12 August 2014

Pastoral ministry: a call for Biblical thinking

by Dan Phillips

(See what I did there?)

The notion that pastor's are "called" to ministry is so enmeshed in evangelical culture that it is common for writers not even to bother attempting a Biblical demonstration of the idea. Consider this article as an example, with its list of categorical statements attended by nary a single warranting verse.

As I've already shown, the "call" model is without Biblical warrant. Not that the Bible says nothing, it just says something perfectly clear and quite different. Though I thought that article was clear enough, some of the same questions keep being asked, so we'll try to clear them up here, in two steps.

The Biblical model. "Pastors and teachers" are listed among the gifts of the ascended Christ (Eph. 4:11), though that passage gives no further clues about identifying pastors. The fullest treatment comes in 1 Timothy 3:1ff., which actually tells us all we need to know. It gives three lines of qualification.
  1. Desire. Paul uses two verbs to denote the desire a gifted man has in 1 Tim. 3:1. They combine to indicate that the man will yearn for the office, will strongly desire it. He'll be driven from within — not because he's idle, not because his dad did it, not because it looks like fun, but because he needs to do it. The first pastor who trained me said something I dismissed at the time, though later I came to see the wisdom in it. "Gentlemen," he used to say, "if you can be happy doing anything else, do it."
  2. Doctrine. Desire isn't enough. The man has to know his stuff. Unlike a deacon, the overseer must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul expands in writing to Titus, saying that an overseer must be able to identify and shut down false doctrine, and must be able positively to teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9ff.). Not only must he be doctrinally sound, he must be doctrinally authoritative, in representing the Word of God and in guarding against error.
  3. Devoutness. Desire and doctrinal knowledge must be adorned by a godly character. Only so does the man show that he understands and believes what he teaches, and can serve as a faithful, reliable overseer for others. Both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus give the particulars.
So there it is: an internal motivation on the level of desire, confirmed by theological soundness and holiness of character.

Why not just call that a "call"? One good brother said it doesn't matter what we label it, we end up the same place. I couldn't agree less, for two reasons:
  1. Sufficiency of Scripture. The contrary position amounts to "Okay, okay, the Bible doesn't exactly teach the pastoral 'call'... but we've always called it that, so what's the diff?" Well, the "diff" is that God has given us everything for which we need a divine word in Scripture, and we are supplementing it as if He did not. We're improving on a Scripture that doesn't need our improvements. It's a bad idea, it sets a bad precedent, and sends a bad message.
  2. The mystical mystique. Introducing the unbiblical notion of a "call" takes us out of the Biblical realm of desire tested by discrete evidences, into the realm of the God card. If an authority figure (another pastor) imagines that he hears another man's "call," he could push him into preaching, unqualified — of which I've heard story after story after story. Or the man (or woman!) can insist that the divine call takes precedence over everything else, and on that strength step into an office to the ruination both of himself and of his hearers.
In close, let me just do that thing I do. I know, as sure as Obama's already planning his next vacation, that people will have read this, will have no specific Biblical response, and will say "I just don't see any reason not to call it a 'call.'" 

To that, I can only reply, "Well then, you can't object if I call it a hamburger."

You're welcome!

Dan Phillips's signature


Kirby said...


Desire / Doctrine / Devoutness

That is perfect. One subjective and two objective considerations, among which the local church is a critical component to the objective standards. I've read a few articles on this matter, and this is the best. Thank you.

Robert said...

Good summation of how the Bible defines how to determine if a man is given as a pastor to the church. A clear manifestation of the problems with not following this model can be seen with the mess at Mars Hill. Driscoll says he responded to an audible call from God to ministry. And in his ministry, he has proven to not meet the biblical qualifications you cite for a deacon or elder (pastor is a teaching/preaching elder). If you deem this off-topic, that is fine...I just can't help but to connect the dots here.

DJP said...

Or there are the women who say that the Holy Spirit has "called" them to pastoral ministry, so they can't disobey.

Northside Baptist Church said...

Or folks will say:

"I have NOT been called to the nursery ministry or the kitchen clean up ministry or the yard work ministry, etc"....The error can work both ways unfortunately.

Ghost Writer said...

My deacon/elder ordination went similar, thankfully:

Why do you want to be an deacon?
1. Aspire – to use my God given desire to serve him to the best of my ability [willingly and eagerly] and use the gifts he has blessed me with in the office of deacon as noble task. Outward pursuit of an inward passion.
2. Ability – Once again I feel that one of my major spiritual gifts is acts of service. I am intelligent enough to work in many areas but serving is where I seem to get my most joy and fulfillment.
3. Affirmation – hopefully over time and observation you would agree that I am gifted in this area and my heart attitude is such that I do not serve out of self-righteous works or for praise of man.
4. Availability – in God’s sovereign timing He has opened a door for me to serve in this capacity.

I want to be a deacon because I aspire / desire to use the ability that God has gifted me with for the noble task. Hopefully you can affirm the qualifications that I have and allow me to minister in the position that is available.

DJP said...

I agree. I actually think in that way it is paradigmatic of the other gifts. To the question, "What is my spiritual gift?", my response is on along the lines of "What do you love to do? What do you do well, effectively, fruitfully?"

Doug Hibbard said...

This has been a helpful set of posts for me. I've always been out of place among my Baptist brethren because my "call" hasn't really fit with the standard paradigm. It was more of a "I realized, this (teaching Scripture, helping churches) is what I want to do, am able (some days) to do, and am willing to do." It wasn't a mystical voice or any other moment.

But that's rarely been good enough of a descriptor, and I've been told more than once to quit and do something else because if I'm not "called," then I'm sinning by pastoring.

PS: but, given my difficulty with the picture below, it may be that I'm actually a robot.

DJP said...

IIRC Garry Friesen tells of being either rejected, or sharply doubted, because he couldn't tell a "call" story.

Randy Talley said...

The older I get, and (I trust) the more I grow in grace, the more the whole mystical thing concerns me. Some great examples of abuse have already been listed in prior comments, so I won't rehash those.

But what if there really was a "call" to pastoral ministry, and the guy blew it to a point of being disqualified. Then what? Is he still supposed to pursue that ministry, with the "call" trumping the qualifications of leadership? Conversely, is he neglecting the "call" by resigning? In either case, it sounds like that man is in a state of perpetual sin.

It's so much simpler to obey the scriptures than to invent a concept that doesn't exist.

jbboren said...

It's funny; I've said something similar to this on several occasions, and people generally look at me like I have a third eye. But they don't argue, because there really isn't an argument. What's the old saying..."It ain't what we don't know that'll hurt us, but what we know that ain't so" (or something like that).

Terry Rayburn said...

Even better than your previous [excellent] article on the subject, Dan. Clear. Pithy.

I've known or heard of "many" who, through some false guilt of "disobedience", have "surrendered to preach", have become a pastor, and pretty much everybody around them (and even they themselves) know they ought not be one.

I've also known some who live in false guilt because they think they're "called", but have not obeyed "the call".

Misery By Bad Exegetical Tradition.

St. Lee said...

"Well then, you can't object if I call it a hamburger."

I remember vividly the first time I felt the call to Hamburger. It was a still, small voice that told me "Rise Lee, and eat" What could I do but answer, "Here am I; I'll eat."

Lame humor aside (mine not yours), very good post.

Jim Pemberton said...

thanks for your stance on this. A couple of observations:

A) I always hear the "affirmation" one, but I noticed you didn't mention it.

B) All Christians are "called" to ministry as such according to their gifts.

Given that not every Christian is affirmed for something, I would have to say that it's only a practical qualification, not a biblical one. I'm not affirmed for much of anything as much as I'm occasionally if rarely affirmed for a wide variety of things. Nevertheless, I have to step up and do SOMETHING. Lack of affirmation is no excuse for not doing anything.

But I have to note also: there are people for whom all three qualifications you have listed are mentioned who are not pastors or should not be pastors. Being qualified doesn't equate to a call. Since God uses means, providential circumstances will determine who is to be a pastor.

Unknown said...

St. Lee wins!

Unknown said...

Modern evangelical churches:

Internal call = God told me.

External call = A church a thousand miles away that doesn't know me but sure liked it when I flew out and preached my best sermon said I could have the job.

What could go wrong?

DJP said...

Well heck, when you put it like that...

Steve Taylor said...

(Dan and/or whoever else seems comments in moderation, if I just sent a second comment similar to one you received yesterday, I apologize. I closed the browser after attempting to submit one yesterday and spent most of today wondering why I didn't actually mention my point in the comment. When I opened the browser today and saw that comment page was still up, I assumed that I had been giving a do-over! Then I submitted a comment and realized that this is just what the post-comment screen looks like. I was not intending to comment spam you. This is my last one today, I promise.)

DJP said...

Steve, that is the only comment I've received from you so far.

Patrick said...

I can follow your logic but I'm curious as to how you would handle Acts 13;2
ESV - While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
NASB - While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."

DJP said...

Patrick, I swear I'm not being sarcastic or snarky, even in my heart (as best as I know it). May I ask you a couple of questions?

Are you new to Pyromaniacs? What relationship do you think anyone should see between that verse and the modern idea of a "call" to pastoral ministry? Is it your understanding that these people are saying they hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, speaking in discrete, quotable words, as we see in the text?

Thanks in advance.

DJP said...

Clarification: by "these people," I mean people today, Al Mohler and the like.

Patrick said...

Thanks sir. I'm "newer" to the site I'd guess you say. I don't take offense to the questions. I probably should have posted more of my own thought instead of treating this as striking up a conversation. Lastly, I don't deny I have much to learn.

I guess as I read Acts 13 I see the equivalent of ministry appointment. Specifically to missionary. As I first read this post it challenged me greatly. I then began studying on it some. This was one verse that challenged me as I see it as God calling the men (Barnabas and Saul) to ministry through the Holy Spirit.

I guess though, and please correct my thoughts as needed, we can state that the Holy Spirit was speaking to the prophets of that time. Although I don't know that I can gather the exact HOW the Spirit gave the "missionary call" is revealed here, I'm not sure that's Luke's focus. Instead his focus, to me, seems to be on the happening not the description.

So given that this was how God's doctrine was taught in that day, through prophets, this is different than how we learn in our day. We rely solely and completely on the Word alone. Anything else would be 'added' revelation. Beyond this, we see that the church participates in affirming this.

I guess where my question comes in is 1) the word "call" is used here 2) Saul I would read as being a teacher so did the Spirit speak to Saul or just to the prophets (Barnabas in this case being one)?

DJP said...

Welcome, Patrick. Thanks for the responses.

Indeed, Acts 13:1 says prophets were present. A prophet is a man who receives a direct, unmediated revelation from God which God then enables him to speak with God's authority and without error. So a prophet (and only a prophet) can say, "God said, and I quote...", followed by something not in scripture.

I'd wager that the vast majority of men who insist on talking about a pastoral call mean nothing of the sort. And if they did add to Scripture this requirement, and it were taken seriously, every pastor who's served since 100 AD should have resigned.

Then consult the treatment of qualifications in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, and you will find this element completely missing.

Steve Taylor said...

Well thanks for posting my parenthetical apology. My original, comment was a follows:

I applied to a seminary that included on its application a question about my "call to the ministry." If an institution with the purpose of theological education is asking that question, it is no wonder that so many others are either ignorant or prone to sloppy language.