ministry

You Don’t Need a “Calling” to Do the Work of God

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One of my tasks as a pastor is to do away with the myth of “calling.” I know what we mean when we use this language in regards to ministry. We mean that God has burdened us to serve a people or ministry, or to preach the gospel. My fear is that the way in which we often use the term sounds more like we have experienced an other-worldly, subjective, unfalsifiable call from the mouth of God to do something that he has not commanded everyday Christians to do.

The way we talk about “calling” makes us sound a lot like Bigfoot hunters. They know what they saw, and no amount of evidence will convince them that they did not encounter Harry (from Harry and the Hendersons) in the woods.

Similarly, the way we use the word “calling” has more in common with mythology than biblical theology. It implies that pastors have a unique connection with the God of the Bible — rather than a unique responsibility and accountability, as the New Testament teaches. This misunderstanding of calling creates an unhealthy hierarchy that subtly undermines the priesthood of all believers.

Aside from the ecclesiastical dangers of this misuse of the term “calling,” there are practical-theology dangers as well. In speaking so much about “calling” to ministry (which the New Testament only refers to as aspiring to the office of elder, cf. 1 Timothy 3:1), we have wrongly communicated that the jobs our congregants undertake day-in-and-day-out are not callings from God. This implies a sacred-secular divide that simply does not exist.

We would do well to return to the biblical language of aspiring to ministry in order to avoid this confusion. Additionally, we must reclaim a robust doctrine of vocation in our churches.

The work of God is accomplished through school teachers, custodians, doctors, civil servants, stay-at-home parents and all who bring order to the world.

The Masks of God

The work of God in the world is not only accomplished by those with a seminary education or a title in the church or para-church ministry. The work of God is accomplished through school teachers, custodians, doctors, civil servants, stay-at-home parents and all who bring order to the world through their role in society.

Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, spoke of the “masks of God” that are worn by members of society (Luther’s Works, Volume 14). God could easily educate us with all truth, but he does so through teachers dedicated to teaching. He could miraculously provide us food on our tables, yet he does so through farmers. God mends our wounds through the gifting of a doctor.

These vocations are all “masks” by which God is accomplishing his work in the world. The way we participate in this activity is by bringing order to the world around us with whatever God has gifted and impassioned us to do. This is how we lay hold of our mask.

Pastor or ministry leader, speak less of your calling to ministry and speak more of our (corporate) calling to bring order to the word. Regularly celebrate our shared calling to bring order to the world and to extend human flourishing. We bring order to the chaos and extend human flourishing through the preaching of the gospel. Yes, absolutely! We also do so through the masks we’ve been given to use as glimpses of the redemption of all things that Christ will bring at his second coming.

Some aspire. All are called.

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  • ministry
  • vocation
  • work
Dayton Hartman

Dayton Hartman is lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He has a PhD in church and dogma history from North-West University (South Africa), and serves as an adjunct professor at both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Columbia International University. He is the author of Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Learn more at daytonhartman.com.

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