What the Bible Actually Says About “Calling”

As a seminary professor, I hear testimonies of “calling” all the time. “I am at seminary because I have been called to __________.” Sometimes the calling is very specific: “I have been called to youth ministry in suburban Portland.”  Or, “I have been called to be a missionary.” Other times, the calling is vague: “I have been called to teach. I just don’t know where.” Sadly the language of calling is evoked to grant divine authority to a personal desire with which few others would agree.  At other times, the language of calling is used in a more frustrated sense. “I just am not sure what my calling is.” Or worse, “I am not sure that I have been called at all.”

Whatever the use, it is clear that there is little consensus on what “calling” actually is. It seems to me that its use has devolved into one of those “Christianese” words that people use and trust that everyone understands.  What makes things even more interesting is that the word is often used in our culture, even by unbelievers, to describe what a person feels like they were put on this earth to do.  There is no “caller” even though they feel “called.”

I have written on the subject of calling in an article for The Oikonomia Network Newsletter.  Here is how I began:

I have become increasingly concerned about the use of the word “calling” in the discussion of a theology of work. The primary use of “calling” in the New Testament focuses on the call of every Christian to salvation (e.g. Ephesians 4:1, 4). The use of “calling” to refer to one’s role in the world of work is troublesome to me, because I think it is difficult to support biblically, in spite of numerous attempts to do so. I agree that it’s vitally important for us to help people discover the meaning and purpose of their work in God’s plan; my concern is about the way we use “calling” in that effort.

Typically, support for the use of “calling” in this way comes from the anecdotal use of stories like Moses, Paul, Jeremiah, Esther, and others. Yet this does not give us a specific, biblical definition regarding the word itself. Many, including Calvin and Luther, argue that in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, “calling” is used with the sense of one’s role in the world of work. This line of argument, however, seems lacking. The passage focuses on three states that people found themselves in: marriage/singleness, slave/free, and circumcised/uncircumcised. I think it is a stretch to consider this to be a discussion of one’s role in the world of work.

The history of the use of 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 to talk about “calling” in the discussion of work is acknowledged in J.I. Packer’s discussion of “call, calling” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Packer says that the sense of “occupation” or “trade” the reformers saw in 1 Corinthians 7:20 is not quite accurate. He goes on to say, however, that “their revaluation of secular employment as a true ‘vocation’ to God’s service has too broad a biblical foundation to be invalidated by the detection of this slight inaccuracy” (p. 200).

For continue reading, see my recent article in the Oikonomia Network Newsletter.

About Ron Marrs

Ron Marrs is presently a Professor of Youth and Pastoral Ministry and Chairman of the Center for Ministry and Leadership at Western Seminary, Portland, OR. Ron is the leader of the Portland Youth Workers Network. He served at Westwood Baptist Church, a Converge church, for 24.5 years primarily as the youth pastor and then as executive/worship pastor. He has been married to Becky for 35 years, has three children and three grandsons. He is an elder at Hinson Baptist Church. He recently completed doctoral research in which he interviewed 26 people about their rookie youth pastor experiences along with 24 of their supervisors.