The "Call" to Being a Reformed Pastor

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James Swan

Puritan Board Freshman
Here's a little theological brain teaser about the call to the ministry that was provoked by two books I read recently. Both books by the way, are very good, helpful, and insightful.

The first set of snippets comes from Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor (Chicago: Moody Publishers,2004):

[Quoting John Stott] "Whatever you may think of it, I have had a definite and irresistible call from God to serve Him in the church." [And then, Prime and Begg comment:] "To make such claims about God's call we must define our terms. By call we mean the unmistakable conviction an individual possesses that God wants him to do a specific task" (p. 18).

"...God always gives a clear call to those whom He has chosen for the ministry, so that when that call comes they can do nothing other than respond to it. It follows that if someone thinks he may be called to the ministry but is not absolutely certain, then he should wait until he is sure. God does not give uncertain calls" (p.19)

Then follows examples from the Old Testament (p. 20) and New testament (p.21-22) of those called by God to a specific task. The church isn't left out, but tests the call (p,25) and helps make that call an actuality.

The next example comes from Curtis Thomas, Practical Wisdom For Pastors (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

"The biblical concept of a 'call to ministry' does not include a vision, special revelation, or mystical experience... It is true that in the Old Testament and in the first century of Christianity, God did intervene directly and call men to ministry. But today His revelation has been completed by the New Testament, and it is our reliable guide. Therefore, a local church should be able to take God's word and help the candidate assess whether or not he has been called to the gospel ministry" (pp. 20-21).

Now these small snippets run the risk of caricaturing the content of each book. There's actually much overlap in the explanations. If one were to read these snippets in context, you'd see each author is concerned with the gravity of ministry, whether or not the person called has the gifts needed, and both emphasize the involvement and approval of the church.

But I think the approaches do differ.

In explaining the seriousness of entering the ministry, Begg and Prime want you to know that you will have some sort of strong feeling that you can't do anything but go into ministry. They liken it to those in the Scripture being called supernaturally for a specific task. They don't describe it as a mystical experience or extra-biblical revelation, but it certainly falls somewhere in that ballpark, perhaps nowhere near home plate, but rather deep somewhere in the Reformed outfield. It's far out there enough where Reformed people can speculate as to how God communicates outside of the Scriptures without reverting to some sort of Assemblies of God theology.

Now I don't know anything about Curtis Thomas (other than his book on the five points of Calvinism), but I would venture to speculate he strives to be a consistent cessationalist here. That is, God has revealed His will in the Scriptures. If you think you're having some sort of extra-biblical message from God telling you to go into the ministry, be careful. God stopped calling people supernaturally to specific tasks. The Bible is complete. You should not trust such intuitions, but rather subject yourself to your church. They will assess your situation and help you make the right decision.

I haven't worked through which of these approaches (or perhaps neither) is the correct path. I'm not particularly keen on Prime and Begg's designation of there being an "irresistible" call to the ministry. It seems to me this is using the terms of regeneration and applying them to a post-conversion experience. While their book isn't an in-depth treatment of this topic, my first question was in regard to those called supernaturally in the Bible that resisted the call to their special task, someone like Jonah for instance. Where does he fit in the Prime/Begg paradigm? Is is possible to resist the call for a season? What about those who are called "irresistibly" like Saul and fall away from their special calling? Is it possible to begin ministry and then lose the calling? There probably are a number of ministers who read the Prime / Begg book before entering the ministry. They may have even felt some sort of strong inward call, and now, for whatever reason, they are no longer in the ministry. While the chapter from Prime and Begg makes good and helpful points, they left me with more questions than answers.

I found the approach briefly laid about Thomas a bit more convincing. I think it's not always wise to think every strong feeling one has is some sort of movement of the Holy Spirit. One needs to submit themselves to the local church they belong to, for better or for worse. The one problem though is that the paradigm used by Thomas smelled faintly of Romanism. A local church is not infallible. One thing is certain from the Scriptures, God sometimes takes the people we would least choose for important tasks. The tendency in conservative Reformed circles is to pick the people that are most conservative, or perhaps pick the people that most fit in to the subculture of a particular denomination. I can see this sort of thing in conservative Dutch churches. Some of them probably would never consider hiring a non-Dutchman.

I don't claim to have any sort of answer to this, which is why I posted here. Anyone?
 

steadfast7

Puritan Board Junior
Thanks for starting this thread. I've always found it strange that Reformed, though traditionally cessationist, make a big point of the subjective call to the ministry and use the language of God's choosing of a man. I also am not sure how a man could receive this compulsion unless God reveals himself extra biblically. Everyone from Charles Hodge to Charles Spurgeon have been big on this point. Gary Friessen, in his book, "Decision making and the Will of God" shares his story of not having any subjective call regarding going into ministry, and this greatly hindered his candidacy for pastoral positions, because in the mind of many, desire and church affirmation is not enough. Missionaries are also very insistent on the call, and the reason is often very practical: you will not endure the hardships of the missionary life unless you are convinced that God is calling specifically for the task. It seems to me, however, that scripture gives a general call to the church to do the work of missions.
 

moral necessity

Puritan Board Junior
The subjective is not entirely improper to look to. For, scripture tells us that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a valid witness. A consensus of the church validating your call must be a consensus of some measure of subjectivity as well, for the recognizing of certain gifts within us involves some level of subjectivity. Gifts don't come attached with neon signs saying, "here is a gift." They must be discerned as such, which forces it through the filter of the objective and subjective components of our senses. I've heard the example of Paul used sometimes as a help, for he said, "Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel." Some would say that, if you can be content doing something else, the do something else, because the drive is not fully in you yet. Inner compulsions towards the ministry seem validating, especially when the church validates your gifts along with it. I'm not sure that God compells us to minister the gospel, however, without providing within us an inner compulsion to do so, even if the church validates certain gifts within us. I would imagine both need to be present. I'm sure others can add more here who have more experience doing so.

Blessings!
 

James Swan

Puritan Board Freshman
The subjective is not entirely improper to look to. For, scripture tells us that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a valid witness. A consensus of the church validating your call must be a consensus of some measure of subjectivity as well, for the recognizing of certain gifts within us involves some level of subjectivity.


Thanks for your comments. I think you're right that the subjective cannot be entirely avoided from either the person with the call to the church evaluating that call.

What concerns me is the bottom line discerning of the call as presented by each book. It seems to me the Begg / Prime paradigm ultimately rests on a subjective experience, while that put forth by Thomas ultimately rests on the external decision of the church. This perhaps is grossly caricaturing both books, but I’m simply trying to boil down each position to their basic element. Perhaps the answer is as simple as a combination of both positions. There are though contradicting presuppositions at work in each view.

As mentioned above, one of the currents in the Begg / Prime view that concerns me most is referring to the pastoral call as irresistible. I recently asked a fairly well-known Reformed theologian this very question and the question appears to have taken him by surprise. If anyone can recommend any (Reformed!) treatments on whether or not a pastoral call is irresistible, I’d certainly be interested in reading it.
 

moral necessity

Puritan Board Junior
As mentioned above, one of the currents in the Begg / Prime view that concerns me most is referring to the pastoral call as irresistible. I recently asked a fairly well-known Reformed theologian this very question and the question appears to have taken him by surprise. If anyone can recommend any (Reformed!) treatments on whether or not a pastoral call is irresistible, I’d certainly be interested in reading it.

This would probably depend upon your view of Sovereignty and from whose perspective you are evaluating the situation from. From man's perspective, Jonah appeared to resist the call of the ministry for a season, as did Paul, kicking against the goads. Yet, from God's perspective, "who can resist his will?" "The king's heart is like channels of water in the hands of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wishes." - Prov. 24:1.

Blessings!
 

James Swan

Puritan Board Freshman
This would probably depend upon your view of Sovereignty and from whose perspective you are evaluating the situation from. From man's perspective, Jonah appeared to resist the call of the ministry for a season, as did Paul, kicking against the goads. Yet, from God's perspective, "who can resist his will?" "The king's heart is like channels of water in the hands of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wishes." - Prov. 24:1. Blessings!


This is actually part of the tension between the two books. The Thomas book appears to have a cessationalist current running through it. That is, one shouldn’t compare a call today to a specific task given by God to that which was given to those mentioned in the Bible. In other words, I would speculate Thomas would say that the examples you give (Jonah, Paul), don’t apply to describing God’s call to ministry today. In other words, we can certainly view the sovereingty of God determining the course of his prophets and apostles in their purpose being to preach his word, testify of Christ, and contribute to closing of the canon. From our perspective today, I would speculate that Thomas would say the visible church is that which makes the final determination of any sort of call to ministry (even if they say "no" and your heart says "yes").
 
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