QUESTION: A friend of mine says he feels “called” to the ministry. What does this mean? How can one know whether he or she is thus “called”?
ANSWER: There is considerable confusion over this issue. One reason is that there is no really clear Biblical teaching on the subject. The teaching that best seems to address the question is the material about what we call “spiritual gifts.” For example, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). The “giver” in this verse is actually Jesus; but what is said is parallel to the “gifts” passages in First Corinthians 12, where the Holy Spirit is named as the direct source of the gifts (e.g., vv. 7-11).
One thing that is clear from this teaching is that the “gift” or “calling” to any specific form of ministry comes from the Spirit in the context of the church. Failure to understand how this works is the main source of the confusion mentioned above. For example, many assume that the very presence of a certain innate talent or ability constitutes a spiritual gift or a calling to use that gift in ministry. This error is common in connection with the subject of gender roles in the church. Many women (supported by many men) believe that their innate ability to be good speakers or teachers is in itself a calling to the ministry of preaching. This is simply not true. Innate or natural abilities are providential gifts, not spiritual gifts or gifts of the Spirit.
Another false approach is to equate an inner desire or feeling with a “calling” to enter the ministry. A person may, via Scripture study and prayer, come under sincere conviction to become a preacher or youth minister or something similar. This is laudable, but in itself does not constitute a true calling or a true spiritual gift. The biggest problem with any subjective feeling is its ambiguity, both with regard to its origin and its meaning.
My conclusion is that a true calling to ministry always involves an objective element. The calling comes from outside ourselves. This applies as well to the concept of spiritual gifts; the gifts are bestowed upon us and identified for us from outside ourselves. I have discussed this in my book on the Holy Spirit, Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit (College Press, 2007), pp. 425-427). What follows is from that source.
The question is this: how does the Holy Spirit bestow a task or ministry upon someone? When I use this language, I am referring to the fact that the Spirit calls us to fulfill a certain ministry. Thus I believe we can say that the Spirit bestows a ministry upon any individual by calling him or her to that task. When the Spirit issues the call, this is one’s spiritual gift.
How does the Spirit call someone to ministry? As already noted, I repudiate all mystical or subjective concepts of calling. I believe the Spirit’s call is objective, and that it will be either direct or indirect. I am also suggesting that such a call is an essential part of a spiritual gift. I.e., a spiritual gift consists of three things: (1) calling, (2) ministry, and (3) ability.
The distinction between direct and indirect calling is very important. In Bible times, when God spoke directly to individuals such as Moses and Samuel, and when Jesus as God the Son spoke directly to his followers, direct calls were given to chosen individuals. God called Moses through direct speech (Exod. 3:4), and through Moses he called the overseers of the tabernacle project: “See, I have called by name Bezalel . . . . And behold, I Myself have appointed with him Oholiab” (Exod. 31:2, 6). Twelve men were directly called by Jesus into the role of apostle (e.g., Matt. 4:18-21; 9:9). Whatever natural (providential) abilities these men had, they were not apostles until Jesus called them into this ministry. Saul of Tarsus was a man of considerable natural talent and education, but he was not an apostle until Jesus called him (Acts 26:12-18). Saul and Barnabas were directly called by the Holy Spirit to the role of evangelists (missionaries) in Acts 13:1-4.
But what about today, when miraculous manifestations have ceased, and God no longer speaks directly to us? How does the Spirit call individuals into specific roles today, thereby bestowing spiritual gifts upon them? He does this not directly but indirectly, through the church and its appointed leaders. In Numbers 11 seventy elders were chosen to assist Moses in his task of leading the Israelite nation, and they were empowered by the Spirit with ability to do so (v. 17). But at God’s direction it was Moses who called these men to take this task upon themselves (vv. 16, 24). In Acts 6:1-6 the apostles instructed the Jerusalem church to call seven men to a ministry of benevolence, through which call the Spirit bestowed upon these men the spiritual gifts of helps (1 Cor. 12:28) and service (Rom. 12:7).
Timothy was called to the ministry of an evangelist by Paul himself (Acts 16:1-3; 2 Tim. 4:5), along with elders who laid their hands on him (1 Tim. 4:14). Elders themselves are appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), but only indirectly through the call of other church leaders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Sometimes the call comes from the church collectively, in the selection of various ones for various forms of service (Acts 6:3; 15:22).
When the church today, either collectively or through its leaders, participates in the bestowing of spiritual gifts by calling or appointing someone to service, this must always be done in accordance with the instructions and qualifications laid down in God’s Word. Usually included in the qualifications, of course, would be the presence of certain innate abilities or talents or inclinations (see 1 Tim. 3:1-13). But we must remember this: the possession of ability as such is not equivalent to possessing a gift from the Holy Spirit. Even a “gifted” person must be called to ministry, and then only in accord with any specific limitations or qualifications given in Scripture (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:12).
We should not think that we are being presumptuous or that we are usurping the Spirit’s role when we realize that we ourselves are the human instruments through which the Holy Spirit bestows his spiritual gifts upon people. The Pentecostal experience in Acts 2 and Cornelius’ experience in Acts 10 are unique in this regard; only on these two occasions did the Spirit come directly upon those so gifted with tongues. According to the NT, in every other way the Holy Spirit comes upon anyone in the NT era, he does so through the instrumentality of human intermediaries. Miraculous spiritual gifts (except for Pentecost and Cornelius) were bestowed through the laying on of apostles’ hands. Even the indwelling of the Spirit comes through being baptized by another person. So when we say that the Spirit’s gifts today come through a calling by the church and its leaders, we are simply being consistent with this pattern.
The bottom line is that, in this era of the church, no one can say “I have been called to the ministry” until church leaders (usually elders in a local congregation, via ordination) have evaluated that person in the light of Scripture and have objectively issued the call.