Scripture reveals that God’s ultimate aim in redemptive history is to glorify His name. One of the primary ways that God glorifies His name is through the calling of His elect to salvation (Rom 1:6-7). The effectual calling of God is irreversible and it results in the increase of His glory on earth and the building up of the body of Christ one ransomed soul at a time.
God also sovereignly ordains the means by which His saints are equipped for the work of the ministry. The office of pastor/teacher is one of the gifts given by God to achieve this purpose until He returns (Eph 4:11-13). In this article, I want to examine the biblical evidence regarding the call to ministry in order to help you rightly discern a call to ministry. Biblically speaking, the phrase, “call to ministry” is troublesome. In the New Testament, the Greek word typically translated “to call” (καλεω) is most consistently applied to a saint’s calling to salvation, and never to a call to ministry per se. This word usage calls into question whether we should talk about a “call to ministry” in the same way that men are called into fellowship with Christ by the eternal plan of the Father (1 Cor 1:9). In light of these challenges in terminology, I will focus our discussion on how God sovereignly prepares men for ministry, looking specifically at the ministry of pastor/elder/overseer.
First Things First: The New Birth
The most important prerequisite necessary for pastoral ministry is the new birth. A man must have already experienced the divine call of God to eternal life before he is qualified for the office of pastor. A man can do nothing apart from Christ, and he will only be able to produce fruit of eternal value by abiding in Him (John 15:5). Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus demonstrates that a man who has not been born of the Spirit is spiritually bankrupt (John 3:1-12) and a blind guide (Luke 6:39). Therefore, it is required that a man be born again before he can be ordained to the pastorate so that he will possess the power of the Spirit to understand God’s truth (1 Cor 2:12-16) and to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel (Eph 4:1).
How God Has Called Men to Ministry: A Brief Biblical Survey
Throughout redemptive history, God has raised up men for ministry in different ways. One of the ways that God raised up faithful men was through divine commission. Moses was commissioned by God from the burning bush to deliver the sons of Israel from their bondage in Egypt (Exod 3). Isaiah was chosen by God and commissioned to prophesy of the coming destruction of Israel (Isa 6:8-13). God revealed to Jeremiah that his commission to speak on behalf of the Lord was predetermined before his birth (Jer 1:4-10).
Similar to the commissioning of Old Testament prophets, the Apostles were chosen by Christ and commissioned for the purpose of bearing fruit (John 15:16). Perhaps the most startling commission in Scripture is that of the apostle Paul. Formerly a persecutor of the church, Christ revealed to Paul that he was a chosen instrument and sent him specifically to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). While these historical examples are descriptive rather than prescriptive, they demonstrate that God has, at times, commissioned special men to do a specific ministry through divine intervention.
In the church age, God has graciously given to believers everything necessary for a life of godliness in Scripture (2 Pet 1:3). The implication of this truth is that Scripture is sufficient in helping us discern the candidates that God is preparing for the work of the ministry. Divine interventions, special visions, and personal appearances of the Lord Jesus Christ are no longer a means by which God interacts with men (Heb 1:1-3), and therefore do not apply to discerning a call to the pastorate. Rather, there are three biblical tests that help us determine whether or not God is equipping a man for pastoral ministry: (1) internal desire; (2) external qualification; (3) corporate corroboration.
Test #1: Internal Desire
The first test for determining whether a man is being raised up for ministry is internal desire. Paul writes to Timothy in his first epistle, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work that he desires to do” (1 Tim 3:1). Pastors are exhorted to shepherd the flock of God by exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily with eagerness (1 Pet 5:2). Shepherding is difficult work, and any man without a desire to serve in that role will have difficulty fulfilling this command. Therefore, a man without the desire to be an overseer should not be ordained to the pastorate. However, it is wrong to assume that a man currently possessing no desire to be an overseer will never be raised up by God for the work of the ministry. God is faithful to guide the desires of men as they delight in Him (Ps 37:4). A man whom God is preparing for ministry might not initially have a desire to be an overseer, but that desire will change as he grows in his relationship with Christ.
Test #2: External Qualifications
The second test for determining whether a man is being raised up for ministry is that he is qualified according to 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-9. A man who has the internal desire to be an overseer but does not meet God’s specific qualifications is not qualified for the position and should not be ordained. Once again, it is important to note that a man who possesses the desire and does not yet meet the qualifications should not be permanently eliminated from the future prospect of being an overseer. The same God who is sovereign over the desires of men is sovereign over the sanctification of men and can raise them up to meet the biblical qualifications necessary for the position of an overseer.
Test #3: Corporate Corroboration
The final test that is helpful in determining whether a man is being raised up for ministry is corporate corroboration. When it comes to ordaining overseers in the church, the first line of defense is the plurality of elders who have already met the qualifications necessary for ordination. Within the same epistle, Paul exhorts Timothy, “Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery” (1 Tim 4:14). While interpretations vary with respect to what Paul means by the “gift,” it is clear that elders were involved in the process of his ordination. Paul goes on to add that Timothy was, “…not to lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim 5:22). A man’s worthiness for the office of pastor is not to be hastily determined, lest there be some hidden sin that comes to light afterward that brings reproach upon the office of overseer and the men who approved him.
The congregation represents the second line of defense when ordaining overseers by interpreting their interactions with the potential candidate through the lens of Scripture. The presence of a multitude of counselors throughout the process increases the ability of successfully identifying the will of the Lord when ordaining an overseer (Prov 15:22). The reality of indwelling sin always allows for the possibility that a desirous, qualified man ordained to the position of elder might fall and become disqualified, but the steps of the process are founded on Scripture and can be trusted.
At a time when the world is facing countless challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is of the utmost importance that churches possess strong, biblically qualified pastors. Every local expression of Christ’s body needs men who will stand before the people (προΐστημι), laboring in their care of the flock (1 Thess 5:12) and in the faithful ministry of the word of God (1 Tim 5:17). Therefore, each congregation must regularly consult the wisdom of Scripture in order to remain in God’s will in this crucial area. When these principles are prayerfully applied, the process of ordaining men for the ministry will be pleasing in the sight of the Lord.