The Logistics of “Calling”

Acceptance of a theology of calling leads us, necessarily, to think about how calling works. Does God still call people with vision and voice (as he did with Samuel and Paul)? Does he work through others who “call” leaders (as Samuel did David) in God’s stead? Is there still such a thing as a choosing “from birth” (as with John the Baptist)?

The examples of these “mechanisms for calling” are so numerous and so well-attested in Scripture, it would be foolish to deny (or even to doubt?) that God works in such ways today. God can still whisper in the night or appear in life-changing visions. Such personal and subjective callings, however, must be supported by more objective criteria. Moses was called directly at the burning bush; but Israel was not asked to simply take his word about the matter. He was given signs (the staff and his leprous hand) and intimate knowledge (the “name” of God) to prove his calling when the elders wondered whether he’d really been sent by God (see Exodus 3 and 4). Samuel was called in the night; but he was given a prophecy (regarding the fate of Eli and his household) by which the validity of his calling could be measured (1 Sam 3:11-14).

You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (Deut 18:21-22)

Thus, even allowing for the possibility of a direct call of God on the lives of leaders today does not necessarily make the church vulnerable to charlatans and power-grabbers. To open ourselves to the notion of calling does not mean that anyone may stand among us and merely claim to have been called. Stories of burning bushes and nighttime visitations are not sufficient to confirm the call of God in someone’s life. There must be more.

I suggest there are at least five criteria by which God’s people test the call of God in the lives of their leaders. In fact, even in the absence of the direct call of God—a voice, a vision—these criteria are sufficient to display and discern the calling of God in the life of a would-be church leader. [Please forgive the alliteration to follow—as an old preacher, I could not help myself.]

The first criterion involves character. God does not call ungodly, uncharactered people to do his holy work. Noah received God’s call because he was considered a righteous man (Gen 6:9; 7:1). Job was called to lead his lonely and painful battle against Satan because he “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). David, for all his failings, was chosen to be King because he was a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14). God can save all manner of wicked, weak, vacillating, and failed sinners. But he does not call such people—untransformed, unsanctified—to lead his people and accomplish his greater purposes. Calling must rest firmly on a foundation of character. Where there is no holiness, no fruit of the Spirit, no humility or selflessness, there can be no legitimate call of God to leadership. Claims to calling are disqualified in the absence of godly character.

The second criterion involves consistency of the call, the repeated and cumulative nature of God’s call. Calling is never a matter of a single burning bush. It is something that plays out over time, is repeated and reaffirmed. Calling always comes in batches. You see this in the life of Abraham who hears God’s call and God’s promise over a matter of decades (Gen 12; 15; 17; 22). The same repeated call takes place in the life of Moses (Exod 3 and 4; 6; 19; 33 and 34; Num 16), Elijah (1 Kings 17; 18; 19), and Peter (Matt 4:18; 10:1-2; 16:16-18; Luke 5:1-11; 22:31-32; John 1:40-42; 21:1ff). The Parable of the Talents (with its guiding maxim, “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things”—Matt 16:21, 23) may well indicate how God’s calling usually works: first a call to small things; then, when faithfulness is demonstrated, a call to larger matters. We should not expect God to promote a leader to positions of profound and important responsibility in one fell swoop. Rather, we should look for evidence that God’s call has been on someone’s life consistently and repeatedly, through varying degrees of responsibility, proving a leader’s persistence, capacity, and faithfulness.

The third criterion I would mention involves community—the capacity of God’s people to recognize and respect the call of God on someone’s life. There is a “communal discernment” evident in Scripture, whereby the people of God are able and willing to recognize a leader of God and submit themselves accordingly. Moses was not told to ignore the questions of Israel’s leaders, to disdain anything but his own experience of calling. Rather, he was commanded to submit to those questions, to that testing, and was given proofs of his call with which to win those leaders over. In similar manner, David was called and anointed but was then required to go through a long and trying period of proving himself to the people he was called to lead. He had to win the people’s support—through his military prowess and political wisdom, at the least—before he was finally given the throne to which God had called him. You see the apostles exercising this same kind of “communal discernment” when the time came to replace Judas (Acts 1:12-26)—identifying God’s choice for leadership with the Twelve through nomination, prayer, and casting lots. There can be no effective call of God without the approbation of God’s people. Certainly, God’s people can be faithless and fail to acknowledge a legitimate call (as they did when they stoned the prophets—Matt 23:29-32). In such cases, the effectiveness of God’s call is limited by the hardness of his people’s hearts. But for a called leader to be effective, he or she requires more than God’s call alone … there must be a willingness on the part of the community to recognize and cooperate with that call.

A fourth criterion entails commissionWhat does the calling include? God’s call on the life of his chosen leaders almost always involves a specific circumstance, a particular challenge, a definable work to accomplish. God’s call is rarely a blanket commission—authority granted in the absence of boundaries. Rather, with the call comes a precise charge that defines the leader’s work. Abraham’s task was to leave his home and travel to a far country. Moses was to deliver Israel from Egypt and to the Promised Land. The Judges were chosen and “raised up” in the context of specific oppressors and with the charge to “save Israel” from the hands of her enemies. John the Baptist had the particular task of recognizing and announcing the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29ff). Paul was commissioned as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” just as Peter was similarly commissioned “to the Jews” (Gal 2:7). No called leader—no matter how blessed by burning bushes—can say with Jesus, “All authority has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). Calling conveys authority, but limited authority … bounded powers. It is right for us to ask of leaders the question, “What has God called you to do?” In the absence of specific commission, there is not legitimate calling.

Finally, there is competence. Where character and call meet commission, there will also be competency. God does not call people to accomplish his purposes without gifting them with the skills, traits, and abilities they require to be faithful. Moses tried to evade God’s call by complaining of incompetence—“O Lord, I have never been eloquent …” God merely brushed aside this quibble by gifting Moses with the skill he lacked: “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Exod 4:11-12). Paul recognized that he was “less than the least of all God’s people,” yet put his faith in God’s ability to use the “grace given me through the working of his power” (Eph 3:7-8). In speaking of his own ministry among the Corinthians (and, by extension, to all who would minister and lead in God’s kingdom), Paul was confident in the effectiveness of his life-changing work:

Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant… (2 Cor 3:4-6)

Leaders who claim to have been called by God should expect to be examined for competency and skill, given by God for the purposes of doing his business. In the absence of capability and proficiency, there is no legitimate and effective leadership.

These five criteria, added to the subjective experience of “calling” in the life of an individual, permit us to examine that calling by biblical measures:

  • Does this person have the character to lead God’s people in godly directions?
  • Does he or she demonstrate God’s call consistently and repeatedly?
  • Does the community of faith recognize this calling? Will they respect it?
  • Does this call come with a particular commission, a specific task to accomplish?
  • Has this person been gifted with the competencies necessary to achieve God’s ends?