Thoughts on the Missionary Call
I’m going to upset a lot of people by what I say here. But this is what I believe, because this is what I think the Bible teaches about “the missionary call”.
First of all, it is interesting to note that term “missionary call” does not exist in the Bible. Secondly, it is good to observe that much confusion about “the missionary call” exists because it is entwined with foggy thinking about knowing the will of God, in general.
What “calls” do exist in the Bible? Just to eliminate the human side, we’re talking about “the call of God” or God calling people. We’re not talking about people “calling on the name of the Lord” for salvation, or “calling upon the Lord” for deliverance, as in the common terms of the Old Testament.
There is, primarily, the effectual call to salvation (Ro 1:6; 8:30; 1 Co 1:24; Ga 1:15; 2 Th 2:14; 1 Ti 6:12; 2 Ti 1:9; He 3:1; 1 Pe 2:9). The Bible also speaks of God calling believers with respect to fellowship with Christ (1 Co 1:9), sanctification (1 Th 4:7), liberty (Ga 5:13), peace (1 Co 7:15; Co 3;15), glory and virtue (2 Pe 1:3).
We load the term “call” in ways in which the Bible does not specifically do so when we speak of Abraham’s call, Jonah’s call, Isaiah’s call, Moses’ call. We have been told for years that every missionary needs to have a unique encounter with God or, at least, have a neon-lighted proof-text from Scripture in order to “be called” to the mission field.
Yet, take an honest look at how our understanding of Scripture gets twisted beyond a simple, straightforward reading of the text. God “called” to Moses, for example, in the usual common sense in which one person calls out to another person across the room or across an open space saying, “Hey, come over here. Let’s talk.” Now, these guys did actually have God speak to them in some way (we aren’t told the means exactly). And, it was special revelation, to be sure. However, it was more like specific instructions or insight into what God wanted them to do as they continued their relationship with Him. It was not the same thing presently touted or even expected of a missionary call, like a lightning flash, magic wand, presto-change-o, total makeover of occupational direction.
Abraham was still a herdsman; he just moved to a different country in response to God’s specific direction as he grew in relationship with God. Jonah was already recognized as a prophet; he went on a short-term assignment to Ninevah by specific direction of God and, presumably, returned to Israel. Isaiah was also recognized as a prophet; he was given instruction and encouragement to continue on in the face of opposition and unresponsiveness. Moses thought that God had prepared him and would use him to deliver his kinsmen before the burning bush experience (Ac 7:25); he made a mess of it himself; after 40 years of additional training in wilderness survival, shepherding, and reconnaissance, God spoke to him to get him back on the deliverance leader track, — only doing it His way. Also, we must note, that these encounters with God giving the recipients additional instruction and encouragement all took place before the canon of Scripture was complete.
Sometimes, when speaking of biblical characters or Bible “models” for a call into Christian ministry, we leave our good common sense at the threshold and enter into the house of devotionalized mysticism. For example, if we talk about a friend or public figure following their “calling”, we don’t even momentarily think that they had a personal meeting with God in which God showed them by special revelation which vocational path to choose. Rather, we commonly understand that the person in question, using their training, personality, opportunities, and wise counsel made a good common-sense decision to pursue a career which fit their abilities and goals.
Now, we need to underline a basic theological understanding that the canon of Scripture is closed. God does not give any more objective, normative revelation to believers outside of the Bible. Our Bible, that we all have in our hands, is the complete, objective, normative, sufficient Word of God. Establishing this point does not absolutely rule out God “speaking” to someone with respect to a “call” of some sort. Such a subjective call will be dealt with later. However, for the moment, this understanding certainly does rule out that kind of subjective “call” applying to anyone other than the individual who felt or “heard” it. Normative means that it becomes authoritative for everyone. “No more normative revelation” means that God no longer gives anyone revelation which binds others to obey it. In case you’re keeping track, I’ve just offended those who give any credence to a modern-day “word of prophecy” or a “word of knowledge” or a “word from the Lord”. I’ve cut across the grain of a whole cadre of pastors (not just charismatics!) who tell their church, “I’ve had a vision or a word from the Lord … that we all have to follow, build, obey, etc.”
Next, let’s talk briefly about “God’s will” and what it is NOT. Understanding God’s will is not about trying to plead, cajole, or somehow out-stare God into divulging revelatory information about one’s future which gives additional insight by which a decision can be made. Discovering God’s will is never about God telling you somehow (by what means?) what decision is the right one so that you are absolved of responsibility to make the decision. “Waiting on the Lord” may be a decision for indecision, a cop-out. Scouring the Bible hoping for a proof-text to jump off the page with just the right guidance is also an abuse of Scripture.
OK, quick score check: I’ve just offended a big bunch of dear traditional saints who have claims to using these subjective methodologies for years, with a testimony of their effectiveness. I submit that they have a great theology of the sovereignty of God but little practical grasp of the doctrines of revelation and bibliology. They don’t confidently apply the principles of God’s word – because they’re straining with misapplication of God’s role vs. their responsibility. I’m not saying that reading the Bible a lot and praying for God’s guidance are wrong or misguided! On the contrary, I affirm these are right and good. However, waiting for or basing a decision on some subjective intuition through some extra-biblical revelation from God is absolutely contrary to sound teaching.
We are clearly taught that God’s word contains everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pe 1:2ff). It is profitable for our guidance in every way; it is the means by which we become equipped for every good work (2 Ti 3:16-17). God’s word is a light for our path; it holds the principles by which we are accountable to conduct our lives and make decisions. It is the content by which our minds are renewed and by which we attest the will of God in our lives (Ro 12:1-2).
The progressive sanctification process of renewing our minds to discern the will of God does not include extra-biblical revelation. Meadors makes a good case for understanding God’s will through developing a strong biblical worldview (see Decision Making God’s Way, Baker 2003). A biblical decision-making process certainly does include searching God’s word for applicable principles, seeking godly counsel and accurate information.
So, what does all the preceding have to do with a “missionary call”? Simply, there ought to be no requirement for or expectation of a special missionary call (in the sense of some extra-biblical revelation or insight). All of the so- called biblical evidence or models of a special missionary call are descriptive rather than prescriptive. They are individual-case or unique directives given before the completion of the canon of Scripture. Some present-day missionaries may claim some special revelation as a basis for their missionary call. Yet, if you pry beneath the surface a bit, their real basis has a lot more to do with objective things than subjective things. When it is primarily subjective, it is usually pretty weak, non-repeatable, and insufficient. Subjective stuff is not normative or consistent! Stepping back from a mystical, devotional commitment to subjectivism, you can see how fickle and wild such a position can be.
Note: I’m not arguing that subjective experience doesn’t happen or that it should be completely disqualified or discredited. I am arguing that it should never be the foundational basis of a missionary call. A subjective experience should not be a prerequisite for becoming a missionary. Mysticism or subjectivism can have many unbiblical sources or causes. Such extra-biblical experiences are unreliable, untestable, and unrepeatable. They may be valid and significant to the individual. Yet, they are poor footing for confirming someone’s missionary call.
Unfortunately, legends persist. Though there is much good in Sills’ book The Missionary Call, he winds up being inconsistent by allowing too much credit to subjectivism and using examples of great missionaries of the past who, in my view, put way too much emphasis on a personal experience of extra-biblical revelatory guidance. As I mentioned above, I think that when you dig deeper into those dear saints’ testimonies, I think you’d find that they have much more solid footing for their call in God’s word, a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and a personal commitment to ministry. If you read their stories carefully, it seems that whatever personal subjective event they experienced was, in their heart, a tipping point of decision or assurance to keep moving into missions rather than a brand new direction which they had never considered previously.
What are we to think, then, about a “missionary call”? I’m convinced that the problem of a missionary call, like that of knowing God’s will, or even like that of Christian decision-making, is much simpler and profound than a fleshly formula or an expectation of emotional chill-bumps.
To put it in perspective, let’s recall the big picture: the big, overarching purpose of God through all of Scripture and all of time is God’s glory. It’s important to realize that everything is about God and His glory; it’s NOT about us or me! To somehow expect or demand (?!) that God is obligated to impart some personalized sense of foreknowledge is pretty arrogant. It’s presumptuous. It’s trading walking by faith for a false sense of walking by “sight”.
I like Jim Elliot’s perspective. Here’s some of the things he said:
“Missionaries are very human folks, just doing what they are asked. Simply a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody.” (Elizabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty, page 46)
“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.”
“Rest in this – it is His business to lead, command, impel, send, call or whatever you want to call it. It is your business to obey, follow, move respond, or what have you.”
It is a pressing fact that God has called His church, His people, to go and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28), to preach to the Gospel to everyone (Mk 16), to proclaim forgiveness of sins in His name to all the nations (Lk 24), to be sent as He was sent (Jn 20), to use our resources “that all the ends of the earth may fear Him” (Ps 67), to “preach the Gospel, not where Christ was already named” (Ro 15). These are commands and purpose statements. They are marching orders. Though it does take a certain amount of qualification and fittedness for the task, it does not require more than simple obedience to God’s word and passion for God’s glory to motivate someone to become a missionary. God and His Word are sufficient basis.
Yet, I believe, there is something more … Someone saying, “I want to obey the Great Commission. I want to be a missionary,” is not enough. Confirmation of “the call” does not happen in a vacuum. We don’t allow someone to lay hands on themselves to ordain themselves into missionary ministry.
The context of confirmation is the local church. If the friends and leaders of the individual in their local church context don’t observe and affirm the skills, dedication, initiative, and missionary-mindedness of that individual, then he or she should not be encouraged into missions. The local church witnesses and develops missionary candidates emerging from their midst. They attest to the veracity of God’s calling, in the sense of confirming the mix of gifts, skills, training, inclination, opportunities, etc. The candidate must, obviously, be involved to the hilt in the ministries of their local church.
Changing geography doesn’t make someone a missionary. The potential missionary must be faithful and involved in ministry at home before they’re given the stressful and expensive opportunity to serve far away. Character counts, too! The local church is in the best position to intimately know and disciple a missionary candidate. Missionaries sent overseas should meet the same, stringent biblical requirements of vocational ministers in their home congregation.
So, what constitutes a missionary call? In my humble opinion, a missionary call is discerned when the individual candidate/s exhibit these seven marks:
- A solid understanding of the biblical concept of the glory of God and His global purpose to see Jesus Christ glorified in all nations.
- A high view of Scripture; a commitment to know it, obey it, apply it, teach it, proclaim it.
- A personal conviction to pursue missions ministry, in obedience to God’s Word and given the appropriate opportunity. If the candidates are a married couple, each of them should meet all these marks of a “call” including being convinced that they should pursue missions.
- A serious commitment to ministry in and through personal involvement and relationships in a local church (home church/sending church) context.
- Strong personal spiritual vitality and maturity, observable by others and exemplified in excellent character matching that of biblical qualifications of church leaders.
- Confirmation of local church friends and leadership as to the candidate’s consistency and effectiveness in local ministries and fittedness (including appropriate training) for the projected missions ministry.
- No hindrances preventing the candidate from going and/or sustaining an “above reproach” testimony for Christ, the Gospel, and His church.
p.s. – Paul was a missionary long before Ac 16.
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