Monday, April 07, 2008

One More Reason to Abandon the Language of "Calling"

Over the past five or ten years, I think I've made more than a few people think I'm either out to lunch or just plain obnoxious. Of all the possible grounds for those conclusions, none provokes those reactions more than when I've expressed opposition to using the term "calling" to describe the internal personal desire for pastoral ministry or the subjective sense that God has designated someone for that work.

But once again, I'd like to offer a little real-world evidence for how this language is abused. Wade Burleson, Southern Baptist pastor and blogger who gained notoriety for his concerns that Southern Baptists have excessively narrowed the boundaries for their cooperation, has most recently focused his energies on Southern Baptists and women in ministry. In a post today he describes a situation that illustrates how Southern Baptist women are being squeezed out of military chaplaincies.

Now, I think that the matter of women in chaplaincies is more complex that I intend to examine here, but two things are worth noting in Burleson's illustration. First, though it's not stated explicitly, it seems pretty clear that the female chaplain in question is preaching to men, given the fact that "every Sunday [she] can be heard preaching the gospel at 10:30 a.m. during the Protestant worship service at the beautiful West Point Military Academy Cadet Chapel."

Second, this chaplain's rationale (and Burleson's in his defense of her) is grounded in her internal sense that God wants her to be doing her work as a chaplain. Consider their words:
[My] heart "aches for the Southern Baptist Convention and the stance our convention has recently taken on women in missions and ministry." On the one hand Southern Baptist churches are training girls in G.A's (Girls in Action) and Acteens that they are to listen to the voice and calling of God and serve Him. Yet, when those same girls fulfill the call of God on their lives, the very Convention who trained them then turns their collective back on them.
Notice how teaching to listen to "the voice and calling of God"—the kind of teaching we've all heard, and the kind of language we've all heard used to defend personal choices—is used here to defend a particular form of ministry that many would argue is incompatible with biblical directives for the role of women in public ministry.

I realize that some will want to say, "Hey, the West Point Chapel isn't a church, so she ought to be permitted to preach." I understand that argument introduces some complexities, even though I think those folks are still wrong at the end of the day. But what I wish everyone could recognize and apply to all aspects and complexities of who does what in pastoral ministry is that an internal sense of "the voice and calling of God" ought to be about the last argument we use to defend our or someone else's personal choices.

Our hearts are deceitful, and their desires aren't fully transformed yet. Not even close. I don't know why it surprises us when these kinds of heart-tugging rationales are used to give account for unwise and even ungodly human actions. So how is your terminology teaching future generations to make decisions and form a justification for them?


Roger said...

Way to go Ben. I wonder what these folks would say to the young LDS elder(?) who wants to talk about a burning bosom as a calling. And even a "fire in my bones" can't trump Scripture.

Stay faithful,

In Christ,


Don Johnson said...

"out to lunch or just plain obnoxious"

hmmm... decisions, decisions!!!

Well, on this one I agree with you, although I think this 'sense of a call' is more than just a desire for the work. (See 1 Tim 3.1).

The way 'calling' is described by many seems a good deal Quaker-like to me.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Carolyn McCulley said...

This is presented very well and winsomely, Ben. Internal impressions must always be subject to the objective truth of Scripture.

Chris said...

It seems like you are allowing those using the word incorrectly to define the argument. The words "baptism in the Holy Spirit" are abused on a regular basis too, should stop using that phrase? The concept of "calling" is a Biblical one, it's just that the definition has been all too often co-opted by the confused and blatantly wrong among us. Rather than reccommending we dump it, I would encourage people to define it more stringently when it is used. By the way, this is also (though I hate to even mention it) an issue of Bible translation usage. Those who use the King James will see the words "calling" or "called" more often in the text. That is one of the reasons they (we) will use it. Either way, definition of the term is key.

Kent Brandenburg said...


We seem to take the same point of view. We spent a month at Jackhammer on this and here are three of my posts:


I was a Biblical language major and "called" and "calling" in the KJV has zero to do with people being messed up in their understanding. You may have heard people using the KJV mangle it in their exegesis, but NIV and NASV users do the same. In the context, when "called" is used, it is talking about salvation. Men have just been shallow and superficial in their approach to those passages---probably did nothing more than look the word up in Strongs and cobble together a list of verses to use out of context. It has nothing to do with the translation.

I also think by redefining "call," people will get a wrong understanding of what the word means in Scripture. I say leave it alone.

I agree with Don that "desire" is a huge part of it, but there is more too---I deal with that in my articles.

Chris said...


I don't find myself in disagreement with you at all, I just argue that disouraging the use of a particular term usually does nothing to correct wrong understanding. It is the understanding of the "calling" concept that needs to be defined.

I hated to even bring up the issue of translation, because (as usual) it muddies the waters. But...check Acts 13:2, specifically referring to missionaries (Paul and Barnabas), it uses the word calling outside the salvation context. This is the "general idea" many refer to when speaking of calling.

Again, I am not disagreeing with you particularly; I just find it to be an issue of understanding rather than semantics.

Kent Brandenburg said...


Thanks for the comment. I think you do have a point about Acts 13:2, although it is a different Greek word, the same one used in James 5, "call" the elders of the church, like a summons, so the point about exegesis comes in. I do grant you the Acts 13:2 usage though and your point about definition. By the way, NIV, NASV, and KJV all translate that word "call."

Anonymous said...


Here are some good thoughts and words from Os Guinness on calling.


Anonymous said...

Here's one more bit by Guinness on calling: