Is “Calling” a Biblical Idea?

A few days ago, I got a great question in the comments on a post I’d written on calling to ministry. It’s a topic on which I have well-formed opinions.

Here’s the question:

Where does this concept of a “call” come from in Scripture? I mean, some of the great men of the faith were audibly and explicitly told by God what they were to do, but how do you know that this is normal and expected for Christian ministry? In what sense are there things that we are “supposed” to do or places we are “supposed” to be beyond the precepts of God’s moral will as revealed in the Bible? I must be missing something…

It’s a good question, and a fair one.

To answer that, I think we have to look at how God has acted in history relative to those who were leaders of his people. In the Old Testament, most of those we have sufficient biographical information about have an experience of a specific calling from God, to a task, which was often enveloped in a relationship or identity. Moses for instance, was called to lead Israel out of Egypt, which included a task (lead them out) and a position (as their leader).

Others that stand out to me: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph (via dream), Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Solomon, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. In the New Testament, the 12 apostles were summoned to leadership by direct invitation of Christ, or in Paul’s case, by a vision. Timothy, the most visible second generation leader, was called out and set apart for his task by the laying on of hands by the apostolic leadership—and was instructed to call out / recognize new leaders the same way.

So while the Scriptures don’t address calling in a formulaic way, it appears that either an internal or external call or both seems to be in play for God’s leaders throughout the Bible. The implication of normativity comes from this pattern.

I also wonder what the alternative would be. If leadership in the church doesn’t arise at God’s initiative and calling, then from whom? From us? God doesn’t care who leads and we pick who we like? Or, from the perspective of those going into ministry, do we pick it as a career just like nursing or engineering or teaching? That notion seems kind of Deist to me. I think God is more involved in our lives than that, and has plans and directions and purposes that are specific, both for us and for the congregations and ministries we lead. I guess I’m enough of a predestinarian to believe in a destiny, at least in the broader sense of the term.

Others, like John Ortberg, disagree with me about the experiential call.

What do you think? Is the notion of calling to ministry really legit or not? It’s an important question.

10 Replies to “Is “Calling” a Biblical Idea?”

  1. So from your biblical examples, a call ought to be a direct verbal revelation from the Lord? Wouldn’t the alternative to direct revelation be a reliance on the sufficiency of Scripture, making decisions about leadership based on the criteria taught in the passages that directly address how to choose elders in the church (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1)? That is a far cry from Deism and anarchy.

  2. Here is a good book on the subject at hand:
    Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Paperback, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
    by Bruce K. Waltke (Author)

    Like studying goat entrails, Waltke declares, trying to discern a moving object that is often described and promoted as “God’s perfect desired plan for my life” is ultimately a futile and exhausting exercise in faith-less futility.

  3. Paul,

    The difficulty you seem to have is with the idea of direct revelation. I understand the concern, because in many corners it’s horribly misused. “God told me” becomes a kind of trump card and an excuse for all manner of silliness. Your caution is wise.

    Certainly the Bible has much to say about whether a person should be in ministry or not, and should be among the very first things considered, whether by a person deciding on a vocation, or by a church choosing a leader.

    However, I don’t think that praying for guidance about these decisions, or consulting with other believers for their wisdom, is an attempt to circumvent biblical revelation in favor of direct revelation as an alternative.

    On the contrary, it’s the Scripture itself that teaches us to pray. It gives us examples of people who receive (yes) direct revelation from God, in prayer, about what they should do (e.g. Paul going to Macedonia, Acts 16). Note that this is not the kind of direct revelation that would compete with the Bible as the infallible revealer of God. This is not loopy, kook fringe revelation; it’s simply more information not contained in the Bible.

    Remember what the sufficiency of scripture is. The Scriptures are sufficient to make us wise unto salvation, and to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3). The Bible is not a replacement for a relationship with God; it’s not a replacement for the Holy Spirit; and it’s not a replacement for the exercise of the biblical gift of discernment, placed by the Holy Spirit in the church. The Bible itself points us to all of these things.

    So even in seeking God for the guidance we need, the sufficiency of Scripture is in play.

    My concern for seminary students in particular is to examine their motives for pursuing ministry. Asking for God’s guidance in the selection of a vocation is not reading goat entrails. It’s faithful stewardship, and submission to the Lordship of Christ.

    A much more exhaustive and erudite treatment of calling, written by Basil Manly can be found here, on the 9Marks website.

  4. Mark,

    Thanks for this reply; it certainly clears up a lot of my misgivings. It seems that what is meant by “calling” means wise examination of character in light of the Biblical qualifications for elders (or deacons I suppose, though that isn’t usually what is in view) both individually and more importantly by the community of faith. Of course prayer and the illumination of the Holy Spirit are indispensable in the process of discernment. I see no problem with people being called by direct revelation–this is, after all, the Biblical example in the high-profile cases you highlight in the article–but from what I can tell, this isn’t what most people mean by a “call”. Generally by “call” they mean either some kind of inward impression (I *feel* called) or else wise examination of the qualifications for spiritual leadership/service in light of the demands of ministry and the desires of the person (as in the essay by Manly).

    I still don’t see where a “call” is required or where additional revelation is needed, though I certainly agree with the wisdom of encouraging people considering going into ministry or pursuing seminary education to carefully consider their motives, character, and qualifications in order to be good stewards of the gifts that the Lord has given them.

    Do you know how any of the books on God’s guidance reviewed positively by 9Marks treat this subject? I have only read “Decision Making and the Will of God” by Garry Friesen, and he carefully argues against the concept of the “individual will” of God in Scripture (in addition to God’s revealed moral will or his hidden sovereign will).

    Again, thank you for your interaction on this subject, and I pray for the Lord’s blessing on your ministry.


  5. I just want to back Paul P’s suggestion of Waltke’s book. That book helped me during a difficult time in my life and also confirmed my “calling.”

  6. Callings come in many different ways. I went to Bible College after a one year sabatical from school to save money for college. I didn’t go immediately into ministry out of college and actually just entered the ministry 3 years ago (I’m 33). I prayed for God to show me his will. He did, but before I was in the ministry God used several different avenues in order to train me up! Mywife an I went into a children’s ministry working with neglected and abused children. While there my youngest daughter started having complications with her lungs (She had been born with RSV). She had 7 boughts of mnuemonia (sp) in a nine month period that made me seek out rainbow vacuums. after it’s purchase my daughter has been off the steroids ever since. While selling rainbows my leadership skills were being developed. Then God opened the door for me to be in full time ministry and I am certain I am where God desires me to be. I didn’t choose this “JOB” God delivered it to me.
    God can call us in many different ways. Just be sure your searching through God’s eyes not men’s.

  7. God calls and man can prove the calling.God used samuel to annoint David without him filling any requirements.He proved his calling by being faithful to God and to israel.Timothy was told to commit the things he heard to faitful men.who shall be able to teach others also.So one who is called has to be affirmed by another.(usually)Paul is an example.We must make full proof of our ministry to God and to leadership.Also God especially in the old testament called out those he would use.Though you must reach criteria it is important to receive God’s call for if God doesn’t build a house he that builds it builds it in vain.So I don’t beleive this should be something one takes on in and of hisself.He must feel compelled by God or by leadership in the church to work in this capacity of teaching.A calling is biblical.Those who don’t beleive this are usually those who shudder of any mention of God speaking outside of what they read.What i mean is hearing a voice getting a miraculous sign.Most fear this.But God does still speak to people this way cause he changes not.Same yesterday today and forever.

  8. I enjoyed the post …. except for this line – “do we pick it as a career just like nursing or engineering or teaching?” By implication, you are saying that nurses and engineers and teachers “pick” their own vocation and that they are not “called”. Sorry but EVERY believer is called – never stoop to be a pastor if you are called to be an engineer. Every calling is necessary and special. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds. Joseph was a manager and in high level civil service. Ask God to show you what He wants, if God doesn’t intervene, prayerfully and with counsel use your own God-ordained creativity and experience to select a path you feel is right for you but give your plan to God. Unless and until He intervenes, take steps of faith to make it happen. That IS your call. God will direct as you go. You can NOT step outside God’s will as long as you are listening and willing to do whatever He asks of you.

  9. I agree with your article completely. I especially like the mention of the deist approach, if we do not see God working closely with us on our “call”. I think sometimes people get quite hung up in literal interpretations; “word for word” so to speak. Since the bible doesn’t “say call” in the NT as far as ministry leadership, than this cannot be the case. But the NT does state that man IS called by God, in a not as “literal” sense. Jesus chose His 12, Jesus is God and He chose His leaders. All throughout the Gospel He even chose specific members from the 12, to carry out specific duties. Ugh! He is good!?

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