Among the many common phrases Christians tend to take for granted when we hear them in church is the concept of being “called to ministry.” Many pastors, youth ministers, worship leaders, and so on will tell you they ended up where they are because they were called (usually that they were directly spoken to by the Lord, but also sometimes that they felt a more general push in their spirit to pursue a life in the church). It’s also not uncommon for church members or even family members to tell others that they are called to the ministry.
This common lingo has become an integral part of the church, especially in Evangelical communities. So much so that some ministers or lay people may feel like something is amiss if they haven’t felt or heard that direct “call” to ministry, or that they are obligated to work in ministry if loved ones have told them to do so. The question, then, is this: do all ministers have to be “called”? Does everyone who is “called” have to become a minister? There’s no better place to look for an answer than God’s Word itself. Let’s take a look at two different perspectives in the Bible.
First, it is inarguably true that some believers are called to dedicate themselves to lives in ministry. The prime example, of course, being the Apostle Paul himself in Acts 9:
“…[Saul] approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
Soon thereafter, God tells a disciple named Ananias to go to Saul and heal him. He tells Ananias this about Saul:
“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel…”
Not only is Saul told directly by a manifestation of Christ Himself what he is to do, but also by another witness who is commanded to heal him. Thus, Saul became Paul, and the rest is history, so they say.
This is a clear precedent for God directly calling church leadership into place – not only by speaking to Paul face-to-face, but also by giving a vision to another church member to pass onto Paul for confirmation (and, one might add, so that Paul had a strong believer to mentor him in his first days as a believer).
There are other examples of direct calling as well, including Jesus’ disciples, the patriarchs, the Levites, and the prophets.
But again, this raises the question – do you have to be “called” in this manner to work in ministry or to be in church leadership?
Well, let’s take the word of Paul himself, one of the most influential leaders to have ever been called, as he writes in 1 Timothy 3:
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of elder, he desires a noble task.”
For the rest of that chapter, Paul goes on to list the qualifications for church leaders. While we in the west tend to limit Paul’s instructions here to the specific offices of “Elder” and “Deacon,” in the original Greek, Paul is really referring more broadly to “overseers” and “servants” in the church – or to put it another way, anyone who works or volunteers their time in ministry.
Here, Paul talks about the “aspiration” and “desire” to be in ministry, not the “calling.” This is an inward motivation, with no direct command from the Lord or by any fellow church members. Take note also of the word “anyone.” The message here is clear: any believer can aspire to serve the church, and it’s noble to pursue that goal – but in that aspiration, one must also strive to meet certain objective criteria (good with money, not adulterous, having a godly household, honest, sober, etc.).
It does appear that there is a minor distinction – some are ordained by God to be put in specific roles, and those people are told in no uncertain terms, often by the Holy Spirit or a vision and by others (and ignoring this call, it would seem, is in direct contradiction to God’s will). Meanwhile, every believer is considered noble for aspiring to the office of leader or the position of servant, but without a specific calling and confirmation, they must qualify with certain standards.
Whether or not you work fulltime in ministry, want to work in ministry, or just know you’re meant to serve and honor the Lord with your time, let not your heart be troubled. It is always God’s will for you to serve Him, and He will tell you how in time!
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