What is a “subjective call”? What constitute a call to the ministry [or to an office] in the church?

In the days of the prophets and Apostles, the call of God was usually audible or visible, and objective. The call of God may be said to be extraordinary and revelational. Today, however, it is no longer the case. The call of God,—to any office in the church, not just to the Gospel ministry,—may be described as ordinary and providential. Now, experience and inference of Scripture teach us that there are two aspects or phases in the case. One may be said to be internal or subjective, whereas the other may be said to be external or objective.

The subjective call involves certain ordinary providential indications of God. We say the call is subjective because it is subject to interpretation, and therefore a person who has a subjective call should not be regarded as one who has already been called of God. The subjective call would especially include the following:

Firstly, it would include a consciousness of being internally compelled to serve the Lord in a particular area or office. The Apostle Paul refers to those who “desire the office of a bishop” (1 Tim 3:1). This does not so much refer to one who craves to be appointed as an elder, as one who is burdened and ready to serve the Lord in the particular capacity if the Lord should open the door to that avenue or lead him in that direction. Similarly, a young man who aspires to the ministry may be constrained by the love of Christ (2 Cor 5:14) and a deep desire to glorify God with all his talents and time.

Secondly, it would include a humble conviction that one is at least, to some degree, intellectually and spiritually qualified to the office desired. Very often, this conviction does not first arise out of self-evaluation, for a true servant of the Lord is likely to have a much lower estimation of himself (2 Cor 2:16c; 3:5; Jer 1:6; Ex 3:11). Indeed, experience teaches us that those who serve most faithfully and effectively are frequently those whose gifts had been recognised by other believers, who then compelled them to serve in a particular office.

Thirdly, it usually includes the experience that God is providentially paving the way or guiding in that direction. Some may experience their prayers in regard to clearance of debts and obligations answered in most extraordinary way. Others may be given opportunities to serve in unofficial capacities, which are related to the office sought. Yet others may be brought to a situation where they have little choice but to answer the call to serve in a particular office. I do not, of course, mean that the person is retrenched or dismissed from his secular job and cannot find another job. What I refer to is such situation as when Calvin was called to stay in Geneva by William Farel, or when a spiritually gifted young man is compelled to take over the office of an aged minister who is suddenly called home to be with the Lord.

The objective calling, on the other hand, refers to the call of Christ through the instrumentality of the local church, which is a branch of the body of Christ. To be called of Christ and to be ordained to a particular office is the same thing. The two terms are synonymous. The process of ordination begins with the election of the individual to a particular office by the officers and members of the church. We see this in Acts 6:2–3 where the seven deacons were chosen. We see this also in Acts 14:23 where the word “ordained” renders the Greek cheirotoneô which means “choose, [or] elect by raising hands” (BAGD; see also ICR4.3.15). Candidates for election should of course be first examined, approved and commended to the congregation by the existing elders of the church. The Scripture does not indicate what percentage of votes to use to confirm if a person is validly chosen by the congregation. Some churches would require 100% of the votes cast. Others would use 50% or some prudential figures. In PCC we require 90% for a call to pastors (teaching-elders), 70% for ruling-elders and 50% for deacons. These percentages do not reflect the rank of the office bearers, but the relative impact that the individual officers will have on the spiritual well-being of the church.

The process of ordination is completed when the appointments are ratified solemnly and publicly before the congregation with prayer and, where ever possible, imposition of hands of the session or presbytery (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14). The laying of hand is to be taken as a symbolic act rather than a sacramental act as taught by Rome. The Apostle Paul referred Timothy to the gift that was in him, which was given him by prophecy, “with (Grk: meta) the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (1 Tim 4:14; emphasis mine). He did not say “by the laying on of the hands…”

A person thus ordained may be said to be called to the particular office or ministry. He has been called by Christ to serve Him. For the sake of clarity, bear in mind the following with regards to ordination or particularly the laying of hand:

Ordination does not communicate a divine warrant. The church simply receives and seals the credentials bestowed by the King. Neither character, power, grace, nor privilege is bestowed. Ordination is neither a charm nor a commission. It is the divinely appointed public recognition by the church of rights already conferred by a higher power (James Moir Porteous, Jesus Christ King of the Church [The James Begg Society, 1999 {1872}], 217).