The church loves to use the idiom called to preach. It's the idea that (for the purposes of this question) God calls some people to preach or pastor and He doesn't call others. A person might say "...I felt God's call to preach"

I'm not talking about the general call to salvation or that God gives certain gifts to some and not others, but about the specific colloquialism of "...called from God to be/not be a pastor."

Where did this idea come from? 1 Timothy labels it a desire, not a calling.

1 Timothy 3:1 KJV This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.

Most every other translation says aspire, not calling. Are these thing synonymous? When did it start being referred to as a calling and not a desire?

Why I ask: A "calling" from God is a highly debated thing, whereas a "desire" is something everyone knows the definition of. Some young believers may be becoming dissuaded from their desire to lead in their local church because they've been incorrectly convinced that they need some fantastical "clouds-parting-in-the-sky" experience from God.

  • One (and only one) reference that I'm seeing right away, not quite enough to build into an answer, is Acts 20:28: "Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the church of God that he acquired with his own blood." (emphasis added) An appointment by God, I think, more or less requires a calling by God. Does this help? Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:06
  • @MattGutting It certainly doesn't hurt. I don't think this quite address the colloquialism of "being called to preach." Nobody ever says being "called to Software Engineer". The "called to preach" phenomenon is something separate, I think.
    – LCIII
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:12
  • "incorrectly convinced that they need some fantastical calling from God." - people need to have some predisposition for it. For public preaching at least theological education otherwise they can lead people on wrong path. Muslim can't preach about Christianity and vice versa.
    – Grasper
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:18
  • 2
    I don't know: In Catholicism we talk a lot about someone's vocation (calling). (But we don't consider the priesthood to be "a job"; we'll talk about a vocation to the priesthood, or to married or single life, or to the religious life. Not so much about a vocation to the IT sector, for example.) Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:21
  • I also found this: theologica.ning.com/forum/topics/called-to-preach Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 19:22

4 Answers 4


In Latin the word vocare meaning "to call" gave us the English Word "vocation." A vocation is synonymous with a career (Remember vocational guidance?) in many people's minds, and it betrays the roots why someone feels "called to ministry" Both Protestants and Catholics would use these terms interchangeably.

Bibically, there is much precedence for this. Because of the terminology, I'm going to use KJV liberally:

1 Corinthians 7:20 20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.

2 Timothy 1 8 Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; 9 Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,

Likewise, Paul often introduces himself as "called"

Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God,

1 Paul called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,

That said, you are entirely correct in saying that such a "calling" is something to which one can "earnestly aspire."

It is because "calling" has had both senses that it came to be seen as a cooperative effort between God and Man - a gift that one would want to manifest. In practice, many churches use the terminology of "discerning a call to ministry" because of the confusion.

  • One possible issue: the 1 Corinthians and especially the 2 Timothy quotes seem to me to support the idea of someone being called to be saved, but not necessarily of someone being called to preach. Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 17:48
  • Yeah, not saying it is clear cut. I kept thinking that some translation said "Some are called to preach, others to ..." but I couldn't find it. Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 18:03
  • Also: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you." Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 20:17
  • The quote from 1Co7 would be pretty convincing... if the context of this passage wasn't about marriage. In 2Tm1 we need to know who "us" are: (i) Paul+Tim or (ii) all of us that aren't saved by works of the law. Moreover, Rm1 affirmatively answers the question of whether there is a call to be an apostle... but calling to be a preacher is still to be clarified IMHO.
    – cnaak
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 21:36

Where did the idea of being “called to preach” come from?

The gifts imparted to those in the early church would constitute an assumption of "calling" or divine assignment. The direction of the Holy Spirit was clear and unambiguous.

Acts 11:12 And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man's house:

Acts 16:7 After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not.

It seems that this direct and irrefutable intervention of the Holy Spirit became less pronounced fairly early in church history. As this happened, those seeking the specific will of God found themselves attempting to discern this in various ways.

When considering what should be done and who should do it, criteria such as skill in public speaking, scholarship in doctrinal issues, or feelings of purpose came to be used to determine God's will.

I see the use of the terms "overseer" and "elder" as being interchangeable.

1 Peter 5:1-3 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.

One could make a case that the oversight of a group of Christians is supposed to lay in the hands of those old enough and mature enough and less as a specific career path.

  • Nice alignment with what's requested in the OP and nice pointing out this is a matter of discerning God's will/direction for one's life. You seem to support the desire-based guidance mentioned in the OP—through the perceived gifts. If that's the case, could you kindly clarify (by commenting / editing the answer)? Thanks in advance!
    – cnaak
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 21:54

Many Christians are indeed given a special calling from the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Eph. 4:1, the apostle Paul wrote,

παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς ἐγὼ ὁ δέσμιος ἐν κυρίῳ ἀξίως περιπατῆσαι τῆς κλήσεως ἡς ἐκλήθητε

which is translated as,

Therefore, I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthily of the calling (κλήσεως) in which you are called (ἐκλήθητε).

(κλῆσις = (n.) calling; καλέω = (v.) to call)

The apostle Paul will then enumerate some of the "callings" that Christians may be called to walk in.

In Eph. 4:8, it is written,

διὸ λέγει ἀναβὰς εἰς ὕψος ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν καὶ ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις (Textus Receptus)

which is translated as,

Wherefore, he says, "When he ascended to the high place, he led captives into captivity, and he gave gifts to men."

What were these gifts that he, the Lord Jesus Christ, gave to men (τοῖς ἀνθρώποις)?

In Eph. 4:10, it is written,

καὶ αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους τοὺς δὲ προφήτας τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους

which is translated as,

And, on the one hand, He gave the apostles, but on the other hand, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and the teachers.

The problem with Eph. 4:10 is that it contains an ellipsis, τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, which must be supplied from Eph. 4:8. In Eph. 4:8, the Greek phrase «...ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις» ("he gave gifts to men") consists of the verb ἔδωκεν (same verb in Eph. 4:10), the accusative (direct object), plural δόματα ("gifts"), and the dative (indirect object), plural τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ("to men"). However, in Eph. 4:10, we encounter ἔδωκεν followed by a series of accusative plurals: τοὺς...ἀποστόλους τοὺς...προφήτας τοὺς...εὐαγγελιστάς τοὺς...ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους. The apostle Paul doesn't include the indirect object τοῖς ἀνθρώποις --- the individuals to whom the gifts were given --- but it most certainly should be understood and written as an ellipsis.

Therefore, it should be understood as,

And, on the one hand, He gave the apostles, but on the other hand, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and the teachers to men.

Accordingly, the δόματα ("gifts") given to men are:

  • the apostles (τοὺς ἀποστόλους)
  • the prophets (τοὺς προφήτας)
  • the evaneglists (τοὺς εὐαγγελιστάς)
  • the pastors/shepherds (τοὺς ποιμένας)
  • the teachers ([τοὺς] διδασκάλους)

Those are the gifts that our Lord Jesus Christ gave to men when he ascended to heaven. In this particular verse, the apostle Paul is not saying that the Lord Jesus Christ gave gifts to the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/shepherds, and teachers. That is not his point here, although it may be true elsewhere in other epistles.

John Eadie wrote,

The object of the apostle, in harmony with the quotation which he has introduced, is not simply to affirm the fact that there are various offices in the church, or that they are of divine institution; but also to show that they exist in the form of donations, and are among the peculiar and distinctive gifts which the exalted Lord has bequeathed. The writer wishes his readers to contemplate them more as gifts than as functions.

The apostle Paul then explains why our Lord Jesus Christ gave these gifts (apostles, evaneglists, etc.) to men, i.e. to the saints of the Church.

In Eph. 4:11, it is written,

πρὸς τὸν καταρτισμὸν τῶν ἁγίων εἰς ἔργον διακονίας εἰς οἰκοδομὴν τοῦ σώματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ

which is translated as,

for the perfection of the saints, for the word of the ministry, for the edification of the body of Christ.

In summary, when our Lord Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, he gave gifts to men. The gifts that were given were (1) the apostles, (2) the prophets, (3) the evangelists, (4) the pastors/shepherds, and (5) the teachers. The men to whom the gifts (enumerated above) were given were the saints of the body of Christ, i.e. the Church. The reason these gifts were given to the Church was for its perfection, for the work of the ministry, and for its edification.

There can be no doubt, then, that the offices of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/shepherds, and teachers were callings or vocations. They are the very gifts that our Lord Jesus Christ bestowed upon His own Church.

  • Nice study, but the OP clearly stated "I'm not talking about the general call to salvation or that God gives certain gifts to some and not others", and that's most if not all of this answer.
    – cnaak
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 21:27
  • @cnaak Negative. Quote where I discussed any of that, because I don't recall doing so.
    – user900
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 22:21
  • OK, you have supported your answer along Ephesians 4. Verses 1-6 talks about general calls, well not to salvation, but to all the saved ones, to "lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, ... in love"—v.4:2, ASV. From v.7 onwards the text talks about the specific gifts—so the entire development in the Eph section is what the OP already knows and explicitly asked not to be discussed. I'm not saying your answer is bad or wrong, it is not; however, it's not exactly what the OP asked for.
    – cnaak
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 0:01

The most direct verse I have found on this subject is Hebrews 5:4

And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.

In Exodes 28 it describes how Aaron was called. He was chosen out of a crown by Moses the prophet. He did not call himself but was chosen by God.

A short answer but I feel it is pretty direct. If anybody can dispute it let me know.

  • The context of Heb5 is a calling to be the high priest, and the New Covenant has, and will always have, just one such figure—the Lord Jesus himself. The Old Covenant had many "because that by death they are hindered from continuing" (Heb.7:23, ASV).
    – cnaak
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 21:53

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