Editor’s Note: If you have missed any articles in this series, be sure to check out the Introduction article, where you can find all of the articles that have been released.
Ammonius saw that he was cornered. Like a wild animal about to be ensnared, this desert father sought an escape. What some perceived as privilege, a call of God to serve the church, Ammonius saw as a burden. Presupposing an Old Testament tradition that the body of a would-be priest must be unblemished, he seized a pair of shears and sliced off his left ear. He screamed, “And from now on be assured that it is impossible for me, as the law forbids a man with his ear cut off to be ordained priest!” It was a defining moment.
Perhaps you can identify with Ammonius. It’s not that you resorted to such extreme measures, but you found yourself surrounded, inescapably called to ministry, and looking for a way out. This is my story—at least initially.
My Story, My Call, and My Defining Moment
I still remember the night. I was in the middle of an evening shift when a man stepped into the shop. Not just any man. He was my spiritual godfather. Making his way through a crowd of customers, he leaned over the counter and said, “You should go into the ministry.”
Ministry? I was preparing for the Air Force Academy. I had no interest, let alone any idea what he was talking about. Nonetheless, a seed was planted deep within my soul, and it began to germinate. I had a growing sense God was doing something that transcended my categories. I was not drawn to the church, let alone ministry. From my earliest memories, pastors were parochial and inconsequential, what you did when you couldn’t do anything else. But something was changing. restlessness took hold.
I was mysteriously gaining spiritual sensibilities. God was doing something in my soul, something at his initiative. Attending weekly chapel in military school, I began to experience a magnetic pull towards truth. I became more and more aware of God. An unrealized divine summons was intersecting with my life journey. I was not following a map, but I was tracing a scent.
Ruth Haley Barton, reflecting on Moses and his divine call, describes God’s ways as a conundrum. A mystifying voice from within was calling me to be something I was not, to a mission I had no inclination. He was calling me to be the person I was made to be, summoning me to fulfill the original selfhood given to me at birth. Would I be ready for the kind of question Frederick Buechner faced: “I understand you are planning to enter the ministry … Is this your own idea, or have you been poorly advised?”
Looking back, I can see the contrails of the Spirit’s movement. It was a defining moment. The duration of time (chronos), suddenly became time pregnant with possibility (kairos). God called me to step into a purpose bigger than myself. A mission more significant than any other cause the world can offer. This calling to ministry would be the first—the necessary first—of several defining moments. But it raises questions, the ones this article intends to answer.
What Do We Even Mean By a Call?
In my early days of ministry, the nature of a divine call continued to perplex me. Is this how God works? Is it necessary for ministry? In one of my first pastoral conferences, a nationally known speaker shared his experience of being called to ministry at the age of four. How did that happen? Scholarship demanded that I drop deep into my not knowing and think through what has been worked out and reworked in many different generations.
In his The Call, Os Guinness describes God’s calling as the “ultimate why for living. God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested in his service.” Karl Barth used similar speech in his Dogmatics, declaring that a divine call involves the discharge of a task, one that requires its execution with one’s whole existence. It’s another way of saying that when God summons a person, it is absolute, not fractional; enduring, not temporary. Stepping into a divine call is our statement as to how we will inhabit time. I had to contend, however, with an even more pressing question.
Are These Words Applicable to All or Relevant for the Few?
Not everyone argues for a special call. Some find such a notion exclusionary, as well as unbiblical. Even Guinness challenges the notion that certain ones in Christ are given an extraordinary summons. A decisive invitation to service comes to all who are in Christ.
Could it be I was making too much of my own sense of divine summons?
Books like Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today, Becoming a Missionary Church, and What is My Calling? have served a valuable purpose in reminding believers that God calls all of us to him and his purposes. One of the critiques leveled against the church is that most believers are unaware that they have a calling. They step into their vocations and behave as though their work in farm or factory from Monday to Friday is not the Lord’s work. But it is.
These authors also point out that applying a divine call only to pastors can come off as elitist, justifying a “rigidly hierarchical and spiritually aristocratic world.” It creates a more binary environment, separating the higher from the lower, the sacred from the secular, and the first class from the second-class members of the church. In their judgment, assertions of a special call lack critical, objective, and theological support.
But is this true? In our passion to charge all with the task of seeing their work as a divine call, are we not dismissing the countless testimonies of a divine moment when one receives a particular call to service, something that often comes after salvation? Are there not theological arguments for believing pastoral ministry has its own bidding, one complementary to a general call?
What Does History Tell Us?
In the broad narrative, from creation to consummation, Miroslav Volf finds that the “scandal of particularity” shadows the entire story of everything. There are legitimate reasons to affirm that a specific call is a crucial presupposition of pastoral ministry.
The Biblical narrative is the story of special calls.
A significant part of God’s activity is devoted to summoning specific men and women to carry out his will. Beyond a general call, there are exceptional moments when God initiates, sets men and women on their feet, and says, “This is your mission to carry out.”
A special call is what enables one to carry out a task that would otherwise be improbable if not impossible. Consider Abraham, a man whose calling transcended the purposes of his contemporaries. In a burning bush moment, God called Moses to confront the world empire of his day. Samuel was beckoned in the night to fill the vacuum and lead a leaderless nation forward. Saul and other kings were set apart and anointed to serve the purposes of God in their generation.
Move to the New Testament and we see God continuing his special summons. Jesus selected certain ones to establish the church. He set apart and appointed Paul to vocational ministry, calling him to go as his apostle to the Gentiles. God has set apart apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to equip the saints for service. Paul reminded Timothy of his calling and congregational affirmation.
Should we anticipate similar divine moments? It is a reasonable question, especially since immediate, supernatural, audible, revelatory visions are no longer the norm. But what is the norm?
A special summons may not be as abrupt and breathtaking as Moses’s experience in the desert, as straight on as Isaiah’s vision in the temple, or as heart-stopping as Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road. Nonetheless, they are just as real. Many of our callings might begin as a restlessness that morphs into an inner urge that mushrooms into a deep resolve to step out and do something one would not choose on one’s own. Whatever the divine encounter, it is from the same Spirit who calls us to die to self and live for him.
The post-biblical period is the account of divine summons.
If we confine a special call to biblical history, what are we to do with the countless testimonies that have continued throughout church history? The assertion that there is no special call beyond the biblical record dismisses a long history of voices who bear witness to a profound sense of God’s presence and summons to mission.
Early church fathers responded to a call to fulfill responsibilities that come with the pastoral office. Reformers like John Calvin experienced what he called “an intimate sense of calling which came to assume a sacred character.” He warned that no one should enter ministry without a calling.
In the Puritan era, men like Richard Baxter spoke of pastoral work as a godly charge reserved for the few. John Owen shared the same conviction, believing that upon some Christ confers an ecclesiastical office. In the 1800s, English preacher Charles Spurgeon viewed pastoral ministry as a “calling separated from every other secular calling.”
In more contemporary times others have echoed the same conviction. Anglican cleric John Stott spoke of an irresistible call from God to serve in the church. Billy Graham described an evening walk, struggling with the Holy Spirit over the call of God to be a minister. Methodist bishop Will Willimon, reflecting on his entrance into ministry, recalled an old preacher’s words, “Don’t even try being a pastor unless you are called, unless you have no way of avoiding the summons.”
Why Does the Ministry Necessitate a Special Call?
Isn’t a general call to Christ enough? Looking back over my years in ministry, I can’t imagine carrying out the pastoral task apart from a conviction God summoned me to ordered ministry. These are some of the reasons:
The weight of ministry is beyond our ability to carry.
Most of us would not choose pastoral ministry on our own. If we pause to reckon with what it means to be an instrument of God, tasked with being a physician of the soul, it can be most unnerving. Soul care has consequences that are eternal.
Contemplating such demands, Chrysostom wrote, “The fear of this threat continually disturbs my soul.” Other early church fathers were equally terrified. Gregory of Nazianzus, believing that God will require the people’s souls at the pastor’s hands, urged men to resist the call “until only obedience to an overwhelming demand is sufficient reason for advance to ministry.”
While we dare not avoid God’s call, none of us should enter the office until we are certain of it. Not until we have struggled with its full weight and costs. I read Frederick Buechner’s account of his ordination, and I relive my own. I too knelt on stage with the hands of assembled ministers and elders heavy on my skull, Ministry is a risky as well as a holy trade.
The strict demand to be an example.
While all in Christ are called to live holy lives, the nature of pastoral work demands a higher standard of behavior. We are summoned to serve as examples. Paul required this of himself and those he mentored.
From the earliest period of church history, church fathers admonished pastors to surpass the majority in virtue and nearness to God. Chrysostom went so far as to say, “The pastor’s soul must be purer than the rays of the sun.” The early fathers knew that no one does more harm in the church than the one who has the title of holiness and acts perversely.
The authority to govern is beyond our own right to command.
Pastors are uniquely vested with a power to establish order and guard against disorder in the church. They are given the charge to “correct, rebuke, and encourage,” watching over lives, shaping patterns of faith, and overseeing the carrying out of spiritual discipline.
Within this established arrangement, congregants are commanded to obey and submit to their leaders. Pastors stand between the people and God in a priestly role with the duty of representing God to the world and representing the people to God. This is part of the reason Paul described his ministry in priestly terms. Pastors are given the authority, both to speak for God from the pulpit and intercede for the people to God.
The power of the Word is beyond our own capacity to declare.
Standing up to proclaim the Word of God is a formidable task, a supernatural act. This, as Barth put it, demands a “setting apart, a special imperative calling of the man who is to function here.” One speaks words that are anything but conventional, reasonable, predictable; rather, these are words that call attention, break the routine, bear almighty power, and subvert the world.
While all of us in Christ are summoned to a prophetic ministry, pastors have a more daunting task—to speak prophetically to the prophets. They are summoned to enter the counsel of God, give themselves to the exegetical task, wait upon God until they hear his voice, and then stand in the pulpit and declare, “Thus saith the Lord.” In both faith and fear, they expect God will do something holy, something beyond human expectation and capacity.
The character of war is beyond our ability to fight.
Those who lead ministry and proclaim the Word of God will need the kind of mettle that is buttressed by a special call. The work of a pastor is dangerous to the status quo. One will face a war in the spiritual realm that is specifically designed to attack those set apart for service.
Puritan pastor Richard Baxter warned, “If you will be leaders against Satan, he will not spare you. He bears the greatest malice against the one who is engaged in working the greatest damage against him.” Spurgeon, in his lectures to his students, gave a similar warning, “Upon the whole, no place is so assailed with temptation as the ministry … our dangers are more numerous and more insidious than those of ordinary Christians.”
What Are We to Do? What if We don’t Respond?
The call of God is a non-negotiable work of the Trinity, one that is ongoing. It is calculating, deliberate, purposeful, and—yes—at times severe. It is necessary for, as we have seen, the task of ministry is beyond us. A call comes at God’s prerogative, not ours, for God’s purposes, not our own. A call, confirmed by the body of Christ, is what gives a pastor credibility to step into ministry and lead.
Once called, we may be tempted to run, but we cannot escape. One senses the early father Gregory tried. He would later write, “He outstrips the swift, outwits the wise, overthrows the strong, abases the lofty, subdues rashness, and represses power.” Adds Baxter: “It is no safe course to imitate Jonah, in turning our back upon the commands of God. If we neglect our work, he has a spur to quicken us; if we run away from it, he has messengers enough to overtake us, and bring us back, and make us do it, and it is better to do it at first than at last.”
History is the account of those who pleaded for release and came close to quitting. Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah protested. Saul hid. In early church history, some sought sanctuary in the monastery. And then there are those like Ammonius, who went to radical lengths to mutilate themselves.
This is our initial defining moment. If we ignore or live it only halfway, we run the risk of plunging into emptiness and meaninglessness. It is not a call to be exclusionary; it is a charge to be exemplary. A challenge to lead the most important institution on earth—the church.
John E. Johnson is an adjunct professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He has served as a lead pastor for thirty five years, and currently is a writer working on his fourth book, as well as serving as an interim teaching pastor.