“Can you tell us a little about your call to the ministry…”
I’ve gotten that question, I believe, in every church interview I’ve had. And every time I talked about how the Lord called me to himself and then a bit of jumbled mess about not being sure in college but really having a compulsion to preach. I share a story about when I was really laboring with that and a professor said, “If you can do something else you should do it.” Preaching has been like a fire in my bones that I can’t not do…so I figure that’s my internal call.
I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the question and even the idea. And I know that as a result I’ve said things and felt things in my soul that maybe I shouldn’t have. Let me explain.
Do You Feel Called?
I’ve recently read a book, Do You Feel Called by God?, written by Michael Bennett which addresses this very question. Bennett shares his experience of trying to answer that question. He, though, did something I never really took the time to do. Bennett went to the Bible and asked whether or not this idea of an internal call is biblical. As he asks,
“Does the Bible as a whole, and the New Testament in particular, teach that Christian people must have an inner sense of divine call before they can be considered for ministry ordination, missionary service or a position within some Christian enterprise?”
Bennett devotes a few chapters to showing that all throughout the Bible there is no inner-call. “Feeling called, says Bennett, finds no support in Scripture.” In fact this whole concept has a few dangers attached to it. First, it can excuse laziness. We can hide our disobedience behind “not feeling called”. Secondly, we can begin feeling like failures if God calls us into another type of ministry.
Bennett did not mention this third one, but I believe it is also dangerous because what recourse do you have when somebody says, “I feel called by God to do this particular thing”? When somebody judges their fitness for a particular ministry based upon feelings it can be quite difficult to measure this by objective standards. Who hasn’t seen somebody working in a ministry they are obviously not suited for because they feel compelled by some sort of inner voice to continue on in a ministry. To argue with them is to argue with God’s call.
Bennett looks at the Scriptures but also the life of Hudson Taylor. He looks at how Taylor was called to China and sees there six stages of Taylor’s call. These six stages, he says, “should be motivating forces for those considering a life totally devoted to gospel work.” These six stages can really be summed up in asking whether or not the person is a believer, do they want to do it, and are they qualified.
He makes a compelling argument that every person is already in the ministry. If you are a Christian you aren’t called into ministry by some inner-voice. When you are saved, you are newly born into the ministry. The question is what type of ministry. And that really comes down to what you are good at, what you enjoy, and whether or not the church has affirmed it. These spiritual gifts aren’t discovered in a vacuum but rather as one goes about doing various ministries.
You will notice that missing from the list of qualifications of elders and deacons is an “inner call”. It’s just not there. So why then do we add extra-biblical qualifications? I wonder if what we are really asking with this “inner call” is whether or not somebody wants to do it. Do you feel compelled into this ministry? Do you desire the work of an elder? But that makes us uncomfortable so we’ve sanctified our language a bit. It’s sounds so much better to say, “God is calling me into this ministry” rather than saying, “I’d really like to preach”. But the Bible speaks the way of the latter more than the former.
Do you want to? Are you qualified? Do others recognize this?
Then do it.
A Better Way Forward?
This isn’t denying that God doesn’t sovereignly work on your heart and give you desires. It isn’t denying that God orchestrates events in our lives to chase us down and open our eyes to various specific ministries. It’s just trying to take the mysticism out of this and not shackle unbiblical qualifications onto prospective ministers.
I know that we pastors like to stand before our people and talk about how God hounded us down and bent our knuckles and got us to submit to the work of pastoring. But Scripture presents a different story. It presents us not ministering under compulsion but willingly. We don’t pastor because we once heard a voice from heaven and it drove us into the pulpit. We pastor because we want to…even in the times that we don’t want to.
I’ve also read and been told that what will keep you in the pulpit is this inner call. I’ve heard, “unless a man believes he is called of God, he will find it difficult to survive the stresses of the ministry”. It’s true. But why do we assume that it is the inner call which does this and not the external call of a local church? And is it possible that the growing number of suicides among us pastors is because we feel trapped?
Ministry is tough. And there might be a season when we actually do need to take a break from that particular ministry. Many of these men feel like they cannot go on in ministry. They are shocked, disillusioned, burnt-out, depressed, and deeply broken. Now place that unbiblical weight of an irrevocable internal call and they don’t have anywhere to turn. To continue would likely mean an even deeper spiral into depression. But to quit would be far worse—it’d be living in direct disobedience to the Lord.
I’m still pastoring today because I want to. If it becomes more compulsion than willingness I’ll know that I’m doing a disservice to my soul, to my family, and to the church I pastor. Then it’ll be time to step into a different sphere of ministry. And I wouldn’t be running from the Lord.
I would highly recommend getting Bennett’s book. It’s a wonderfully biblical treatment of a topic that I think many are confused on.
You are on a diet. For the past week you’ve been exercising like a professional athlete and eating nothing but rabbit food. Then you walk by a kid selling strawberry pies. You buy three of them hoping to share with your family. You eat all three. But you justify this by saying, “I’ve done so good on my diet that I deserve to cheat a little”.
Sociologists have coined a term for this behavior. It is called moral licensing. And it extends to far more than just eating strawberry pie while on a diet. Studies have found that when we humans do something that we consider a good deed rather than backing that up with more good deeds we tend to go the other way and give ourselves permission to do something less than favorable.
I first learned about this concept listening to Malcom Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History. Gladwell weaves together stories of outsiders who broke through a barrier only to have the door closed behind them. Rather than seeing the door remain open what often happens is that accepting one “outsider” serves as justification for the status quo to close the door again. There are exceptions to the rule, like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the MLB, but more often than not the door closes after an one outsider breaks through.
I’ve been wondering a bit lately about where the SBC will land on this issue. In my mind we face a bit of a crossroads as a denomination. We have seen significant growth over the past decade in terms of racial reconciliation. In 2012 Fred Luter was nominated as the SBC’s first African-American president. Was this opening a door for wider representation by minorities or will this serve as a license to slowly shut that door?
I’m a nobody with only one set of eyes, so take my observations for what they are worth. Yet, I must voice my concern that I see and hear a bit of moral licensing. I hear folks touting voting records on resolutions, raising a ballot for Fred Luter, and the like. What I’m hearing is the ol’, “I have a black friend, so I cannot be racist” schtick. It’s really no more than giving ourselves permission to not look deeper into potential vestiges of racism. It’s blinding our eyes to the pervasive whiteness on our committees and our stages.
In my opinion, a massive part of the problem with the recent dust-up concerning the alt-right resolution was the lack of minority representation on the resolutions committee. Our resolutions committee absolutely misread the situation and the importance of this resolution. I cannot help but think had there been more representation by minorities that the committee would have had a better read on our need to bring this to the floor.
Then we heard the names of those appointed to a personal soul-winning, evangelism task force. Look at the list of names. Notice a trend? The group is mostly comprised of white seminarians and white mega-church pastors. The wise words of Walter Strickland (our newly elected 1VP) are not being heeded, “Superior theological development results from the diverse collection of the church (across ages, genders, races, and cultures) rather than from an individual or believers isolated in their cultural context”. (Removing the Stain, 58)
There is one other thing I’ve noticed in the past few years that has me both encouraged and discouraged. I am happy to see more representation by minorities on our panel discussions. But I’m also discouraged that for the most part the only questions they are asked on these panels are questions related to race. To me this reeks of moral licensing. We are doing the good deed of having at least one minority represented on our panel and then giving ourselves license to not do the greater thing of considering them intellectual equals and asking for their perspective on significant theological issues not related to race.
In order to move forward we must be intentional about representation on our boards. This is not virtue signaling or affirmative action. It is about intentionality. It is about recognizing that unless I’m intentional about not doing this I will look at a pool of people and pick those who look like me and think just like I do.
I’m encouraged that the way forward has already been modeled by the 2017 Pastor’s Conference and hopefully will continue with H.B. Charles at the helm in 2018. We were blessed by hearing from a diverse selection of voices. We need this to continue. I was part of that selection process, and we had to be intentional about pursuing diversity. We had a pool of many qualified men to preach. We could have easily filled it with 12 white guys who were gifted preachers. We could have just as easily filled it with 12 minorities. But we chose to be intentional about hearing from many different voices.
Until a healthier balance is achieved we have to look at every committee and board and make certain that we have a diversity. We cannot let things like the 2017 resolutions committee misreading that alt-right resolution happen again. We cannot pretend that we are going to get the best ideas on personal evangelism and soul-winning when we are mostly leaving out smaller churches and minorities from having a voice. And why not have a panel of nothing but minority Southern Baptists talking to us about something like ecclessiology or pneumatology? Why not intentionally do something like this?
Here’s to praying that the open door or racial reconciliation and minority representation/leadership swings open wide and doesn’t slowly begin to close by way of moral licensing.
In 1845, when the American Baptist Home Mission Society, refused the nomination of James Reeve (a slaveholder) the seeds were planted for the birth of a new denomination. By May 1845 white delegates from the deep South gathered (293 in all) together and formed a new mission society—The Southern Baptist Convention. Yes, our beloved denomination was founded because our forefathers wanted to own slaves. Al Mohler is even more pointed when he says:
In fact, the SBC was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument. (Williams & Jones, 3)
We Southern Baptists have a racist past. We cannot get around this fact. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the SBC, the messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning racism and apologizing for our past. So is that the end of the story? We asked for forgiveness—now is it up to our African American brothers to grant this forgiveness and bury the past in the past? Shouldn’t we just move on at this point and work towards the future?
Certainly it takes two parties to live in full reconciliation. Unless someone asks for forgiveness and the other person grants that forgiveness you cannot live in reconciliation. But this issue is a bit less black and white (pardon the pun). None of those presently living can truly apologize for the sins of our ancestors past. Nor can another group of people accept that apology. Reconciliation will be a bit more complex than simply passing a resolution and burying our past in the past.
But I want to make an argument today that for the glory of God we should not even want to bury our past in the past. And I want to use the words of a former slave ship captain to make this point.
John Newton was haunted by his past. Nothing he could do could remove the stain of racism that was on his life. Even though he passionately fought to end the slave trade in Europe, Newton was still haunted by the screams which came from the slave ships he captained. On one particular occasion Newton was asked in a letter about how folks could have happiness in heaven when we are fully aware of our sins in the past. This is Newton’s response (and keep in mind that his own involvement with slavery is likely on his mind):
I think those are the sweetest moments in this life, when we have the clearest sense of our own sins, provided the sense of our acceptance in the Beloved is proportionally clear, and we feel the consolations of his love, notwithstanding all our transgressions. When we arrive in glory, unbelief and fear will cease forever: our nearness to God, and communion with him, will be unspeakably beyond what we can now conceive. Therefore the remembrance of our sins will be no abatement of our bliss, but rather the contrary. (Read entire letter here)
When the gospel redeems (and is still further redeeming) an issue in our past we do not want to bury it. We tend to want to bury sins which aren’t yet fully repented of or perhaps those sins which still carry the burden of shame. We want to bury what isn’t yet healed. But our racist past is a stain which Christ is in the process of removing. And every time we see racial reconciliation taking place it is fitting for the glory of God for us to be brutally honest about our past. No need to gloss over it and pretend like our ancestors were not engaging in “scandalous theological argument”. The light of Christ shines bright against our darkened past.
We don’t get sick of hearing about our racist past because we are confident in the provision of Christ. We don’t encourage folks to move on because we see our own sinfulness as a door way to savoring Christ even more. We encourage the light to shine upon our racist hearts (yes, racism for folks of any color of skin). We welcome the “clearest sense of our own sins” because we know it will only further glorify the God who can redeem and rescue such wicked hearts. We don’t tire of fighting for racial reconciliation because we love seeing the work of Jesus.
I’ve still much learning to do in this area, but I’m thankful that no matter how deep things like racism have settled into areas of my heart I know that Christ is always deeper and always sweeter. Even though we might be shocked at what we find in our hearts—he never is. And once He has captivated our hearts they belong to him. In that we can rejoice no matter what is dug up from our past. This and this alone is the foundation of our union with one another.