Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Cessationists and Their Ironic Mysticism (Part 1)

Perhaps like many of you, I've spent many years in a slice of American Christianity that is utterly convinced that revelatory spiritual gifts have ceased, at least in any sense remotely close to what we see described in the New Testament. Though there are some really good reasons to reach that conclusion, the notion that 1 Corinthians 13:10 is referring to the completion of the canon of Scripture is, in my opinion, utterly indefensible.

The strange irony to me, is that in this slice of Christianity that denies ongoing revelation persists a contradictory mystical view of divining God's will. Phrases like "God told/spoke to/led me" are often paired with presumptuous directives and spiritually abusive manipulation from the pulpit. ("I was going to preach X sermon, but a few minutes ago God told me I needed to preach Y instead." [And oh, by the way, Y has pretty much nothing to do with the pretense of a text that I'm about to read to you."]) This sort of thing makes me think of the comment I've heard Dave Doran and Tim Jordan make: One day some of you preachers are going to stand before God and hear him ask you, "Why did you tell people I said that? What made you think that? I never said any such thing."

But spiritual abusiveness isn't the only problem, because the pattern of mystical revelation that's modeled in the pulpit teaches people how to make decisions in their lives outside the church building. The simple fact is that this sort of terminology, used by people in positions where they're perceived to be exercising responsible leadership, can impede discipleship and sanctification.

The popular language of "calling" to ministry can be among this harmful terminology. As missionary martyr Jim Eliot observed:
Our young men are going into the professional fields because they don't 'feel called' to the mission field. We don't need a call; we need a kick in the pants.
How many young men in America attended Bible college never pursued pastoral ministry because they never had the experience their idols described? How many finished seminary and never seriously considered international church planting because they never got the mystical buzz they were taught to expect?

J.D. Greear, no radical knee-jerk cessationist himself, has a nice little two-part series, "The Confusing Language of 'Calling' " at the Resurgence blog (part 1, part 2). I wholeheartedly commend it to you, and I like the way he echoes Eliot's words:
I say this because we have so many people sitting around waiting on a warm, fuzzy, and goose-bump-inducing vision from God before they embark on some ministry. Maybe we've invented the whole language of calling to mask the fact that most Christians don't want to live missionally.


Scott Aniol said...

I came to the conclusion several years ago that this is the position you have to take if you

(1) Are a cessationist,

(2) Do not believe that God sovereign directs the actions of humans, and

(3) You want to still insist that God is in control.

In other words, if you're a cessationist (which I am), the only way for God to be in control, if he is not sovereign over the actions of free agents, is if he somehow mystically "leads" them.

Brian said...

Ben, you ask the question: "How many young men in America attended Bible college and never pursued pastoral ministry because they never had the experience their idols described?"

Here's a similar question: How many men are serving in vocational ministry because they were "called", even though their character and family do not meet the qualifications for such ministry?

After all, the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. This could also be known as the doctrine of "Once called, always called".

Which actually unveils another problem with the "calling" language. Not only is it misleading to have people wait for a subjective experience when they've been given an objective command. In the meantime its stealing a biblical word ("calling") and replacing its meaning. Now when these same people read "called" throughout the NT, they insert the meaning of a subjective experience.

Andy Efting said...

I think churhes, i.e., church leaders along with their congregations, need to be more involved in identifying and encouraging men for ministry. They should be actively training men, giving them opportunities, and looking for evidence of appropriate spiritual gifts.

Kent Brandenburg said...

I've written a lot on the "call" issue.





If you feel led, Ben, perhaps you could look at those to see if you agree. I think thou shouldest.

christopher said...


i am anxiously awaiting Part 2 of this series. But until then, please help me understand. Is this meant to do away with the notion of an "internal" calling to pastoral or missionary ministry? If so, it seems that all we are left with is the external (congregational) call which acknowledges one's giftedness for ministry. Not that there is anything wrong with this. But is this what you (and Greear) are espousing? Is it enough for me to say "I'd like to do X, and my church seems to think i am good at X. So i've packed my bags and i'm ready to go." Perhaps this is all that is necessary--biblical decision-making (a la DeYoung's "Just Do Something", etc.) applied even to discerning a "call" to pastoral and missionary ministry.

Greear ends Pt 2 of his series with "Perhaps the better posture is, 'If God tells me to stay, I'll stay. Otherwise, I'll go.'" Of course, you know i hate this kind of evangelical sales pitch. It doesn't seem to me to be any more helpful than the customary alternative. The default setting is different, but we're still left looking for God to "tell us" something. But other than a few prophets who were called from the womb it does seem to me that the default setting is toward ordinary (common grace) professions.

Ben said...


I'm assuming you'd agree that the mystical "leading," under those circumstances, is a linguistic sleight-of-hand that's unsustainable, though perfectly consistent with the broader theological conclusions with people in that camp.

Ben said...


Great observations, especially about emptying out the biblical usage of the term and infusing it with something wholly foreign to the text.

Having said that, I should probably just note that I think God really does lead people. I just don't think we have any biblical justification to know with certainty when and how.

Ben said...


For starters, you're right about Greear's concluding sentence. I should've pointed out that it's inconsistent with his broader point.

Regarding the "internal call," Andy's right that churches need to be more involved in evaluating giftedness and qualifications. And we shouldn't abandon that internal "something"; we just need to call it what Scripture does: desire (1 Tim 3:1). The biblical terminology doesn't claim divine authority backing up our intentions. It leaves the internal sense of wanting to pursue pastoral ministry as merely ONE leg of the stool, which is also supported by the church recognizing 1) giftedness and 2) qualifications.

Anonymous said...

Right on Ben, right on

Brian said...


I agree that God does truly lead people through subjective desires. I hope my comments did not betray that fact.

Another forgotten ingredient in the mix is providence. God leads through (1)our subjective desires, (2) his objective standards, (3) the wisdom of others, (4) and his providential hand.

This becomes important because one of the big problems, as Greear points out, with the dominant model is passivity. Having this ideal of calling and leading actually breeds passivity (in all sorts of decision-making). If, say, we have the internal desire to do missions, the objective command to take the gospel to the nations, and the confirmation of elders, what is to stop us? Nothing, except God's providence and a few sending agencies. But if he is against it, he will stop it (be it financially, medically, etc). Sadly, though, many never trust God's providence in decision-making and are waiting for a phone call from God that will never come

For instance, if a young man wants to marry, is interested in a godly woman, and has the approval of parents--just do it. But this culture of "being in the center of God's will" has caused many guys I know to wait for just the right person only to never know when they find her.

Sorry this is getting so long. My point is this. The culture of "calling" and waiting for God to lead (while purporting to be trusting and depending on God for guidance) actually discourages living by faith--faith in God's good providence which frees us to (as Carey put it) attempt great things for God.

Michael said...

Mysticism often shines through when people just do not want to obey the Scriptures. For example, at times a church needs to practice discipline. The leadership has seen the issues biblically, only then to fall back and say, "I see the issues, but I'm just waiting for the Lord to show this person the same thing." That is an excuse for not moving and obeying what Scripture directly says.
Another way to blunt what Scripture says and be mystical after honestly identifying the problem or sin in the camp is to say the following: "Well, we need to pray about this." Joshua fell on his face before the Lord after Achan had sinned at Jericho and was asking the Lord why they didn't have His presence and blessing. God's response? Get up. No need to pray about this. There is sin in the camp. When sin has been identified in the camp, it needs to be dealt with, not "prayed about." (Although, we need wisdom from God in dealing with it correctly.)
God speaks to us through His Word in very clear ways about objective issues. He's not going to speak and address something contrary to what He's already said and change it. If someone is in leadership, they need to lead based on what God has said in Scripture.

I agree 100% about the fact that there is a need for a "biblical desire" first in the heart of a man who is "called" to ministry. Biblical would mean that they aren't desiring leadership in order to "Lord it over the flock," or because of dishonest gain, etc. If a man truly has a God-given desire, the congregation would also recognize their giftedness (honesty is a key here) and then that man must also meet the Biblical requirements from 1 Timothy/Titus. Most if not all of that is very very objective. The problem comes when we don't want to hurt someone's feelings more than follow the Scriptures. When others in leadership do not want to follow the Scriptures, subjective mysticism is often the result.