Call to Ministry Series: #2 Every Believer a Minister

Call to Ministry Series: #2 Every Believer a Minister

January 20, 2012

Let me affirm that I believe God still calls people to specific ministries.  This statement requires several points of clarification to put it in today's ministry context.  Let's begin with a biblical perspective, then develop a working definition of what the call means.

Every believer is called to minister (Eph 4).  No distinction exists in the Bible between laity and clergy ? we are all the people (laos, "people") of God.  In a sense, we are all "clergy."  If a person is a believer, he or she is a minister.  Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, observed that to be a Christian requires a call to salvation, a starting point.  Further he believed that Christians are called to the task of witness and to serving God by serving the world, a belief that he illustrated by Old and New Testament examples (Church Dogmatics IV 3 (2nd half), 571, 576, 577-92.C).

I think Barth's theological viewpoint spotlights one of the great failings of the modern church.  We continue a form of a Christian caste system with laity beneath the clergy.  All believers need to view their lives as ministries, whether they volunteer or are paid for service.  The mechanic, the physician, the waitress, the clerk, the CPA, the teacher, the grocery worker, the pilot, the pastor ? you name the job ? all need to see their life pursuit as a part of their ministry calling where they witness the Good News that their life is different because of relationship with an eternal God.

On the other hand, some Christians claim that they have received a call of God to a specific ministry or form of service, sometimes called a vocation.  C. Peter Wagner, professor emeritus of missions at Fuller Seminary, in a personal conversation observed some years ago that if biblical patterns are able to teach us anything, we should expect ten percent of the church to be in vocational Christian service.  Statistics indicate the number comes closer to one percent.

The belief that people are still called by God to service in specific ministries has been subject to criticism due to the subjectivity of this belief.  In the book, Decision Making and the Will of God, Garry Friesen argues that deciding the will of God requires that a Christian walk in wisdom or, what he terms, a biblical quality of life.  Such a life makes most decisions superfluous, for if we are walking in right relationship with the Lord, our decisions should be correct or "in the will of God."  His approach to the Christian life provides a healthy corrective to more traditional views that make the believer either in or out of God's will in any given moment, depending what choices are made from moment to moment.  However, when he applies the "wisdom principle" to the question of ministry, he limits leadership only to qualified men who meet the standards of 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. (Decision Making and the Will of God (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1980) 317.)  Friesen sets aside any biblical accounts of God's call because they are "mystical" and not the norm for today. (Ibid, 317-318.)  Although I am in agreement with the general thesis of his book and even the general tenor of his chapter on ministry, he overcorrects and eliminates the testimony of the Old Testament, New Testament, church history, and testimonies of many people in ministry today.  My personal experience of God's call sounds similar to Friesen's.  But I believe that we cannot remove the mystical from our lives with God.  I think we should correct the abuses Friesen notes and also open new avenues of understanding to God's working then and now.

This perspective leads to another point that demands clarification.  I believe the Bible gives more help in discerning God's call than interpreters have allowed.  Part of the reason for limiting discussion on the call of God comes from the abuses by some people who use their "so-called call" as a club to justify whatever they do or teach in the name of Christ.  An egotistical, narcissistic person, a Jim Jones or David Koresh-type of person, exacts a heavy toll on Christianity by claiming the call of God to a perverse version of truth where hundreds of followers poison themselves or die needlessly.

More subtle abuse emerges from those who restrict the call of God to one format, such as the voice of God, or to one type of person, say a handsome, athletic type leader, or to a "called only ministerium" without the possibility that God may use people without specific "calls."  "If you don't have my experience, you have not been called," becomes the attitude.

Karl Barth put the question another way when he noted that the biblical patterns were not interchangeable. (IV 3 (2nd half) 577.)  He observed that every biblical example of God's call is unique to that person and that situation.  His observation is correct and a helpful reminder, but we still can learn from the experiences of biblical persons.  Although no two biblical examples are the same, similarities do exist and, more important, we find points of transfer in each one.  Their encounters with God and God's call shed light on our quest to discern our call.

Another point should be made.  I think that many Christians need help in understanding or discerning God's call or, perhaps better, in affirming what God is doing or has done.  The future of the church requires it.  We live in a time when an unsettled vagueness about ministry exists.  Robert Bellah, a sociologist, and his co-researchers observe in his bestselling book, Habits of the Heart, that we have moved from a culture comfortable with theology and theological language to a culture more comfortable with psychological or therapeutic language.  As a result, people are not open to the ministry as we have known it in the past.  They feel uncomfortable with the idea.  They do not know what the "call of the Lord" might mean.  On the other hand, they do know that they don't want to get up in front of everyone on Sunday morning and preach or perform funerals for people that aren't family or a myriad of other duties ministers do.  The church needs to explore this area if we are to face the future.  Already in 1956, H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out the failure of churches and educational institutions to clarify the nature of the call.  (The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper and Row, 1956) 65.)  Little has changed.

It is imperative that we reflect on how God calls his servants to specific ministries.  My purpose in this book is to affirm the inclusive call to all believers and to give direction to the church and to individuals to determine objective criteria from biblical precedence, to mark off subjective safeguards, and to provide a guide to transferable principles from biblical models.  Difficult problems will remain, but such problems should not stop us from exploring how we can know what God may be saying to us.