Can a person have a call to the ministry if nobody else hears it? What role does the community of faith have in the life of a person who hears the voice of God calling them to the ministry? In deciding who should be in the ministry, the community of faith must consider the call of an individual. How can a community of faith determine whether an individual’s call from God is genuine? The answer is that, ultimately, evaluating spiritual calling is up to the community of faith.
The community of faith’s validation of the call is the crucial test whether a person should enter the ministry. Those who are involved in theological education have seen many people who are unqualified for the ministry enter a seminary. Some of these people are individuals who have come out of painful divorces, people who are hurting because of the death of a spouse, people who have failed in business or secular professions, those who are influenced by the words of parents, friends, or ministers, and those who are seeking spiritual nourishment or the care of a supporting community.
The seminary community has also seen people who desire to enter the ministry because of the allurements of the respect and authority given to ministers and the view that ministers only work once a week. Some people view the ministry as a trade or profession and not as a vocation that requires the assurance that one has been constrained by the hand of a holy God.
All of these people go to seminary because they heard God’s call, but can there be a calling, if nobody else hears the voice of God? In addition, how can one be sure that the voice heard is the voice of God and not our own? It is possible that the voice we hear in our hearts is our own voice telling us what we want to hear.
When we look at the Old Testament and the vocation of the prophets to their ministry, there are several lessons that can be learned from the call of the prophets. An important lesson is that not everyone who is in the ministry belongs in the ministry. Speaking of some prophets in the days of Jeremiah, God said, “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21). These prophets were not sent by God and yet they became involved in ministry, and driven by a human impulse, they spoke as if God had commissioned them.
In the New Testament, Jesus spoke against people who were doing the work of the ministry without authorization: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:15, 21-23).
Another lesson we learn from the prophets is that the community of faith can validate the call of a prophet, but God has a veto power over the decision of the community. For instance, the prophet Hananiah had the support of the religious and political communities of Judah as well as the endorsement of the people, so much so, that in his confrontation with Jeremiah, the religious authority and the people supported the word of Hananiah against the word of Jeremiah.
In the end, the final decision belonged to God. God sent Jeremiah with a very strong message: “And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, ‘Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie’” (Jeremiah 28:15). Hananiah had spoken with authority, in the name of God, even using the prophetic formulation for a divine message (Jeremiah 28:2), but his message was false. Even though the community of faith endorsed Hananiah, he was a false prophet because his words contradicted the word God had spoken through Jeremiah.
Another example is found in 1 Kings 22. In this text, four hundred prophets who were recognized by the people and by the political and religious communities as prophets of God, spoke with one voice in the name of God to express divine support for the war against the Arameans. They told King Ahab that God would give him success in battle against his enemies. However, the prophets were wrong because they were not speaking the true word of God.
The third lesson we learn from the prophets is that the true prophet or minister of God receives the word directly from God and as a result preaches faithfully the word received from God. Jeremiah says that the true prophet knows God’s word because he has been in the presence of God: “For who has stood in the council of the Lord so as to see and to hear his word? Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it?” (Jeremiah 23:18).
On the other hand, the false prophets have no word from God to proclaim, so they steal God’s word from another prophet: “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another” (Jeremiah 23:30). These are the prophets who preach an empty message because they do not have a word from the Lord: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, ‘No calamity shall come upon you’” (Jeremiah 23:16-17).
The focus of Christian ministry is the word of God. When God calls a person, God endows that person with the gift of his words. When God called Jeremiah, he touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said to him, “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9). Then God told the prophet, “You shall speak whatever I command you” (Jeremiah 1:7).
God’s word is placed in Jeremiah’s mouth and Jeremiah is to embody God’s word through his ministry. Ezekiel had the same experience. He was ordered to eat God’s word and the divine word became part of his very being (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3). For the minister, the word of God is always the focus of the ministry. According to Paul, the minister must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and show those who oppose it where they are wrong (Titus 1:9).
The Bible says that there are some issues that may disqualify a person from being a prophet: drunkenness (Isaiah 28:7), adultery, ungodliness, falsehood (Jeremiah 23:9-15), simony (Acts 8:18-21), and rejection of the Torah of God (Hosea 4:6). How can ministers be faithful to the word of God when living the kind of life that is contrary to the same word of God they are preaching? Any person called to the ministry has a responsibility to be faithful to the word of God as revealed to us in the pages of Scriptures. Ministers do not have the power to change God’s word, but God’s word has the power to change the life of the minister.
People cannot be ministers of God because they choose to become ministers or because others say that they should be ministers. The fact is, that although every Christian has the responsibility to carry the good news to every person everywhere, not all persons are called to the ministry. Although many people want to go, they should not run unless they are sent.
So, can you have a calling, if nobody else hears it? It is evident that the call requires the validation of the community of faith. The community of faith can also reject the call of some people on the basis that they do not meet a specific biblical or doctrinal principle. What the community of faith chooses to do with the call of an individual is, at the end of the day, really up to the people who participate in the community of faith. The community of faith has to decide whether God calls a person. Ordination committees will decide whether a candidate meets the biblical standard for a person called by God. Yet, their decision is not final. The ultimate judge of whether a person is called by God is God himself.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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