The Case of the Missing Call
What if I haven't "heard a voice"?
As I prepared for my ordination exam, I knew I had a problem. In my church's tradition, an ordination council examines three key areas: the candidate's (1) experience of conversion, (2) call to ministry, and (3) doctrinal positions. I didn't anticipate any difficulty with areas 1 or 3. I was certain of my salvation. And I felt that ten years of formal Bible training had given me a good grasp of biblical theology, which I was prepared to explain and defend. But what would I say about my call?
My study of the Bible had led me to conclude that God does not require of pastors the same kind of bright light and voice that arrested Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road. Nor does God require some kind of mystical experience whereby one hears an inward voice. I did not anticipate that the ordination council would demand of me a Damascus Road experience, but I was fairly sure they would expect to hear something about a strong inner impression that God was telling me to go into full-time ministry.
So the evening before the examination, alone in my room, I did two things. First, I carefully reviewed the reasons for my desire to spend the rest of my life in Christian ministry. I hadn't heard a voice, and I would tell the truth. If the council rejected my reasons, at least I they were the real ones. Second, I reread the key biblical passages that set forth the qualifications for leaders in the church. If anything was recorded requiring either a bright light or a mystical call, I wanted to be certain I had not overlooked it.
As I read those passages (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), they again confirmed to me what kind of people should be set apart as spiritual leaders. To sum it up: a church leader must be a spiritually mature Christian who desires a position of leadership in the church, and is able to lead God's people and teach God's Word.
Glaring by its absence is any reference to a call.
The apostles, by contrast, look for the properly motivated desire for leadership. Paul wrote: "If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do" (1 Tim. 3:1). Likewise, Peter warned against placing anyone in a position of oversight under compulsion. Rather, the undershepherd is to be characterized by eagerness, serving voluntarily with the purpose of accomplishing God's will (1 Peter 5:2).
Rather than waiting for some inward voice, every Christian should cultivate a willingness to serve God in the fullest manner possible. Certainly God may stimulate that desire, but the aspiration is said to belong to the person.
Facing the council
About 30 pastors and church representatives arrived to sit on the examining council. As I sat there, one godly old pastor offered me this encouragement: "Just remember, son, it's the call of God that matters, the call of God."
Just what I needed to hear!
The actual examination began well. I enjoyed narrating the process by which I came to faith in Christ and the blessings of my life with Him.
Then came Question 2: Would you now describe your call to the ministry? I explained that I had never seen any bright lights or heard any voices as had the apostle Paul. They assured me that they did not expect me to have such an experience. Then, in a manner that I hoped would reflect a submissive attitude, I asked if they would define for me what they meant by "call." I also said that it would be helpful if they could cite a specific passage of Scripture where such a call is required of ministers.
Some vague descriptions of the call were offered: "inward compulsion" and "strong inner feeling." But two things became clear: A precise definition was hard to nail down and the requirement of such a call could not be found in the Bible, but everyone was convinced that a call was needed.
After one comment that defined the call as strong feeling, another pastor said, "If my ministry depended on my feelings, I would probably drop out about every two weeks." That remark elicited laughter and understanding nods.
Eventually the focus came back to me. "If you don't feel that you have had one of these 'calls' to the ministry, why do you want to be a minister?"
That, I thought, was the right question. My explanation was essentially a paraphrase of 1 Timothy 3:1—I want to serve the Lord in the best and fullest way possible. God says that the office of pastor provides a good means for serving Him. So I have consciously aspired to become qualified for that position. The characteristics listed in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 have been my personal goals. That was an honest and candid answer.
The council's reply was balanced. They agreed that my reasons for desiring ordination were good ones. But they exhorted me to give careful, further consideration to the matter of my sense of a call. This I agreed to do. One of the men did warn that unless a man had more of a call than I had, he would quickly drop out of the ministry.
In the end, I was ordained.
The door God eventually opened for me was a teaching position at Multnomah Bible College. For 27 years, my ministry has been devoted to several generations of students, many who have entered full-time Christian vocations.
Working with them over the years has confirmed my understanding of the call.
No call. An open invitation
How many otherwise qualified people have refrained from entering the ministry because they haven't "heard the call"? I know of at least one.
A young youth worker came to me with this question: "I have always wanted to serve Christ in a part of the world where people have never heard of Jesus. However, missionaries have told me to be certain that I have an inner call from God before I go. I've never understood what they meant by a call, but after listening to them, I am quite sure that I have not had one. Do you think I could go to the mission field without one of those calls?"
I asked her where the Bible required an inward mystical call to obey the Great Commission. She knew of none. I told her if she was qualified for the type of missionary work she would do, that God nowhere required a mystical call, despite what is often taught. God does lay down qualifications for leaders for effective ministry, but she would look in vain for one that was holding her back.
Multnomah Bible College
Adapted by permission from Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and Robin Maxson
(© 1980 Multnomah Publishers, Inc.), scheduled to be re-released in a new edition in 2005.
A Perfect Traffic Jam of Wills
E. Stanley Jones sorted the One voice from the many.
At the age of seventeen I gave my life to Christ. At twenty-three I was asked by a college president to come and teach in his college. He said, "It is the will of the student body, the will of the townspeople, the will of the faculty, and we believe it is the will of God for you to teach in this college."
At the same time a trusted friend wrote me a letter saying, "I believe it is the will of God for you to go into evangelistic work here in America." At the same time I had a letter from the Methodist Board of Missions saying, "It is our will to send you to India." At the time I was myself impressed that it was God's will for me to go as a missionary to Africa, a call then generally supposed to be tantamount to a death warrant.
Here was a perfect traffic jam of wills. I went to my room, got on my knees and said, "Lord I am willing to go anywhere and do anything you want me to do." I asked him to tell me his will, and I would obey. The answer came back, "It's India." I said Yes, and there were no question marks. I never raised the question of whether a missionary got a salary or not. I never knew until I received my first month's salary of $50 how much it would be.
I felt that "if God guides, God provides." I found it to be true then and true now. I have never wanted for anything that I have needed.
Fifty years later I knelt before him again, in the same room where I got my first call. "Lord," I said, "thank you for telling me fifty years ago that it was India. Give me my life choices to make over again, and I would make them as I have made them, with this proviso that where I have been untrue, I would be true. I have let you down, but you have never let me down." And that was after fifty years of testing, and it includes the testing of this stroke [which Jones suffered two years before his eventual death in 1973].
My granddaughter asked, "Granddaddy, if you had your choices to make over again, would you make them as you have made them, if this stroke were a part of it?"
"Anne," I replied, "not only would I do it once, I would do it many times."
"How many times?"
I said, "Name the number, and I would guarantee to do it."
He has never let me down… . I am his and will be forever. I did not follow him because I had no stroke. I followed him because "by his stripes I am healed."
—E. Stanley Jones, missionary to India in The Divine Yes (Abingdon)
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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