Weekly Update 39 – ‘Concerning a Calling to the Ministry’

[This post is long.  The first half deals with Durham’s understanding of the call to the ministry.  The second half deals with some of Durham’s radical suggestions for overhauling the way men are called to the ministry.  If you are only going to read some of this post read the second half!] 

One of the most interesting essays in Durham’s work on Revelation is entitled “Concerning a Calling to the Ministry, and clearness therein” (Revelation, 66-77).

At the outset Durham highlights the importance of certainty regarding the calling to the ministry, “Ministers are but Ambassadors; and so for them to want [lack] clearness of the Lord’s Call, is to be uncertain whether they have a Commission or not…” (p66).  The whole area of the call to the ministry is an important matter. 

It is wise at the outset to clarify what we mean by “call” for in the words of Durham “When we speak of a call… it’s not to be understood, that men now are to look for an immediate and extraordinary Call… [but] in a mediate way” (p67).  A direct and personal (audible?) call from the Lord to leave our nets and become fishers of men is not for today.  Durham also addresses the area of our own desire urging that “great stress would not be laid on a man’s own inclination or supposed impulse” (p68).  He cites Moses, Jonah and Jeremiah as those who were truly called but had the opposite inclination!

So, negatively, the call is not “extraordinary” and it is not an “inclination”.  But positively what is involved in a call?

  1. Having the requisite gifts is “the great differencing Character of a Call”.  Although gifts do not finally “constitute” a call yet if a man is called God will give him the gifts. (p68).
  2. It is the recognition of the gifts by the church “that maketh a Call”. (p68).
  3. There must ultimately be a yielding to the recognition of a call/gifts by the church. (p69).
  4. God’s providence may, where there is doubt over a calling, clear matters for us.  If all other doors are shut to us which we might naturally have expected to be wide open, then it may be a sign to confirm a call to the ministry. (p69).

But what of the testimony of the Spirit – the inward call?  When asking the questions “how to discern it” and “what weight to lay on it” Durham confesses that “it is hard to decide therein: the operations of the Lord’s Spirit being mysteries… also the deceits of our own hearts are deep, and not easily reached.” (p69-70).  Despite this initial qualification he gives some helpful guidance:

  1. It is not unusual for the Spirit to create a desire in someone for the ministry when that is to be their calling. (p70).
  2. But this working of the Spirit is “not alike in all or equally discernible” (p70).
  3. For some it is powerful and direct but for others it may progress in stages e.g. a loss of interest in (or love for) our present calling, a love created for reading and studying, the heart becomes restless in all other things but the ministry etc. (p70).
  4. There is a difference between a call to “the study of Divinity” and “the Ministry”.  The former may be present without the latter. (p71).
  5. But we must be careful for “every impulse, which may be to the Calling of the Ministry, is not to be accounted an impulse of the Spirit of God” (p71).  If we are constrained contrary to our natural inclinations, with a motive for God’s glory and the edification of his people, with a willingness to submit to the judgement of the Church, with a desire for study, and with the appropriate gifts (p71-2) then we may trust it is a true calling.

An absence of this “impulse of the Spirit” does not mean there is no calling, for it may simply be that we do not discern one even though it is there, or it may be that the other elements of the calling (e.g. gifts) are sufficiently clear that this is not necessary (p72-3).

Having defined a calling to the ministry Durham went on to challenge the way the “calling to the ministry” worked out in practice.  This is where Durham’s essay gets interesting.  Everything else he says is eminently helpful, but fairly standard.  On the practical outworking of the calling to the ministry, however, he is quite radical.

His basic point was that he saw that “many” who “smother good Gifts which might be useful” thereby depriving the Church of faithful pastors because of their reluctance to put themselves forward for the ministry (e.g. due to “shame and modesty”).  Durham’s response was to advocate that it should not be left “unto men themselves alone” to decide “whether they will offer themselves to trial” for the ministry.  Rather the Church should be proactive and authoritatively “advise [men] to study” for the ministry.  This would bring more men with suitable gifts into the ministry and also might make those “ashamed to thrust themselves forward” who currently placed themselves before the Church without adequate gifts or calling. (p73)

For Durham, the Church proactively calling men to study was preferable to the situation of his day, where the Church was “almost, confined in her choice to a number that give themselves, or at most are designed by their Parents, or possible constrained by necessity to follow such a study” (p73).  For Durham the idea that a Church could call a man to train for the ministry without his prior indication of such a desire was eminently reasonable.  He argued that the Church was one body and that every member of the body had a duty to use their gifts in a way “as may most conduce for the good of the whole body”.  So if the Church deemed a member may most edify the body by being in the ministry there was no reason why the body might not “appoint him to the Ministry”.  The person so called would have a duty to accept this appointment because he has a “duty” to the body “which is to be preferred to any particular member’s interest”.  Durham argued this was the apostolic method. (p74).

Durham summarised his approach as “There would be some choice made in the designing of Youths for that Study (the Ministry): so that in an orderly way, some might be trained, and not have liberty otherwise to withdraw… We would not have Elections bound and limited to that number, so as either any whosoever thus trained up, might certainly be supposed as capable of being Ministers, or as if no Congregation or Presbytery might fix their eye upon, or give a Call unto any other.” (p74-5).

Durham argues that his position is that of the First Book of Discipline which he quotes “Moreover men in whom is supposed to be any Gift, which might edify the Church, if they were employed, must be charged by the Ministers and Elders to join themselves with the Session and company of interpreters, to the end that the Kirk may judge whether they be able to serve to God’s glory and the profit of the Kirk, in the vocation of Ministers or not.”  (p75 – italics as original). If those with gifts were not willing to comply they were to be subject to discipline!  Durham believed this approach “if it were zealously followed, might by God’s blessing prove both profitable, and honourable to the Church.” (p75).

Perhaps that all seems a bit radical?  Well the church in the UK has a shortage of Pastors, and people recognise the problem but relatively little changes.  Why not be radical and proactive?  Why not call men into training rather than waiting for them to (never) put themselves forward?

2 Responses to “Weekly Update 39 – ‘Concerning a Calling to the Ministry’”

  1. Steven Carr Says:

    This is a really good post. There is a certain danger towards subjective mysticism in one’s calling. I remember when a friend of mine received a call to a Church in Wisconcin. He never took the call because he didn’t feel that the Lord was leading him there. I was somewhat disappointed by his response because he never used the means God put in place to make sure that the Lord really wasn’t leading him there. He is pastoring in a different Church, so we could say obviously the Lord didn’t lead him there. But if the Church actually called him and interviewed and then came to the conclusion that he wasn’t the man for them, that is how, I would say, the Lord normally leads. Church government, it is the Lord’s gift to His people. We need to use it; not rely on subjective feelings.
    Good post.



    P. S. Thanks for your comments on my blog. I suspected I might cause some controversy. I am thinking about writing more about the allegorical approach to the Song of Songs.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steve

    Thanks. Durham is very balanced and wise on this subject – as on most others!

    It would be good if you wrote more on the SoS in the future. I think it is important to keep up the visibility of the Christological view of the SoS. Many people today have either never heard of Durham’s approach or have been told it is “gnostic” to view it as an allegory.

    One area where I think there is room for fruitful interaction and discussion is between a heavily typological view an allegorical view. They both end up in the same place in that Christ is the centre of the book, and they both acknowledge the various ways in which lessons can be drawn from the Song but get there from different directions. I favour an allegorical approach but I think from sermons I’ve heard David Murray takes a typological approach.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

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