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What is a “call to the ministry”? Essay

What is a “call to ministry” ? Is it more subjective or objective? It is just for preachers and pastors and missionaries, or is it also for the Christian businessman and plumber, the housewife and mother? Is it only one’s vocation, or does it also refer to salvation and relationship with Christ ?

Os Guinness, in his book, The Call, writes: “Calling is the truth that God calls us to Himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to His summons and service”.[1] Calling is primarily a calling into relationship with Jesus, and it includes all of our life, not only our job or vocation. Mark 3:13-14 says that Jesus called His disciples that they would first and foremost be with Him, and then to go out and preach and cast out demons.

Drawing on the writings of Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, Guinness elaborates further: “For Luther, the peasant and the merchant – for us, the business person, the teacher, the factory worker, and the television anchor – can do God’s work ( or fail to do it) just as much as the minister and missionary. For Martin Luther and subsequent reformers, the recovery of the holistic understanding of calling was dramatic. Writing about the “Estate of Marriage” in 1522, Luther declared that God and the angels smile when a man changes a diaper. William Tyndale wrote that, if our desire is to please God, pouring water, washing dishes, cobbling shoes, and preaching the word “is all one”. William Perkins claimed that polishing shoes was a sanctified and holy act.”[2]

This is very helpful for those who want to serve God in “creative access” fields such as the Muslim world or Hindu countries or communist countries where they do not give “missionary visas”. The Muslims, especially, need to see modeled a true believer who works hard at his job, and who is not being paid to be a holy man. Many Muslims are disillusioned with the religious leaders of their societies today. Phil Parshall makes the assertion that Islam spread more rapidly in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangla Desh through trade and business: “Islam, in its early years, was propogated through the influence of a dedicated network of lay people. Members of this army of traveling businessmen took every opportunity to share their faith with those they met. This is why Asia today embraces almost two-thirds of the Muslim population of the world. These “tentmakers” ( see Acts 18:1-2, a reference to the apostle Paul, who made tents in order to earn money to live, and then preached the gospel without pay) were amazingly successful. It is now time for Christians to implement a similar strategy.

These approaches will need to be characterized by a spirit of innovation and flexibility.” [3] In fact, an Iranian pastor, a colleague of mine, who works a secular job in teaching engineering 4 days a week and pastors a church 3 days a week, has been asked many times by the Iranian Muslim community, “How much do the Americans pay you to be a pastor?” He can honestly reply, “nothing”, “I am a professor of electrical engineering and work at a regular job to pay the bills and take care of my family. I preach and minister the gospel because I want to follow and serve Jesus Christ for who He is, not for money.” This is a powerful testimony of his faith and attractive to many Iranians, who are burned out and disillusioned with ‘religion’.

Churches that have emphasized an inner, subjective, mystical “call” of God to preach, missions, pastoral work, etc., have done something in an extreme way that sets up a dichotomy between secular work and “spiritual” or “religious” work and gives an air of pride to those who have been “called” of God to the ministry. The regular business man is made to feel his calling and vocation in life is not from God because he didn’t “hear a voice” or “have a dream”, etc. God wants more Christians to stay in the business world, the arts, entertainment, politics, journalism, etc. and bring their Christian convictions and world-view to bear on how they conduct their business, write songs or films, or paint pictures.

One of the reasons for the recent decline of Christian impact on our culture is because too many Christians have left the fields of science, math, film, art, journalism, and especially politics, and hence there was a vacuum left that the humanist, skeptic, atheist, and agnostic filled. So, now when in recent years Christians have tried to boldly make an impact on culture in these various fields, especially politics, we are finding the whole world-view of our culture has changed and the world-view of absolutes, right and wrong, the Ten Commandments, prayer, belief in God, convictions about abortion and homosexuality as sin are scoffed at, laughed at, labeled as intolerant, and even pushed out by media blitz or ignoring the facts or not giving Christians opportunity to voice their opinion.

When considering a “call” to ministry, let me encourage you to not dichotomize too sharply between the secular and sacred. God wants to use all kinds of vocations to both “disciple the nations” ( Matt. 28:19 ) and be salt and light in the culture ( Matthew 5:13-16) and “have dominion and manage the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28)

Inner Calling and External Confirmation: Subjective and Objective Criterion

Is a call to ministry a heavy, crisis experience and “internal, subjective” feeling like the prophet Isaiah or the apostle Paul?? Isaiah 6:8 “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Who will go for us? And I said, “ Here am I send me!” Paul: I Corinthians 9:16 “. . . for I am compelled to preach. Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel !” ( see also Acts 9 and Galatians 1 where Paul describes his calling from his Damascus Road experience.)

Or is a “call to ministry” an objective, factual, logical process that is confirmed by gifts, abilities, training, and local church commissioning?

Robertson McQuilkin, one of the great missionary statesmen of the past 50 years, and past president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary ( Now, Columbia International University, Columbia, S.C.) in his book, The Great Omission, after discussing what is a “call to missions” and the different emphases and extremes that people go to determine the “call”, writes, “After years of involvement in the enterprise of selecting, training, sending, and deploying the missionary task force, I am convinced that there is an element of truth in both positions.”[4] McQuilkin, a godly man, after many years of missionary service in Japan, and then as a professor and leader of a large evangelical University, in 1990 resigned from his position as President of CIU to take care of wife, who was slowly degenerating with Alzheimer’s disease. He has been a model for us all.[5]

So, a “call to the ministry” can best be defined by the combination of both: 1. Subjective, inner compulsion, desire and conviction. ( Expressed in statements like, “God has called me”, “the Holy Spirit is leading me”, “a conviction came over me as I was praying and meditating in the Word over a period of time or even one time.”) 2. Objective facts of training, service, abilities, gifting, and local church counsel and commissioning.

The Greek word “concluding” in Acts 16:10, “concluding” that God had called them to preach, is a word that points to “bringing two or more factors together”. Paul and his companions had already been called to the ministry way back, so this was an example to getting further guidance and instruction along the way. It was not only the subjective vision that Paul saw, but it was also in praying and discussing it with the others on the team, the text says “we” ( Luke joins them at this point) and “we concluded that God had called us”. Verse 6 emphasizes “Paul and his companions”, later “they tried to enter” , but the Holy Spirit would not allow them to”. Notice the emphasis on “them”, “we”, “us”. So they had to have prayed and discussed things together as a team and made their decision as “one unit”, a combination of the inner compulsion and objective facts.

One commentator put it this way: “The words “assuredly gathering” (KJV) are book-keeping words. Paul added things up. He concluded. This is the language of thoughtful reasoning. Paul and his companions used their Spirit-controlled minds to put together the factors that had been made clear to them. They concluded that the vision had been from God—not all are—and followed the direction thus given.”[6]

The combination of both of these elements are basic Christian guidance.

What are the elements of the calling of the apostle Paul?

1. The Lordship of Jesus Christ over all areas of his life. ( Acts 9:5, 22:10 ) (Surrender to Christ’s authority over our lives: Romans 12:1, Matthew 28:18 “All authority has been given to Me . . .”

2. Discipleship/ Seclusion: Period of quietness and loneliness and growth. Acts 9:23,”after many days had gone by” is the period when Paul went away to Arabia, probably Mt. Sinai in Gal. 1:12-18. The Disciples were first “called” to be with Christ, then to be sent out to preach and cast out demons. Mark 3:13-14 “that they might BE WITH Him”. These first two points are the most important for us to follow and do. The other areas will fall into line when we obey the priority of relationship with Christ and His Lordship over every area of our lives.

3. What the Scriptures say about Missions: Acts 13:47-48, quoted from Isaiah 49:6;
Romans 15:20-21 quoted from Isaiah 52:15

These were Paul’s verses in the Old Testament that guided him as “apostle to the Gentiles”. Have you meditated in the word of God enough to where you can point to specific texts, interpreted rightly, of course, to describe your calling? The texts Paul quoted from the OT were specifically and definitely related to the Jewish believers obligation to share the covenant blessings with the Gentile nations. Galatians 3:6-8, 16-29 also relate to this.

4. Training/ Experience / Service in the local church. Acts 9:19-30, 9:22, Acts 11:25-26 Notice they served in the local church before they were formally commissioned and sent out in Acts 13. Someone aspiring to be a teacher, pastor, elder, and teaching missionary should be trained in the Bible knowledge and surveys, good hermeneutics, sound theology, church history, and Biblical counseling, besides the givens of evangelism, good discipleship and church life principles.

**The person aspiring to pastor / elder should meet the qualifications of elder/pastor: I Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 20, I Peter 5:1-7, Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5. These qualifications are an emphasis on moral character, family life and godly marriage, and ability to handle the Word of God properly in interpretation and teaching others; and these are best developed in growth in a local church where the person desiring to serve first learns to submit and be accountable under authority.

5. Local Church confirmation and Commissioning. Acts 13:1-4 The teachers and leaders were gathered together and Paul and Barnabas had already been called, but they first served in the local church before they were sent out. Today, we must go to our elders, pastors and get counsel and pray and fast for God’s direction. The local church is God’s primary sending agency to send people out to missions. The local church “released” them, or “sent them out” in verse 3, and the Holy Spirit sent them and guided them in verse 4; so “sending” is a combination of the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit and the outward counsel and confirmation of the local church. Get counsel from spiritual people, leaders, pastor, or elders.

6. Inward Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Acts 16:10, Psalm 32:8-9, Gal. 5:16, 25

Paul was called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. There are no more apostles today in the formal sense of the office of an apostle, those that were Jesus, the 12 disciples, and those who saw the resurrected Christ and were specially called by Jesus to be His apostles. ( Acts 1, I Corinthians 9:1-2, I Corinthians 15:1-10). The 12 disciples of Jesus, Paul and his missionary team and James are called apostles.

They had special authority to write Scripture, do miracles, and plant churches and command believers with the same authority of the Lord Jesus Himself. The only way the gifting of apostleship exists today is in the aspect of “pioneer evangelist/church planter” to new frontiers or areas. Wayne Grudem has a good discussion why it is unwise to call anyone “apostles” today and why the office of apostle has ceased. [7] The canon of Scripture is closed, so the office of apostle is closed.

The Apostle Paul was not married, so we would add another point to these six from his life. Our calling in ministry needs to be confirmed in our marriage as a “one-flesh” decision. ( see below)

Ministry, Calling, and Marriage:

Another very important issue in the calling is marriage and “What does my wife say?” Or, if the wife is the one who first senses a calling, “What does my husband think about this?” The two are one flesh, one unit, so you must make your decision as “one unit”. Mark 10:6-9, Ephesians 5:18-33. Both have to be agreed and not only agreed, but excited and want to minister. The person who feels “called” will never be as effective as God wants them to be if the spouse does not have a heart for ministering to people and supporting the other person.

If two single people are considering marriage and ministry, then they definitely have to think and pray and get counsel and “be one” in their decision to get married based on the common goal of ministry. They should be united in purpose ( Phil. 2:1-3, I Peter 3:7-8) and they should not get married if one is not committed to ministry.

However, if God begins to work in a person’s heart after they have been married for a while, all the while the “call” to ministry being the farthest thing in one or both of their minds; then they need to spend a lot of time talking, discussing, praying, and coming to unity and agreement on their decision.

I would encourage husbands who get a “call” to ministry later (after they have been married for a while) to let their wives openly express their opinion, listen to them, and hash out all the issues with counsel and other spiritual leaders. Don’t shut them down and stifle them from expressing their opinion. If the wife says, “I am not ready for that”; then it is best for the husband to NOT push ahead. Someone may say, “What about God’s call?” Well, that’s looking at it from only the “mystical, subjective” extreme. It has to be balanced with the objective facts that 1. God is Sovereign,

2. God has put you two together,
3. God’s will is that you be unified in purpose, and have a Biblical marriage, so you put those truths first before the subjective “calling”.

“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in such a way with consideration, according to knowledge and understanding and studying her, as a weaker vessel, since she is a woman, honoring her and respecting her as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” I Peter 3:7-8 with my own emphasis and commentary- Ken Temple)

Someone has illustrated guidance by using an illustration of a big ship entering into a narrow harbor. Usually, it can only enter into the harbor at the right angle when it lines up 3 or 4 points of light or markers. Only when we line up all 6 or 7 of the above points, will be more assured that we are following the Lord’s will and guidance for our lives.

The “call” of God is used many different ways in Scripture:

1. Sometimes it just means “invitation”, where one can choose to take it or leave it. “Many are called, (invited), but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14) Many people are invited to come to Christ and salvation, but only those whom God has chosen actually finally come in true repentance and faith.

2. Most of the time it means the “salvation calling” to a relationship with Christ and a calling to a holy life. This calling is not merely an invitation, but an effectual wooing and drawing to salvation and holiness, almost synonymous with “election”, “choosing”. Romans 8:28-30

Mark 3:13-14 called first to “be with Him”, then later to preach and cast out demons.
I Cor. 1:2 called to be holy
II Peter 1:10 “make your calling and election sure”
Ephesians 4:1 Walk worthy of His calling

Others: Romans 8:28-30, I Cor. 1:26, Eph. 1:18, 4:4, 2 Thess. 2:14, 2 Tim. 1:9, I Peter 1:15, 2:9, 3:9, 5:10, Jude 1

3. There is also a calling to suffer: I Peter 2:21, Acts 9:15-16, Acts 14:22 4. The other way “calling” is used is used to describe Paul’s call to be an apostle: Romans 1:1, I Cor. 1:1, Gal. 1:15. Galatians 1:15 is a mixture of both Paul’s call to salvation and his call to serve as a missionary to the Gentiles (non-Jewish nations).

Recommended for Further Reading on this Subject:
Ian Hay, Now, Why Did I Do That? The Biblical Basis of Motivation, General Director of SIM International, 1977. Wesley Deuwel, Let God Guide You Daily. Francis Asbury Press, 1988. Os Guinness, The Call. W. Publishing, a division of Thomas Nelson, 1998. Robertson McQuilkin, The Great Omission. OM Publishing, 1984. John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad. Baker Books, 1993.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Zondervan, 1994.
[1] Os Guinness, The Call, W Publishing, a division of Thomas Nelson, 1998, p. 29. [2] Ibid, p. 34.
[3] Phil Parshall, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January, 1998, p. 41. [4] Robertson McQuilkin, The Great Omission, OM Publishing, 1984, p. 79. [5] Robertson McQuilkin, A Vow to Cherish, 1990, a small booklet available from CIU, P. O. Box 3122, Columbia, SC. 29230-3122. [6] Ian Hay, “No Voice From Heaven?” a discussion paper from SIM International, a mission agency. [7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, pp. 905-911.

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