Saturday, December 19, 2015

Seminary: PC2 The Calling of a Minister

The Domains of Ministry

A couple weeks ago, I started a series called, "seminary in a nutshell." The first section/book is on "The Pastor and Context." Last week I overviewed the general domains of pastoral ministry. Today's post is on calling. I will often feature a book with each post.
1. There is a movement these days to speak of everyone having a vocation, a "calling" in life. There are positive benefits to this movement. For one, it affirms that God is concerned with everyone and their life. No one is insignificant to God. Everyone has a role to play in the kingdom. We all have spiritual gifts that God uses for good in the church and in the world. So nursing could be one person's calling, teaching in the public schools another.

On the other hand, we should not think that God always has only one destiny for me as an individual, although that could be the case in some instances. But God does not necessarily have one career and only one career for me to take or one and only one spouse he has planned for me to marry. Certainly there is one theological view that sees God as determining every single thing that happens in the world. But it is not the view of my own theological tradition. [1] One view suggests that God decides and determines every single thing that happens in the world, which means that none of us would have any choice whatsoever. God becomes directly responsible for all the good and evil that happens.

Even moreso, if you believe that God has given some freedom to the universe and has a fixed plan for my life, what if someone else messes up, which they certainly will? What if the person he planned for me to marry makes the wrong choice and I am left out in the cold? There are so many people in the world--there have been so many people in the world--that, if God does not have multiple paths to the same overall plan for the world as a whole, then we are all lost. God's plan is a big, overall plan, not a plan of minute detail, if he has given some freedom to the world.

So perhaps in some instances God has a specific but "contingent" plan for an individual. [2] Given the choices of others before me, perhaps at times God "calls" people to take a certain career path. In many other cases, perhaps even most cases, God might be happy for us to serve him in any number of different careers.

Therefore, from the standpoint of "free will" [3], to view our careers as a vocation, as a calling, should mean that I view my career as one in which I am called to do all to the glory of God and in which I am called to love others as myself. It does not necessarily mean that this is the only career that God destined for me. I am called to be a certain kind of person in the world, and I should view my job, my marriage, my life as one in which I am called to be like Christ.

2. A slightly different approach to ministry, which moves in the same direction as the "everyone has a vocation" movement, is to consider all believers as ministers of the gospel. So we all become evangelists who are to share the good news with others. Like apostles, we all are sent on the mission. Pastors should not be thought or expected to be more spiritual or holy than any other believer because we are a priesthood of all believers.

Very helpful in this regard is a distinction Keith Drury makes in his book, The Call of a Lifetime. In that book he distinguishes between "ministry" in general and "the ministry." [4] The first is the kind of ministry to which we are all called as believers: "Ministry, at its most basic level, means serving others." All Christians are called to serve others, to love our neighbors and enemies as ourselves. As we will see below, he goes on to distinguish ministry of this sort from a call to the ministry.

3. You can see a pattern in the two trends I have mentioned above. The "everyone has a vocation" movement elevates everyone to the same level. We all have a calling and (by implication), being a minister is no different from any other calling. The "everyone is a minister" movement again elevates everyone to the same level and again (by implication) suggests that "professional" ministers are just ministers like anyone else.

There is a lot of good in these impulses. Certainly "professional" ministers are not more important to God than anyone else. And all Christians are called to the same standard of holiness and ethics as any other.

You can also see the cultural dimension of these trends. They fit with a certain kind of democratization of society, a flattening out that wants to consider all voices equal on any subject. They fit with the Protestant trajectory started by Luther when he emphasized the "priesthood of all believers." [5] We have no mediator between us and God but one--Jesus Christ.

But does God single out and call certain individuals to be ministers in a way that is distinct from the ministry in which all believers participate?

4. Certainly the vast majority of Christians throughout the centuries, both Protestant and Catholic, have thought so. There is only a small sliver even within Protestantism that has not seen a place for individuals who receive a specific calling to the ministry. Keith Drury explains this distinct ministry as an "equipping" ministry, based on Ephesians 4:12. "Equipping ministry is the job of a pastor or other minister, preparing laypeople for general ministry" (29). [6] He describes this sort of call as a lifelong call: "Ordination is the rite by which the church sets apart a priest or minister for life-long equipping ministry" (30).

I have heard people give opposite messages with regard to such a call. I have heard some people say, "Go into ministry unless God tells you not to." And I have heard people say, "Don't go into ministry unless you are absolutely sure God has told you to."

We can perhaps relate these two sentiments best to the two kinds of ministry mentioned above. In terms of ministry in general, by all means, may all Christians minister to others in any way they have opportunity. Ask God to call others to your attention. Be Christ to others. This is a call to all Christians.

Indeed, you may find yourself as the youth pastor of your church for a season. You might lead a small group or teach a Sunday School class. You might even find yourself preaching for a season when there is no one else available.

I had a friend in seminary who went through the whole ninety credit hour, three year degree program to get an MDIV. He was ordained as a minister in the United Methodist Church. I saw him several years later working at a Lowe's. "I wish someone had told me," he said, "that I could minister without becoming a lifelong, professional minister." At least in his mind, God had called him to minister, not to be a minister.

5. However, Christians throughout the centuries have always believed that God often sets aside specific individuals for the ministry, for ordained ministry. To be consistent, we probably should not think that this "ordination" was planned for all eternity. But in God's contingent will, he does call and anoint specific individuals.

We do not see God acting in this way toward every believer. "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (Acts 13:2). This was an apostolic ministry to which only those who had witnessed the risen Jesus were called. Only a small portion of the early church was called to this sort of special ministry.

In 1 Timothy, Paul says to Timothy, "Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you" (1 Tim. 4:14, NIV). Since Timothy had not seen the risen Christ, this was not an apostolic ministry. But he was singled out by God to preach and teach the Scriptures at various churches, in this case Ephesus (4:13).

Ephesians 4:11-13 seems to provide some sense of "called out" ministry of this sort when it says, "The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ."

This was not a list that applied to all believers, but to specific types of called ministry for a small percentage of the early church. Indeed, there are no more apostles of the sort they had in the early church, since Paul was the last to see the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:8; cf. 9:1). [7] This is a list of special callings that only some individuals in the early church had.

6. We should not think that the ministry must take on a specific form. There are "bi-vocational" ministers who, like Paul, are clearly called to the "equipping ministry" while they also work in other venues to support themselves materially or perhaps as a opportunity for witness. One can be called to the ministry and be in full-time ministry or in bivocational ministry.

There are "staff pastors," individuals who minister within the multiple ministries of a church. Some of these individuals may feel like they have a call to the ministry while others may feel called to ministry in a more general sense. We should not think that a call to the ministry will always look the same way.

7. Ordination is an event of recognition by a church that an individual is called to ministry in some specific way. If you would, it is a sacramental moment where the Holy Spirit fills a person to do the work of the ministry, usually accompanied by laying hands on the individuals. Church leaders usually lay hands on the person, but others who are anointed may do so as well.

There have frequently been different kinds of ordination. The early church had overseers and deacons, the first of which was more authoritative than the second. Overseers were likely elders who provided direction to a local church or churches. Deacons were likely younger individuals who performed ministry tasks for the church (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12; Rom. 16:1).

At the very beginning, such individuals were appointed by apostles (cf. Acts 14:23). They did not call themselves. It is quite possible that such individuals were only called for a particular task or for a particular season. Others clearly functioned in this role for a lifetime.

8. Some individuals have a sense of God's calling to a ministerial vocation from an early age. Some get that calling in a moment of time. For others, it may be a more gradual sense of calling. Perhaps a person gets involved with a ministry, and the more they minister, the more they sense that God is calling them to a more lasting and focused ministry. Some people grew up with obstacles in their way, especially some women, and it is only after those obstacles are cleared--not least in their minds--that they find their way clear to the ministry.

God calls some individuals to a life-long ministry focus as their vocation. He singles such individuals out and often uses the Church to ratify their calling to the ministry, the role of equipping the saints for ministry in general and for leading the church in the service of others.

Next week: Ministry in the Early Church

[1] Namely, the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.

[2] By God's "contingent will," we mean God's will interacting with human decisions. Not a fixed or absolute will, but God's will as he responds to and interacts with our decisions.

[3] The phrase, "free will," needs to be carefully explained. "Free will" for my theological tradition does not mean that I have the power in myself to make every decision I make. It means that God has empowered me to make at least some decisions without being determined to do so.

[4] Keith Drury, The Call of a Lifetime: Is the Ministry God's Plan for Your Life? (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing, 2003), 17.

[5] Although Luther himself certainly believed in ordained ministry.

[6] This idea that ministers equip non-ministers to do the work of the ministry is a modern, twentieth century one. Much depends on whether we should interpret there to be a comma between "mending the saints" and "for the work of ministry." If there is a comma, then apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers both mend and do ministry. But if there is no comma, they they "equip" for the saints to do. Virtually all modern translations render it in terms of equipping the saints to do ministry, although one wonders if this is a place where modern, democratic culture has impacted an interpretive decision.

[7] Even here, however, there may be some today who have a ministry of authority that surpasses other ministers of the gospel. Some traditions play out this ministry of authority in terms of church structure--bishops and such. More charismatic traditions recognize some to have a far more significant authority from the Holy Spirit.

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