The Call to the Ministry: A Crucial Subject

I have been wanting to repost this and another piece for some time, and now seems as good a time as any.  While I am aware that good people disagree with the view set out below, I am content to stand with many names from the past on this issue.  

Giving attention to the Call

I would like to say something about what is called “the call to the ministry” or “the call to preach.”  In my opinion this is a crucial subject which has very often been misunderstood or else ignored.  Indeed, this matter ought to be constantly before us in these days of declension.  I believe there is much important truth to the old saying, “As the pulpit goes so goes the church. As the church goes so goes the community…” In looking out upon the state of the evangelical churches in America today, it is my personal view that we really are suffering from the effects of a lack of attention to the call to the ministry.

Definition

Before going on I need to define what I am talking about.  By the “call” I here mean “the particular effects of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of some men to equip and to bring about in them an undying desire to preach and teach the Word of God to those to whom God would send them.”

This definition is more theological than textual.  That is, we might equally refer to it as a “sending” or a “longing”.  But the point is, it is a “calling” to a particular function within the Body of Christ.  This does not mean that there are not other “callings” – only that there is such a thing as a special call from God upon certain men whom He chooses to teach His Word.

In some quarters there has always been either a superficial view of this “call” into Christian ministry.  In some others, the whole concept of this call has been considered unbiblical.  There is no such thing as “the call to preach” so we are told.  Some men just have the ability and, if they choose to begin preaching and the churches support their desires that is really all there is to it.

Test All Things

Dealing with both of these opinions together we can say that there is one thing which they both pay little or no heed to: that one thing is the nature or source of the “desire” to preach.  Those holding a superficial view will not give much emphasis to the testing of the call or the maturity of the one professing to be under it.  They will often view the call in isolation from the person’s aptitude and, sadly, his spirituality.  The “desire” may well be seen as coming from God but it is still treated as if it could not arise from another, more carnal source.  Thus, the “call” is taken at face value without regard to personal pride, ambition, self-deception, or other forces acting on the will.  Often in such cases the native abilities of the person are seen as conclusive proof of a call.  And this is a snare which, time and again, the Church has fallen into.

An example of this superficial view is the case of Charles Templeton, an evangelist of the 1940’s and 50’s who was often compared with Billy Graham.  Templeton deserted the faith and became an ardent atheist.  He had the ability to speak, but his “calling” was shown to be a false one, not of God at all.  Similarly I can recall a well known preacher in Cambridge, England whom everyone thought was a great man of God.  This individual could certainly expound Scripture from the pulpit.  The present writer can testify to his ability.  But in 1999 this man shamefully left his wife and kids to enter into a homosexual relationship.  He continues to promote gay christianity via the Gay Christian Network today.  His abilities are beyond all doubt.  But was He ever really “called”?

It is easy to multiply such examples.  One thinks of the now atheist former pastors John Loftus and Dan Barker for instance.  What needs to be pondered by us is the credibility of their calling into Christian ministry in the first place.  Did God call these men to teach His Word knowing that they would abandon the faith they once preached?  Either we acknowledge such a situation or we conclude that grave mistakes were made in putting these men into pastorates.  The fault lies either with God and man or with man alone.  In the first case we bring a charge against God Himself!  In the second the fault lies much closer to home.  We, the Church, have thrust uncalled and unsent men into our pulpits.

This gives encouragement to those who deny any special call to the ministry, but it surely chastens those of us who believe such a call to exist!  On the one hand, if there is, in fact, no calling upon certain men to preach and/or pastor churches, it is hard to see how the Church can prevent the wrong sorts from getting churches and poisoning them from the inside.  On the other hand, if there is a true call to preach it must be both identifiable and verifiable.  We might add that it will also be falsifiable if it is an imposture.  In the case of the Cambridge preacher mentioned above, he has said himself that he confessed his homosexual tendencies before and while he was a missionary and before he became a pastor.

The “Desire” of 1 Timothy 3:1

Our attention, then, must be focused on the exact nature and source of the “desire” to be an overseer described by Paul in First Timothy.  Those denying the existence of the call will have to interpret this desire in purely volitional terms as not proceeding from the Holy Spirit and being maintained by God.  At best they can say that it derives from a kind of sanctified reason; the Christian simply arriving at the point where it seems to him a good and desirable thing to be a preacher – at least for the present.  Who knows but he may try something else down the road?  Thus, the “desire” of which the Apostle speaks is no more than an inclination.  This appears to us a far from satisfactory outlook on the ministry.

So what can we say about this “desire”?

We might, in the first place, say that the origin of the “desire” of 1 Timothy 3:1 is certainly not to be found in the heart of the natural man. Yet some natural men feel a desire of some sort to be in the [evangelical] ministry and, sadly, find a way into it.  Unless one is going to propound the notion that one desire is as good as another, there will have to be some delineation of desires.  Some desires to preach will have to be excluded if only on the basis of the unregenerate nature of the desirer!  But do we simply draw the line there?  In fact we cannot, because some Christian women insist they have a real desire to be preachers.  As the NT is clear on the exclusion of women from the preaching office, we must say that any “desire” to preach and pastor a believing woman has is untrustworthy.

But then our inquiry must not stop at this.  I think it ought to be obvious that if it is appropriate to isolate a Christian woman’s “desire to preach” from that of a Christian male, we have already as much as admitted that not every desire to preach and teach is a proper one.  And shall we say that only believing women can fall prey to this false desire?  To put the point differently, can a Christian man trust every desire which impresses itself upon his waking hours?

Even if we exclude every desire clearly forbidden to a Christian, are we only left with righteous live options?  Are we thereby safe from self-deception?  Can we now trust our own judgment and start a church?  Surely each one of us, though we be regenerate, would be fools to trust every impulse or longing in our own hearts. Every believer acutely feels the truth that “He that trusts in his own heart is a fool.” (Prov. 28:26a).  The origin of the desire of which Paul speaks must not be automatically assumed to be the sanctified reason of the regenerate heart alone.

Exegetically we are not helped that much.  In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul writes:

“This is a faithful saying: if a man desires (oregetai) the position of an overseer, he desires (epithymei) a good work.”  The first verb, “oregetai” means “aspire to” or even “crave after.”  William Mounce says it describes “an ambitious seeking” in a good or a bad sense, depending on context.  Here the meaning is certainly positive, since the apostle is recommending the office.  And this requires that the “desire” is one which, though it produce an aspiration to be an overseer, is yet a humble desire.  The second verb translated “desire” is “epithymei”, and is more common in the NT.  It means “to set ones heart to” or “to earnestly desire.”  Thus, we might translate “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he sets his heart on a good thing.”

The picture, therefore, is of a man who makes it known (aspires to) that he wants to be an overseer.  He has an earnest desire for the office.  This desire is for something that is “good.”  But we are still left to decide whether the person’s “desire” is itself good.  As stated above, we can be confident that Paul was referring to a positive desire.  Thus, it is for us to decide what constitutes a humble, disinterested craving for the ministerial office.  How did this desire get there?  What is its source?  Our answer is that it is put there by the One who calls and sends.

To be continued….

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8 comments

  1. I found an error for you to correct. It is not Dan Barber but rather Dan Barker. Keep up the good work! Jason

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  2. Good thoughts Doc Reluc. I’m glad that you focused on 1 Timothy 3:1 as I have found many don’t do that, but I wonder if I could interact with you a tad?

    I would push back, just a hair, and offer the thought that maybe the question of whether or not one has a legitimate “call” to the office of elder has less to do with the nature of the call than it does with ones understanding of the office?

    If one thinks that the office of elder is being the boss of a church, or being a preacher, or being a professional bible know-it-all, or any number of other things, one certainly has a desire…

    …but it’s not for the office of an elder. Of a person doesn’t want to preach God’s word, guard the flock, shepherd the flock, etc., one doesn’t actually desire to be an elder.

  3. Dear Brother,

    Your blog has a candor that to me seems rare in Evangelical Christian writings. I think you got to the heart of the issue with your statement, “Can we now trust our own judgment and start a church?”

    Many, many people from all walks of Christianity, I think, accept spiritual-seeming inclinations without seriously considering whether they really represent the will of God. Scripture makes it clear, however, that even demons can appear to us as angels of light [2 Cor 11:14]. When one is under spiritual delusion, though, how can one know? One can, I suppose, just pray that one is not and carry on and hope that God will sort everything out in the end. I suspect that this is what most do, if the question even arises to them.

    Many, many writings on spiritual delusion came out of the early Church in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Orthodox Christian writers place a great deal of emphasis on this kind of delusion, called “plani” in Greek and “prelest” in Russian and other Slavic languages. This Wikipedia article actually gives a pretty complete overview of the Orthodox Christian theology on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prelest. (The article refers exclusively to Orthodox Christian writings or to writings that pre-date the Schism that broke the Roman church off from the greater church of the east).

    As far as I know, there is no similar consideration of spiritual delusion in the Roman Catholic Church. One of the major criticisms that Orthodox Christianity has of Roman Catholicism is that it actually invites prelest through excessive exercise of the imagination. Yours is the first Evangelical Christian writing I have ever read that deals so openly with the subject.

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