Is it necessary to be called into ministry? Let us assume, for the moment, that it is. While we do not want to equate the office of a pastor with that of an Old Testament priest* or patriarch or prophet or even apostle, there is a point of contact.** It seems presumptuous to assume that one could employ himself in the most important spiritual work in the world today (i.e., preaching and teaching the Word of God) without, as it were, the blessing of God. It follows that God desires pastoral ministry to be accomplished by particular people and not others. Heaven and hell, as it were, hang upon Christ’s churches having faithful pastors. We are not playing games. This is not to say that pastoral ministry is above other ministries. Nor is it to say that the functions of pastoral ministry should not be performed by the laity (especially when the church is missing a pastor, but also when the church has an “ordained” pastor); we are all priests, the New Testament teaches. Still, if Christ gives to the church its pastors, and if only certain men may fill the office of pastor (i.e., especially those who qualify), again, we should say a call of God is necessary for those particular men.
So what is this call? We are all familiar with the popular notion that God somehow verbally or internally speaks to you the call. The idea is that this often happens in a startling way. People talk as if they received direction (“immediate”) communication from God into their heart that they were supposed to be a pastor (or evangelist or whatever). “I knew God was calling me into pastoral ministry,” we hear. Or, “God told me to be a pastor.” Is this the nature of the call of God?
I don’t think that this is it at all. This is enthusiasm (see my article in the DBSJ–I don’t think enthusiasm is a good thing) and quasi-charismaticism. I do not believe that God speaks in this way to people today. God has spoken in his Word (and we have a hard enough time obeying all that he’s said therein).
The old Baptist theologian and pastor John Gill has a way looking at the internal call that I think is especially helpful. He distinguishes between an internal and external call. For Gill, the internal call “lies in gifts bestowed, and in the furniture of a man’s mind, and in the disposition of it to make use of them in the service of God.” So here the internal call is directly connected to one’s giftedness and his desire (“disposition”) to use those gifts for Jesus’ sake. And it follows, Gill continues, that if God calls a man to the office of pastor, he will give him the gifts that office requires. The true man of God, so gifted by God, would never want to bury his gifts, but would desire to use them to benefit Christ’s church: “not by a mere impulse, through vanity of mind, and with ambitious views, and sordid ends; but from a principle of love to the souls of men, and to the glory of God.” The existence of gifts and the pure spiritual desire to use them for the benefit of Christ’s people are the evidence of his internal call.
The external call, then, comes through Jesus Christ and God the Father, but is mediated through the church. The church is made aware of this call as it believes a certain man has useful gifts for public ministry, and so it calls him “to exercise it before them, and submit it to their examination and trial.” Once the church has tested this man’s gifts, and are pleased with them, “the church calls and sends him forth in the name of Christ, to preach the gospel, where he may be directed in providence to do it.” The result is plain: “being thus called and sent forth, he is eligible to the office of a pastor of a church who shall think it fit to choose him.”
So what is the call of God like? Have evangelical Baptists always believed that young ministers had to witness some kind of ephemeral mystical vision? Clearly, no. Neither have they entirely dispensed with the idea of a call, as some are prone to do today. But they were quick to clarify that the call of God was best recognized in a man’s giftedness (internally) and (externally) in the church’s public affirmation of that call.***
*Though, there does seem to be a sense in which there is a priestly aspect to New Testament gospel ministry. For proof, study the Greek of Romans 15:14-16.
**I do not think it is helpful to compare the call of God on these extraordinary men with the call of God on elders in the churches.
All quotes are from Gill’s Body of Practical Divinity. I am using a copy of his combined Body of Divinity and Body of Practical Divinity (Atlanta, Ga.: Turner Lassetter, 1965), 866.