Monday, June 07, 2010

Are you called to the ministry?

That is the question posed by Dr. David Murray of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary on the Gospel Coalition’s blog this morning, Am I Called To Ministry?. I know that the post is speaking specifically of vocational pastoral ministry but the question is an interesting one because I think we often answer it in less than honest way.

Where the question goes astray is the idea of being called to “the ministry”. All evangelical Christians would affirm the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Let me clarify that: we agree on it in concept but in reality everyone knows that “the ministry” is reserved to those few who meet the proper qualifications. Sure we are all called to some sort of “ministry”, but when you add the qualifier “the” to the word “ministry”, it is unspoken but understood that you mean a very specific type of ministry. Now we aren’t talking about “ministry” like helping out in the nursery, we are talking about “THE Ministry”, i.e. ministry of the Word, i.e. pastoral ministry.

This topic gets me wound up and I crab about it constantly because the way it is commonly understood is so damaging to the church. We create a false dual-citizenship in the Kingdom based on extra-Biblical qualifications that serve to create a sense that ministry is something reserved for a special few in the church. The qualifications for ministry are pretty simple. Are you a Christian? If so then you are called to the ministry. I liked this quote from Total Church regarding the “qualifications” for ministry:

Most church leaders today are middle-class graduates who were trained in a college and whose qualification for ministry is a degree. The first apostles were from very mixed social backgrounds, most with no education. They trained by accompanying Jesus, and their qualification for ministry was that they knew Jesus. (Total Church, pg. 120)

As this article from the Gospel Coalition demonstrates, we have strayed pretty far away from what we see in the Bible. Merely knowing Jesus and being known by Him is not enough. For example:

I noticed that one of the recurring gifts in these lists is self-control, or self discipline. This is so utterly indispensable for time-management in pastoral ministry, when we have no boss or professor to keep us on track. If you have a record of being late for work or appointments, or if you are regularly late in submitting assignments, what reason is there to think that you are suddenly going to change when you have to preach a sermon every Sunday at 9.30 am?

Being a good time manager is a great quality in a person but is that what is meant by “self-controlled” by Paul? Here is another one:

Another vital gift is simplicity. Are you able to preach or teach simply? I’m not talking here about “dumbing-down.” I’m talking about taking profound truths and translating them into simple, clear language (as Jesus did). Some men seem to have the opposite gift, the ability to make the simple complicated and confusing. If that’s your gift, then please don’t burden the church of Christ with it.

Being able to deliver a simple but effective sermon weekly is nowhere to be found in Scripture, either as a desired quality or by example. In fact very little of what is described as sign of a call to "the ministry" has any concrete basis in Scripture. The whole blog post by Dr. Murray does sound very reasonable to our ears. It fits with how we understand “the ministry” in the safe, sanitized confines of American Christianity. I wonder how much sense his blog post would make to a believer in China or in India or in Ethiopia?

This was perhaps the most troubling:

When young men are converted, they or others often start talking about the ministry. There are exceptions to this rule, but in general it is best that young men spend some time working as Christians “in the world” before pursuing a call to the ministry. They will develop spiritual maturity there in a way that they won’t by going straight into Seminary. Even a few years of working among unconverted people has a rapid ripening effect on Christian character. It also helps to build empathy with Christians who are called to be salt and light in factories, offices, etc.

Sort of sowing your wild oats among the world before beating a hasty retreat to seminary? That is so contrary to Scripture but yet again it sounds so perfectly sensible to us. The idea that a young man should go out among the world to get a feel for it and then leave the world to go into church ministry is the opposite of what we should be doing. What we should be doing and what Scripture describes is that we disciple young men (i.e. equip them for the work of ministry) and then send them out of the church building to engage in ministry in the world. The world is not some place you go to “put in your time” to see how bad it is before scampering back into the confines of a seminary and then a church. It is the mission field and we should encourage young men to prepare to go to the world instead of hoping they will come to us to hear our nice, simple but well exegeted sermon on Sunday morning.

If you are a Christian, you are called to ministry. Period. It will look and function differently for different people. There are some contexts where some people will minister in different ways based on gifts, on gender, on age, on maturity. Regardless, every Christian is called to ministry and the notion that some are “more called” or “specially called” makes a lie out of the priesthood of all believers and runs contrary to what Scripture explicitly teaches. The Bible knows nothing to two classes of “ministry”: “The Ministry” and “ministry for everyone else”. The basic function, in fact the explicit purpose of leaders in the church is to equip all Christians for the work of ministry (Eph 4:12), not just those with that certain special something that cries out “preacher boy”. It is not a perpetual top-down ministry from one class of ministers to the rest, it is a mutual ministry to one another that will never come to fruition as long as 95% of Christians look to 5% of Christians to do all of “the ministry”. Pastors need to be ministered to as much as any other Christian and they shouldn’t have to look outside of the local church for that ministering.

We have culled certain sheep out of the flock over the years and told them they are to carry the burden of ministry for the rest of the flock. We send them away from their local gathering with a fond farewell. They land somewhere else as strangers in a new church (with a bunch of debt to boot) and are expected to minister to a whole bunch of people and when they inevitably get overwhelmed, they are sent away from their church family to be ministered to at a pastors conference or they go on sabbatical. Another great quote from Total Church captures this:

Many of my "minister" friends speak of church as something from which they must seek solace. They protect their day off and guard the privacy of their home. They feel the loneliness of ministry, looking outside the local church for people who will pastor them and events that will refresh them. For us church is where we find solace. The Christian community pastors and refreshes me through the Word of God. Someone put it to us like this: "if I were to say I needed a weekly day off from my wife and children, people would say I had a dysfunctional marriage. So why, if I say I need a day off from church, do people not ask whether I have a dysfunctional church family? (Total Church, pg. 124 )

The church is by and large a dysfunctional family and the solution to that is not more and more of the same. God created the church and He did so with a Body of sinners but it is inconceivable that He is pleased with the dysfunctional church family we have. Isn’t there a better way? There must be and I believe there is if we will have the courage to let Scripture dictate to us instead of tradition dictating to Scripture.

Ministry is not the responsibility of vocational ministers, it is the high and noble calling of every single one of God’s redeemed sheep.

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