Call to Ministry Series: #4 Exploring the Call of God
February 14, 2012
The definition of a call to ministry given in the last installment previews the conclusions of my biblical study that follows. How did I arrive at this definition? The following installments will give a more in-depth answer to this question, but let me share the ingredients that have gone into this exploration of the call of God.
I started by examining biblical passages that reflect something about a call to some individual. They occur in both testaments. Some are specific and detailed, others are suggestive. As I studied each passage, I tried to determine what happened in the biblical text and how the material might transfer to us.
In an insightful article in 1965 Norman Habel presented one of the clearest statements on the form of call in Hebrew Bible texts ("The Form and Significance of the Call Narrative," ZAW 77 (1965) 297-323). His outlines contribute to my exposition in the passages with which he deals. But by and large biblical scholarship limits the number of passages where the call of God may be discovered. It limits them to those that display a specific literary form, labeled a "call narrative." Under this restriction, we would limit ourselves to the form of prophetic calls in passages like Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, and Ezekiel 1-3 (for example, see the discussion in W. Zimmerli, Ezekiel [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1979] I: 16-21). These call narratives unfold autobiographically, revealing something about the prophet and the path to his ministry. Their structure provides a schema also found in pre-prophetic texts about Moses, Gideon, and Samuel. Debate among scholars continues over the function of these texts, whether they should be understood as ordination formulae, private diary entries, or vocation reports.
However, we don't need to limit ourselves in the same way. Since our interest in this study originates from a ministry perspective in addition to a literary and historical side, we do not need to limit ourselves to only the biblical passages that show a specific kind of literary form. We are asking a different question: what can we learn about the call of God from scripture? Instead of wrestling over the origins or the purpose of the biblical material, our goal aims at finding connecting points with the modern world, connecting points for us.
Although a lot of information comes from call texts, we are not so limited. For instance, the "man of God" in 1 Kings 13 answers the queries of the king and later an elder prophet by referring to the "word of the Lord" that had come to him in specific terms, instructing that he not eat or drink anything in Israel while on his prophetic mission (vv. 9 and 16-17). Does this information reflect instructions that came as part of his "call"? Does the fact that he listens to the elder prophet's lie (v. 18) suggest the possibility that God had used a messenger in Judah to give him his initial instructions? We cannot answer these questions with any certainty, but under a literary restriction this passage would never be considered at all for help on the subject of the call of God. After all, it doesn't exhibit the correct literary form. We, on the other hand, can ask these questions.
My personal experience argues for a slow development of a sense of call to service. I look back over the last forty years and find the Lord molding, shaping, cajoling, pushing, kicking, pulling me, into youth evangelism, pastoral work, including church planting, teaching Old Testament in a Christian, liberal arts college and in a seminary, and in more recent years taking charge of the administration of a seminary. As far as I know, I never received a vision or a spoken word from God in the way we might expect from some of the biblical examples. It is possible that a definite moment of attention-getting call did come in a biology lab when I was dissecting a shark. Formaldehyde fumes, mixed with shark bile, drifted up from the animal as I made my incisions, wrinkling my nose and tearing my eyes. In the middle of the dissection around 7:00 AM, a thought forced itself into my consciousness: people are eternal. I looked around to see who had spoken to me. No one was near my lab table. The shark hadn't spoken, I figured. I don't remember whether someone had said this to me in the past or if I had heard it somewhere, but I started asking myself whether the field of marine biology was what I wanted to do with my life. Wouldn't you rather work with people was the real question? Somehow that moment brought a turning point for me.
Just as subjective, and unverifiable, as my own story are the experiences of people I have talked with over the years. Whenever I have had opportunity, I have asked how others came to their ministries. Most people have given a similar version of call to my own: a growing conviction led them to enter into specific ministry. Some people have indicated that they were not sure they were ever called. Others, however, have related dramatic events. God spoke to them; a vision or dream took place. A wide gamut of experiences has surfaced from these conversations. As the book develops, I will interject some of these stories as illustrations. The truth of these call experiences proves beyond my ability to verify, but the individuals find the experience or experiences helpful for explaining their lives, and I will use them to make suggestions at various points. That is what happens in the biblical accounts, too. The experiences revealed to us in the Bible meant something profound to the characters.
In a sense, the same point may be made about some of the biblical material. "Non-called," biblical examples of people who ministered for the Lord abound. In fact, the majority of believers in the Bible serve without any indication of a call from the Lord to specific ministry. The list extends through both testaments. It includes patriarchs, judges, priests, kings, prophets, women, and early church leaders. Of course, the silence in this area may not indicate they lacked some kind of call from God. The purpose of scripture may not have been served with records of their calls. However, it is comforting to know that such persons existed and apparently in abundance.
The installments that follow meld careful biblical analysis and subjective experience. Hopefully, the careful exposition will provide a method of communication that will put the diverse elements into a logical progression. The call of Moses presents almost all elements related to call found in scripture. The burning bush attracts his attention; he turns aside to see the sight and meets God. God opens his heart to Moses. He assigns him the task to lead Israel out of Egypt. Moses dialogues with God, raising four objections, finally refusing to go. The Lord does not accept such a response and the rest is history. So let's start with Moses.