Do you feel called by God?

calledI think I need to take more plane trips. They’re a great way to set aside time for reading. Bit expensive though! This book was started on the trip back from Sydney and finished during chemo this morning. The chemo makes it even more expensive! Having now read Michael Bennett’s Do you feel called by God? Rethinking the call to ministry, I’m eager to share what I’ve discovered. This is a book that mirrors so much of my own experience, addresses so many of the same questions I’ve asked, and comes to the same conclusions. It’s easy to review a book that backs up your own opinions, but I can honestly say that it has also been a long and careful journey for me to be persuaded of these matters and I’ve never once had a conversation about them with Michael Bennett.

We’re told from the outset why Michael wrote this book and what conclusions he makes throughout. The book is spent substantiating these conclusions:

  1. The often-ward and almost universally accepted expression “I feel God is calling me” is totally foreign to the revealed content of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The continued use of this unscriptural pietistic language may be having negative consequences for churches, missionary societies and other Christian organisations in the choosing and training of leaders.
  2. Without denying in any way God’s ability to call people by overt and supernatural signs, it is argued here that this is not usually God’s method today. The motivation to serve the Lord, particularly in what is called full-time ministry, is a human desire to do so, and not a felt call. However, this human desire, which must spring from one’s love for Jesus and the gospel and genuine compassion for people, is not sufficient or valid in itself: it must be rightly motivated and rightly tested. (p6-7)

I suspect by revealing his conclusions at the outset, Michael will lose some readers. “That’s not right. It can’t be right. It’s not what happened to me… or others I know.” And they’ll put the book down. Or because they’ve read this far in my review, they wont even bother buying it! Oops, sorry! Let me say this would be a huge mistake. Please judge these conclusions on the strength of the arguments, not on whether they confirm or run contrary to your current thinking.

This book is very autobiographical and anecdotal. We get to know Michael Bennett, the rugby player, Christian, Bible college student, and author. We journey with him as his questions and struggles are explored and answered. However, this is not a this happened to me and therefore I am the paradigm for everyone else book. Michael seriously engages with the Scriptures to find the answers. We are able to weigh up his arguments on the lines of whether they faithfully expound the teaching of the Bible.

‘Call’ and ‘calling’ are explored in the Old and New Testaments. Michael examines the key people called by God to particular tasks and roles, and how this is specifically described. The observation is made that the word of God comes directly and personally to some people for particular purposes, but that this never resembles a concept of ‘feeling called’ that is commonly described today.

Close attention is given to examining every reference to ‘call’ and its cognates in the Greek New Testament. Only after the serious word studies completed and the contexts explored, are conclusions drawn. Seven different uses of the words are identified in the New Testament and the conclusion is reached, after looking at over 300 verses, that God calls all people in two specific ways:

  • First, we are called to be Christians – to be disciples of Jesus.
  • Second, we are called to be holy – to grow in Christ-likeness. (p60)

Some of the references that speak of a call to holiness are another way of describing the call to be Christian. Christians are the ‘called out’, ‘set apart’, or ‘sanctified ones’. They’re the saints – not those who gain post humous titles for miracles and deeds done – but those who, because of Christ’s work now, belong to God. In 1991, I completed exactly the same comprehensive word studies and came to the same conclusions that this is how the Bible speaks to Christians about the nature of being called by God.

Michael Bennett addressed the potential criticism of simply playing semantics by showing that the implications of using Biblical words and phrases in non-Biblical ways can be dangerous and debilitating. If candidate committees, ministers, theological colleges, and mission organizations are all asking for evidence of a ‘calling’, when the Bible doesn’t make this necessary, then where do people turn? Perhaps they end up deifying their desires to justify their position.

This book contains a very helpful and bold chapter of Hudson Taylor. It’s a pertinent case-study exploring what’s going on for this towering missionary as he speaks of his ‘call’. Taylor is quoted as saying:

I felt that I was entering into a covenant with the Almighty. I felt as though I wished to withdraw my promise but could not. Something seemed to say: “Your prayer is answered”. And from that time on the conviction has never left me that I was called to China. (quoted on p70)

The language of Hudson Taylor is important to observe. He uses expression such as, “I felt”, “Something seemed to say”, and “the conviction”. He doesn’t speak categorically of God’s specific or clear personal command. Michael respectfully seeks to diagnose what’s going on in Taylor’s experiences and the way he describes them. He argues that Taylor uses the normal language of pietism in his day (and for many in the church today) to tie together a number of influences and motivations for mission work. These areas include his family and background, his conversion to Christ as he understands grace, his grasp of the eternal consequences of the gospel, his deep compassion for people, his desire to take action, and his extraordinary suitability for the task.

After discussing some issues of how we should expect to receive guidance from God, Michael Bennett hones in on the question so who should go into ministry? The answer is biblical and profound: every Christian is called to ministry, that is, we are reborn into a new life of serving God. Ministry is not limited to some elite Christians, it’s for all! What then of those we call ‘ministers’, or pastors, or missionaries, or ‘full-time’ ministers? How do you work out if you should make the step from being a minister to being a Minister in some special sense? Again, we are directed to the text of Scripture. Some are set apart as overseers, pastors, or bishops – three overlapping terms to describe persons who lead, teach and equip the body of Christ to each minister to one another. Others are set apart for pioneer mission work or evangelising. How do you know if you should be one of these people?

Michael shows from the Bible the relevance of the same factors he describes for Hudson Taylor. He shows how the human desire to be involved in Christian leadership ministry is a desire for something very worthwhile. This desire should be tested and weighed by others also. We’re taken especially 1 Timothy 3:1-10 to explore the criteria for suitability:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

Do you feel called by God? is a breath of fresh clear air on the topic of guidance into Christian ministry. It’s a book I will recommend to many, but before I do, let me raise a couple of issues and suggestions. I believe a strength and a weakness of this book is that it covers a lot of ground and explores a lot of side streets on the way to its destination. We get to hear about Michael’s journey to faith, his pathway through theological training, high and low church differences, Catholic and Anglican confusions, dip into wider issues of guidance, and much more. This may frustrate the impatient person who simply wants the shortest distance between A and B. However, it makes the book highly suitable for one who is still grappling with many basic fundamentals of Christian life and ministry.

I also think there is a passage of the Bible, that warrants careful exegesis on this topic, that has been overlooked or simply omitted from this book. I’m referring to 1 Corinthians 7:17-24.

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (NIV, my emphasis.)

I’ve spent much time helping people work through what this passage is saying about the nature of God’s call. A superficial reading has led many to speak of God calling people to particular careers, jobs, places, or ministries. This appears to be the meaning of verse 17. However, the verses that follow make it clear that Paul is speaking of the circumstances of life that people are in before and after they become Christians. The ‘call’ on view is the call to be Christian.

This is a book that should be read by many. It should be passed on to people who are exploring these issues for there lives. Last weekend I was asked by a young man at church if he should be heading into ministry. I plan to buy a copy of this book and give it to him and I’ll talk through the issues with him. It’s an excellent resource for people considering MTS (Ministry Training Strategy) apprenticeships, or exploring whether to head to Bible college, formal ministry, or the mission field.

I would make this book compulsory reading for church and denominational leaders who will be making decisions about whether to admit people into training or ministry positions. I’d would love all members of missionary candidates committees to take the time to work through this book. Bishops should read it. Theological and Bible college admissions departments should read it. Those endless committees deciding people’s futures should read this book. It’s such an important issue for many. Perhaps you should read it!

3 thoughts on “Do you feel called by God?”

  1. Ah, 1991. Just got out my Focal Point notes, and, sure enough, the session “WTRHTR: Vocational Guidance” has all my notes from your talk. What a mess! (My notes, that is.) Against one dot point I count 16 Bible references you read out and which we all dutifully copied down. “Those were the days.” So yes, I can testify you had this pretty much sorted out by then.

    (A few pages earlier are my notes from Chappo’s talk where he explains Romans 3:21–26. It seems (based on the notes I took) he gave an absolutely classic presentation.)

    The issue of a “call” is also addressed briefly in Chapter 10 of “The Trellis and the Vine”, specifically, under “Question 1” and “Question 2”. And the last section of Chapter 10 has a few helpful checklists for identifying/testing suitable co-workers.

    But in this particular book, does “rightly motivated and rightly tested” really only boil down to a check against the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3? (Surely not.)

    Perhaps you could spell out what (if anything) you look for in (say) a potential MTS candidate above and beyond 1 Tim 3 and those checklists. Any lessons learned from hard-earned experience? E.g., people that worked out better/worse than you expected, and how that relates to how well they measured up/didn’t measure up to the 1 Tim 3 and other criteria?

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