Mark J. Larson
In recent months, the "ShepherdFinder Update" on the Home Missions pages of New Horizons has focused attention on the pressing need for pastors in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, both for mission works and for organized congregations. We have been reminded of our duty to pray, for the laborers are few. In prayer, we acknowledge that God alone can raise up true pastors for the work. A biblical pastor is a man who has been called by God.
A consideration of the scriptural teaching on the pastoral call is greatly facilitated by examining the teaching of the sixteenthcentury Reformer, John Calvin. The advantages of reflecting upon Calvin's pastoral doctrine are twofold. First, his pastoral experience was extensive, lasting for nearly thirty years. Apart from his time in Strasbourg, his life's work was done in Geneva, where he served as one of the pastors in the cathedral parish of St. Pierre. It was in this setting of total engagement in the pastoral ministry that Calvin wrote on the subject of the pastoral office, largely in his Bible commentaries and the Institutes, but also in his letters.
Calvin's pastoral theology is significant, secondly, because it is based on the exegesis of biblical passages related to the pastoral office. Calvin continually went to Scripture to determine its teaching on every aspect of the pastoral office. He recognized that not every pastor so scrupulously sought to be a biblical pastor. Thus, he affirms, "Woe then to the slothfulness of those who do not peruse the oracles of the Holy Spirit by day and night, in order to learn from them how to discharge their office!" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 21, on 1 Tim. 4:13).
There may well be young men within our church who are wrestling with the whole matter of the call of God to the office of pastor. You recognize the necessity of a divine call, but you are not exactly sure what it is. It is here that Calvin's teaching is very helpful.
To begin with, it is good to remember the absolute indispensability of God's call to ministry. In fact, Calvin maintained, in keeping with Scripture, that the call of God is the most crucial element in the making of a minister: "No man is to be counted a lawful pastor of the Church ... save he which is called of God" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 18, on Acts 13:2). Calvin warned against the tendency of many who seek to thrust themselves forward into office without the divine call. He wrote to the king of Poland that "no one should rashly intrude into, nor any private person usurp the office of a pastor" (Letters of John Calvin, vol. 3, p. 106).
This, then, is the fundamental perspective that must grip our hearts and minds: "True pastors do not rashly thrust themselves forward by their own judgment, but are raised up by the Lord" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 21, on Eph. 4:11). What, however, is the divine call, which alone makes a true minister? How shall I know whether or not God has called me? In our day, in which fanatics abound on every hand, there is the popular notion that God's call entails some kind of sensational and spectacular experiencethat God will appear by vision or audible voice. Calvin wisely steers our thinking in a different direction.
The call of God, Calvin argues, has two parts: "There is a twofold call; one is internal and the other belongs to order, and may, therefore, be called external or ecclesiastical" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 10, on Jer. 23:21). The external call depends on ecclesiastical order. That is, there must be a church of Jesus Christ with a certain form of government and discipline. In practical terms, this means that one is chosen by men to the office. Indeed, Calvin insists upon the selection of pastors by "common consent of the company of the faithful" (Ecclesiastical Ordinances, in The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, p. 37).
Generally speaking, a call from God includes the ecclesiastical element. "We therefore hold," Calvin affirms, "that this call of a minister is lawful according to the Word of God, when those who seemed fit are created by the consent and approval of the people" (Institutes 4.3.15).
For Calvin, however, the inward call has priority: "But the external call is never legitimate, except it be preceded by the internal; for it does not belong to us to create prophets, or apostles, or pastors, as this is the special work of the Holy Spirit" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 10, on Jer. 23:21). There is a word of encouragement in this perspective for our younger brethren seeking their first pastoral charge: a legitimate inward call from God will be followed by a door of ministry opened in God's perfect time.
The inward call of God is the fundamental element, but what exactly is it? How did Calvin explain its nature? Again, in Calvin's thought, there is the absence of fanaticism. He judiciously maintains that when a man has been endowed by God with the necessary gifts, he has in fact been called by God. He articulates his position in this way: "Those whom Christ calls to the pastoral office he likewise adorns with the necessary gifts, that they may be qualified for discharging the office" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 18, on John 20:22). "When men are called by God," he says, "God ... endows them with gifts" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 21, on Eph. 4:11-14).
According to Calvin, "There are particular endowments required for ... the pastoral office" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 10, on Jer. 23:21). And what are they? Calvin declares, "They who have the charge of governing the people, ought to be qualified for teaching ... in applying the word of God judiciously to the advantage of the people" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 21, on 1 Tim. 3:2). Obviously, the gift of teaching with application must necessarily entail the gift of biblical and theological knowledge. For individuals to "glory in a secret call from God, while in the meantime they are unlearned and utterly ignorant" is to demonstrate that they are "fanatics, and actuated by an evil spirit" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 20, on 1 Cor. 12:28).
Calvin's own sense of God's call to the ministry included the selfawareness that he had been gifted by God to teach and the recognition by others that this was indeed the case. Theodore Beza, his contemporary biographer, states concerning Calvin's time of study in Orléans: "He diligently cultivated the study of sacred literature, and made such progress, that all in that city who had any desire to become acquainted with a purer religion, often called to consult him, and were greatly struck both with his learning and his zeal" (The Life of John Calvin, p. 8). Even in the early days of Calvin's engagement in biblical study and teaching, interested individuals gravitated toward him. Later, his experience in Geneva and Strasbourg was quite similar. There was a recognition in both cities that here was a gifted teacher.
Is the call of God upon your life? Is it the Lord's intention that you serve in the office of pastor? The biblical position that Calvin so powerfully expounded provides significant help in answering this question. It frees us from subjectivism, enabling us to assess wisely the will of God for our lives. In light of the perspectives here articulated, how do you respond to the question of the call of God in your life? Have you been endowed with the gifts? Is there a recognition in the church, among the men and women of wisdom, that you have a significant and conspicuous understanding of "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3)? Furthermore, is there a realization that you as a faithful man are "able to teach others" (2 Tim. 2:2)?
It may be that sober and careful reflection upon these questions forces you to respond in the affirmative. If this be the case, we must be careful lest we fight against the plan of God for our lives. Calvin himself had no overwhelming desire to take up the pastoral office. With reference to Geneva, Calvin writes about his desire "to live in seclusion" and to continue in "privacy and obscurity." He then speaks about his confrontation with Farel, the mighty Genevan Reformer: "At length William Farel detained me at Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me" (Calvin's Commentaries, vol. 4, pref. to Psalms). If the call of God is upon us, may we likewise properly fear, lest by resisting God's call we contend against the Lord himself.
Mr. Larson is a doctoral student at Calvin Theological Seminary. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1999.