A Biblical Theology of Work and Identity, Part 4: Call or Command?

When a subjective “call” to ministry is mistaken for a divine command, the result is unnecessary anxiety and guilt.

God’s calls to repentance and to holiness aren’t just requests; they are commands to his church. When you are a Christian, you are no longer your own; it belongs to God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

This also applies to the Great Commission. The pattern of the Christian life ought to be that when God says “jump,” we ask, “How high?” And when God says, “Go into all the world,” we simply reply on our way out, “Yes, Lord—how far?”

What does this mean for the “call” to missions? Is the command to mission individually applicable to every believer? Is it audible? Is it just an internal prompting or suggestion?

Biblically, the church is commanded to do missions. It is our collective task, as the entire body of Christ, to make disciples and teach them to obey everything Jesus has commanded. Strictly speaking, this mission not a special vocation for certain individuals; it is a commission to the entire church to accomplish God’s purpose on earth.

This leaves believers tremendous liberty in how they approach the mission together. To test our interpretation, let us consider: does Scripture speak of other callings in this manner?

Arguing from Analogy

Consider this question: are individual Christians ever “called” to pastor a church?

While providence and circumstances at times direct people in clear ways, in the New Testament there are few (if any) examples in which someone is issued a calling to pastor a church with the force of a divine command. However, that is not to say that God has not given us language to refer to persons in church office or full-time ministry.

What Scripture does teach is that Christ has provided leaders for his church to build it up and accomplish its mission:

And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ[.] (Ephesians 4:11-12 CSB, emphasis added)

It is much more biblical to speak about being given to ministry than being called to ministry, but we rarely speak that way. We may speak of an individual as “gifted” by God with certain talents, but we do not usually say that people have been given by God to the church.

The question is, are you given by Christ to the church to be a leader or teacher? That’s a much more direct question to ask than, “Do you feel called to the ministry?” It certainly gets to the heart of the matter rather than beating around the bush in Christianese.

How do you know if you are “given” to be a church leader, whether as a pastor or missionary? The Bible is silent in regard to a mystical experience accompanying a special call. So how do we know who is meant to lead or teach?

I won’t treat the topic exhaustively here, but briefly consider three things you should do:

  1. Pray. Ask God for wisdom and discernment.
  2. Study Scripture. Know what God has to say about those gifts and qualifications (for instances, in passages like 1 Timothy 3). Note that Paul commends the simple desire to serve as noble (1 Timothy 3:1).
  3. Discuss your intents with your current church leadership. Look to the counsel of your elders (cf. Proverbs 11:14). If you are not currently a member in good standing of a church or if you do not have a relationship with your church leaders, then that is where you should start.

Using the Language of the Reformers

The Protestant Reformers worked diligently to shed the traditional, medieval Roman Catholic use of terms like “vocation” of its monastic baggage and return to a biblical view of work and ministry. Today the word “calling” has its own baggage, and we should follow the Reformers’ example.

Instead of saying, “We believe that God had called us to be missionaries in Africa,” consider saying, “God has placed a great desire in our hearts to serve him in Africa.”

Rather than, “God has called us to full-time vocational ministry,” try, “We believe we should seek to earn our living through our service.”

Don’t ask, “Are you called to be a pastor?” Ask instead, “Has God given you the desire and qualifications to pastor?”

Avoid, “Is God calling you to missions?” Replace with, “How will you obey the Great Commission?”

When we use the words “calling” or “vocational ministry” in a traditional rather than biblical sense, it is not only confusing but can lead to abuse and error. In Roman Catholicism, one’s belonging to the priesthood places an indelible mark on the soul which gives them the power to perform religious ceremonies even if the priest himself someday apostatizes. In turn, even we who reject Rome’s so-called priesthood are sometimes guilty, as pastors and missionaries, of believing that one’s “call” to the ministry is absolute, irrevocable, and perpetual, in spite of any sin, unrepentance, or disqualification.

Most people who use the term “calling” in the modern evangelical sense have the best of motives, and generally they mean that a person senses the Lord’s leading, guiding, and blessing on their lives in a particular direction. But if left unchecked, a belief that one possesses a personal divine calling can result in a “my way or the highway” attitude if their authority or credentials are questioned. This can lead to the view that people shouldn’t ever question the “man of God” in the church (“touch not the Lord’s anointed” being the popular misuse of 1 Chronicles 16:22). And this perspective can lead to unnecessary guilt or depression when Christians believe they are violating their a divine command if they are unable to make it to the mission field or become a paid, full-time pastor.

There is no class system in Christ. God did not design the church to have a medieval hierarchy in which some are born to rule, others to work, and others to perform spiritual functions. Our status and roles are nothing compared to our one shared calling in Christ Jesus.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians. 3:27-28 CSB, emphasis added)

A proper understanding of work, calling, and obedience from the New Testament will keep us from creating too burdensome a link between a person’s role of service, occupation, and their personal identity.

A Christian may serve as a pastor or missionary for only a season or for a lifetime, but they will find their true eternal identity in Christ alone.

Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth and final part in a series on calling and work as it relates to Christian identity and missionary life.