Christians, whether they be seminarians in pursuit of a pulpit or laypeople concerned about the effectiveness of their witness, speak frequently about being “called” to ministry or being “called” to do something special in the church. Yet the idea of a “call” tends to be about as vague as it is familiar.

Here James Edwards, chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Jamestown (N.D.) College, helps potential seminarians in particular determine whether or not they have a vocation for ordained ministry. He examines three aspects of the Christian’s “call”: First, how do we know when we are called? Second, to what are we called? And finally, how do we fulfill that calling?

We all are familiar with the prominent “call stories” of the Bible: the call of Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to a new land; the call of Isaiah to speak to a people of unclean lips; the call of the Servant of the Lord to be a light to the nations; the call of Mary to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit; the call of Jesus at his baptism, and Jesus’ call to the fishermen beside the sea; and, of course, Paul’s call on the road to Damascus.

The call of God is not something theoretical; it is rather an experience, as Moses had at the burning bush or Isaiah had in the quavering temple. It results in inner moving, or in Calvin’s words, “religious awe.” And yet, if we concentrate on the way in which each of these persons was called, we may miss the point of the call (wrongly assuming that if we have not heard God in the same striking way we have not been called). The power of divine calling is not in how one is called but that one is called in the first place.

The Secret Call

John Calvin speaks of two calls, one secret and one corporate. The same God issues both.

The secret call is given to the heart of the believer: for example, to a young man or woman attending seminary with an eye to the pastorate or missionary service overseas. The corporate call, on the other hand, is testified to by the church and it ratifies the individual call. Both are complementary and necessary for genuine calling.

Of the secret call Calvin wrote: “There is the good witness of our heart that we receive the proffered office not with ambition or avarice, not with any other selfish desire, but with a sincere fear of God and desire to build up the church” (Institutes, IV, iii, 2).

Calvin succeeded in giving wings to a rather pedestrian and often misunderstood concept. We may be assured of our calling by God when our motives for seeking authority and responsibility in the church are not based on personal ego needs (for example, desire for recognition or power over others), but when we sincerely sense God’s command to build the church.

Article continues below

This is how the apostle Paul spoke of Epaphras to the Colossians: “Always struggling for you in his prayers so that you might stand mature and fully assured in God’s will” (4:12); and of Epaphroditus to the Philippians: “My brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all, …” (2:25f.).

During the early 1930s, a promising young student at the University of Berlin wrestled with the career options of a university professorship or a pastorate. He found neither direction nor peace until he succeeded in reducing his life to a single goal. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s goal: That his life would count for the church. And for him, that singular focus dictated that he must choose the pastorate.

The Corporate Call

The motivation to build Christ’s church, however, is only the first part of the call. Calvin adds a sequel: the corporate call, or the call of the church.

The corporate call provides a bridge to my second question: To what are we called? The answer is that we are called to the church as the community of God.

Were it not for this second call, we might mistake the individualistic call of the heart as a sanction to do our own thing, thus equating the gospel with intuition or conscience, and raising the ego to the rank of God. But this is never so, and Calvin rightly recognized it. God himself wills to be present in the word of his witness, and he ordains that the witness be corporate in nature.

Saint Augustine tells the story of Victorinus, an old man of great learning, who, through a careful study of the Holy Scriptures, embraced the Christian faith late in life. One day Victorinus confided privately to Simplicianus, bishop of Milan, that he had become a Christian. “I shall not believe it or count you as a Christian until I see you in the Church of Christ,” replied Simplicianus. At this Victorinus laughed and said, “Is it then the walls of the church that make the Christian?” Refusing to be dissuaded from his conviction by the witness of the old philosopher, Simplicianus wisely maintained his counsel until at last Victorinus confessed his faith publicly.

Article continues below
“Rarely does a true call to ministry come in the middle of the night. It comes out of the context of a local church—given by those who are able to discern the gifts, the abilities in the one wanting to serve.”
—George Brushaber, president, Bethel College and Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota

The bishop rightly knew that there can be no such thing as a private Christian, as though Christianity were simply an idea to be affirmed. His counsel was based on the conviction that we are not called to an idea, not even to a great truth, but to a relationship with God, which is communicated through God’s people.

Throughout the Bible, ministry takes place (and, indeed, the “call” is confirmed) within the companionship of others. As Christians we are born, we grow, and we serve within partnership. One of the Greek words for “the office of elder,” presbyterion, is a collective noun; it means collegiality. In the Mosaic covenant, the whole nation was to be a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Exod. 19:6; Lev. 11:44f.; Num. 15:40). The tribe of Levi symbolized this covenant calling.

Unlike the Old Testament, however, where the Levitical priesthood became the mediator of the covenant, the New Testament recognizes a freedom for calling and service. New ministries arise, such as elders and deacons, and new gifts for ministry, such as evangelism and administration, find their place. The ministry of the Word is entrusted not just to a tribe or profession, but to the church as a whole.

Luther said that all baptized Christians were potential priests and popes. Bonhoeffer went further and said that we are actually Christ to each other. And Helmut Thielicke put it this way: “No one can assume office without consent of the whole church, and no one serves except as a representative of it.”

In the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks about ministry in terms of “earthen vessels” (v. 7). Ministry is neither reserved for special professions nor special occasions. It is as common and essential for the church as everyday kitchenware is for the family.

An early martyr of the church, Saint Laurence, bore witness to this truth when he was ordered by a prefect of the Emperor Valerian to produce the church’s wealth or be killed. Laurence thereupon went out and gathered together the epileptics, blind, lame, poor, and leprous, and, having brought them before the prefect, pointed to them and said, “These are the treasures of the church.”

Article continues below

The Call To Serve

We know, then, that we have been called when we have a sincere desire to build Christ’s church. Furthermore, our call is ratified by the church so that we may minister within community. Finally, in answer to the third question, we fulfill the call of God through service.

We hear a lot about ministry as service. Therefore, rather than restating what others have already said, I want to present an image that exemplifies what the servant posture means. The image comes from a true account of an American who was imprisoned in Soviet Russia’s Gulag for 45 years. It is told by Victor Herman in his autobiography, Coming Out of the Ice.

Herman recounts his first imprisonment. It was in Cell 39, a space five-and-a-half feet wide and ten feet long with a boarded up window at the far end. Along each wall were two benches on which 16 men sat. Closest to the door was a round vat called a Parasha, a latrine that was emptied once every ten days.

Existence in Cell 39 was statuesque torture. The stench from the Parasha was choking. The men were forbidden to talk or move. From dawn to darkness they were forced to sit silent and motionless and stare at a hole in the cell door. At night they lay on the cold stone floor like eggs in a carton. Every inch of space was occupied; the slightest movement to relieve an ache was purchased at a cell mate’s expense.

After only 24 hours, Herman was on the verge of madness. He doubtless would have gone mad had he not sensed that one of the cellmates was looking out for the others, thus preserving a morsel of dignity in this cataleptic nightmare. The cellmate was known simply as “the Elder” and he sat closest to the Parasha, where the stench was strongest, and nearest to the door, which exposed him to the senseless blows of the guards.

The Elder did two things every day. He counted out 16 bowls of soup as they came through the feeding hole in the cell door to insure that no one received less than his share. He also allowed no one to begin eating until all had been served. His second task was to give a signal twice each night for the men to change sleeping positions. This prevented unbearable cramping come morning. Herman knew nothing more about the Elder, but his role in Cell 39 restrained 16 men from erupting in a mad dogfight for food, space, and air.

Cell 39 will remain a model of Christian service for me for a long time. It tells me that in every situation in life, no matter how plain or grim, there is need for a servant-leader. But it tells something more: Only the person who sits closest to the Parasha, as it were, and who is most exposed to the blows of the system, can claim authority to lead and serve. The authority of a servant stands in inverse proportion to his claims for himself.

Article continues below

In addressing the church at Corinth, Paul said, “God is faithful through whom you were called into community with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). All Christians, not just ministers, are called by God. They are called to fellowship with Jesus Christ. Fellowship with Christ, however, takes place not in a concept, slogan, or program, but in a fellowship of believers. There God has deposited his treasures—for Laurence, the sick and the poor; for Herman, the service of the Elder—to shame the wise and strong and bring forth justice, holiness, and redemption.

James R. Edwards is associate professor of religion and chairman, Department of Religion and Philosophy, at Jamestown (N.D.) College. He has written Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Community Bible Study, 1984).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.