About a week ago, thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was in a discussion with a brother in another part of the world, with regard to the posting I have on 13 definitions of the word “church” (my latest revision being on June 20, 2012). He stated the idea that church means “called out ones.” I have heard that numerous times in sermons, and is generally a true interpretation, but is not a literal definition of the word in the original language, and does not at all fit the use in Acts 19. A further problem is that we believers in our culture have a fuzzy definition of what “called” means. I struggled with this, as I grew up going to an institutional church in a Calvinistic denomination. I do not remember the idea of what “called” meant ever being taught, but I do remember that, before graduating from high school, I already knew that, if the pastor got up and spoke about Acts 16, about Paul receiving a dream guiding him to go to Macedonia, the sermon would end with the announcement that the pastor was leaving his current position. There was this vague feeling that “calling” had something to do with holding a position of leadership. This makes some sense in that, in the King James Version, which was used far more extensively among believers then, than now, Ephesians 4:1 reads, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,” which appears to say that calling is connected to doing a paid job. As other versions show, this, at most innocently, is a function of the translators reading their own experience into the text, and, at worst, their writing a justification for their jobs into the text. Newer translations show that that was not a nuance in the original language.
Be that as it may, I dove into studying what “call/called/calling” actually means with regard to New Testament believers. Two meanings are common uses of the word, one of which is to ask/command another to move from a place further away from one to another place closer, and the other is an introduction to a synonym, such as “that animal is called a cat.” Many of the uses fall into those categories.
I wish to deal with the spiritual meaning of calling, God’s direction to persons. In Matthew chapter 4, we see Jesus called the disciples. 2 Peter 1:3 tells us Jesus called us because He is virtuous, not us. That should be obvious in that some of us, by the world’s standards, were evil people before we were saved, and others, who seem to be nice people, do not come follow Jesus. Of course, the world’s standards are inconsistent even to themselves.
I will take one paragraph to mention a problem that has vexed students of theology. Is every person on earth called, or only some? Mt. 20:16 and Mt. 22:14 appear to indicate that every person is called, but only some accept the call to follow Jesus. Romans 8:30 and Hebrews 9:15 appear to indicate that only those who follow Jesus are called. This brings up, to us humans, of God’s perfection and whether those not called have no opportunity to avoid hell, which seems to us quite imperfect. Theologians have debated that in their halls of study for centuries, to no good resolution, but we are incapable to understand God in full, anyway, so I have nothing further to add to this.
It appears to me that there are three general levels to God’s call on a believer’s life. Romans 1:7 tells us that we are called to be saints. All believers are saints. The Roman Catholic use of the word is incorrect. Acts 20:1 indicates that “saints” and “disciples” are synonyms. A disciple is one who is following the master, Jesus, to learn what He has to teach. If someone says he/she is a Christian, but shows no signs of desiring to follow Jesus, something is wrong. In most societies where there is freedom of belief, and no governmentally or socially sanctioned persecution, there are plenty of persons who fall into this category. Much could be said about this.
John 15:15 tells us Jesus said that we are no longer His servants, but His friends. 1 Corinthians 1:9 tells us we are called into fellowship. A local fellowship of believers is one correct definition of church. 1 Corinthians 7:15 tells us we are called to peace. Again in 1 Corinthians 7, verses 20 and 24 tell us that our calling is part of our life circumstances, which imply, along with the rest of the New Testament, that there are no special positions for the called, no “holy men” as in the surrounding religions. We, the church, got (or maybe were forced) off-track during the early Middle Ages. Colossians 3:15 tells us that we are called into one body, the Bride of Christ. 2 Timothy 1:9 tells us that this is a holy calling, not according to our works. Holiness is not for the special few. While the calling is not according to our works, the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life changes our heart, and therefore, our works, and that doesn’t happen in the person trying to fake being a believer. Hebrews 5:1-4 and 1 Peter 2:9 defines Revelation 1:6, which helps us understand that saints are priests. Now, if all believers are priests, and priests intercede between God and man, who are we interceding for but other persons and the situations surrounding them. This is the basic level of God’s call on a person’s life.
We are not to sit around, just feeling good about being saved, avoiding hell, nor, by the Spirit speaking into one’s spirit, would one wish to. 1 Corinthinans 1:22-31 tells us that we are to grow in faith. Galatians 5:22, 23 tell us the results of growing in faith, which Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit. 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and Jude 1:1 tell us another word that describes this part of a believer’s calling—sanctification. Ephesians 5:11 describe four or five general gifts God bestows on persons, and in verse 12 tells us that they are for equipping the saints (the believers) for the work of ministry. Therefore, every believer ministers, not just the gifted. That, in turn, is for the edifying of the body (other believers). 1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us that the church is a group of believers that comfort and edify each other. If one person dominates the group and is attempting to be above others, that is wrong; that is normal in the world’s businesses, politics, and military, and in the religions around the world, and in the Old Covenant, but now Jesus is Head of the Church, as stated in Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18. God gifts persons, but did not put any gifted person between God and the average believer.
All believers receive the first calling. To some degree, believer’s grow spiritually, although it is clear that some grow faster than others, and do not grow evenly. Any of us can see that in our own life. The third area of calling is one some believers do not ever enter. Some believers, and even non-believers, are tempted to fake being in. This is the special calling on a person’s life. This ties in, in some way, to the general gifts God gave to us via our DNA, and life experiences, and added to once we accept Jesus’ salvation for us and have grown in faith to a degree. Unlike deciding what occupation to study, we don’t choose this call, although to others, it sometimes might appear that way. Mark 3:13 indicates this. Luke 6:13 tells us that the 12 were apostles still while Jesus was on earth. Yes, some will have a theological problem with that, given that Judas Iscariot was in their midst, and the Holy Spirit was yet to come upon them. Some might argue that an indication of our imperfection, even while saved and desiring to follow the Holy Spirit was Acts 1:23, as an example of how special calling does not happen. Acts 9:11 and 16:10 are examples of special guidance. Acts 13:2, 1 Corinthians 1:1, and Romans 1:1 are examples of special gifting. These are not examples of titles. Paul said that he was an apostle, but he didn’t call himself Apostle Paul. None of these words that are descriptions of gifts were titles, with the exception, as mentioned above, of Jesus, Head of the Church. In Mark 9:35, Jesus taught the twelve that to be great, one must be the servant of all. This speaks a word of warning about those persons whose “ministry” is such that such person is impossible to access, and whom appears, as one person, to be the equivalent to a whole church. Then, again, this is a form that has been taught to both leaders and non-leaders for centuries, and wrongdoing is only deliberate sin when the Holy Spirit brings a thing to a person’s attention. Just to clarify that these gifts were not just natural abilities, Ephesians 4:9 tells us that God gave gifts of ministry to men (humans). I say that in that Romans 16:7 tells us that a woman named Junia was an apostle. Further, Galatians 5:13 tells us that we are called to liberty, to serve one another. Further, when we look at Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12, we see in two spots where Paul is inspired to say “gifts”, which is plural, about healing and administration, but we have no indication of why. Also, there is nothing that tells us that the various list of gifts is complete. The point of God’s gifts is not that we can attach a name to it, but that one uses one’s gift for the benefit of the body to God’s honor.
Above, I rattled off many scriptures in a proof-texting style. One of the problems of that style, which goes back to the rabbis of the Old Testament, and, while I do not know this, probably extends even to the false religions of men, is that a sentence can be taken out of its context to say something that, in its correct literary and/or cultural context, it doesn’t mean. To the best of my knowledge, I do not believe that I have quoted any of these scriptures out of such context. Part of the reason for this writing is that this is an idea which has been misunderstood because others, intentionally or not, have taken this idea out of its proper context, oftentimes not by actually teaching incorrectly, but implying ideas “between the lines” of other teachings which give believers an incorrect understanding. Therefore, not just now, but always, I would urge others, along with myself, to examine this and any teaching, to search the scriptures, and I would add history, to see that I have quoted these passages correctly. This is one of the problems of the modern sermon, versus the participatory Bible study, that it is way too easy in a speech to miss a dubious point, and impossible for any leader wishing to teach correctly to explain a point.
An exact transcript of the one minute version of Simple Church Minute appears as the entry for July 8, 2012.