Book Review: Called to the Ministry, by Edmund Clowney
Public invitations. Emotionally charged pleas. Calls to use one’s life for the highest possible purpose. Warm, fuzzy feelings and inner inclinations. Are these the things that come to mind when you consider calling to the Christian ministry?
Maybe you enjoy your present opportunities to serve in your church. You’ve seen some fruit come of it. And you enjoy studying Scripture. Add to these desires the fact that your current employment may feel less than satisfying. Are you called to leave the “secular realm” and pursue “vocational ministry”? I pose this scenario not as a disengaged observer, but as a young man grappling with these very questions.
For these reasons, I want to call Edmund Clowney’s book Called to the Ministry to your attention, and to work through how this book has impacted my own thinking on this issue. Clowney applies larger issues of guidance and decision making to the realm of vocational Christian ministry, and he does so in a succinct but powerful manner.
MINISTRY IS NOT THE SOLUTION TO PERSONAL IDENTITY CRISIS
My own tendency is to approach the question of calling by asking what kind of work will satisfy and fulfill me. Since approaches like mine are probably common in today’s world, Clowney helpfully begins by addressing the issue of personal identity in relation to vocation. He says,
True identity can never come from relations with men. . . . There is but one relation that can give identity to man, the relation to his Creator and Saviour. God’s call gives a task that is more than a role, for it engages a man’s whole person in the service of his Lord. That call is to being as well as doing, to status as well as service…You learn to know yourself only as you learn to know Christ. Self-knowledge cannot be an end in itself. Paul never cries with Socrates, ‘Know thyself!’ Rather he says, ‘That I may know Him.’ (10-11).
Our identity and fulfillment in life is not primarily a function of the particular career we choose, the relationships we have, or the status we attain. Our identity and therefore every question of guidance must flow out of who we are in Jesus Christ.
This particular point has impacted my thinking more than anything else Clowney says. Many people in the world today seek to overcome their sense of alienation and lack of identity in vocation; Clowney points them to Jesus instead. We cannot properly begin addressing the question of calling until we first address, “Who am I?”, and find the answer in Christ.
ERRORS IN CALLING
Clowney makes his case with both positive and negative illustrations of what the calling to ministry entails and how it’s pursued. What are some of the errors Christians tend to believe about calling?
God’s call should not be confused with specific decisions.
Since God has clearly and specifically revealed “who I am in Christ,” our thinking about the call must begin here, and not with specific decisions about what job to take or what person to marry. Clowney says, “there is no call to the ministry that is not first a call to Christ” (5). In other words, the Bible plainly reveals the fact that we who are Christians are “in Christ,” and this has implications for how we live our lives and make our decisions. So start here.
God’s call should not be confused with the idea that I get one opportunity to “make the right decision.”
The idea that I need to rightly discern exactly what God might be telling me about a particular decision I have to make, and that there is only “one right answer” to any given decision, is a greater burden than any finite creature can bear. This tendency is exacerbated by a modern consumer culture that says my happiness, well-being, and success is largely contingent on marketplace decisions. But God’s Word promises “blessing” for those who seek after God’s revealed righteousness and obey it (Ps. 1; Jer. 17; Matt. 5), not for those who expertly adjudicate their decisions in the arena of presently unrevealed potentialities.
God’s call should not be confused with a proper technique for yielding right answers.
I often fall into the trap of thinking that if I simply garner all the facts about a situation, talk to a “multitude of counselors,” and apply appropriate biblical wisdom to a decision, then the process will yield the right answer. In other words, I am often tempted to use a biblical approach to guidance as my own Urim and Thummim (see 1 Sam. 14:41). Clowney appropriately says, “We cannot look for certainty in every decision. If we always knew, if we always had a strong assurance that a given action was the only right course, we would not learn to trust God inthe midst of suffering and darkness.” (77).
God’s call does not mean the “process” is unimportant
While we often think of getting the right answer to every decision as the ultimate goal, God does much of his work in the process of decision-making. In all of life’s decisions, we cannot expect a guided tour: “where next, God?” Often we want the guided tour because it seems like it will grant us the greatest level of personal success and comfort. However, this approach forgets the fact that our Sovereign Lord has not only redeemed our souls, he is working to use our often short-sighted and ill-informed decisions to conform us more and more to his image. In other words, God has something far greater in mind than just making sure “we get it right” on every decision in our lives. He’s teaching us to delight less and less in our own wisdom and glory and more and more in his.
MINISTRY IS THE PRESENT CALLING OF EVERY CHRISTIAN
It is my tendency, and maybe yours, to think of calling to ministry as a future event. This idea could not be further from the biblical truth. The calling to serve the church, to love God, and to love my neighbor are all callings to ministry that should be present realities, not merely future dreams. The calling to vocational ministry takes place within a context of service.
Clowney makes several excellent statements regarding the exercise, development, and confirmation of gifts in present situations:
Your sphere of action, your ministry in the service of Christ, is marked out by the gifts Christ has given you. The gifts of Christ’s grace are like a majestic stained-glass window in his church. Each Christian is set in place like a piece of jeweled glass, so that the radiance of God’s grace may shine through him to add a beam of crimson or emerald or azure to the orchestration of color blazing within (28-29).
You may need rather different Christian friends besides those you have cultivated. . . . There is a disturbing possibility that you may need most the spiritual gifts of Christians least like yourself in age, social background, race—even denominational affiliation (33).
What opportunities do you perceive? The first doors are in the room where you are. The Lord has given you a certain set of present circumstances. Paul refers to this as a man’s “calling.” Here you must begin; indeed, here you must be willing to remain until other doors of opportunity are perceived and opened. The surest way to miss future opportunities is to ignore present ones (37-38).
The present calling to service is not only more important than a specific calling to vocational ministry, it is also a prerequisite. So in the midst of my own daydreaming and fantasizing about what the future may hold, I must recognize that these are truly vain thoughts if they are not firmly rooted in present acts of faithfulness. As I have often heard my own pastor say, “When people come to me and tell me that they are called to missions work overseas, I often ask them what they are doing to evangelize at their present place of work or in their neighborhood.” So too with someone claiming to be called to the pastorate. The friends around him should ask, “How are you stewarding opportunities to teach, disciple, encourage, exhort, evangelize others today?”
So what is the call to ministry? It’s a combination of factors and events. It requires certain qualifications and certain gifts. It requires an internal desire and an external verification. It is not developed merely in the vacuum of personal devotion, but in the context of the larger church body. It is not an instantaneous moment, but a process. Because it is a process, it can transpire in different ways for different people. For some, the call is clearly desired and then verified and confirmed over time. For others, the desire is less clearly defined; but through persistent acts of service and faithfulness, it’s externally validated while the desire continues to develop.
I have seen the Lord take people who were employed successfully as scholars, lawyers, congressional staff members, and businessmen and call them into vocational ministry. I have seen other people that desired nothing but vocational ministry from the time they began considering their life’s vocation. I have known still others that seem to possess some level of gifting for vocational ministry, yet remain successfully employed in other types of work. What is the common thread that runs through each of these lives? Each of these individuals, to my knowledge, is seeking full gospel-expendability in their present situation.
Calling is firstly a question of identity and present responsibility. Calling is secondarily a question of future position, which is often revealed as a result of properly understanding the first matters.
So where did this book leave me in my search to answer the question, “Am I called to the ministry?” I must daily put on the mind of Christ. I must study Scripture prayerfully, in faith that the Holy Spirit will develop the mind of Christ in me. I must pursue the qualities of 1 Timothy 3—regardless of whether I ever become a pastor.Do I desire the office of overseer/elder? I need to express my desires and perceived gifts to the elders and my church for examination. This might sound arrogant at first, but opening yourself up for personal scrutiny actually takes humility.If I intend to serve as an elder, I need to make vocational choices while thinking about what will allow me to best serve the church and others.I need to recognize that it is okay to be fruitful in ministry, able to teach and edify others spiritually, but not be called to vocational ministry. I don’t need to feel guilty if I have not been given the desire to pastor. Do I view vocational ministry as a solution to current vocational struggles? I must realize that in vocational ministry my sin nature and my co-workers’ sinful natures will still be present.
In short, I concluded this book in the same position I began, with no clearly defined “roadmap” for the future. Instead, I have been given the compass of Scripture by which I am called to continually recalibrate my life’s direction this day. I have been given a firmly established identity that is not slavishly contingent on possession or position. I may not know the various terrains that await me along the journey, but I know the direction and I know the destination. Whether that means I will fill a pulpit one day, or simply continue to strive to be a fruitful member of a local church and a diligent employee in my place of vocation, I am confident that God will not waste the life of this one he has died for and that the path he has for me will surely and safely lead me home!
- Guidance and the Voice of God by Tony J. Payne, Phillip D. Jensen, ~ Matthias Media January, 1997 ~ ISBN: 1875245669
- Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians by James C. Petty ~ P & R Publishing July, 1999 ~ ISBN: 0875526039
- Guidance Core Seminar notes