Are You Called to Ministry?

As is such in my life, I recently had a conversation that quickly turned to spiritual things.  I was talking with a totally random Bible College student and as we talked it came up that he was wondering if he was called to ministry.  As I probed his doubts I realized that he didn’t actually know what it meant to be “called”.  As was the case with many young adults I talk to, there was no understanding of the concept of “call” outside of an esoteric understanding that it was something you got from God (somehow) and necessary to go into ministry.  He knew he needed to get it, but he wasn’t sure what it would look like when it arrived.

I really feel pity for so many people who know that ministry is a “calling”, but when pressed to the wall they’re not able to give provide a concrete understanding of what a “call” is or how in the world to know if they’re called.  So, for anyone who has ever wondered about their calling (and I can think of several of my immediate friends who do), then here’s what I told that student:

Believe it or not, all we had to do was go to the scriptures and read slowly with our “thinking caps” on. (I’m so old-fashioned…)

We went to the major text for understanding Biblical Eldership in the New Testament; 1 Timothy 3:1-7:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

So let’s break it down a little.

Verse 1 says “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”

I would suggest that this is what’s referred to as the “inward call”, and I would suggest two points related to the inward idea of “call”:

1.  You need to aspire to the office of overseer.

That’s an entirely internal desire, and it’s not something that anyone can do for you.  Also, the word used is in Greek is orego, and it’s the same word used later in 1 Timothy 6:10 which says “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”  The craving that lies behind the pursuit of money is parallel in kind to the craving that one must have for ministry (the office of overseer).  This isn’t some lazy want; this is a consuming passion.  I’ve heard it said “if you can do anything else, do”.  Most of the guys I know who last in ministry could succeed tremendously in other fields, but can’t do anything else because they aspire to the office of overseer.

2. You need to aspire to the office of overseer.

It’s all good to have a consuming passion for God, or the church, or the lost, but that’s not a call to ministry (and I would recommend my previous posting on what ministry is and is not if you have questions about the term “ministry”).  If you want to be a pastor in a church, or even a lay elder, you need to desire the office of overseer as it’s described in scripture (I would also recommend my previous posting on understanding Biblical Eldership if you’re fuzzy on pastors/elders/overseers/shepherds/bishops/presbyters).  If you want to help straighten out a church’s bad theology, or lead worship, or catalyze revival, or do something to reinforce the faith of all the young people that abandon Christianity in university, you’re not desiring the biblical office of overseer.  Those are not bad desires, but they’re not desiring the office of overseer.

Then, verses 2 through 7 say “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”

I would suggest that this is what’s referred to as the “outward call”, and I would suggest two points related to the outward idea of “call”:

1.  This is what the church should be seeking in a vocational minister.

I have read dozens of lists of hundreds of qualities desired for in pastors, and it’s funny how no two churches (even in the same denomination) look for the same things.  Yet, the Lord has laid the characteristics of his kind of man out in the scripture, and the church who wants to extend the “outward” call to a prospective pastor should be using the shopping list of characteristics that God has provided..

2. These qualities are almost all moral.

It’s worth noting that in 3:2-7, thirteen of the fifteen listed characteristics are moral in nature.  This means that 87%  of the characteristics in the list are directly moral.  The right guy to call to your ministry need is the guy who’s like Christ, and that has little to do with his education, his age, his experience, his success in business, or even his spiritual gifts.  The “kind” of man that a church should call to ministry is a man of consistent and shining moral uprightness.

Let’s take a further look at the two “non-moral” qualities:

2a. I would suggest that “recent convert” may be more accurately understood as “spiritual newborn”, since the Greek term neophytos carries the idea of one who is newborn, but I would challenge whether there’s a simple temporal idea here.  It’s not like there’s some magic number of years where one all of a sudden becomes a mature believer and I would suggest that the concept of maturity implies far more than the concept of time.  Sure, a person isn’t usually spiritually mature after 3 years, but there’s no guarantee that a person who’s been in the faith for 3 decades is more mature simply because of time.  People who have been in the church for a long time can still be neophytos.  Also, this then should be actually understood as a quality of moral maturity.  That leaves us with one “non-moral” quality…

2b. “Also, I would suggest that “able to teach” summarily describes a person who can “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).  I would suggest that in order to teach, one must know how to teach and what to teach.  This means that he should have a general grasp of the scriptures well beyond the lay people, that he should have a general grasp of doctrine, and that he should be able and effective to communicate those things.  Paul explains to Titus why an elder must be a man able to teach sound doctrine and refute heresy when he says “For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:10-11).  An elder who is weak in the scriptures will have a congregation where other people speak louder, more convincingly and with more authority than him, and that will destroy whole families; the building block of the church (and society).

So, in just one small section of scripture, there’s a good and reliable start to answering the question of “am I called to ministry?”

Basically, do you crave to do ministry?  Are you a man who can be a moral example?  Are you competent to teach the scriptures?

If the answer to these 3 questions is “yes” (and you don’t answer questions 2 and 3 for yourself), then you may likely have a call.

As always, I welcome all thoughts and interaction.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “Calling the Called to their Calling” Unger


2 thoughts on “Are You Called to Ministry?

  1. This is very good…what’s nice is that I like how you set this up in a simple and concise yet Biblical fashion. Kudos. I appreciate how you demonstrated that being an overseer requires the desire for it, and the desire not just only for God but for being an actual overseer, while there is the outward confirmation of the individual’s moral and not being a novice and able to teach. Very helpful

  2. Hello Lyndon Unger,
    I see that you posted an updated version of this article today on CrippleGate. As you may have noticed, I sent you a private Facebook message about that article (after unexplainable troubles trying to comment on CrippleGate). Just now I found this, so thought I’d also post here. (My thoughts are identical in both places.)
    Briefly, I affirm most of what you are saying, but think the discussion about “aspiring” may be stretching the biblical evidence. Here’s some reflections of my own on 1 Tim. 3:1 that I posted on my Facebook page a while back. Blessings!
    When seeking to understand God’s Word, it is not sufficient to consider the abstract, factual meaning of words and sentences, as if reading from an encyclopedia. We must also consider why they were written. In other words, we should ask not only what the words *say*, but what they were intended to *do*. (In philosophical discussions of hermeneutics, this field of study is called speech-act theory, but I’ll avoid technical terms.)
    I’m thinking of this because I was thinking tonight about 1 Timothy 3:1: “This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work” (KJV).
    I have often heard this verse expounded along these lines: Paul is saying that it is good to desire to be a pastor in a church. Being a pastor is a good work, and it is a worthy goal to pursue; those who desire this work are to be affirmed for their desire. In fact, one of the qualifications for being a pastor is that you really should have a desire to be one; if you don’t have a deep inner desire for this office, then you are probably are not qualified to fill it.
    Whether or not the above statements are all true, I think such an exposition is missing the point of this verse. It always makes me nervous, however, when I find myself reading a passage of Scripture in a unique way, without finding confirmation for my reading from any other interpreters. After all, here are a few prominent explanations of this verse:
    “An obvious but not insignificant qualification is the shepherd’s personal desire to love and care for God’s people. Paul and the first Christians applauded such willingness by creating a popular Christian saying [1 Tim. 3:1]… In brief, this early Christian saying declares the great value of the work of the office of overseer (eldership) while also encouraging those who desire this work. It is equally important that congregations today realize the worthwhile character of the elders’ task. They need to realize its significance so they will support and encourage the elders in their work on behalf of the church.” (Alexander Strauch, in Biblical Eldershiip)
    “Before he lists the qualifications for overseers, Paul affirms the importance of their work… Those who desire to serve in this way are to be encouraged, perhaps as those who build the church with valuable materials as in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14, a task that is indeed ‘noble.’” (Walter Liefeld, NIV Application Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)
    “Rather than downplaying the position of church leader, Paul elevates it by saying that it is a good work. Why does this statement warrant the solemn introduction of a faithful saying? Most answer that the church placed its greatest esteem on the more visible, ecstatic gifts, and the Ephesians needed to be reminded that the more practical functions such as overseer were also significant and worthy of honor… It seems [to this commentator], rather, that any hesitancy to accept positions of leadership by members of the Ephesian church was the result of the excess of the opponents. They were bringing reproach not only upon the church itself but also upon anyone in leadership. Perhaps as well people were hesitant to accept positions that would bring them in direct confrontation with the opponents… The church needed leaders who would do their job well, and it was therefore a good thing to aspire to the office of overseer… The word [“desire”] describes an ‘ambitious seeking’…; whether the aspiration is good or bad is determined by the context. In our text it must be good since Paul is recommending it.” (William Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary on Pastoral Epistles)
    Notice how all three commentators above make the same exegetical slip (most clearly in the 1st and 3rd example): They slip from the biblical words about a “good work” to talking about a “good desire.” Read 1 Timothy 3:1 again; it does not actually say that the desire is good. Presumably it is–or at least it could potentially be, since the object of the desire is explicitly affirmed as being good–but the main point of the verse, even on an abstract, factual meaning, has nothing to do with “good desires,” but with a “good work.” (My point here is *not* to belittle these commentators; I have been helped immensely by them, especially by Strauch and Mounce.)
    When we move to consider the question of what this verse is intended to *do*, then the real message of the verse becomes clearer. But before we do that, let’s consider another hurdle: A concordance search for the Greek phrase behind “good works” would seem, at first reading, to affirm the commentators I’ve quoted above. This exact phrase is used elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles to describe:
    (1) What widows should be doing if they are to be considered eligible for the “widows list” (1 Tim. 5:10).
    (2) The behavior that potential elders should be demonstrating before they are appointed (1 Tim. 5:25).
    (3) What rich Christians should be “rich” in (1 Tim 6:18).
    (4) What Titus should show himself to be a pattern of (Tit. 2:7).
    (5) What all the Cretans should be eager to do (Tit. 2:14; 3:8, 14).
    In all these cases (and elsewhere in the NT, such as in Heb. 10:24), God’s people are urged to be pursuing “good works.” So doesn’t it make sense that here, too, in 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul is urging people to pursue a “good work”–this time the “good work” of an overseer?
    I don’t think so. Here context is key, and two aspects of context bear consideration.
    (1) First, and most importantly, notice how the following verse begins: “A bishop then must be blameless…” (KJV). Do you notice the word “then”? This word links the first two verses of 1 Timothy 3. Verse one says that the office of overseer involves a good work; verse two says that, because that office involves a good work, the overseer must be blameless. Or, to say it in reverse: Why must an overseer be blameless (v. 2)? Because he is doing a good work (v. 1).
    The NASB and NET read much like the KJV. The ESV makes the connection even clearer: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach…” The NIV hides the connection almost entirely: “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach…”
    This link suggests something of why Paul wrote verse 1; he was not trying to lift up the office of overseer so that everyone would start filling out applications for the pastorate. Rather, he was lifting up the office of overseer in order to demonstrate why such high qualifications were required for those who filled it. Perhaps we could paraphrase: “If anyone is reaching for the chance to be an overseer, he’s reaching very high indeed!”
    (2) Second, the context of the entire letter (and of all three Pastorals) is that Paul is writing to churches wracked by false teachers. Both 1 Timothy and Titus begin abruptly; after brief greetings, Paul skips the customary prayer/blessing found in most letters, and jumps right into the topic of the need for proper leadership. Here in 1 Timothy we read of false teachers who were “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1:7). Similarly, in Titus 1:16 we read of false teachers who were “unfit for any good work” (a different, but similar Greek phrase).
    This context suggests that Paul was facing a situation where unqualified people were serving as leaders in the church. In such a situation, Paul was concerned to elevate the office of the elder/overseer, reminding people of the high qualifications that were required of those who would fill it. The first and overriding qualification in both 1 Timothy and Titus is that leaders must be “above reproach.” The problem was not simply a lack of leaders (“Let’s lift up the office of overseer so we receive more applications!”) but a multiplication of bad leaders (“Let’s lift up the office of overseer so that only qualified persons will be allowed to lead”).
    I have read this verse along these lines for quite a while, so I was delighted tonight to find a commentator who affirmed my reading:
    “Why does Paul cite a trustworthy saying (1)? Since this appears to be a commonly known saying, he was probably here using it to underline the importance of the overseer’s office for the benefit of those who were underestimating it. Paul sees the work as a noble task. Such an office needs the right kind of people to fit it.” (Donald Guthrie, in New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition)
    (To be fair, both Strauch and Mounce also say similar things, but only after being temporarily derailed by first emphasizing the points quoted above; Guthrie never gets similarly derailed.)
    Does all this matter? Well, suppose I say, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the hand of my daughter, he desires a noble lady.” Would I be content if all the young ruffians in town thought I was urging them to aspire to marry my daughter? Or might I be happier if one of them took a good look at how noble my daughter really is, then refocused his gaze inward to become the man truly qualified to win her hand?
    May we read God’s Word not only to discover God’s truth, but also to discover God’s desires.

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