A longer post this time as I'd like to include the full text of an article published this month in "MInistry Today" see here.
Having worked most of the last 27 years with BMS World Mission, both as missionary and in a variety of leadership roles, I know how much of our organisational life and the lives of those who come to serve with us revolve around the search for guidance concerning God’s will.
Those who come to enquire about mission service with us speak readily of their conviction that God is calling them to this work. If, as a mission, we explore the possibility of starting new projects or ministry in new countries, we too will invoke the language of calling as a way of expressing our belief that we have discerned God’s will in the matter, as in “we believe God is calling us to work in China”.
The language of calling is deep-seated in most Christians. It is also understandable. As Christians, we believe in a God who is present with us, immanent whilst simultaneously transcendent, one who can be encountered yet remains unseen. Such encounters with God are necessarily profound, and demand the use of language to describe something essentially intangible and elusive, but which we experience as personal. And there is nothing more personal than to say God has spoken to me.
At the heart of this use of the language of call is what I perceive to be a danger (for many it is a conviction) that this is the defining factor in making decisions about someone’s future. After all, if God calls, who are we to deny that call? So, a missionary candidate feels they must use the language of call, and persuade us of the veracity of their call so we can accept them. Their church will often write words to the effect that “we are sure God is calling them to be a missionary.” And in testing the rightness of whether someone works with BMS or not, we will also say something to the effect that “we want to work with you to explore whether God is indeed calling you into mission.” ‘Calling’ is the cipher we all agree to use.
I want to argue that in discerning the rightness of someone serving in a mission role, maybe also in what we call local church pastoral ministry, we have to be ready to dispense with the language of call, or at least set it to one side, and be much more down-to-earth in the scrutiny we apply. Further, I want to argue that this ‘down-to-earthness’ is entirely biblical.
A Defective Spirituality
I remember thinking a lot about decision making at a formative stage in my Christian life, in the early 1980s. At that time there was a particular spirituality in the air both in America and in the UK that seemed to endorse the view that discerning God’s particular, unique plan for your life was of the greatest importance. Interestingly, this spirituality had different starting points: in America it was rooted in a growing biblical literalism or fundamentalism, but in the UK it was rooted in the emergent charismatic movement and its tendency to endorse (heavy) shepherding and specific guidance by prophetic utterance.
This spirituality lent credence to the view that God’s plan for your life was discernible in some detail. Discovering God’s will was vital therefore, for to discern God’s will incorrectly and make a wrong decision could take you outside of God’s will. And having decided that God’s will has been discerned, it is just a short step to use language such as “I believe God is calling me to become a teacher” or “to go to University” and so on.
At that time, I spent some of my hard-earned cash on exactly the book I was looking for! Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen addressed the very thing I was wrestling with, namely how we are to know God’s will for our lives. After several hundred pages, Friesen concluded that God does not have a specific plan for our lives, if by that we mean a meticulously detailed, step-by-step blueprint. Then and now, I find this conclusion pastorally wise, intellectually sensible and biblically consistent.
It is pastorally wise because to believe in the ‘blueprint’ model of guidance raises the spectre of all kinds of damaging ‘what ifs’ such as ‘what if I make a wrong decision about my A-levels, my job, my house, my choice of spouse and so forth’. I am not saying these decisions are unimportant - quite the contrary. I am simply saying that in life no major decision is other than a step of faith, whether we are sure of God’s will or not. Also, and this is something we have wrestled with from time to time within BMS, how do you handle someone who adamantly declares that they (and they alone) have discerned God’s will in a particular matter, often in contradiction to the views of others?
I also found his conclusion to be intellectually sensible. While we do struggle with the tension between the providence of God and the freedom of humankind, these two are not inconsistent as long as we have an overarching long-term view of providence, rather than a short-term ‘it actually matters to God whether I buy a red car or a blue car’ approach. In matters of aesthetics I suspect God is colour blind. What matters to God is my wise stewardship of all I have, and my care for those who don’t.
Third, I found his conclusion biblically consistent because, as we shall see in a moment, while it is clear that God does sometimes call people into particular roles, both in biblical times and today, the Bible also commends a general understanding of discipleship and decision making that is devoid of moments of specific revelation and is more dependent on the development of character.
In short, I have found myself often saying to people down through the years that God is less concerned with what you are planning on doing than he is about the person you are becoming. I could argue - and have argued - that it matters not to God whether you paint houses or masterpieces, build a business or build a house. What matters is whether you are growing into the fullness of Christ.
Guidance in the Bible
How does God guide his people? The answer is simple: in an almost infinite variety of ways. We have pillars of fire in the night sky and pillars of cloud in the light of day (Exodus 13.21). Gideon lays a fleece on the ground (Judges 6.37) and God speaks through the dew and he overcomes his fears. God tells Abram to leave his home and travel “to a land I will show you”, a text beloved of missionary preachers, and he goes (Genesis 12.1). The apostles draw lots to choose the successor to Judas (Acts 1.26).
In respect of a particular individual calling to Office, it seems clear that the only people within Israel who were the recipients of what we might describe as a clear call or vocation were special people for specialised ministries. These are the high priest (Hebrews 5.4); Judges (1 Samuel 3.4-10); Prophets (Isaiah 6.1-8; Jeremiah 1.4-10); Kings (1 Samuel 16.11-13) and certain craftsmen endowed in a special way to build the tabernacle (Exodus 31.1-6).
The New Testament certainly talks much about calling. The verb kaleo ‘to call’ is used 148 times with 70 more uses of words which have kaleo as their root. The word is used in three distinct ways. The first is to speak of a summons or invitation to faith. So, Jesus says “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9.13). Second, Paul uses the word differently when he talks of God’s gracious invitation whereby the sinner can respond to the invitation to salvation, as in “...we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose...” (Romans 8.28).
But there is a third way that kaleo or its derivatives are used, namely to speak of the sense individuals being called or guided, and there are three specific occasions when kaleo is used in this way.
- First, in Acts 13 the gathered assembly set apart Paul and Barnabas at the clear prompting of the Holy Spirit: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said...” (Acts 13.2)
- Second, in Acts 16 we read of Paul and his companions being prevented from travelling to the province of Asia but “after Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16.10).
- Third, Paul introduces some of his letter by declaring himself to be “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God...” (Romans 1.1; see also 1 Corinthians 1.1).
What is interesting is that these instances are very much the exception and not the rule, and even these three texts, rather than conveying the sense of the call being some kind of inward impression, carry the possible sense of a supernatural communication. In the events of Acts 13, it seems likely that the guidance of the Holy Spirit was brought by prophetic utterance during worship. The Acts 16 calling was the result of a vision, maybe only to Paul, but it certainly conveys something stronger than an inner conviction. And the Romans 1 statement of conviction in respect of his calling as an apostle flowed from his miraculous Damascus Road conversion, again an atypical experience.
I would conclude that, while God has in the past, and does still today, reveal his will to his people in direct ways that could be described as a calling, this has almost always been to key people for key tasks and is not portrayed in scripture as a normal way God offers guidance.
On the contrary, there is much more written in scripture about character and qualification for office than there is ever about a specific calling to a specific person. Paul writes to Timothy about overseers and doesn’t refer to their need for a call. What he says is “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3.1). This sense of legitimate aspiration would stand in direct contradiction of a position that said God’s call was what was needed for such office.
The qualities needed for overseers, elders and deacons are spelt out in various passages including 1 Timothy 3.1-13 and Titus 1.6-9. So, when Paul writes “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, etc.”, the sense is that these are the characteristics that will validate someone’s appropriateness for office. There is no instruction to Timothy to ask “who feels they are called to be an elder?”
In Ephesians 4.7, we read that “to each one of us grace (charism) has been given as Christ apportioned it.” This is amplified in Ephesians 4.9 where we read “it was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers...” Again, the qualification is not some inner sense of calling but a demonstrable charism as evidence of qualification for office.
Consequently, I am not sure we are helping anyone when we encourage the language of calling by those who enquire about mission work, or for that matter, any other office in the church. My attempt to demystify this sense of calling is not to denigrate those who speak of God’s call on their life. This language is understandable. My real challenge is twofold. First, I want to remind everyone, including the sending church and the person themselves, that someone talking of a sense of call does not negate the task of others assessing whether that person’s character is consistent with one who wishes to serve as Christ’s ambassador or as a leader of God’s people. It is entirely consistent therefore, to ask how a person has already been involved in the ministry of the church. If they have not been active in a settled pattern, there may be cause to delay such an enquiry.
Second, my challenge is to those who do not think ‘mission’ because they have not received this mystical call that they assume is necessary for mission work. Every pastor in this country is called to world mission and should therefore give equal consideration to work in Belgium alongside their consideration of Birmingham. They were commissioned to build up God’s church. It’s their gifting and character that will determine whether they live in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria or the ends of the earth. I don’t think God ordinarily has a view as to whether the particular church we build up is in one country or another. Similarly, every businesswoman, teacher or engineer intent on ushering in the Kingdom of God should consider Cambodia just as easily as Cardiff. No special calling - just an honest examination of their character, their skills and their temperament. ‘Here I am - wholly available’.
I am more and more convinced, especially these days, that ‘mission work’ is an artificial construct if we mean by that a work that is different from the ordinary witness of the church in the world, necessitating a distinct call which is given to only a few. Geography demands different gifts and skills, character and temperament. I am not convinced it demands a different kind of calling.