How do I know I'm called?
John Steven's is National Director for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. He's married to Ursula and they have four children. In this piece he brings pastoral wisdom and biblical light to the vexed issue of the 'call' to ministry.
When I was in my 6th Form I took a careers test. The results told me that I should consider becoming, in order of suitability, a barrister, a solicitor, a teacher and a minister of religion. I studied law at University, became a Christian in my final year, decided not to train to become a barrister, turned down a job with a firm of solicitors, became a university lecturer and am now a church pastor! The truth is that I fixed the outcome. I had always wanted to be a barrister and I answered the questions to ensure that it told me to do what I already wanted to do.
This question, ‘How do I know if I'm called?' is probably the most important question many of you are asking. It's the question that you really want to have answered as you consider the possibility of full-time gospel ministry. I need to warn you that I am almost bound to fail in giving you an answer. In the first
Our Christian culture regularly uses the language of ‘calling' into Christian ministry. In Free Church culture there has been a particular emphasis on the need for a ‘call' into Christian ministry, which demands a subjective inner conviction or compulsion to serve in this way. However, the supposed need for a ‘call' has led to many men and women holding back from serving God in full-time ministry because they have not had a particular kind of overwhelming personal experience. Surprisingly, the Bible does not use the language of ‘call' in this way. The language of ‘call' is used to describe God's call of men and women to salvation by faith in Christ through the gospel. The application of ‘call' to speak of God's will that we should work or serve in specific jobs, professions or ministries can be traced back to Luther's misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 7v17-24. Luther was right to break down the false distinction between secular and sacred work, between clergy and laity, but he misunderstood 1 Corinthians 7 as speaking of God's ‘callings' of men and women to different jobs and situations. Paul's point is that people should be content to stay in the situation that they are in when they are called to salvation.
It would be better if we could avoid using this misleading term as it implies a particular kind of experience which is not demanded by the New Testament. Rather we are dealing with a question of ‘guidance' or ‘assurance.' The question needs to be rephrased as ‘How can I know God's will?' Asking ‘Am I called?' is really to ask ‘How and where does he want me to serve him?' This doesn't automatically imply a particular kind of experience.
The great news is that the Bible tells us that we can know what God's will is. Life is not a cryptic treasure hunt where we are desperately trying to find God's will from fiendishly difficult clues. God has revealed his general will to us in the Scriptures, and they are completely sufficient to equip us to know and serve God. He has also given his Holy Spirit so that we, both individually and corporately as the body of Christ, can make right ‘judgements' or decisions. As 1 Corinthians 2v17 puts it so clearly, ‘we have the mind of Christ' through the Spirit so that we can decide for ourselves. God has enabled and empowered his people to decide, and we need to have faith and confidence in what God has promised his people. We need to be careful because we live in a highly individualistic culture. The New Testament teaches us that God's will is not primarily discerned personally and individually, but collectively and corporately, by the church as a body led by gifted and mature men.
So the question I want to consider is this: ‘How can we discern God's will?' The Bible says there are three elements to take into account when discerning whether it is God's will to enter ministry:
- The possibility of God's direct revelation
- The admissibility of your personal ambition
- The necessity of the Church's corporate recognition
The possibility of God's direct revelation
When people speak of the ‘call' to ministry, they usually mean some kind of direct revelation from God that tells someone that they should serve in a specific way. This may be an audible or inner voice, a vision or a dream, a prophetic word from someone else, a Bible verse brought to mind or illuminated in some way, an impression or a conviction. Whatever the form it leads the person to conclude ‘God told me.' Whilst I have been at pains to say that the Bible does not use the language of ‘call' to describe an experience necessary before entering full-time ministry, it is full of examples where God speaks personally to individuals commanding them into ministry. God speaks to Moses
Although the Bible tells us that these kinds of experiences occurred from time to time, it does not instruct us that we should expect them. We don't find people in the New Testament urged to seek such experiences, or questioned whether they have had them or not. There is no suggestion in Acts or the Pastoral Epistles that having had such an experience is a prerequisite for appointment as a church leader. Whilst the New Testament does not give us grounds to demand or expect that God will guide by direct revelation it does at least open up the possibility that God might guide us in this way, so we cannot discount this entirely. The New Testament examples of such guidance suggests that it is only likely when it is God's will to use an unlikely person, to undertake an unlikely ministry, that will involve considerable personal cost or suffering. Such guidance is unexpected in the sense that it is not sought after but breaks in surprisingly, as for example when God sent Peter to preach the gospel to Cornelius or when the church at Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey. It also tends to occur when the gospel is being taken to new people or places, or where social or culture boundaries are being crossed. There is no evidence that such guidance is given for the appointment of pastor-teachers into the leadership of settled churches. The Biblical evidence would suggest that such guidance is more likely for a person who is being sent by God to work as an evangelist, missionary or church planter.
The Admissibility of Your Personal Ambition
Very often Christians can have the assumption that their own desires and longings are dangerous and untrustworthy. Deep down they suspect that God is a kind of divine kill-joy who will want us to do what we don't want to do, almost like a heavenly PE teacher forcing us to do cross country in the snow. We have a suspicion that our desires and ambitions are bound to be sinful and self-serving, and
Although the Bible recognises that some of our desires do come from the
However, because our hearts are deceitful we need to search
The desire for status
Church leaders and Bible teachers can be held in great respect. Sadly men have gone into Christian ministry because it provides them with an opportunity to gain power and status that they would not be likely to enjoy outside of the church.
The desire to be the hero
It is easy to enter ministry with the desire to help God accomplish his plan, and with the ambition of being like the striker who scores the winning goal and gets all the acclaim.
The desire for money and security
In the past Christian ministry was often a lucrative career. Being a church minister, especially in an established denomination, can be a safe and respectable option. 1 Peter 5v2 warns pastors not to be ‘greedy for money but eager to serve.' As the power and wealth of the church declines and ministry
The desire for an easier life
It is a danger to think that Christians ministry offers the prospect of an easier life, and as an alternative to secular work that feels boring or unfulfilling. Ministry is not like being paid to indulge your hobby or leisure interest. The New Testament consistently speaks of ministry as ‘labour' and ‘toil.' Like all
The desire to be a better Christian
Don't go into ministry because you think that it will make it easier for you to live the Christian life. It is easy to think that in ministry there will be
The desire to be like others
Some people enter ministry because they want to be like others. Perhaps they are in a culture where there is strong encouragement to go into ministry, and everyone else around them is planning to go into ministry. They may be under pressure from the expectations of parents, family, friends, or church leaders.
We need to be on guard against going into ministry for the wrong reasons, but even if we do have a right and genuine ambition a person should not go into ministry without a willingness to accept the cost. Christian ministry invariably leads to suffering. It will almost inevitably involve a material cost of giving up career and salary prospects, a social cost of status in the eyes of the world, it may involve
For many of
The Necessity of the Church's Corporate Recognition
The New Testament makes clear that the decision to serve in ministry should not be just an individual process. Rather it is a decision for the church as a whole, and especially the leaders of the church. Whilst God can grant personal revelation (which needs to be judged by the church) and we ought to take notice of personal ambition (which ought to be tested by the church) the corporate recognition of the church is always vital.
The New Testament shows that full-time gospel workers were selected and appointed by the church and its leaders. Clear criteria were established and suitable individuals identified, selected and appointed. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches they had planted. Paul gave Titus and Timothy clear criteria for the selection of elders in the Pastoral Epistles. It is not just the leaders of the church who are involved. In Acts 6 the whole church selects spirit filled men to oversee the distribution of food to widows. The language of ‘appointing' elders may also indicate the involvement of the whole church as it is drawn from a Greek political term for the election of city officials. It may well be that a similar process of selection applied to the appointment of women to serve in the church. In 1 Timothy
What, therefore, are the criteria for ministry? These are most clearly set out in 1 Timothy and Titus. Four criteria can be discerned:
(i) Gospel Conviction
It is essential to have a firm grasp of the gospel. In 1 Timothy 3v6 an elder must not be a ‘recent convert' and in Titus 1v9 ‘he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.'
(ii) Relational Character
The criteria given emphasise the importance of godly character for ministry.
(iii) Proven Gifting
A person can only serve in full-time ministry if they have the necessary gifts. An elder must be ‘able to teach' (1 Timothy 3v2) because this is his prime work (see 1 Timothy 5v17). Timothy was set apart by Paul as a church-planting missionary evangelist, and so it is not surprising that we find that his gift was to ‘preach the word (i.e. the gospel) in season and out of season' and his responsibility was to ‘do the work of an evangelist.' A person should only be appointed to ministry when their gifting has been seen and demonstrated in the life of the
(iv) Ministry Aptitude
It is easy to miss the fact that the criteria are not just about character and gifting. The criteria include an aptitude to do the work that the ministry will require. In 1 Timothy
As you consider the possibility of full-time ministry and ask the question ‘what is God's will for me?' it is vital that you involve the church in your discernment process.
‘How can I know if I'm called?' I hope that you've seen that this is the wrong question. You should be asking ‘How can I know God's will so that I can serve him in the best possible way?' This is not just a personal decision with the goal of maximising your fulfilment, but of discerning God's good purpose, which will best build up his church, given the gifts, personality, and opportunities he has providentially given you.
So as we finish can I urge you to do 4 things:
Serve God where you are
That is where he has put you for the moment and you can be sure he has put you there for a reason.
Don't wait for personal revelation from God
He doesn't promise that he will guide you in that way. Be willing to trust his word and his church and to get on and plan and decide how you can best serve him.
Search your heart for what you really want to do
Make sure you go into ministry because you desire to serve in this way, but be ruthlessly honest in scrutinising your motives. Make sure you do have good and godly motives for ministry.
Submit to the church
God has given his Spirit to his people. In an individualistic
Trust God and do not be anxious
He is in control of everything and he knows what he is doing. Believe the doctrine of providence. He has a habit of getting people to where he wants them to be, and to where he wants them to serve. The process of getting us there is often what he uses to mature us and teach us the wisdom that we will need for the work he has for us. Life is not a difficult maze in which there is a danger that you might make a wrong turn that defeats God's plan. He will accomplish his purpose for you.
[This article first appeared on the 9:38 blog in 2011. You can find more from John Stevens here.]