March 6, 2014

A foundational understanding of ministry – Part 2

by Lyndon Unger

In my life I often have a conversations that quickly turn to spiritual things.  I was once talking with someone involved in a sort of “para-church ministry” and as we talked it came up that he was wondering if he was called to actual church ministry.  As I probed his doubts I realized that he didn’t actually know what it meant to be “called”, hence he was terribly confused about the whole situation.  As was the case with many young adults I talk to, there was no real understanding of the concept of “call” outside of an esoteric concept that it involved something you got from God (somehow) and was necessary to go into ministry (or at least that’s what you’re expected to say to people who ask).  He knew he needed to get it, but he wasn’t sure what it was or what it would look like when it arrived.


I really feel sorrow for so many people who know that ministry is some form of a “calling”, but when pressed to the wall they’re not able to give provide a concrete understanding of what a “call” is or how in the world to know if they’re called.  Now I’m not exactly going to unpack the whole concept of “call” since Clint has generally done that quite wonderfully and Eric has addressed that in the specific avenue of discerning a calling to church-plant, and there’s no real need to re-invent the wheel.  Instead, I’ll just add a little something to the wheel!


For anyone who has ever wondered about their calling (and I can think of several of my immediate friends who do, and far more who thought they once had a “call” and now are quite convinced that they never did), here’s the general gist of what I told that young man:

To trim a one hour conversation down, we basically went to the big text for understanding eldership in the New Testament and walked through it.  From that text we talked about inner and outer call and I gave him several observations that I’ll share with you.

1 Tim. 3:1 says:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.

I would suggest that this is what’s referred to as the “internal call”, and I would suggest two points related to the internal idea of “call”:

1.  You need to aspire to the office of overseer.

That’s an entirely internal desire, and it’s not something that anyone can do for you.  Also, the word used is in Greek is orego, and it’s the same word used later in 1 Timothy 6:10 which says “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”  The craving that lies behind the pursuit of money is parallel in kind to the craving that one must have for ministry (the office of overseer); it’s a sort of “hunger”.  This isn’t some lazy want; this is a consuming passion.  I’ve heard pastors talk about ministry and say “if you can do anything else, do it”.  Most of the guys I know of who last in ministry could succeed tremendously in other fields, but can’t do anything else because they have an inescapable internal desire to the office of overseer.


2. You need to aspire to the office of overseer.

It’s all good to have a consuming passion for God, or the church, or the lost, but that’s not a call to ministry (and I would recommend my previous posting on what ministry is and is not if you have questions about the term “ministry”).  If you want to be a pastor in a church, or even a lay elder, you need to desire the office of overseer as it’s described in scripture.  If you want to help straighten out a church’s bad theology, or lead worship, or catalyze revival, or do something to reinforce the faith of all the young people that abandon Christianity in university, you’re not really desiring the biblical office of overseer.  Those are not bad desires, but desiring the effects of the office (i.e. helping hurting people) without desiring the demands and responsibilities of the office isn’t really desiring the office of overseer.


If you know what ministry really involves and you desire to do that, you’re at a good starting place for figuring out if ministry is what the Lord desires of you.

This leads us to the rest of the passage (vs. 2-7).

1 Tim 3:2-7 says:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I would suggest that 1 Tim. 3:2-7 deals with what’s referred to as the “external call”.  How so?

3.  This is what an elder looks like.

I have read dozens of lists of qualities that are suggested for a church to seek in a pastor, and it’s funny how few lists ever recommend looking for the same things.  Yet, the Lord has laid the characteristics of his kind of man out in the scripture, and the church who wants to extend the “external” call to a prospective pastor should be using the shopping list of characteristics that God has provided.  God looks for a spiritually noble man, and people who define spiritual nobility over and against God himself are absolutely begging for trouble.  If you think you have a call because you’re a theological encyclopedia, or because you can spot heresy a mile away, or because every time you preach people trample each other to tell you how amazing your sermon was, you’re not necessarily called to ministry.  If your private life is a mess, or you’re known as a theological headhunter, you may protect the flock from error at the expense of the flock itself.


4. These qualities are almost all attributes of character.

It’s worth noting that in 3:2-7 we have two abilities and thirteen attributes of character.  This means that 87%  of the attributes in the list contains character requirements.  The right guy to call to your ministry need is the guy who’s like Christ, and that has less to do with his education, his age, his experience, his success in business, or even his spiritual gifts than many people think (that’s right…spiritual gifts aren’t on the list at all in 1 Timothy 3).  The “kind” of man that a church should call to ministry is a man of consistent and shining moral uprightness; a man whose life is an example worthy of emulation.  This isn’t to suggest at all that biblical understanding, ability to preach/teach, etc. are all unimportant.  Those things are all important but they’re not the majority of what marks of the noble man who the Lord desires to place in leadership; God doesn’t necessarily value the same things that we do (think 1 Sam. 16:7).


I won’t spend time explaining all thirteen characteristics (feel free to go through the resources here for some in depth unpacking of those all), but I would suggest, especially when talking with young people, that “recent convert” may be more accurately understood as “spiritual newborn”, since the Greek term neophytos carries the idea of one who is newborn.  I would challenge whether there’s a simple temporal idea here that applies to young folks across the board.  It’s not like there’s some magic number of years where one all of a sudden becomes a mature believer and I would suggest that the concept of maturity implies far more than the concept of time.  Young guys who desire to be in church leadership must aggressively pursue Christian maturity, but it is possible to be both young and spiritually mature (remember Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:12-16).  Inversely, people who have been in the church for a long time can still be neophytos, and this isn’t so much a warning against hiring a youth as much as it’s a warning against hiring an aged man with the assumption that age equals spiritual maturity…


Let’s take a further look at the abilities:

4a. This is the one of the two abilities required of an elder in this passage.  I would suggest that “able to teach” summarily describes a person who Paul describes in another place as one who can “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).  I would suggest that in order to teach, one must know how to teach and what to teach.  This means that he should have a general grasp of the scriptures well beyond the lay people, that he should have a general grasp of doctrine, and that he should be able and effective to communicate those things.  Paul explains to Titus why an elder must be a man able to teach sound doctrine and refute heresy when he says “For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:10-11).  An elder who is weak in the scriptures will lead a congregation that is weak in the scriptures and that weakness will extend into families. The elders in a church must possess the strength and smarts needed to protect the church from the theological and ideological warfare continually waged against them.

A Team

4b. This is the other of the two abilities required of an elder in this passage.  I would suggest that the “must manage his own household well” refers to both administration and shepherding.  The concept in managing one’s house entails the obvious ideas of paying the bills, organizing things, etc. (i.e. keeping it running and afloat), but the idea carried in the passage leans more towards one of caring and raising children (i.e. shepherding), given the rhetorical question”if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”  A man’s ability to care for people is best seen in the people whom he cares for the most; his family.  For some people, their family life is the thing that condemns their shepherding the worst…


5.  These are not qualities that you necessarily recognize in yourself.

This seems self evident, but it’s also important to remember.  A sober-minded and self-controlled man is often frustrated at his own need for growth in those areas.  A respectable and hospitable man isn’t respectable and hospitable to himself.  I drunkard or violent man is usually in denial of their own sin.  A gentle and quarrelsome man isn’t usually that aware of it (it just seems normal to not fight all the time).  A lover of money usually thinks of himself as “reasonable”.  A man who manages his own household well tends to be more than aware of his own shortcomings and is always aware of the constant struggle to adequately care for his wife, children, and home.  A recent convert who is arrogant usually thinks they’re way more mature than they really are, but humility is never a quality one could rightly attribute to themselves.  Character is something that is recognized by others, not proclaimed by ourselves.


So, in just one small section of scripture, there’s a good and reliable start to answering the question of whether or not a person is called to ministry.  If you know what biblical elders really look like and others desire for you to do what they do, you’re at a really good starting place for figuring out if ministry is what the Lord desires of you.  Here’s a few questions to ask:

Do you aspire to the biblical office of elder?

Do people who are already in leadership recommend you for leadership?

Do people seem to copy the good things you do?

Do people ask you for wisdom in matters of life and family?

Are you trained and competent to teach the scriptures?

If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then you may have some good reasons to suspect that you have a call to ministry.  If you suspect you have a call, it’s also important to recognize that others in ministry will be the main instrument through whom you receive that call to ministry.

What about if you don’t have a clue whether or not you have a call?

More often than not, the easiest way to discern a call to ministry is when you get an actual “call” to serve (or “minister”) somewhere in your church (i.e. children’s ministry, setting up chairs, cleaning, running sound, etc.).   Heeding that initial call (which likely first comes when you’re a young Christian) will provide opportunities to refine your abilities, see the need to acquire new ones, allow people to see your gifting (or total lack thereof), teach you to serve, expose you to leadership, and start you down the path of discerning whether or not you want to work in the church vocationally in the biblical office of elder/pastor/presbyter.  As best you can, always heed the call!

Hearing the call

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him didn’t.
  • Philip

    In the Bible Belt Christian bubble in which I grew up every pastor or Christian speaker had a story of their “call to ministry.” It almost always involved some mystical experience followed by a period of “fighting” with God because they didn’t want to go into ministry before finally surrendering. Honestly I even used some of that language myself a few years ago when I was making the decision to enter seminary. Once I began to learn what the Bible actually says about the way God speaks today and how pastors and missionaries are “called” I changed my language. Thank you for taking the time to examine the issue Biblically.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks for the encouraging words Philip!

      I too went through over a decade of utter confusion on this issue, and I often thought that I had to either:

      a. Experience some sort of unquestionable message from God, usually involving some sort of verbal message (or a series of coincidences involving a plane crash or a Christian celebrity).

      b. Experience some sort of astonishing epiphany where I came to a moment of divine enlightenment.

      The bible is far less esoteric than most of the people I knew when I was in Bible College, and I too have painstakingly learned to change my language. That’s one of the reasons I do so many word-studies…I’m cleaning out the bad vocabulary out of my head that I’ve picked up over the years.

  • Rich C

    just a quick comment.
    The word “office” is not found in the original Greek.
    So it’s more literally, “if any man aspires to overseeing..”
    It’s a work, not an office.
    Office imples a position; work is a service to others regardless of title or position.
    Cp John 20:25-28
    Great article though.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks for the thoughts. What exactly does John 20:25-28 suggest? I think I’m missing you.

      • Rich C

        Hi Lyndon;
        I’m so sorry, I meant Matthew 20, not John.
        I typed from memory and my memory failed me…

        The point of the passage is that the sons of Zebedee wanted an office, a position, to sit on the left and right of Jesus.
        Jesus states that it is not about being exalted to a position, “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

        I suppose you checked out my comment on the word “office” being supplied to the text (as in 1 Tim.3:1). Perhaps the translators had a bit of bias.

        My point being, that if we removed the misconception that men should aspire to a position or office, perhaps we would see more men just confidently (and contentedly) working and serving the saints.
        “But we request of you brethren, that you appreciate (know) those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you (lead the way) in the Lord and give you instruction, that you may esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” (1 Thess.5:12,13).

        A man is not an elder because of a vote, but because of his recognized service and maturity in the faith. If God has so gifted a man to serve in such a way, the last thing he would want is to be lifted up.
        Thanks again and sorry for the initial confusion.
        Rich C

  • Ed

    Supposing one finds himself in a church setting where teaching and discipline are somewhat meager, and has some but not all of the qualities required. Ought he do his best as an overseer because of the need, or should he refuse the position (assuming the church is asking him to take it)?

    • Lyndon Unger

      I have gotten into the habit of not answering hypothetical questions online for people I don’t know in situations I don’t understand. I’ve learned that I often do more harm than good when trumpeting off opinions questions like this.

      Sorry I cannot be of more help.