Calling Revisited: The Perspective of the Church Fathers

One of the first topics I addressed on this blog was that of calling. I looked at questions about the nature of calling, what we really mean when we use the term, and whether we use it as it is used in the Bible. Feel free to take a look at the two earlier posts on the subject if you would like (I Hear Jesus Calling Part 1I Hear Jesus Calling Part 2).

In my church history class, as we’ve zoomed through important figures in the early eras of the church, an interesting theme has surfaced regarding calling. Someone in class mentioned it, and professor Marc Cortez gave us some helpful clarifying comments.

Among the figures we’ve looked at, there has been no indication of viewing calling as  a deep, personal feeling given by God. In fact, in looking specifically at the calling to pastoral ministry, or to the ordination as a bishop (which would have been the rough equivalent), almost universally, the church fathers did not want to be ordained, or at least did not seek it out for themselves. Calling to “ministry,” or in this case, church leadership, was not between a person and God, but was mediated either through the community of the church, or through the leaders of the church, or both. It would have been unheard of at this time for a Christian to approach their church leaders and tell them that they had been called to be a bishop or elder. What a radically different picture than what we see today!

Neither Chrysostom nor his friend Basil wanted to be ordained as bishops and even considered running away. John avoided it for a time by tricking his friend into being ordained without him.

In my previous posts, I suggested that what we usually term “calling” is more aptly described along the lines of “what God has prepared me to do for him” as opposed to an external, explicit call from God to a very specific task, such as was given to Paul or Isaiah. It would seem that in the early church, a call to church leadership was viewed as coming from God through the community rather than an individual feeling or leading from God. But is this the biblical way of things, and we have gone astray, or is it the other way around?

Almost certainly, the correct answer is not one or the other, but something between the two, as we are almost always out of balance one way or another. However, on first glance, I lean rather forcefully towards the model practiced by the church fathers.
It seems to follow the biblical model more closely (choosing of Matthias to replace Judas, choosing of Stephen and the others, etc.), and would also seem to swing the pendulum away from an overly individualized Christian life, which I think we suffer from in Western Christianity. I think that it would also lead to fewer Pastors who are entirely ungifted for the task. Unfortunately, in part due to the way we talk about calling, there are plenty of Christians who want to follow Jesus more closely and radically dedicate their lives to him, and they feel that the only way to really do that is to be a pastor or missionary. Thus they may head off to seminary with the best of intentions, but little gifting for the office to which they think they have been called. I tell you, as a seminary student, this seriously gives me pause.

This has been a bit of a ramble, but it is far too late for me to be writing, so you’ll have to forgive me. There is a great deal more to be explored here, and I must certainly do so soon, providing I can make the time.

Please share your thoughts with me.

When you think of the call to ministry, do you lean towards a call by the community, or an individual leading from God? Should those who have offered themselves up as candidates for church leadership take a step back? Is it proper for them to nominate themselves, or would it be better to love God with all you are, serve him with all your heart, and participate in leading the church only if you are called to do so by God, through the community, directed by the leadership of the church?

Can you think of any counter-examples from early church history that would speak to this discussion?



9 thoughts on “Calling Revisited: The Perspective of the Church Fathers

  1. My response is not nearly exhaustive. However, I wanted to mention one verse in connection with this topic.

    1 Timothy 3, in which Paul describes the qualifications of elders and deacons, he begins by quoting a “trustworthy saying” – “If anyone aspires (NASB, ESV; ‘sets his heart on’, NIV) to be an overseer, he desires a noble task.”

    This leads me to believe that there is room for an individual to WANT to be an overseer, for it to be valid and not necessarily something rooted in prideful ambition. Here, Paul actually commends the individual for desiring this noble task.

    I really like the concept of a calling coming from within the community, commissioned by the leadership of the church. I wish it happened more often. It is all too common for those in leadership to see parishioners and lay people in a condescending manner, not capable of leadership, somehow needing the pastor / elders or else being lost. However, I also see room for individual callings, and desires for positions in church leadership.


    • Wow! I feel a bit silly for failing to think of that verse in connection with this topic.

      I agree that Paul does indicate that one can aspire to be an overseer. However, I’m not sure that he is commending the person who aspires to such an important task. Based on the strict requirements that immediately follow, it would almost seem that he is warning the aspiring individual of the seriousness of the task rather than encouraging their aspiration. I don’t think he is necessarily discouraging someone who wants to serve in this way, but is trying to highlight what is required for service.

      (I’m not sure if anyone has ever translated the passage in this way, or taken it to have this sense, but it could be rendered as follows: “if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he covets an important job.” That’s way different than the way I’ve always read the passage, but it is an interesting thought.)

      I definitely agree that room should be left for individuals to desire to be involved in church leadership. I certainly don’t want to draw absolute distinctions here. I also think there can be a sense in which someone can aspire to something, but not necessarily pursue it. I still need to take the time to think and work through the implications of all this, but perhaps it might be fair to say that a call to church leadership should not be solely individual, but should be encouraged and amen’d by the body.

  2. It might seem to be a cop-out to say both but the line of truth has a tendency to fall in the middle somewhere. I say that God is calling the individual and speaking to the church leadership at the same time.

    There is responsibility for both the individual and the local body to listen to the Holy Spirit. After all, God has given the offices of leadership to the church to equip the body (Eph. 4:11-14). Shouldn’t He also know who should fill those positions? There is importance for both the church and the individual to be certain of a call to leadership in the church.

    • I don’t think it’s a cop-out at all, especially if the Bible indicates that both are the case. Your second paragraph reminds me of the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas. The disciples choose two options, and then leave the final selection up to God by casting lots! I think the beauty of a call to ministry coming from within and from without is the confirmation of agreement between the individual and the community and the Holy Spirit.

  3. Pingback: Elsewhere (02.18.2012) « Near Emmaus

  4. This seems like a “wisdom of the community” (church) type issue, because without the corresponding, supportive affirmation of a person’s call to ministry by the community–he/she will not have a community to lead. So, I see the community, including its leadership, as the final and only legitimate human source of affirmation of the call to ministry. When this call is affirmed by those who are physically outside of the community, such as the state churches, denominations, bishops, and (occasionally) seminaries–then the call may or may not be accepted by the community. The bottom-line question for someone who senses a call from God to ministry should be, “Does a church hear the voice of a shepherd when I speak/write/communicate? Do they follow me as a leader, today?” If they do not, then a person can only say he/she believes they have been called TO serve the church, but not (so far) BY the church.

    • I like this way of putting things. It would be nice to see every part of the body recognizing that they are called to serve the church, and to see the leaders and the community then call those people to different tasks.

  5. Good stuff, Luker. It’s been interesting how “calling” was a major topic in an article I read for one of my education classes. I’ve always struggled with the assumption of Christian teachers I’ve worked with that we were all called to the profession, school, etc. I’ve never felt that way. I hope you don’t mind, but I referenced your blogs on this subject in an online discussion for the class. I’m sure the prof will be so impressed that you’ll have a job offer waiting for you when you graduate.

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