What is God’s “Calling?” [1]

I came across a blog post in my twitterfeed the other day from a North American missionary [SBC] entitled Did I misunderstand God’s calling?. In the post, Kim Felder recalls her move back stateside after having gone to Tanzania in obedience to God’s call. She is making an honest reflection on God’s direction in the events of her life and she concludes:

When I think back now on my time in Africa, I see God’s faithfulness in sending me there and bringing me home and now, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

In the half-dozen comments, other missionaries recall similar experiences and struggling with the ways they have sensed God’s leading in their lives.

I want to affirm Kim, and those who commented on her post. Seeking God’s leading for every decision is a very wise thing to do, especially as it relates to missions. But one finds in reading her post no explicit answer to the question the title raises. I want to twist it a little bit and pose a different, but related question:

Have we misunderstood “calling?”

Open DoorsI’m wondering if we haven’t made our understanding of calling too specialized, technical, or spiritualized for our own good. Some think that only those who would do ministry, much less missions, are called to vocational ministry.  They may also believe that only those who become missionaries are called to a specific location or people group. Even within in a particular area or among a people group, missionaries only do certain types of tasks, evangelism, church planting, medical, educational, based on some sort of technical calling. This raises questions regarding the experience of calling:

(1)Is calling an extended process of pursuing open, then shut, then open-again doors or windows (You’ve all heard “If the Lord shuts one door, he’ll open another. If he shuts all the doors, he’ll open a window“); or

(2) does it mean having a sense of spiritual inner peace; or

(3) must a Christian pass through a crisis moment followed by a spiritual experience and certainty of calling?

There may also be other questions. But often our understanding of calling is experientially-based, not scripturally-based. How would understanding calling as Scripture defines change the ball-game? I believe it would radically revolutionize ministry! Before I give my answer, let me ask the following questions:

  • Please let me know what you think “calling” best refers to? Please list relevant scriptures.
  • Is there a difference between calling and vocation? Is there a Christian vocation?
  • What is a missionary? How do we best understand this term biblically/theologically?

Please leave your answers in the comments, and let’s have a lively discussion!

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9 Comments

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  1. Wes,

    It seems that in Scripture God’s calling is always to himself, not to a particular place or type of service. God calls all of his children. As far as “vocation,” it is very different from calling. A “vocation” cannot be Christian or nonChristian. The person doing the work can be Christian or nonChristian. Unfortunately, “missionary” is not a scriptural word. It is probably most closely related to “apostle,” but there are some differences.

    I’m looking forward to your follow-up posts.

    -Alan

    • Alan,

      Thanks for posting. I agree with the direction you are going (have been going for a while! 🙂 ).

      I heard a compelling argument from someone the other day that what we call missionaries are more like what the Bible describes as evangelists–that is, proclaimers and disciplers, ambassadors of the gospel. He made the argument that in Eph, Paul speaks of apostles and prophets consistently in both Eph 2:20-22 and 4:11-13. That, is in 4:11, Paul is not speaking about a set of giftings that is part of the normative government and life of the church. So while there are certain linguistic reasons why folks prefer apostle as close to missionary, he believes evangelist is the closer term. Honestly, I don’t know yet what to think of that argument.

      How would you respond?

      -Wes

  2. Wes,

    Yes, I’ve heard missionaries referred to as evangeslists. It seems, though, the the modern distinction between missionaries and others is that fact that missionaries travel away from their home. That’s what an apostle did as well.

    In Ephesians 4:7-16, in the context of Jesus giving spiritual gifts to the church, Paul placed apostles and prophets within the same list as evangelists and pastors and teachers, without distinction. In fact, I can’t find any list of spiritual gifts in which some are temporary and some are not. Interestingly, this discussion has been going on for a long time. I have a commentary of Ephesians by Origen and Jerome, and they both argue for the continued existence of apostles, which means, of course, that some were arguing otherwise.

    Do you think the concern about apostles is a result of the connection of the term “apostles” with “the Twelve”?

    -Alan

    • Alan,

      Thanks for the comments. It’s actually quite refreshing that this discussion has been going on for a long time–that there’s room for genuine Christian disagreement.

      To answer your question:

      Do you think the concern about apostles is a result of the connection of the term “apostles” with “the Twelve”?

      With my friend, I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t want to misrepresent him, since we only had one conversation over this, but he seemed more concerned with the advocacy of the 5 five-fold ministry as church offices. He sees only pastor and deacon, in good Baptist tradition, as the two offices of the church. He’s concerned with the issue of authority and church government as it relates to missionaries.

      There are some folks, like Daniel Sinclair in A Vision of the Possible, who argue that missionaries are more like big “A” Apostles, than little “a” apostles.

      Its interesting. How much of the contemporary discussion is predicated upon the advent of the Modern Missions Movement and the separation of missions from the life of the church? I think a lot!

      -Wes

  3. Wes,

    I thought that authority and control probably figured into the concerns somehow. To be honest, I’m concerned about authority or control at all, either for apostles or prophets or teachers, whether they are elders or not. Why? Because Christian leaders (however they are gifted or however they are recognized by the church) should be known for serving others and living as an example, not for their control or authority.

    I love Paul’s example of Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25-30. Paul describes Epaphroditus as the Philippians’ “apostle and servant”. The Philippians “sent” him to help Paul and to serve alongside him for a time. It seems that this description is applied to others in Scripture such as Timothy, Barnabas, Silas, and Apollos, all of who are identified as “apostles.”

    So, from the way that I see it, a “missionary” who intends to travel overseas and then to travel from place to place proclaiming the gospel or strengthening churches would be functioning in a manner similar to apostles. A “missionary” who intends to travel overseas and then to stay in one place would perhaps be closer to a shepherd, teacher, encourager, evangelist, etc. Thus, earlier, I said that a missionary is related to an apostle, but it’s not the same thing.

    -Alan

    • oops… that second sentence should read as follows: “To be honest, I’m NOT concerned…”

      -Alan

    • Alan,

      Good points. I’m not in a position to have an intelligent response to your first paragraph. I haven’t thought through the issue well enough. I like your last two paragraphs alot.

      One of the points I was going to make under my question on what is a missionary is to argue that the term “missionary” is in itself a practical/theological term, not a biblical term. As such, it requires definition, if we are going to use it. In my opinion there isn’t a set one-to-one correspondence with our use of “missionary” and the examples of ministry we find in scripture.

      I love your last paragraph (I’ll repeat it for emphasis):

      So, from the way that I see it, a “missionary” who intends to travel overseas and then to travel from place to place proclaiming the gospel or strengthening churches would be functioning in a manner similar to apostles. A “missionary” who intends to travel overseas and then to stay in one place would perhaps be closer to a shepherd, teacher, encourager, evangelist, etc. Thus, earlier, I said that a missionary is related to an apostle, but it’s not the same thing.

      Well said. I will probably refer back to your comment in future posts if that is fine with you.

      -Wes

  4. Dear Wes and Alan,

    I like your blog and am interested in your emphasis on revival. I am the Founding Principal of All Nations Tutorial College here in Oxford, UK (www.antcoxford.co.uk). I am also interested in how revival is sustained, and I believe that relates to calling. For revival to be lit and to go from one generation to another we need to understand calling. The verse that springs to mind here is from 1 Corinthians 7 vs. 17-23. Although this is specifically about marriage it is also a general teaching on calling. The essence of the point the apostle Paul is making, seems to be one of the most general statements he makes on the matter, and is perhaps summarised by verse 17, ‘Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned him, and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.’ This seems to be a matter of ‘creational circumstance’ I.e. both how the person was originally made, and the general circumstance they have been in throughout their lives, especially their status and work it seems. I think this includes a longevity, which includes their history and how God ‘telescopes’ his vision for them into the future, which is of course is related to who we are in God.

    What I like about what Paul teaches here is how it is definitely for everyone, because it is rooted in creation, and is therefore not a matter of special expertise, gifts and abilities, which are quite personal to the individual, and obviously to be respected by those in leadership. A leader does not have to worry too much about these, because they are given by God, they are for him, and to be used by him. They are more recognised and released than controlled. But how wonderful they are there! And how great our God is that each one of us is so specially made. Let us be deeply thankful to God that he has called and equipped us so.

    However, there is a lot missing with what I have said here, and I welcome your input. Although creation is rooted in God the Father and his creation, it is drawn out in Christ and in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, in which he himself floods us with his presence and power and our gifts are released by the mighty working of his Spirit within us. This idea is relatively undeveloped in the church, one feels, because we often tend to be more focused on our own individual calling, perhaps encouraged by secularism and western individualism. But it is definitely present in 20 th century revivals, despite it’s relative neglect through much of church history.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts in what I have said, my brothers, and thank you for your fellowship. May God send a revival that sweeps throughout the world and leads people to walk more strongly in their calling. May God’s voice be sharper, clearer bringing insight and a depth of reality of his love and grace in our lives.

    Lead, us Heavenly Father, lead us!

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