Is God calling you into ministry? Should you be giving your life to full-time work as a pastor and preacher? It is a question which troubles many younger Christians (and some older ones too) and can lead to prolonged periods of questioning, doubting and anxiety. We want to do God’s will but we are not entirely sure how to find it. What is the answer?
We need to understand that, biblically, there is an outward call and an inward call to ministry. Both are needed, if we are to be sure of doing the right thing by launching into full-time gospel ministry.
The outward call
An outward call is simply the invitation which a church extends to a person whom they want to be their pastor. The church should have prayed and thought carefully and biblically about their decision to extend the invitation. When they extend the invitation, they are in effect issuing a call to the individual concerned: that is the outward call.
There is no obligation on a person to accept the call. The invitation must be carefully and prayerfully considered. There may be all kinds of reasons for rejecting it: the individual may feel unprepared to take on the role of pastor; they may consider that the church which has issued the call is not the best fit for them in terms of size, make-up, culture or other matters. Family commitments may make a move to the church in question inadvisable. It may be impossible financially, or impractical geographically. There are many reasons why a call from a particular church should be rejected, not accepted: there is nothing in the Bible which requires us to say yes to an outward call just because it has been issued.
The inward call
So you cannot go into pastoral ministry without an outward call – you can’t simply appoint yourself to the job! But if the outward call is necessary, so is the inward call. This used to be uncontroversial among evangelicals, but in recent years it has become contentious. Some today argue strongly that there is no such thing as an inward call. All that is needed is an outward call, plus evidence that the biblical qualifications for elders (as found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9) are fulfilled. Essentially, if you have the requisite gifts and godly character, and a church asks you to be their pastor, you have all the calling that you need to go and do so. Is this biblical?
I believe that it is not and that the Bible speaks very clearly about the need for an inward, as well as an outward, call to be a pastor. What biblical evidence is there, then, for an inward call to ministry? Many people would point to Jeremiah’s call to prophetic ministry (Jeremiah 1) or the call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) as the appropriate pattern. They would compare the inward call to ministry to the feeling that Jeremiah had when he declared that God’s word was like a fire shut up in his bones and he could no longer hold it in (Jeremiah 20:9). However, some have objected that these verses deal with the call of an Old Testament prophet to ministry, which is not comparable with the call to pastoral ministry today. Similarly, they would argue that Paul’s call to preach the gospel at his conversion (Acts 9) is not the pattern for ordinary pastors, as Paul was an apostle not simply a pastor.
These objections have some validity. Our calling today is to pastoral ministry, not to be Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles. Nevertheless, the Bible indicates that pastoral ministry is not simply something we take up because we have the right gifts and character and a church has invited us to that role. Something more is needed. We can see that from a number of places in the New Testament. For example:
- The gospels are careful to tell us that the apostles and others went out preaching when Jesus instructed them to do so: they didn’t go simply because they felt like it or believed they were up to the job or that it was a task that needed to be done (e.g. Luke 9:1-2; 10:1-3). Preachers were sent out by Jesus.
- In an important passage, Paul tells us that pastors and teachers are a gift to the church provided by the ascended Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:11). Is it likely that Jesus would do this without giving the individuals who are so gifted to the church some inner conviction that that is the work to which he is calling them?
- When he describes to Timothy the qualifications for elders, Paul speaks of their having a ‘desire’ for such a task (1 Timothy 3:1). Again, this is an indication that there is some inward sense of calling to pastoral work.
- Paul speaks of an inward compulsion to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16) – it is a trust that has been committed to him. He is clearly speaking in this passage of his calling as a preacher, not as an apostle, and so what he says must be applicable to all gospel preachers: there is a sense that he must do this, whatever the cost.
Taken together, I believe that these passages show clearly that there is such a thing as the inward call to preach the gospel. Without some sense of this, no one should enter into pastoral ministry. To do so is to risk taking on a work to which Christ has not called you, with the likely result that you will not last in the role nor see great fruit.
How then do we discern this inward call? Here there is great confusion. We are not talking about some inner whisper that we hear from God somehow, telling us that we are called. Nor are we looking for some sign – in the sky or anywhere else. And we are not talking about putting out a ‘fleece’ – some kind of test – for God to answer us by.
We need to underline too that the inward call is not some kind of infallible revelation from God. Any sense of an inward call to gospel ministry needs to be thoroughly tested by the church to which we belong. It should be carefully discussed with the church leadership, our character and gifts tested by them against the qualifications for eldership laid down in Scripture. And without an outward call from a church to a particular pastoral position, an inward call becomes of little significance. Any inward call must be properly tested by the church.
What then is the inward call? It is simply a conviction, reached after much careful consideration, discussion with others, meditation on Scripture and prayer, that I should seek to go into pastoral ministry and preach and teach the Word of God. It does not come by looking inside yourself or trying to ‘hear’ the Spirit speaking within you. It comes by honest appraisal of your gifts and character, against the criteria of Scripture, as well as an assessment of the opportunities open to you, as well as your own desires and convictions as to what God is calling you to.
Do you want to preach the gospel and teach God’s Word? Do you have a biblical understanding of what those tasks involve (and the suffering they can bring)? Do you realise the cost of taking up this work and are you ready to meet that cost? These are the kinds of questions that you need to be asking, if you believe that God is calling you to preach.
Discerning the inward call, then, is not about self-absorption or navel-gazing. It is about healthy and prayerful discussion with your church leadership and sober assessment of your desires, convictions, character and gift, to see whether indeed Christ is calling you into this ministry.
Robert Strivens is the Principal of London Seminary. For more information visit londonseminary.org