our guidance only in it.
Psalm 19:7 – The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
8The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
9The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.
After all, (and with a grateful hat-tip to Dan Phillips), how do you know I wasn’t called by God to write this article?
[Contributed by Alan Maricle]