Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on discerning God’s will. Read the first part: “Why God Doesn’t Care If You Buy a Red Car.”
How does God guide his people?
The answer is simple – in an almost infinite variety of ways.
We have pillars of fire in the night sky and pillars of cloud in the light of day (Exodus 13:21). Gideon lays a fleece on the ground (Judges 6:37), and God speaks through the dew and he overcomes his fears.
God tells Abram to leave his home and travel “to a land I will show you,” and he goes (Genesis 12:1). The apostles draw lots to choose the successor to Judas (Acts 1:26).
In respect of a particular individual calling to office, it seems clear that the only people within Israel who were the recipients of what we might describe as a clear call or vocation were special people for specialized ministries.
These are the high priest (Hebrews 5:4), judges (1 Samuel 3:4-10), prophets (Isaiah 6:1-8; Jeremiah 1:4-10), kings (1 Samuel 16:11-13) and certain craftsmen endowed in a special way to build the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-6).
The New Testament certainly talks much about calling. The verb kaleo, “to call,” is used 148 times, with 70 more uses of words that have kaleo as their root.
The word is used in three distinct ways.
The first is to speak of a summons or invitation to faith. So, Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
Second, Paul uses the word differently when he talks of God’s gracious invitation whereby the sinner can respond to the invitation to salvation, as in “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose…” (Romans 8:28).
But there is a third way that kaleo or its derivatives are used – namely, to speak of individuals being called or guided. There are three specific occasions when kaleo is used in this way.
1. In Acts 13, the gathered assembly set apart Paul and Barnabas at the clear prompting of the Holy Spirit.
2. In Acts 16, Paul and his companions were prevented from traveling to the province of Asia, but “after Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10).
3. Paul introduces some of his letter by declaring himself to be “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…” (Romans 1:1; see also 1 Corinthians 1:1).
These instances are very much the exception and not the rule, and even these three texts, rather than conveying the sense of the call being some kind of inward impression, carry the possible sense of a supernatural communication.
While God has in the past and does still today reveal his will to his people in direct ways, this has almost always been to key people for key tasks and is not portrayed in Scripture as a normal way God offers guidance.
On the contrary, there is much more written in Scripture about character and qualification for office than there is ever about a specific calling to a specific person.
Paul writes to Timothy about overseers and doesn’t refer to their need for a call. What he says is, “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). This sense of legitimate aspiration would contradict a position that said God’s call was needed for such office.
The qualities needed for overseers, elders and deacons are spelled out in various passages, including 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9.
So, when Paul writes, “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate,” the sense is that these are the characteristics that will validate someone’s appropriateness for office. There is no instruction to Timothy to ask, “Who feels they are called to be an elder?”
In Ephesians 4:7, we read that “to each one of us grace (“charism”) has been given as Christ apportioned it.” This is amplified in Ephesians 4:9 where we read, “it was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…”
Again, the qualification is not some inner sense of calling but a demonstrable “charism” as evidence of qualification for office.
I am not sure we are helping anyone when we encourage the language of calling by those in mission or church work.
My attempt to demystify this sense of calling is not to denigrate those who speak of God’s call on their lives. This language is understandable. My real challenge is twofold.
1. I want to remind everyone that someone talking of a sense of call does not negate the task of others assessing whether that person’s character is consistent with one who wishes to serve as a leader of God’s people. It is entirely consistent, therefore, to ask how a person has already been involved in the ministry of the church.
2. My challenge is to those who do not think “mission” because they have not received this mystical call that they assume is necessary for mission work. Every pastor in the United Kingdom is called to world mission and should therefore give equal consideration to work in Belgium alongside their consideration of Birmingham. They were commissioned to build up God’s church. It’s their gifting and character that will determine whether they live in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria or the ends of the earth.
Similarly, every businesswoman, teacher or engineer intent on ushering in the Kingdom of God should consider Cambodia just as easily as Cardiff. No special calling – just an honest examination of their character, their skills and their temperament.
I am more and more convinced, especially these days, that “mission work” is an artificial construct if we mean by that a work that is different from the ordinary witness of the church in the world, necessitating a distinct call that is given to only a few.
Geography demands different gifts and skills, character and temperament.
I am not convinced it demands a different kind of calling.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column is adapted from his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society. The column also appeared in Ministry Today.