To accept that God can still “call” people to leadership roles and specific tasks (in a manner similar to the way he called Paul and Barnabas, for instance) requires us to acknowledge certain ideas.
First, it means that God is still involved in our world, aware of the challenges facing his people, attuned to their sufferings and plights, and concerned about the accomplishment of his purposes. In times past, God has known about the pain of his people and been conscious of unfulfilled promises. He has been acutely aware of events in the world, particularly as they have impacted his plans and his people. If God still calls people, it will happen in the context of his attentiveness to the world. Count on it: when God calls, it will happen because there is some need about which he knows and cares.
Secondly, it means that God is actively involved in our world. This is no laissez faire God, hands-off and distant. His purposes and promises prompt his participation. This is a God who intervenes. He does not let circumstances bumble along to their natural conclusion. He does not surrender us or the world to caveat and chance. He steps in to guide events. Certainly this can take the form of miraculous intervention (a flood). But most often (in Scripture), it takes the form of a person and a calling. Wickedness calls forth a Noah. Egyptian tyranny calls forth a Moses. A promised Messiah calls forth a David.
It means also that God prefers to work through people to accomplish his will rather than shaping the flow of history directly. Certainly and often, his will is worked through groups of people who accomplish his purposes: the clan of Abraham; the nation of Israel; the church. But who will guide the groups? There is no hint of democratic confidence in Scripture. God doesn’t expect “the people” to make good decisions or keep faith or act obediently. He hopes (and is broken-hearted when his hopes are consistently dashed). But he knows better and anticipates other. That is why, with great regularity, God inserts leaders among his people who are intended to make a godly difference. The prophets (Isaiah, Amos, Joel) are “sent” to speak God’s words and recall God’s people. Leaders like Daniel, Nehemiah, and the Judges are anointed in times of national crisis to show God’s people the way forward. Paul and Timothy and Silas are called to teach the church how to be the church and to correct those tendencies that would tempt the church in lesser directions. Strip out the presence of God’s “called leaders” from the biblical narrative, and the story would not only be much shorter … it would be far uglier. If God is to accomplish his will through his people (as he seems to prefer), it will only be with the aid and under the authority of people whom he calls to leadership.
Which means that (if the above is true) not all people are created equal when it comes to the Kingdom. Equal in value, yes. Equal in God’s love, certainly. But not equal in gifts and calling. Not equal in mission. This is a bitter pill for the western church, shaped by democratic ideals and egalitarian sensibilities, to swallow. Every young boy (though not girl—no Deborahs for us!) should be able to aspire to leadership in God’s church! It is un-American (which, in the strange alchemy of modern faith, becomes “un-Christian”) for leadership to be limited to those whom God has chosen and called! Character and competence should be the only criteria for leadership! Churches should be free to elect their own leaders! Leadership (in such a view) is thus debased to a matter of resumes and references, seminary education and speaking ability, charisma and people skills. There is no heresy (to modern ears) quite so dangerous as the notion that some are called to lead and some are expected to follow … that some good people, charactered and competent, will never hold legitimate positions of spiritual leadership because God has not and will not “call” them to such leadership.
For those who do have such a call on their lives, as surprising and improbable as those people and that call might be, the notion of vita interruptus—the idea that God is quite willing to suspend other agendas in favor of his own—becomes a hard reality. God did not ask Moses if the call was convenient. He did not consult with Abraham about whether the call would mesh with Abraham’s personal mission statement. He did not require Saul’s permission to knock him from his horse and radically alter his life’s trajectory. His call was (and is) sovereign. His purposes override all other plans and ambitions. Because he is God, he is entitled to co-opt any merely-human aspirations and goals.
Which means that, for those whom he calls, leadership is both a blessing and a burden. Blessing because those God calls, he also equips and empowers to accomplish the mission he lays upon them. Such leaders are partners with God in a very real and very intimate way. They have an opportunity to make a kingdom difference because God’s hand is on them, guiding them to further his will. Burden because the mission of God is no small thing … because the task of leadership is often lonely and un-thanked … because “jars of clay” (2 Cor 4:7) are never quite equal to the task and must constantly display—through their imperfect leadership—that the “all surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Burden because personal plans and aspirations, private hopes and dreams, must be surrendered to the divine will.
At least one other thing is implied by the possibility of calling: those who fall within the sphere of the “called”—Lot to Abraham, Aaron to Moses, Timothy to Paul—must be willing to recognize that call on the life of another, respect it, and then submit to it. Failure to do so is an act of profound unfaithfulness. Those who are called by God will be judged by their obedience to the mission. All others will be judged by how and whether they support those upon whom God’s hand rests.