The concept of a “missionary call” has come under increasing pressure over the past several years from multiple directions. On one side, there are many who reject the very concept of “missionaries” as a uniquely gifted group within the church. To this way of thinking, every believer is a missionary, which means that no one is really a missionary in the traditional understanding of that word. To some, there is very little distinction between being a missionary to another place or people and “being a missionary in your own community.” (Of course, I am leaving out here those who object to the word “missionary” in itself because of its supposed colonial baggage.)
On the other side, some object primarily to the use of the word “call.” They rightly point out that the New Testament primarily uses the word “call” to refer to the calling of all Christians to salvation (see Acts 2:39; Rom 1:7; 2 Pet 1:10). In the NT, there is slim evidence for a “call to service,” whether pastoral ministry or missions. Instead, we see people who have a desire or aspiration for a certain office, who are then confirmed in the gifting and character.
The primary text for this understanding of an “aspiration to ministry” rather than a “call to ministry” is 1 Timothy 3:4. Paul writes, “This saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” Paul then gives qualifications to help Timothy and the Ephesus Church distinguish between those who aspire and those who should actually serve.
What we lose without the missionary call
For the most part, I don’t disagree with those who want to throw aside the word “call.” Yet, I can’t quite go along with them all the way. Perhaps I have a cranky streak in me. I refuse, for example, to make the change from “Sunday school” to “Adult Bible Fellowship.” Instead of trying to change our vocabulary, it is my instinct to simply make sure we are defining our vocabulary in a biblical way. Perhaps I’m just cantakerous?
Nevertheless, I do believe that abandoning the word “call” for “desire” or “aspiration” could fail to put adequately into words the lived experience of many, both historically and today, who have received a desire to serve the Lord as missionaries. With the new vocabulary, we could wrongly come to understand the “desire to be a missionary” as a natural desire rather than a God-given desire. Missionaries throughout history have seen their desire to serve in missions as a desire that God himself awakened in their hearts. (I would say the same thing of pastoral ministry.)
Two dangers in discerning God’s call
There are at least two dangers when helping people discern whether God wants them to serve him in vocational ministry. On the one hand, there are men and women who feel like God has called them, and yet they are not qualified on the basis of character and gifting. Nevertheless, because “God called” them, they press forward into ministry without meeting the biblical qualifications or heeding the hesitant judgment of their church.
On the other hand, there are men and women who have a zeal for the Lord, for his word, for his mission, and because they are of good character and possess the necessary gifts, they and those around them interpret this as God’s leadership into vocational ministry. As someone who hung out at a Bible college/seminary from undergraduate to Ph.D., I witnessed a lot of individuals like this. A young man, for example, would come to faith in college and grow strong in his faith under a college ministry. Then he would be shipped off to seminary because everyone mistook his deep faith for an indication he should preach. In fact, this young man was just being a Christian. A real Christian. The only reason everyone around him thought he should go to seminary was because their standards for discipleship were so low.
The Spirit’s Single-Mindedness
I think the most helpful concept in understanding the call to ministry is the Spirit’s single-mindedness. Because the same Spirit who inspired God’s word also works in the lives of believers, we can discern his leadership through his single-minded consistency.
The Spirit has revealed to us qualifications for elders (pastors) and deacons. Similar character traits should be expected from all who serve in vocational ministry positions, even missionaries. The Spirit has also revealed to us something about the gifts that he distributes for the benefit of his churches.
This same Spirit works in our lives, both in crisis moments and through gradual understanding, to guide us and fill us with a desire to do his will. For many, the first indication of the Spirit’s leadership is the growth of a God-given desire to serve. For others, the Spirit works through brothers and sisters who recognize gifting, and then desire grows gradually later from their church’s encouragement.
But because the Spirit is single-minded, he will never give someone a desire for ministry if they do not meet his qualifications as revealed in Scripture and as recognized by local churches. If someone “feels called” but they do not meet the qualifications, then they have mistaken natural desire for God-given desire. Likewise, if someone meets the qualifications but doesn’t have a deep, God-given desire to serve in vocational ministry, then the Spirit has not yet singled that person out.
Call it an aspiration or call it a calling. The most important thing is that it comes to us from the Spirit and is confirmed through the word and the church. The process of discerning a missionary call is simply the process of seeing the alignment of the individual’s desire and the local church’s desire with God’s desire for that individual.