Defining the Concept of Call
Few concepts are talked about more and understood less in Christian circles than God's call. Some believers claim to be called into ministry, to missions, to the pastorate, or to some other church leadership role as a special instruction from God. Others contradict that narrow understanding with the claim that all believers are equally called to serve God. Still others point out phrases in the Bible such as "called to be holy" or "called out of darkness" (i.e. 1 Pet. 1:15, 2:9) as evidence that calling is just another word for a common spiritual experience, not a special or specific instruction from God.
Who is right about all this? Does God call people to serve him in special ways? Are all believers called? If they are, are all callings equal before God? Is the concept of call simply another way to describe the sanctification process? Is it an overspiritualized way to describe how circumstances just happened to turn out? Or does all this fit together somehow as these definitions and understandings relate to one another?
Part of the problem in understanding the concept of call is the different ways call is used in popular vernacular. The most common is a phone call. More than 200 million Americans own cell phones. People can call almost anyone, anytime. Call can also mean to speak in a loud voice, to summon attention. It can mean a distinct sound—like a mating call.
Call describes inviting someone to participate on a team, join a program, or do their duty. For example, a player is called up from the junior varsity to the varsity, or a reservist is called to active military service, or a citizen is called for jury duty. You might also call for an investigation or call for the question or call for a hand to be shown in cards. The instructions at a square dance are called. A football announcer calls a game, and a tennis match can be called off when it rains.
An umpire calls a game, and a loan officer can call in a bad loan. You are supposed to call a spade a spade, call the shots when you are in charge, and call it quits at the end of the day. And when a friend is bereaved, you call on them to pay your respects.
No wonder there is so much confusion! The word call is overworked, shaped by its context to fit multiple definitions and situations. The word means so many things, it is difficult to isolate a core definition.
There are, however, two recurring themes throughout these different usages of call. First, a call brings new information. When your phone rings, someone usually wants to tell you something. Whether you call a game or call for the question, you are communicating. So, a call transmits new information. Second, a call brings new responsibility. A call puts you on the team, into battle, or on a jury. You are called to do something—play a game, dance a jig, make a decision. A call means it's your turn to get involved.
Keep these two ideas in mind—information and responsibility—as we develop an understanding of God's call. As we move toward a biblical understanding of call, these two concepts will be important. When God calls, he gives new information about how to live. When he calls, he assigns new responsibility in his kingdom.
Unfortunately, when used in Christian circles, there are almost as many different uses for the word or concept of call as in popular vernacular. We label all kinds of experiences "a call from God." We use the word to describe different kinds of spiritual experiences with little regard for precise meanings. We say we are called and presume the context helps our hearers know what we are talking about. Sometimes that works. Too often, however, people smile and nod—confused about what we are talking about but too polite to question or contradict us.
Writers on the subject of call have contributed to this problem. A survey of the literature reveals many pages devoted to describing call experiences, defending the importance of a call, trying to explain what it is, and encouraging people to clarify and honor their call. All this, but seldom can you find a one-sentence definition of call that is consistently explained, used, and interpreted.
This book is different. After considering dozens of call experiences in the Bible, reflecting on my own experiences of being called, listening to other leaders describe their unique call stories, and reading many books and articles on call—here is my definition:
A call is a profound impression from God that establishes parameters for your life and can be altered only by a subsequent, superseding impression from God.