Since very early on in my Christian walk I’ve been serving in various ways at various churches, studying the Bible and theology like crazy, and trying to find a seminary that fits both my budget and lifestyle. This is because I hope one day to go into a pastoral ministry role full time. Why do I want to do that? Certainly not because it’s fun or pays well. No, I want to be a pastor because I feel that God is calling me to full time ministry.
What is that call like? Soon after being led to the Lord by my youth pastor (and other faithful witnesses) I felt a strong burden to see other youth saved. I took the very little (and often incorrect) knowledge I had about the Bible and tried to get it across to the younger kids at school who looked up to me. In addition, a new love developed in my heart for learning and teaching.
…At least that is the answer I would have given a few months ago. Perhaps that is similar to your story. A strong sense of direction enters you, new passions develop, alongside a strong desire to pursue ministry. In church culture we often ask pastoral candidates to describe their calling experience. Many seminaries require applying students to explain how they know they are called to the ministry. I went along with this cliché, and perhaps you have too. Recently however, an eye-opening book named Do You Feel Called by God by Michael Bennett1 was recommended to me by one of my pastors. That simplistic, light read turned my whole idea of “the call” on its head.
Now granted, the book is in no way perfect. In several places I wrote in the margin something like, “Why did he bring that up?” At times his exegesis and conclusions are laughable, such as his lacking and pointless word study on kalein,2 or when he says that every Christian is a prophet.3 Despite this, I must admit that within a few minutes of reading I conceded that his main thesis is correct. Namely, that the popular notion in churches about feeling “the call”, the subjectiveness of the matter, and the necessity thereof in order to be a pastor, is found nowhere in either the Old or New Testament. Rather, when God commissioned a believer for His work it was always personal, direct, objective, etc.Whenever God commissioned someone for His work it was always personal, direct and objective. Click To Tweet
The call to the ministry in the Old and New Testament: Michael Bennett’s analysis
In Chapter 3 Bennett reviews Old Testament examples of God calling people to follow Him, as well as commissioning people to be prophets, etc.4 He specifically draws attention to the calling of Moses (Exo. 3), Gideon (Judg. 6), Samuel (1 Sam. 3), King Saul (1 Sam. 9), David (1 Sam. 15-16), Isaiah and Ezekiel, Elisha (2 Kin. 2), and Amos (Am. 7). He brings out from each of these accounts that the invitation to serve God was something external to the saint. God spoke to so-and-so. God appeared to him or her. Bennett is not afraid to admit that in some accounts we aren’t provided all the details of the summons (he mentions Abram, Jeremiah, Elijah, Daniel, and Nahum). However, he correctly concludes that our modern language of inner feelings, impressions, or convictions that God is leading us in some direction, is completely absent from the Old Testament.
In Chapter 4 he turns to the New Testament and shows that the same pattern of external, objective calls applied to Jesus and the Apostles also.5 He emphasizes from the Christmas story how Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph all had visual encounters. God (through angels) actually spoke to them, and they knew exactly what was going to happen. So also at Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit visibly descended onto Christ, and God audibly declared that He is well-pleased with Jesus. Bennett then draws attention to the commissioning of the Twelve, as well as Matthias (Acts 1:26), Paul (9:1-19), and Barnabas (13:1-4), showing that none of them were led by some inner feeling, but received direct revelation from God to go.
Bennett warns of abusing “The Call”
Bennett warns his readers of two pitfalls that we often fall into following the “call” mentality.6 The first is laziness. One may be discouraged from serving the Lord (as a pastor or otherwise) because they do not feel led to do so. They will sit around stagnant, waiting for a burning desire or inner confirmation. They will conclude that, since God isn’t leading them, they don’t need to—or even shouldn’t—serve in their church. Similar to this is the tendency to think, “I don’t have the gift of evangelist, so I can’t evangelize.”7
The second danger he mentions is the feeling of failure. We will feel a tremendous guilt trip if we do not actually go to Africa. Or if we get burnt out and eventually leave our ministry, we will have serious doubts of God’s wisdom and goodness for calling us, and may be cruelly accused of failing God.
Bennett also mentions in a later chapter ways people often misuse statements like, “The Lord has told me that you should…”8 Two negative motivations he brings up are pride and control. One may become puffed up, thinking they have a direct line to God whereas others do not. Also, if you tell somebody that God wants someone to do something you have more authority over them. There is a lot more pressure for them to comply, lest they seem unspiritual. Similar to this idea is the control a person will gain over a congregation. The attitude of many young men is, “I’m called by God, and if you don’t go along with me and ordain me, then you’re fighting Him!”
What about the call to the ministry today? Where Michael Bennett and I differ.
For how good his main thesis is, I’m afraid this is the point where I veer from his interpretation. Bennett does so well pointing out the direct, objective, specific pattern of all Bible history, but then says that it all stopped. He is reading his cessationist theology into this doctrine. Sure, God used to appear to people and give them tasks, but since there is no more communication or revelation after the close of the New Testament canon, this cannot happen again.
For him then, if we focus on and pursue the two calls in the New Testament (become a Christian, and be holy), then everything else will fall into place.9 In addition, based on 1 Timothy 3:1, the man going into the ministry must have a strong desire to do so. This desire, of course, should be rightly motivated, and the man’s character must be tested by the church.10 This is certainly accurate, in that a pastor must have good character and so forth, but he stops short of the whole picture. Neither Bennett nor any cessationist I’ve read has given good reason why the pattern that was in place for 4000 years (beginning of time until end of NT) suddenly stopped. Just because many others distort the biblical pattern of “the call” doesn’t mean that it has ceased altogether from being the norm. The call today is the same as it ever was. Today, just like back then, the Holy Spirit will make men overseers (Acts 20:28), our call can still emulate Timothy’s (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6), and our call can be “by the will of God,” and “according to the commandment of God,” like Paul’s (1 Cor. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1 cf. 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1). I will say, however, that one should not avoid pastoral ministry altogether because God never appears to them.
In his discussion on Acts 16, for example, he says that the Spirit leading in that way is not the norm for believers today. There Paul and others were “forbidden” and “not allowed” by the Spirit to go and preach in certain places (vss. 6-8), as well as Paul’s Macedonian vision (v. 9).11 He says that this leading is not the norm because Paul was unique, and he received direct communication from God in ways unique even among the apostles. But what about other dreams and leadings in Acts that were unrelated to Paul? Or the fact that Paul was not the only one present who was prevented by the Spirit to go, but his companions were also? Bennett’s suggestion that the leading here relates to Romans 15:20 and Paul’s practice of only ministering where no man has preached yet, is not justified. It is just silly to say that “they were lead by the Spirit” means that Paul remembered that he was only to preach to new, unevangelized cities.12 Surely the Holy Spirit can still lead people this way today.
Conclusion: Your call to the ministry
Let’s reiterate on some of the practical implications of this. The idea that “the call” is inner feelings and inclinations is nowhere in the Bible. Certainly if God has gifted you in the area of pastoral leadership and teaching, then pursue it and use the gifts for His glory. We should never use “God has called me” as a means of gaining control over people. Although I think “the call” includes God giving objective, specific direction to a believer, we must not wait around for it, and it is okay to be a pastor without ever receiving that commission. A strong desire for the ministry is a legitimate qualification so long as the motivation is godly.
And remember, as a believer, you are in the ministry already—pastoral or not! Bennett spends chapter 813 discussing Ephesians 4:11-13 to show that every believer is in the ministry. He says that we have misplaced a comma into verse 12 in some translations. The KJV, ISV, and RSV, for example, read as if teaching that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers were given their gifts in order that they may do three things: (a) for equipping saints, (b) for the work of the ministry, and (c) to build up the body. Bennett, however, argues that we should remove the comma between (a) and (b), making them one. Thus, apostles and prophets, etc. are given the duty to equip saints for the ministry. >So instead of the work of the ministry being limited to those four specific roles, it is a responsibility of all believers. He concludes, then, that saying, “I’m called to go into the ministry” is nonsense because every Christian is already in the ministry.14
1 Bennett, Michael Do You Feel Called by God?: Rethinking the Call to Ministry (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2012)
2 ibid., 49-63. He sees seven different uses of the word, none of which are the call to pastoral ministry (although I would argue that Heb. 5:4 counts, but either way that is only one occurrence). He concludes from this that the modern idea of “the call” is not the pattern of the New Testament. Rather, the two calls in human life are (a) to become a Christian, and (b) to be holy. For how much I agree, his study proves nothing. We can’t apply our American/English use of words to biblical word studies. It would have been helpful for Bennett to also summarize uses of, “God appointed…”, “God sent…”, “God opened a door…”, and so forth. Also, what about Act 13:2 and 16:10, where a compound word containing kaleo is plainly used to mean appointing one to a ministerial task?
3 ibid., 101-2. He gets this idea from Peter’s sermon where he quotes Joel 2 (Acts 2:17-18). There it says that all of God’s people will dream dreams, see visions, and prophesy. Bennett reasons that since telling somebody that if they believe the gospel they will go to heaven, or warning them of judgment to come, is technically telling the future, and since telling the future is one role of prophets, then evangelism is us prophesying. This, however, is not what Joel or Peter were describing. In the Bible prophesy is always new revelation given directly by God. Further, the Bible teaches that not everyone is a prophet (see the diversity of gifts in Eph. 4; Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12).
4 ibid., 35-41.
5 ibid., 43-48.
6 ibid., 61-63.
7 Of course, that comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of that gift. An evangelist, biblically-speaking, is not one with an abnormally strong desire to evangelize, or an above average ability to articulate gospel truths. It is rather a travelling, church-planting missionary.
8 ibid., 79-82.
10 ibid., 121-7.
11 Ibid., 83-86. He is at least correct in point out that the Spirit’s leading was not an inner feeling.
12 It is interesting that both Stott and Bruce see a possibility for inward impulses given to them by the Spirit (as well as other options). In addition, both see the possibility of a prophet speaking a message to them. Stott suggests Silas, and Bruce suggests a prophet from Lystra. See Stott, John R. W. The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World BST (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 260; Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Book of Acts: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1976), 325-6.
13 ibid., 89-103.
14 Legitimate as this exegesis may be, I don’t see how this helps his cause. It is simply semantics. Sure, I should not say I am called to the ministry because I am already in the ministry. But when somebody says they’re called to the ministry they are typically referring to a specific ministry, such as pastoral or missionary. So our terminology is incorrect, but our theology is not necessarily wrong.