Part XXII: “Called to Ministry”: have the reformed churches muddied the waters?

One key element to this discussion is the place of one’s call to pastor, lead, plant, or preach and teach in the context of one’s wider calling as a Christian. Some of the opposition to bivocational ministry may arise from the conviction, however poorly articulated, that a calling to church ministry is a higher and therefore exclusive calling. “No-one can serve two masters,” it might be said. Or (more exegetically valid in terms of context), “No soldier gets involved in civilian affairs.” So is there a sense in which a calling to preach and teach necessarily excludes the pursuit of any other career?

Edmund Clowney

A couple of books which seek to help potential students for ordained ministry discern their calling are Edmund Clowney’s Called to the Ministry and Michael Milton’s Leaving a Career to Follow a Call.  Both are written from a conservative reformed position, and Clowney’s book, as well as directly influencing Milton, has been a big influence on a number of Irish Presbyterian colleagues over the years.  In fact, at the time of writing it was the only book on the subject available at the PCI’s Union Theological College in Belfast.

In addition, Scottish Presbyterian pastor and professor Dr. Iain Campbell wrote an online article specifically in response to an emerging debate on the nature of the call to ministry. “It seems that the concept of a call to the ministry has fallen on hard times” he writes, noting that in one recent survey of evangelical ministers, less than half of those interviewed  “said that they had felt a special call to the ministry.”  Campbell’s concern is obvious. Such uncertainty would not have been the case, he believes, in previous years. Indeed, “so high an office was the ministry considered to be, that a sense of calling was both assumed and required.” Campbell briefly catalogues the various biblical calls to individuals in both testaments and references C. H. Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, amongst others, before concluding with the rather provocative sound bite: “Having been called to the greatest office in the world, how can a man stoop to become a king?”

Iain Campbell

Campbell’s main concern is to ensure that those who embark upon the ministry of preaching and teaching do so at God’s bidding, and that such a call is then verified by the church. He believes that only the presence of a call “which was more than an internal feeling” could give the preacher’s words authority and the preachers themselves encouragement. However, why a call to preach and teach should be regarded as the apex of a hierarchy of callings is assumed rather than defended. Therefore, the exclusivity of such a call and the implications of all of this for the validity of bivocational ministry are still unclear.

Similarly Clowney, in one illustration, tells of young manager who found himself concerned for the spiritual state of an employee. He ponders, “How could he reach him with the gospel? The young manager was alarmed. What was happening to him since his conversion? His fears were well grounded. Today he is a minister of the gospel.” But was it really the case that the best way for this young man to share the gospel with his employee was for him to leave and become a pastor elsewhere?

Milton differentiates between the “General Call” (to live as a Christian), the “Effectual Call” (of the Holy Spirit into new life in Christ), and the “Technical Call” (our daily vocation). The call to ordained ministry would be one technical call and would consist of both an “Inward Call,” which he describes as “that stirring of God in our hearts, in our deepest persons,” and the “Outward Call,” which is the church’s confirmation of that. Writing out of a slightly broader churchmanship, Michael Cox differentiates slightly differently. He combines the General and the Effectual into the Call to be a Christian, and then outlines the “Secret Call” (Milton’s Inward), adds the “Providential Call” (circumstances and abilities) and the “Ecclesiastical Call” (Milton’s Outward).

Of the Inward/Secret Call, Cox writes: “The inner sense of call may come as a…growing awareness or….in a highly dramatic calling… The one thing you can say for certain about all secret calls is that each one is unique.” Both Milton and Cox are following Calvin quite closely in terms of his understanding of the inner call. In his Institutes, Calvin discusses “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.”

According to Clowney, there should be a discernible compulsion in the hearts of those called to ministry. Although he comes close to viewing the pastoral and preaching call as superior, he does so only in the context of those who are gifted for this ministry. His comment regarding the precedence of the Great Commission over the creation mandate has been referenced earlier. The full quote, in context, is: “Men (sic) with the gifts for the ministry have the capacity for success in other fields, but they are not free to choose them. God’s first command still stands: man is to replenish the earth and subdue it; but the Great Commission takes priority over it. The Christian is a citizen of heaven, given the Word of life in a world of death. Peter left his fishing boat, Matthew left the tax business, and you must leave any calling that keeps you from exercising the gifts of the herald of Christ, if these gifts are yours.”

The counter-argument, of course, is that Paul did not leave his tentmaking. So which, if any, of the Apostles’ circumstances or callings are to be seen as normative for today? One struggles to find in any of these books a clearly articulated argument for why a ministry of word and sacrament, a preaching ministry, a planting ministry, or anything connected to the exercise of the office of teaching elder, need be incompatible with simultaneously following another trade or profession. In some cases it is merely presumed that, because of the nature of the work, it must be given all of one’s time and energy.

Milton, for example, makes various comments at different stages in his book that impinge on this issue. On each occasion, he says he has dealt with the objections at some other point in his book, yet on closer inspection, it is not clear that he has. For example, on the transition from one calling to another, he says:  “…you are called to the Ordained Ministry. You are also, probably, a successful salesman, manager, teacher, computer programmer, or craftsman. So, how do you make the move with integrity?” He claims that this is dealt with in the next chapter, but that chapter merely deals with the mechanics of leaving, not with the vocational issues that the question raises.

Similarly, when he raises the common objection: “Can’t you serve God at the Firm?” he says that he covered this in his chapter on vocation. But that chapter did not deal with work as vocation, and the substance of Milton’s argument is simply: “But you have been called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.” Further, on the “priesthood of all believers” and the promotion of lay ministry, he fears that this involves “denying the place of ordained ministry in the order of the Church… The Scriptures declare that only some are called to ruling and teaching offices in the Church.” Once more he refers back to his chapter on vocation, which did not actually mention this issue. Nor did it deal with whether or not scripture speaks of “a call to office,” as opposed to a general “call to ministry.”

Milton refers to this promotion of lay ministry as “egalitarianism,” and he maintains that: “egalitarianism denies the ordained role of the preacher and turns preaching into Bible Studies…. The problem is that preaching is connected to a preacher. Someone is called to preach and others are called to heed and practice.” This is similar to Campbell’s differentiation (following R. L. Dabney) between a sermon and a speech: “Any topic might be the subject of a speech. But a sermon comes with the authority of the God of the Bible in order to make men [sic] do something in response to God.”

However, Milton’s strong association between the person and the ministry would seem to be at variance with the reformed understanding that the effectiveness of ministry is not in any way linked to the worthiness of the person. The Westminster Confession of Faith states: “The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither does the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that does administer it.”

Commenting on the reformed understanding of the sacraments, G. I. Williamson writes: “The Reformed faith subordinates the sacramental means of grace to the divine source of grace, thus making the validity and efficacy of the sacraments independent of men. The sacrament is valid and efficacious because it is appointed by Christ, and is made effectual when and where he is pleased to confer saving grace by his Holy Spirit. It should be noted that the Confession does stress that the sacraments should only be dispensed “by a minister of the Word, lawfully ordained” and Williamson concurs with this, in spite of the lack of exegetically strong scriptural support for this position within the Confession itself. It is likely therefore that Williamson and Milton would agree on the strong connection between preaching and the call of the preacher.  My point here is simply to expose some of the tensions inherent in the reformed position with regard to call, office, ministry, word, and sacrament.

If this is true of the sacraments, is it not also true of preaching? And if God can choose to use unfit or even unregenerate people as channels for his word (as he did in parts of scripture), how much more can he use fit and godly disciples who may not be called exclusively to preach or administrate the sacraments, but may yet be equipped, gifted and called to do so in conjunction with their other callings? Taken to its logical conclusion, one must question whether Milton’s position would preclude not only bivocational ministry but also any bivocational preaching.

This confusion is recognized by Edward Hayes in an insightful article where, having mentioned the emergence of multi-staffed megachurches and the growing confusion in theological education regarding how best to prepare people for ministry, he sounds this note of caution: “Developments within evangelicalism today point to the need for taking a fresh look at the subject of a call. Deemphasizing ‘call’ to ministry in a context that promotes a utilitarian concept of ministerial service may ultimately be detrimental to evangelicalism.”

Following Bromiley, Hayes mentions that the validity of some of the distinctions in calling generally accepted in the reformed and evangelical world, and noted above, are now being widely questioned. “Exegetical and dogmatic theology,” he writes, “have combined to bring the biblical nature of this distinction under suspicion.” He believes that the Reformers’ focus was always on an integrated call – a continuum between the call to salvation and a call to serve. While he admits that Calvin sometimes “seemed to sanction a special calling for those who direct the church of God,” for example by applying passages such as Jeremiah 1, he concludes that “it is not clear, however, whether Calvin made a definite distinction between two separate calls.”

Hayes warns against sacerdotalism:  “call” and “calling” can be used justifiably of any ministry, indeed any vocation, and “human ordination, dedication or consecration to ministry do not carry with them special privileges or unique powers and preferments.” The nearest the article comes to a definition for any special call is this: “A special call of God to ministry may be understood as divine intervention in the life and work of an individual, pointing in some specific direction consistent with his will.” However, this definition comes after a survey of biblical evidence simply on the call to salvation and Christian discipleship and before a treatment of a specific call to the early apostles.

In 2012, a book by Vaughan Roberts and Tim Thornborough appeared, aimed at recruiting new preachers and planters for “gospel ministry.” Workers for the Harvest Field was aimed at those who would be willing to “give up their present jobs and offer themselves as workers to churches and missionary organizations.” While the target audience can account for the book’s emphasis on full-time paid ministry, some chapters fail to promote this without simultaneously undervaluing other forms of employment.

Richard Coekin

Richard Coekin, for example, writes: “God plainly doesn’t want everyone to leave regular employment for gospel ministry employment, because most people will not have the gifts or opportunity to be able to be paid for gospel ministry.” However, there are two suppositions behind this statement that are at variance with the theology of work outlined earlier and championed by Tim Keller et al: namely, that regular employment is not “gospel ministry,” and that someone with gifts for gospel ministry must be paid for it.

Coekin appears, at times, to universalize his own experience: “For me to maximize gospel ministry, I had to give up my work as a solicitor so I could devote myself full-time to becoming a pastor-teacher.” It is only fair to recognize, however, that the authors’ purpose was to prompt suitable people to consider full-time ministry, and that the fact that Coekin was working as a solicitor probably made it less likely that his profession would be practically compatible with the demands of bivocationalism. Nevertheless, it should be possible to present the virtues of one type of gospel ministry without implicitly devaluing other types.

Notwithstanding this, there is little in the literature to suggest that a call to minister as pastor-teacher (and therefore as planter-leader) is so significantly different or superior to other calls that it necessitates forsaking all other vocations and devoting oneself exclusively to church ministry.


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