Charles Erdman declares that it is imperative that the people of God correctly understand the true nature of the call to preach. He writes, "False notions of this call have deprived the Church of the services of well qualified and consecrated men; while, for the same reason, some have undertaken pastoral work who could have been far more useful in other walks of life."
As a young man, I worked in a department store in a small southern town. One day, my pastor stopped by with an invitation to walk down the street a short distance for a Coca Cola in the snack shop of the local drugstore. Shortly after we were seated in a booth, one of the community's two medical doctors sat beside us. A few minutes into the conversation, the physician inquired of the preacher, "Why does every ‘clod hopper' in your church feel that he is called to preach?" With that question, he appeared to suggest that some among us needed to understand more clearly what a genuine call to the Gospel ministry is.
Indeed, your own attraction to the subject of this series implies that you may wonder whether you have been called into the ministry.
While reading these lines, you will have opportunity to ponder the question prayerfully. If you are experiencing a call from God to preach, I pray that the things I share here will confirm you in that conclusion. At the same time, you may draw the opposite conclusion. In that case, I will join you in rejoicing that the Lord has used these articles to turn you in another direction of service for Him.
In the pages that follow, I hope to indicate that the Lord of Harvest extends a general call to all believers to work in His vineyard. Further, the Master presents a specific call to some for secular work so that they may serve mankind and at the same time participate as support personnel in the overall ministry of the church. Scripture makes it clear, however, that Jesus gives a specific call to some to preach the Gospel. The great majority of Bible scholars support the same concept. Finally, the experiences of church bodies through the centuries confirm the wisdom of God in the assignment of particular places of service for individual workers in His Kingdom.
Of course, the first thing a person hears from the Master is the call to come out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
That call has constantly beckoned all unbelievers of all eras. Using a slightly different analogy, John writes, "The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!' And let him who hears say, ‘Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Rev. 22:17).
Immediately upon the acceptance of that invitation, the Lord of the heavenly harvest expects every Christian to accept His assignment to participate in the work of bringing in other sheaves. As Hardy Steinberg says, "Once the call to salvation has been accepted, the believer immediately receives a call to service. There should be no period in the believer's life when he is exempt from ministry of some kind." Ralph M. Riggs declares simply, "There is a sense in which all Christians are called to preach or to proclaim the gospel."
The parable of the laborers' call in Matt. 20:1-7 indicates a call to everyone. All who needed work were hired. Some found employment early in the morning, others at the third, sixth, ninth, and even eleventh hours of the day. The events of Acts chapter 8 stress the same truth. All believers except the apostles were scattered and witnessed to the Gospel wherever they went. Luke writes, "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria" (Acts 8:1).
As Riggs observed, "It was not the apostles that preached the Word in this case, but it was all others than the apostles (namely, the regular members of the apostolic church) who went out and proclaimed the way of salvation." It was then as it would be later in the twentieth-century Pentecostal revival. Outsiders attending such meetings declared that one could hardly tell which was the preacher among them. All "preached" the Word of God. Luke continues, "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4). While the verb euangelizo generally refers to preaching in the ordinary sense, it can also signify simply the "announcing of good news." As I heard one of my professors say many years ago, "They gossiped the Gospel!" Their witnessing activities resulted, among other things, in the establishment of a great church at Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:19-21). Riggs states, "The great missionary church at Antioch was established by lay-preachers."
The fact is that all believers are to be witnesses.
Acts 1:8 indicates a general call for them to share in the ministry of the church. As He proclaimed the Great Commission to evangelize the world, Jesus declared that miraculous signs would accompany all who believe (Mark 16:16-18). He did not limit His promise just to the apostles nor to fulltime preachers of the Gospel. The results were that "the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it" (v. 20). Such truths in Scripture led many to proclaim the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Indeed, John wrote that the Christ "has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father" (Rev. 1:6). A student of the Bible must conclude, then, that it is unscriptural to say that the general work of the ministry is limited to the clergy and forbidden to the laity.
Congregational participation in church meetings as discussed by Paul in his first letter to the believers at Corinth again suggests that every believer was free to share in ministry during the services. Summing up his instructions, he wrote, "What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church" (1 Cor. 14:26). Jesus exhorted believers in the same way concerning the more practical aspects of ministry. He spoke of all believers at the last day when He said: "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'" (Matt. 25:35-36).
At the same time that a general call goes forth to every believer to participate in the overall ministry of the Church, some receive a specific call for secular work.
There is a sacredness to every vocation in its own right. Indeed, the original meaning of the English word vocation was simply "call." Their labor in their calling provides worthy service to people in general as well as to the servants of the Lord. It also allows them to serve as support personnel to those who give their full time to the ministry. C. E. Colton concludes, "In a sense, every person ought to feel that the Lord has led and is leading in the profession in which he is engaged; but the minister must feel more than this."
The Bible's best example of this appears in the account of the erection of the Tabernacle under the leadership of Moses. The head of the nation heard Jehovah say: "See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts-- to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship." (Exod. 31:2-5).
Jehovah declared plainly that He had "chosen," or "called," as other translations render it, Bezalel. That calling was to work with his hands as a skilled craftsman. His call included the fact that the Lord had imparted to him "skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts." These gifts were his through the working of the Spirit within him. The Lord had "filled him with the Spirit" to make him the master craftsman that he was.
Recording the voice of God, the sacred writer continues, "Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you" (Exod. 31:6). Thus He had also "appointed," called, and equipped Oholiab to serve as an assistant to the lead craftsman. He placed the rest of his fellow workmen in the same category, declaring that He had "given skill to all the craftsmen" to prepare the Tabernacle items they were assigned to make. All of these possessed not only a God-given "know-how," the manual skill sufficient for their work, but also, as a later reference to them in Scripture reports, an inner disposition to use their talents in the work of God. "Then Moses summoned Bezalel and Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the LORD had given ability and who was willing to come and do the work" (Exod. 36:2).
Edmund Clowney seeks to exalt such a calling as these workers had by declaring, "Kingdom service may include agriculture, industry, or art; but only as such labor is done with a view to the purpose of the kingdom" is their "ministry" acceptable.
In addition to the construction of the Tabernacle, other accounts in Scripture show God's calling to a non-preaching ministry in the church.
In some cases, it was the ministers who provided invaluable service as support personnel for laymen with whom they worked. In the Restoration after the Exile in the Old Testament, the governor Nehemiah and the scribe Ezra stood side by side in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the High Priest were shoulder to shoulder in rebuilding the Temple. In both cases each fully respected the "calling" of the other. The ministers took their place in the projects by encouraging the people to follow the laymen in what they were doing. Nothing here suggests either superior or inferior positions of service in the kingdom of God.
At the same time, the nature of the work often requires a division of labor to facilitate accomplishing what the Lord intends for His people to do. Such was the case in the church at Jerusalem during its period of infancy. A problem developed because of phenomenal growth in its membership. As Charles Carter notes, heretofore the Bible declares that people were added to the church, but now the Word says the number of the disciples was multiplied!
Not only rapid growth, but also friction within the group was a part of the problem. Those Hebrew Christians who were Hellenized, or Greek-speaking, complained that their widows were being neglected in the welfare program of the church. Fortunately, the congregation was following Scripture, which shows God's special concern for widows, orphans, and the poor (Exod. 22:22-27). The complaint concerned inequity in the distribution of funds for needy believers.
Rather than accusing the Hellenists of being paranoid or troublemakers, church leaders recognized an administrative weakness as the source of the difficulty. They made no attempt to justify themselves. Instead they realized that their hands were full in attending to their calling to minister the Word to the people. They recognized that it was not wise for them to devote an inordinate amount of their time to routine administrative duties. Luke explains: "So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables'" (Acts 6:2). They requested the membership to select seven men from the congregation to whom they would assign the daily oversight of the welfare program for widows. The leaders then explained that they would give their "attention to prayer and the ministry of the word" (v. 4).
The leaders listed the qualifications for the seven. They explained, "Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them" (v. 3). They had to be sanctified persons, men known to have good reputations in the church and community. Further, they had to be sensible men, full of wisdom. Above all, they should be spiritual men, full of the Holy Spirit. Some wonder about the emphasis on the spiritual in their qualifications since their assignment concerned the practical work of the church. Everything, however, in the work of the Lord is spiritual, including the most routine duties in the congregation. It is noteworthy that these men were chosen for their ability to serve rather than to speak. Preaching responsibilities still remained with those specifically called to that ministry.
Recognizing these different callings among God's people and providing structural arrangements for their exercise brought desirable results in the church at Jerusalem. The most obvious one was that the congregation took more adequate care of its widows. This benefit caused the complaints within the body to cease. The peace that followed promoted evangelism. Luke reports, "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith" (v. 7)
Paul's pleasant association with Priscilla and Aquila is a further illustration of the effectiveness of the working relationship between laymen and ministers.
The couple provided both a home and a job for the traveling preacher. Luke records that Paul first met these believers when he came to Corinth on his second missionary journey. He writes, "Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them" (Acts 18:3). When he moved on in the trip, the man and his wife accompanied Paul as far as Ephesus, where the couple remained. There they became mentors to Apollos, a promising young minister of the Gospel. Luke says, "When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately" (v. 26).
Finally, Scripture reveals that a specific call is given to some to preach the Gospel. That not every believer receives such an assignment in the work of the Lord appears clearly in Paul's discussion of the differences in their gifts or callings (Rom. 12:4-8). The great majority of scholars agree with this position. Further, church history tends to substantiate its correctness.
Literature concerning the work of the minister of the Gospel is full of conclusions drawn by scholars that individuals must be called by God to that work. Declaring that the call of God is a subject appearing throughout Scripture, Steinberg says, "It is obvious there is a distinction between the general call to salvation, the general call to service, and the specific call to leadership."
Clowney recognizes that every believer has a responsibility to teach children and grandchildren as well as to share the Gospel with friends. Yet he writes, "God does call workmen in the Word with deepened insights to perceive the outlines of sound words and with anointed lips to declare them." He expresses the concept succinctly, saying of the Lord, "When he gives, he calls; when he calls, he gives."
While readily acknowledging the necessity of the work of every believer in the church, Riggs declares at the same time that "there is also a specific call to preach. Certain individuals have been chosen of the Lord to serve in definite and outstanding ways as propagators of the faith." He illustrates: "A large firm places a sign in the window that help is wanted. In response to this, say one hundred people apply at the office to seek employment in this firm. They are employed and told to report to work the following morning. Upon their arrival in working clothes they present themselves to the foreman to be told just where to work and what to do. They had all been ‘called' the previous day, but now each must be particularly and especially assigned to his individual task."
Charles Spurgeon expresses similar sentiments. He recognizes that all believers not only have the privilege but also the duty to share in the work of the Church. Then he declares: "All are not called to labor in word and doctrine, or to be elders, or to exercise the office of a bishop; nor should all aspire to such works, since the gifts necessary are nowhere promised to all; but those should addict themselves to such important engagements who feel, like the apostles, that they ‘have this ministry' (II Corinthians 4:1)."
Concerning the distinctive call of the preacher, Clarence Stoughton writes, "His profession is different from other professions. And every relationship of his life, therefore, whether it be to individuals or society or institutions or the world, is different. His mission is unique." Commenting on this uniqueness, Gaines Dobbins observes that all other callings concern things of time, but the call to preach focuses basically on the eternal. He writes: "The doctor is set to conserve bodily health, the lawyer to defend human rights, the soldier and policeman to protect lives and possessions, the farmer and manufacturer and merchant to provide physical necessities, the teacher and writer to satisfy intellectual cravings, all of which are temporal and perishable."
The Bible contains many examples of those who received a specific call to serve as spokespersons for God.
They include Moses; Isaiah along with Jeremiah, as well as other Old Testament prophets; the twelve apostles; and Paul. I will turn to some of these and others more than once in this series of articles. For the present, however, I want to focus on the call of the Twelve and that of Saul of Tarsus.
Before receiving any call from Jesus, those who later became members of His apostolic band obviously had to be introduced to Him. Early in his Gospel, John recalls the initial meeting of five of the Twelve (John 1:35-51). John the Baptist introduced John and Andrew to Christ. After meeting Him, they spent several hours with the Teacher that day in the place where He was staying. Soon afterward Andrew presented his brother Peter to the Lord. It was the Christ Himself Who sought out Philip and introduced Himself to him. Then Philip brought Nathanael to the Master. Each of these believed on Jesus as the Messiah in their initial meeting with Him. Interestingly, all of these were personal friends from the same home town.
The first "call" of the Twelve, then, was to discipleship, or learning to be followers of Christ. Four of them received that call on the same day: Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Matt. 4:18-22). The Teacher came to where they were at work in their fishing business on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus beckoned them to join Him with the famous words, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (v. 19). This was an invitation to leave their jobs and enroll as fulltime students in His school of ministry. The declared mission of that institution was to prepare them to become "fishers or men." Following Him wherever He conducted classes served that purpose. They also learned the "trade" by observing His example in ministry. Thus, their instruction came at the same time that they were engaged in a perpetual internship over more than a three-year period. Since these men had met and spent time with the Teacher before their "call," it is not surprising to read, "At once they left their nets and followed him" (Matt. 18:20, 22).
Their second call, the call to ministry, came to these men about a year and a half later.
It was at the point of His selection of the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19). They were among a large group of disciples before, but from this point on they are included in the select group named as apostles. Jesus had a double reason for selecting them at this time. Mark reports, "He appointed twelve--designating them apostles--that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach" (v. 14). Now the Teacher singles them out from among His other students "that they might be with him" for more concentrated instruction during the last half of His ministry on earth. His intent was also to send them out to preach some time later. It was at that later time that Mark says, "Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits" (Mark 6:7). This was their first solo mission in ministry.
Paul became a preacher of the Gospel by divine guidance rather than by human motivation. On the very day of his conversion, the Lord called him to preach. In his defense before Agrippa, he recounted the event, explaining, "Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?' ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you'" (Acts 26:15-16). In his writings he repeatedly focused on that occasion. For example, he begins his letter to the Galatians by declaring, "Paul, an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead" (Gal. 1:1). With a similar declaration in his first epistle to Timothy, he explained, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service" (1 Tim. 1:12).
Stoughton hastens to point out, "Immediately, however, let it be said that this accent upon uniqueness does not, either in the mind of Paul or this writer, carry the slightest implication of overtones of special privilege for one thus separated." He suggests that the awesome nature of that separation should bend the knee rather than swell the head of the Gospel minister. None was ever surer of his call than Paul. Yet he speaks repeatedly of himself as but a servant of the people of the Lord and a slave to God.
Church history presents facts that argue in favor of a call to preach. Colton comments concerning religious bodies that make no distinction between the call to a Gospel ministry and the choice of any other noble profession. He says they may "look upon the ministry as they do upon all other vocations, simply a choice of what might seem to fit in best with the talents and disposition of the individual. . . . In general the religious bodies which have advocated such an attitude toward the ministry have developed a ministry which has departed from the proclamation of the simple Gospel of salvation in a crucified and risen Christ and have substituted high-sounding, weak-spirited, philosophical lectures on insignificant and intangible themes."
In conclusion, the Lord gives a general call to all Christians to work in the harvest. To some, the Master presents a specific call for particular forms of secular work so that they may serve mankind and function as support personnel in the overall ministry of the church. Scripture makes clear, however, that Jesus gives a specific call to some believers to preach the Gospel. Scholars argue in favor of the same concept. Finally, the experiences of church bodies through the centuries confirm the wisdom of God in assigning particular places of service for individual workers in His kingdom.
Carter, Charles W. "The Acts." In The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, ed. Ralph Earle, J. S. Blaney, and Charles W. Carter, 475-741. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.
Clowney, Edmund. Called to Ministry. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1964.
Colton, C. E. The Minister's Mission, rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.
Dobbins, Gaines S. Building Better Churches. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1947.
Erdman, Charles R. The Work of the Pastor. Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1924.
Riggs, Ralph M. The Spirit-Filled Pastor's Guide (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1948.
Spurgeon, Charles H. Spurgeon's Lectures to His Students. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1945.
Steinberg, Hardy W. "The Pastor and His Lord." In And He Gave Pastors, ed. Thomas F. Zimmerman, G. Raymond Carlson, and Zenas J. Bicket, 1-36. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1979.
Stoughton, Clarence C. Set Apart for the Gospel. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946.