Calvin's Directives on the Call to the Office
"...And therefore called of God Himself, to this holy ministry....
Scripture often makes use of the term "to call." Believers are effectually called; called out of darkness to light; called to be saints. They are called in one hope of their calling. We have our everyday calling. There is also the so-called Macedonian call. In our society we tend to speak differently. We speak of occupation, engagement, decision, and the like. This is the language of self-determination. Scripture, however, emphasizes calling. This entails, first of all, that God directs all things and not we ourselves. When a person is called to do something, he does not have that of himself, but is simply following the dictates of another. Secondly, it entails that God's will is manifest and knowable. We are not left in the dark, wondering whether God is "silent," as so many today claim. God speaks and calls. Thirdly, it entails that we must listen and obey His dictates.
The Call to Office
Besides the different kinds of callings we commonly refer to, there is also the call to the office. When God would have a man serve in one of the special offices in his church, he calls him. This is not only true of the office of minister of the Word, but also of the offices of elder and deacon. In the liturgical forms that we use for the installation of office bearers, as well as for that of the office of minister, the question is asked, "whether you feel in your heart that you are lawfully called (emphasis, LWB) of God's Church, and therefore of God." This is, obviously, an important question. It takes precedence even over the question whether the person is in express agreement with the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures as "the perfect doctrine unto salvation."
When we speak of the call to the office, we obviously are discounting that a man comes to the office by way of self-determination. A person does not simply decide that he wants to be in the office and then pursues the track that leads to that point. That is what often happens in politics. People determine they want to occupy this or that political office; so they announce their candidacy and begin to campaign for votes. We also deny that a man ends up in the office by accident. He may or may not have wanted the office, but somehow, at random he ends up in that office, not sure why and wherefore. Nor does a person pursue an office out of curiosity or from a desire for some rewards of the office. He may only take up the office if and when God calls him.
The next question, however, is what constitutes such a call from God. Is the call something that originates from the mystical recesses of the universe; does it arise from peer-pressure; or does it stem from the excitement of the moment? No, just as with the effectual call, God works the call to the ministry through His appointed means, through His Word by His Spirit, within the context of the church of the Lord.
Calvin sheds much light on the operation of the call to the office. Let us categorize his teaching into four points and illustrate it with quotes from his writings.
- First, the call to the office assumes the call into the state of grace. There can be no call to any office as long as there has been no effectual call to grace. In Calvin's words, "only those are to be chosen who are of sound doctrine and of holy life, not notorious in any fault which might both deprive them of authority and disgrace the ministry (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-9)" (The Institutes IV, 3, 12). In his commentary on Titus 1:9 he explains further: "In a pastor there is demanded not only learning, but such zeal for pure doctrine as never to depart from it." Elsewhere he writes: "God does not wish them (pastors) to perform their office in a cold and lifeless manner, but to press forward powerfully, relying on the efficacy of the Spirit ... Hence we are taught, first, that not one of us possesses that firmness and unshaken constancy of the Spirit, which is requisite for fulfilling our ministry, until we are endued from heaven with a new power" (Exposition on 2 Tim 1:7).
- Secondly, the call to the office involves an inner call from God. Calvin calls this "that secret call, of which each minister is conscious before God, and which does not have the church as witness. But there is the good witness of our heart that we receive the proffered office not with ambition or avarice, not with any other selfish desire, but with a sincere fear of God and desire to build up the church. That is indeed necessary for each one of us if we would have our ministry approved by God" (Institutes IV, 3, 11). As Calvin says, the church is not the witness to this inner call; nevertheless, she must reckon with the fact that there is to be this call, and anyone who cannot attest to such an inner call, should first seek clarity concerning it. In his commentary on Galatians 1:1, he writes: "As no man ought to 'take this honour unto himself,' (Heb 5:4), so it is not in the power of men to bestow it on whomsoever they choose. It belongs to God alone to govern His church; and therefore the calling cannot be lawful, unless it proceed from Him."
- Thirdly, the call to the office becomes evident in the equipment by the Holy Spirit. If a man comes with "an inner call," but lacks the fundamental gifts for the ministry, we should suspect the inner call. Calvin explains in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1. "For as no man can lawfully assume the designation and rank of a minister, unless he be called, so it were not enough for anyone to be called, if he does not also fulfill the duties of his office. For the Lord does not choose ministers that they may be dumb idols, or exercise tyranny under the pretext of their calling, or make their own caprice their law; but at the same time marks out what kind of persons they ought to be, and binds them by his laws, and in fine chooses them for the ministry, or, in other words, that in the first place they may not be idle, and, secondly, that they may confine themselves within the limits of their office." Calvin writes: "Those whom the Lord has destined for such high office, he first supplies with the arms required to fulfill it, that they may not come empty-handed and unprepared. Accordingly, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, when he undertook to discuss these offices, first reviewed the gifts in which those who perform the offices ought to excel (1 Cor.12:7-11)." Calvin elaborates on these gifts that God confers as those of "sound doctrine and ... holy life" (Institutes. IV, 3, 11). These gifts are not secret. They are perceptible and come under the judgment of the church.
- Fourthly, the call to the office is sounded in the call by the church. Calvin writes in The Institutes, IV, 3, 11: "I am speaking about the outward and solemn (= official) call which has to do with the public order of the church ... Yet, though one comes to it with an evil conscience, he is nonetheless duly called in the presence of the church, provided his wickedness is not open. Men also commonly say of lay persons that they are called to the ministry when they see that they are fit and competent to exercise it."
Calvin's treatment of the call to the office is typical of his balance between the objective and subjective elements of the Christian faith. Some put all the emphasis on spiritual experiences; others capitalize on the objective Word. Calvin sees the need for both. Let us do the same.