Introduction: Many of you will recognize Carl Bogue’s name. Carl has been a pastor in the PCA almost since it’s formation, and was for many years a stalwart defender of old school principles in that denomination. In addition to lecturing and teaching, Carl’s work has been published in a number of different venues and I have always been impressed by his grasp of Reformed history and biblical theology. I’m also glad that Carl has never hesitated to speak the truth about developments in the church, even when doing so made him decidedly unpopular. In that sense, Carl is an “Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”
The following article by Pastor Bogue dealing with critical question of calling to the ministry and the problems associated with those who serve without having been genuinely called has been out of print for some time now, but when I heard about it in connection to online discussion of this post I recognized that the material in it was more relevant than ever and asked for his permission to reprint it, which he graciously granted, even going so far as to entirely retype it as it was first produced in the era of the typewriter!
Carl W. Bogue
“I did not send these prophets,
But they ran.
I did not speak to them,
But they prophesied.”
Throughout the Scriptures there is a continuing theme of what we generally refer to as the doctrine of the call to the gospel ministry. Some were called and sent; others were not. For those called there was a promise of blessing. Judgment and lack of blessing were promised to those who ran unsent.
The New Testament echoes the Old Testament prophetic theme of being called of God as divine messengers. The great apostle thus introduces himself: “Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father who raised Him from the dead) . . .” (Galatians 1:1). Acts attributes to the Holy Spirit the words: “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Ordination with the laying on of hands was the outward manifestation of such divine calling.
Reflecting such provisions, the Westminster Standards thus specifically state: “The word of God is to be preached only by such as are . . . duly approved and called to that office” (WLC, Q. 158). Presbyterian polity seeks to implement these requirements.
This high calling is crucial to the church. Charles Bridges calls this one of the “three grand repositories of his truth” ordained by the great Head of the church.
In the Scriptures he has preserved it by his Providence against all hostile attacks. In the hearts of Christians he has maintained it by the Almighty energy of his Spirit – even under every outward token of general apostacy. And in the Christian Ministry he has deposited “the treasure in earthen vessels” for the edification and enriching of the Church in successive ages.
This sacred office is administered by agents, Divinely-called through the medium of lawful authority, and entrusted with the most responsible and enriching blessing; rendering the highest possible service to their fellow men, because that most nearly connected with the glory of the Saviour.
Coupled with this tremendous high calling is an equally great responsibility and accountability. In fact the only reasonable response of a creature apart from the divine obligation would be to flee such awesome responsibility. Bridges expresses this sense of awe.
Nor can we wonder to see “the chiefest of the Apostles” unable to express his overwhelming sense of his responsibility – “Who is sufficient for these things?” Who, whether man or angel “is sufficient” to open “the wisdom of God in a mystery” – to speak what in its full extent is “unspeakable” – to make known that which “passeth knowledge” – to bear the fearful weight of the care of souls? Who hath skill and strength proportionate? Who has a mind and temper to direct and sustain so vast a work? If our Great Master had not himself answered these appalling questions by his promise – “My grace is sufficient for thee;” and if the experience of faith did not demonstrably prove, that “our sufficiency is of God;” who, with an enlightened apprehension, could enter upon such an awful service; or, if entered, continue in it?
But how solemn is the sanction – infinitely above all human authority – stamped and engraven upon the sacred office! And how tremendous the guilt of rejecting its commission! – “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me.”
Christ’s kingdom is just that – a kingdom. There are of necessity laws, officers, and courts. “To deny laws and officers is to deny the kingdom, and to deny the kingdom is to deny the King.”
All this is rather clear exegetically and theologically. Few would want to dispute the divine call to the Christian ministry, with its accompanying accountability. But how is this to work out in practice, and who is to decide the called and sent ones as opposed to those running unsent? Would we not say that there is accountability both upon the individual who claims to be called as well as the presbytery who concurs with such calls ands ordains such to the Christian ministry? Are the presbyteries doing their job, and if they are not, should we be surprised to find serious problems within the church?
It was a personal experience earlier in my ministry which not only attracted my attention but raised serious doubts in my mind about whether presbyteries really took this task seriously, biblically defined. A young candidate had concluded his ordination exam, but there was disagreement within the presbytery as to his call. A group of churches, none of them Presbyterian, extended a call to him to represent them in a campus ministry. One of the questions from the floor was: “Since ordination is not necessary for this work as defined in the job description, why are you seeking ordination?” The candidate’s reply was: “I have been to seminary three years; I have earned it!”
Incredulous, I recovered to take note of two very shocking things. The candidate’s answer was neither flippant nor frivolous. He had no intent to be arrogant or presumptuous. The other shock was that the vast majority of presbytery gave no evidence of finding anything out of line with that understanding of the divine call to the Christian ministry. The candidate was immediately approved and subsequently ordained into the Presbyterian ministry. He had the degree; what else mattered?
Not unrelated to this is a more extreme situation totally separated from the church’s oversight. There are many self-styled “preachers” who explicitly deny any need for the outward call of the ruling body of a church. They are sure God called them, even if the church thinks otherwise. Often it is almost a mystical experience with what is tantamount to new revelation from God. They “feel” the call. They say the “feeling” is from God. As one of my college professors would say about such so-called divinely given feelings, it may in fact simply be something he ate. But there is no convincing them to the contrary. They are off and running, unsent, like a loose cannon.
American history has certainly seen more than her share of such self-styled preachers. Many are ignorant of the Scriptures; they are accountable to no one; they are a law unto themselves, and they often have a charismatic personality with which to entice many into their religious empires. Running unsent, they deceive many into a false sense of peace. Often their followers have no understanding of the Gospel at all.
Numbers and apparent success are not to guide us, but the Word of God is. At the time of the great awakening in the eighteenth century, there were many excesses that appeared for a time to be evidences of the Spirit, but which in time proved harmful. A new problem that emerged with the revival was the number of uncalled men (and sometimes women) running unsent.
Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter to one such young self-styled “preacher.” “If one may,” wrote Edwards, “why may not another?” The consequences would be awful. Edwards argues in this way: “If God had not seen it necessary that such things should have certain limits and bounds, he never would have appointed a certain particular order of men to that work and office
. . . . The Head of the church is wiser than we, and knew how to regulate things in his church.” Edwards continues his argument by reminding this well-meaning young man that what appears to be measurable successes and numerical growth for the present is no argument that it is right. Pragmatism is not a test for truth, certainly not spiritual truth. If we look long term, says Edwards, “they do ten times as much hurt as good.” Appearances are not to be our rule, he continues, “but the law and the testimony.”
George Whitefield encountered the same issues and was zealous to maintain the middle ground between enthusiasm on the one hand and unbelief on the other. Enthusiasm, as they called the pretended guidance by the Spirit apart from the Word, was causing havoc among the churches, even as the deadness of the Word apart from the Spirit had done so much to block true revival.
“Enthusiasm” – past and present – must be restrained. But the answer is not just some outward formality of ordination. It is true that God calls men into the ministry, and presbyteries are to ordain such to the office. To enter the ministry without ordination is sin. However, ordination is not to be absolutely equated with being properly ordained and/or called of God. One may be ordained and still run unsent.
The Scriptural terms of ordination are not by the whim of man, but they originate with a sovereign God. Bridges writes:
The various illustrations also of the office tend to the same point. We cannot conceive of a herald – an ambassador – a steward – a watchman – a messenger – an angel – with self-constituted authority. The Apostle asks, with regard to the first of these – “How shall they preach, except they be sent?” They may indeed preach without a mission, but not as the messengers of God. No one can be an ambassador, except he be charged expressly with instructions from his sovereign . . . . God will seal his own ordinance, but not man’s usurpation.
Since we are not to expect an immediate and extraordinary call, as was sometimes the case before the end of the Apostolic Age, in what manner are we to evaluate a divine call?
The church has always held to the twofold nature of a call. The “internal call” originates with God and is confirmed by means of the church’s “external call.”
The external call, though necessary and authoritative in its character – yet, as being the mere delegation of man, is evidently not of itself a sufficient warrant for our work. The inward call is the presumptive ground, on which our Church delegates her authorized commission. Nothing can be more explicit than her solemn question to us – ‘Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon you this office?’ ‘Certainly,’ (as Bishop Burnet remarks with his usual seriousness) ‘the answer that is made to this ought to be well considered; for if any say – ‘I trust so‘ – that yet knows nothing of any such motion, and can give not account of it, he lies to the Holy Ghost, and makes his first approach to the altar with a lie in his mouth, and that not to men, but to God.’
Desire, gifts, and providence notwithstanding, this aspect of the internal call is in serious need of reclamation in presbyteries today. Failure in ministry may be part and parcel of a failure at the very beginning of a ministerial career.
A ministerial call comes from outside, from God. A career decision may be to some degree a strictly human decision. You do not decide to become a missionary the same way a person decides to be a banker. You are called. Why have we so missed this truth? The American church is plagued with elders who were not called by God. Someone came to them and pleaded with them until they said: “Well, if you can’t find anyone else, I guess I am willing to be nominated.” And when they are nominated under those conditions they are always elected. Is it any wonder the church is in such sad shape?
The next step is the Gospel ministry. Why do you want to be ordained? “I’ve been to seminary three years; I’ve earned it!” Or, why do you want to be a missionary? “I’ve studied missiology in the university or seminary; I like to travel; I am good at languages, and besides, I cannot find a church to pastor at home for what the mission board will pay me.” Where is the divine call in this career decision?
Where the call is from God, blessing is assured. God called Moses and promised to be with him. A successful exodus was to be God’s sign that Moses was indeed sent of God (Ex. 3:10-12). No preacher of God was ever more reticent than was Jeremiah, but no preacher should be less conscious of divine assurance that was the known, consecrated, appointed, sent, and “touched mouth” Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-19).
But if we run unsent, such promise of blessing is not ours. The called prophet, Jeremiah, prophecies clearly against running unsent. Through Jeremiah God declares: “I did not send these prophets, but they ran . . . . Yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit” (Jer. 23:21, 32).
In a chapter entitled, “The Want of a Divine Call a Main Cause of Failure in the Christian Ministry,” Bridges comments thus on these words from Jeremiah 23. “The blast was not, that their doctrine was unsound, but that they preached unsent.” I fear many men pass through our presbyteries with seminary diploma in hand and even without serious doctrinal deviation, but who are unexamined and untested with regard to their being called of God and sent by God.
I have personally seen a number of men turned down for doctrinal deficiencies and/or lack of clear or sufficient knowledge of the other biblical and historical areas of examination. But at the time I originally wrote the essence of what is in the article, I did not recall anyone ever being denied ordination in my presbytery because we judged him not to be called of God to this ministry. I rejoice to say, at least in this area, my own presbytery subsequently did much better in this specific area. Granted, there is a subjective element to a divine call, yet the presbytery must be satisfied of such a call. I suspect many have accepted the rationale – “I’ve been to seminary three years; I’ve earned my right to ordination.” Our Savior warns us that he who enters the fold of the sheep without His authority is “a thief and a robber.” Only he who “enters by the door” of the divine calling is “a shepherd of the sheep” (John 10:1-2).
Do we have a problem today? Is there any cause and effect between failures in the Christian ministry and preachers who are running unsent? It was almost a decade after my first shock and awakening to the fact that we do not seriously examine a man’s divine calling that another event shocked me. The shock was not so much that it was unknown to me, but that it might also be a part of this systemic lack of seriously examining a man’s divine call. In late summer of 1986 a letter went out to all sessions of the PCA regarding an “urgent request” about “what could be our most serious crisis to date.” It was from the four coordinators of our major committees as well as from the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. That is about as unified message as the PCA is ever going to get. They urged sessions to call for a day of fasting and prayer for this crisis. A sense of alarm and a desperate need of sanctification was acknowledged by all. There was and is cause for alarm.
The problem? “The number of ministers and missionaries having to leave their ministries and often their wives and children has reached dangerous proportions.” The communication was a bit oblique (it was, after all, meant to be aimed at a broad audience), but the sad reality was all too clear. Marriage has not been “held in honor among all,” and “the marriage bed” has not been “undefiled” (Heb. 13:4). It is serious and wide spread. We know all to well the problem in society at large. The United States is being destroyed because the family is being destroyed. Sexual immorality is out of control. There are almost no restraints. But the church, including its pastors and missionaries, is being devastated by the same immorality.
Sexual sin is obviously harmful to the body. To return to the example I was citing within the PCA, the call to fasting and prayer was apparently not disproportionate to the problem. It is very serious. And the question is worth considering whether presbyteries share the blame in not guarding the integrity of the Christian ministry.
That sexual improprieties and destroyed families occur within the eldership of the Church of Jesus Christ points to the stark reality of sin and weakness of the flesh. The clergy are not immune. But the fact that infidelity is in such crisis proportions as to bring a call from the highest leadership of our church suggests that the focus of fasting and prayer may well have been misplaced. Much more was being indicated than the obvious reality that pastors are also human.
Are we in fact beginning to increasingly reap the fruit of a broader unfaithfulness to our calling as elders in the church? For many years I have been unable to vote yes for the receiving and/or ordaining of many who have ended up in he ministry because I was unconvinced of any real evidence of a divine “call” to the ministry. It is not always that there is negative evidence. The examination often simply does not probe this requirement. He may be orthodox, but is he called?
In addition we have received, promiscuously, men into the Presbyterian ministry who have no consistent commitment to or zeal for Presbyterian distinctives. We are appalled at politicians who say God forbids abortion or sodomy, that they personally oppose it, but that we ought to permit freedom of choice for others to practice abortion or sodomy. Yet leading men in the church declare their belief that God teaches/requires doctrines x, y, and z, but that we ought to permit freedom of choice for others seeking our ordination to practice and teach heterodoxy on these issues. While this is not about the call per se, it is not divorced from it. The move to granting more and more exceptions to the confessional standards is becoming the rule rather than the exception. There is a snowballing effect.
And devotional life is often little better than doctrine. Practical devotion is conspicuous by its near absence. Some faithful presbyter will ask the question in this area, and often the response is awkward and embarrassing. Sometimes lack of piety is almost waved as a badge of honor along with some superficial attempt to justify the lack. But I never recall a candidate being turned away for lack of personal piety. “Christian” ministry majors in colleges tend to be far from exemplary in something so basic as worship on the Lord’s Day, and I found it to be little better in my seminary, albeit, a liberal institution. Yet in our better seminaries I suspect many would find Warfield’s exhortation too heavy a burden to seriously consider.
. . . Are you, by this constant contact with divine things, growing in holiness, becoming every day more and more men of God? If not, you are hardening.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . I am quite clear that in an institution like this the whole body of students should come together, both morning and evening, every day, for common prayer; and should join twice on every Sabbath in formal worship. Without at least this much common worship I do not think the institution can preserve its character as a distinctive religious institution . . . .
Absence of both private and corporate worship raises serious questions about one’s call to the ministry.
To all of this is coupled the prevailing loose attitudes of our culture. From a society which for a generation has borne the “Spock” marks of permissiveness, we are now seeing it played out in our churches. It is with a wearisome and discouraging frequency that presbyters seek to set forth “pastoral” concerns as over against the alleged harshness of discipline, implying, it would seem, that if Jesus were more loving He would have left Matthew 18:15-20 out of the Bible. The tendency is to justify carelessness in examining the call, in doctrinal subscription, in concerns for piety or purity, and in matters of discipline by waving the benevolent wand of “being pastoral.” In yielding to the spirit of our age church leaders will in reality show a lack of love – for individuals, for the church, and for the great King and Head of the church.
If truth and God’s law and integrity and confessional consistency are going to be compromised, is it any wonder that we see so much of the world’s iniquity openly present in the visible Body of Christ? And does our fasting and prayer, or whatever other exercises we choose, need to be aimed more vigorously at the disease rather than the symptoms?
We surely do need to pray and exhort in regard to the symptoms and ripple of pain that moves out from such defilement. But unless we quickly heal the rupture between law and gospel with its suggestion that the essence of grace is lawlessness and looseness, we shall not likely see a decrease of such unhappy reports of which the few in this article are but tips of the iceberg.
Our church and our ministers are surely facing a crisis, not just at the time of the 1986 letter and “urgent request” for prayer and fasting, but continuing into this new century as well. The crisis is more systemic than many are willing to admit. As God spoke through Jeremiah, those who run unsent will not “furnish this people the slightest benefit.” As long a presbyteries do not seek to discern the divine calling of those seeking ordination, there will continue to be those who run unsent. And from their ranks we should expect to see no long term blessing. We should, in fact, expect not “the slightest benefit.”
 Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Edinburgh, 1976), pp. 2-3. This book is so excellent that presbyteries would do well to consider having it read by prospective candidates as a requirement even before they could be taken under care.
 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, pp. 4-5.
 Gordon H. Clark, “The Presbyterian Doctrine of Ordination,” in John W. Robbins, Scripture Twisting in the Seminaries (Jefferson, MD., 1985), pp. 88-89.
 Quoted in Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh, 1987), p. 222.
 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, p. 91.
 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, p. 92.
 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, p. 90.
 Benjamin B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students (Phillipsburg, N.J., n.d.), pp. 7-9.