We should be careful with our “God calls” language

Baptists like to talk about a calling from God. It’s most frequently used in relation to a “call to ministry” or a “calling to be pastor” of a church. It reflects a feeling that a personal choice is not involved. It is seen, rather, that God has made a choice, has given a call.

I have used the language myself to say I feel called to serve God’s Kingdom.

This language of calling, however, can get messy. A person may say he or she feels called to the ministry, but others say, “No way.” “Women cannot be pastors.” “Gay people cannot be ministers.” But the individual feeling God’s call attests to experiencing the same drawing by God that people have given witness to through the ages.

Part of the problem is the church’s distinction between clergy and laity. Baptists are not supposed to accept such distinction — all are called to minister — but they still do. If someone says, “I feel called to the ministry,” he or she means, “I feel called to be clergy, to be different, to be set apart.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald says:

“To revitalize the Church’s core mission, laypeople will need to exercise high-minded, directive influence. . . . This will not require inventing a new role for laypeople in the Church. Instead, it will mean re-appropriating a role that dates to the Church’s earliest days — a role that has been allowed to atrophy in settings where pastors and musicians put on a show and churchgoers act as passive observers.”

Laypersons may not be aware of it, but MacDonald says they are part of an “ancient tradition that entrusts them to keep the Church true to its God-given purposes.” Until the late third century, ordinary believers held “remarkable authority” in the church.

MacDonald quotes the third-century Bishop Cyprian of Carthage as saying:

“the laity [ought] not associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest, especially since they themselves have the power either of choosing worthy priests or of rejecting unworthy ones.”

Origen of Alexandria carried this same theme. Empowered laity were to choose a leader on the basis of who was most eminent. MacDonald says:

“In practice, this meant laity would investigate and discuss a candidate’s lifelong habits and determine whether those ways were sufficiently virtuous t shape godly hearts among his followers.”

It will be helpful if Baptists and other Christians stopped using the language of call in reference to general career path. In other words, we don’t need to be saying what I have said myself, “God called me.” Quite frankly, anyone can say that; it is a meaningless proposition.

We should rather speak of a church calling us to do something. The church should be listening to the leadership of God and sensing God’s direction, but it is the church that calls.

Maybe one reason so many churches and pastors are at odds today is that the church sees itself as hiring a God-called person rather than as God calling a person through the congregation.

Ministers use “call” language in two senses. They say, “God called me,” and “The church called me.” It seems very possible that our language has gotten us into trouble. Maybe we should be saying: “The church, sensing the leadership of God, has called me to be its pastor. And all of us together have been called to be ministers.”

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