Michael Bennett: Do you feel called by God?You don’t need to!

That’s the main point of Michael Bennett’s 2012 book, Do you feel called by God? (Matthias Media). From the back cover:

When Michael Bennett took the first steps towards full-time, ordained Christian ministry, he dreaded being asked whether he ‘felt called’. Because in all honesty, he didn’t.

Many years later, and after extensive biblical research, he came to the conclusion that the common idea of needing to feel a subjective call from God before entering the ministry is misguided and unbiblical.

It’s a readable, short and engaging book. The substantial part is an examination of the biblical material. He notes that, in the Old and New Testaments, people do indeed find themselves being called by God, such as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Mary, the Twelve Apostles, Paul and Jesus himself. But the call these people receive may be described as follows:

The word of God comes directly and personally to one of God’s people, specifically directing that individual to assume a defined role or task as God’s chosen leader, representative or spokesperson (pp. 37, 48).

As such, this kind of ‘call’ is clear, undeniable, and external or objective. It hardly needs to be said that elders (presbyters) in the New Testament are not appointed on the basis that they have received a ‘call’ of this nature. Nor is their appointment described using the language of ‘call’. And, crucially, nowhere in Scripture, Old or New Testament, is there any concept of feeling called.

You do not find Isaiah, for instance, saying later that he experienced an inward spiritual impression that he should take up the prophetic role (p. 40).

So if a deep, subjective, inner sense of call is not the decisive factor, then what are the qualifications that should be required of an ordained minister?

The helpful answer comes under two headings:

  1. He must be rightly motivated for ministry (p. 122), and
  2. He must be rightly tested for ministry (p. 125).

The less helpful answer verges on denying that there is such a thing as ordained ministry.

After pointing out that all Christians are called into ministry (compare the different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13), Bennett seeks to find appropriate words to describe the kind of ministry done by pastors. It isn’t ‘full-time’ ministry, ‘as all believers are in “full-time” ministry from the moment of conversion’ (p. 115). After some struggle, the best way he can find to describe this kind of ministry is ‘career ministry’ (p. 115).

By ‘career minister’, then, we mean a person who sets aside normal means of secular employment for the sake of being more fully devoted to gospel work, and who usually is supported financially in this work by other believers (p. 116).

I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory. Admittedly, it is a small book, and this isn’t a major part of it, so I shouldn’t dwell on this. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood? But I do think some comments are in order. First, ‘career ministry’ unhelpfully excludes those ‘amateurs’ and ‘part-timers’ who have a secular career but labour away at pastoral ministry in their free time. (The Apostle Paul springs to mind: see 2 Corinthians.) Second, it makes no distinction between those who are legitimately authorised for their ‘career ministry’ by a church and those who are not. There are plenty of self-appointed charlatans who exploit the generosity of other believers in order to support their ‘career ministries’. And, third, it does seem that pastors (elders, presbyters) in the New Testament are nouns as well as verbs. For comparison, Jane believes that God wants her to spend today teaching, not only because she is good at teaching, but because she is a teacher. Jim believes that God wants him to spend today practising nursing, not only because he is good at nursing, but because he is a nurse. In the same way, John believes that God wants him to spend today exercising pastoral ministry, not only because he is good at doing that kind of thing, but because he is a pastor. There is a sense in which someone is objectively appointed to pastoral ministry, beyond simply being resourced to do the work.

So what should you say if asked, for example, ‘to articulate a sense of vocation to the ordained ministry’? I suppose you could simply speak about why you want to be an ordained minister. Why does the prospect excite you? There is (or should be) no need to gaze deep into your navel, searching for some elusive inner sense of ‘feeling called’.