Ministry, Call to the

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A distinction is properly made between two aspects of the call to the ministry: a direct and inner call (vocatio immediata or interna), which comes from God, and an indirect or outward call (vocatio mediata or externa), given through a human agency, the church. The two must work together. This is the prerequisite for a blessed, fruitful discharge of the duties of the minister's office, and the preliminary requirement for a healthy church life. The one-sided emphasis of the former as a rule leads to disorderly, undisciplined conditions, and the exclusion of all participation by the church is often a principal cause of disintegration of church life.

It is the teaching of the Bible and apostolic practice that the call proceeds from God and takes place through the church. The church chooses those called by God and ordains them to service. Acts 1:21-26 says, "Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles."

When it became necessary to fill the office of deacon, with which also the proclamation of the Word was connected, the Twelve did not simply impose a man selected by their power upon the church, but they called the church together (Acts 6:2-6) and said, ". . . Brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. . . . And they chose Stephen . . . whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them."

Other passages of Scripture agree with these. The elders at Ephesus are reminded by Paul of their divine calling and admonished (Acts 20:28), "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." In Ephesians 4:11 the apostle writes, "And he [Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers." Compare this with 1 Corinthians 12:28: "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers . . . ." We hear thus that Christ gives, God determines ("hath set") and calls individuals as bearers of spiritual office, and the church takes them, so to say, from the hand of God and of Christ and ordains them to service.

The outward call to the office, if it is to have meaning in the kingdom of God, must be based on the inner call. In 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 Paul writes, "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." And in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13 he especially emphasizes, "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual." Only he who is in possession of the Holy Ghost is called by God to any spiritual office in the Christian church. He has personal life-connection with Christ, from which strength flows to him to plant the seeds which grow into eternal life.

The teaching and practice of the apostolic church is based on the idea of the priesthood of all believers. In the post-apostolic period this fundamental Christian principle was adhered to. Justin and Irenaeus testify with joy that the church of Christ is the priestly race of promise, and Tertullian asserts that because all Christians are priests, they also have the right to administer the ordinances. Also Origen and Augustine emphasize the priesthood of all believers. And yet this principle had long since been abandoned in practice. The example of Old Testament priesthood was more and more imitated in the Christian (Catholic) church. The calling of church officials became solely the affair of the church authorities, which set up exact directions for it. In these specifications there are echoes of the idea of the priesthood of believers. Thus the demand is repeatedly made that appointments to church offices should not be made without consulting the congregation. But it was never done. At the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1545-63 (Sessio XXII c. 4) all participation by the laity in the calling and appointment to spiritual office was eliminated.

The Reformation restored validity to the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Now the question of the call to the ministry in the Christian church became current again. How beautifully Luther expresses it in his booklet, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation: "For all Christians are truly of the 'spiritual estate,' and there is among them no difference at all but that of office. ... If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness, and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him" (Works of Martin Luther, II, Philadelphia, 1915, 67). And in a Kirchenpostille Luther preaches: "Hence every Christian has the power which the pope, bishops, priests and monks have in this case to retain or to remit sins. . . . All of us indeed have this power; but let no one presume to exercise it openly, unless he is chosen by the church to do so."

Here Luther represents the absolutely correct Protestant conviction that all worthy and responsible members have the right to exercise the functions of spiritual office, but that for the sake of order only the person to whom the office has been entrusted by the church may do so. Luther afterwards modified his conception of the priesthood of believers because of the attitude of the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer. He placed increasing emphasis on the preaching office and put the greatest stress on the orderly call to the office, limiting the participation of the congregation and giving the state increasing rights and duties.

In the third chapter of his exposition of several chapters of Exodus (1524-1526) Luther distinguishes two types of call: The first comes only from God, without the use of an intermediate means; but this call must have outward signs and evidence. The other call, which comes through men, needs no sign. Those who say, "We are called of God," must prove that God and men have called them. In his exposition of Psalm 82 he argues as follows: "It does them [the Anabaptists] no good to assert that all Christians are priests. It is true that all Christians are priests, but not all are pastors; for over and above being a Christian and a priest, he must also have an office and an assigned parish." Hence, "unless they [the "corner preachers"] furnish good evidence and proof of their calling and commission from God to this work in a definite parish, they should not be recognized or listened to, even if they were like angels or Gabriel himself. For God wants nothing done by one's own choice or worship, but all on command and call, especially the office of preaching, as Peter says in 2 Peter 1," etc. Therefore "Let everyone consider: If he wants to preach or teach, let him prove the call and command that drives and compels him or be still. If he refuses, then let the government commend such fellows to the proper master, whose name is Master Hans" (i.e., the hangman).

Luther goes still further in his booklet Von den Schleichern und Winkelpredigern (1532). He actually warns against the restoration of apostolic custom: "People are too wild and forward." Just as it is not permitted to push oneself uncalled into the (civil) council, much less should it be allowed that "in a spiritual council, that is, the office of preacher, a foreign intruder should push his way in or a layman should venture to preach uncalled in his church. It shall be and remain the charge of the prophets (the pastors)." To them and not to the members he grants the right of protest against an erring preacher and thus no doubt also the right of calling the preacher.

In the Lutheran Church the conception of a two-fold call, immediate and indirect, was retained. But the former is not understood as the call that comes through the Holy Spirit as the prophets and apostles experienced it, but merely as the inner conviction of the capability of performing the functions of the office of preacher, knowing that one has the required gifts and the knowledge, especially the gift of teaching ability and eloquence, and that one agrees with the faith of the church and has the urge and the joy to serve according to the intentions of the church. The latter or indirect and outward call consists either in the congregational choice or in the church governing body's selection of a candidate for the administration of any spiritual office. Fundamentally the participation of the church is required. The sentence, "The call is the concern of the entire congregation," occurs again and again in the rules and doctrines of the church; therefore the members must in some way be heard. But actually their participation is extremely slight. The call remains solely the concern and the task of the church authorities with the co-operation of the state. The conditions of the call are as follows: (1) an unspotted reputation; (2) the proper age; (3) adequate health and absence of disturbing bodily defects; (4) adequate education, required since 1552. As a rule, two examinations are required; one (pro licentta concionandi) to acquire the permission to preach and to be a candidate for the ministry, the other (pro ministerio) for admission to a spiritual office; three examinations are given in Old Prussia, Saxony, and several Thuringian states; (5) since 1533 a statement has been required of the candidate, confessing as his own the faith that he is to proclaim; (6) the gratuitousness of the giving of the office, so that all simony is excluded.

The same practice is, on the whole, found in the Reformed Church. According to Calvin's Institutes (IV, c III, 17) the call must be made with the consent and approval of the congregation; other pastors must have charge of the election. Accordingly, in accord with the Geneva Rules, the pastors elect, and the laymen declare their assent. The Helvetian Confession of 1556 (Confessio Helvetica Posterior) makes the following assertion regarding the call: God gives the church preachers, who are to be regarded as the successors of the apostles, even of the prophets, by equipping believing men with the gifts necessary to leadership in the church; but only those are to be considered servants of the church, who have been chosen and regularly ordained by the church. "The call and the choice are made by the church or by those whom the church has appointed for the purpose." In the Reformed Church, too, as a rule the call to the office is issued by the church authorities; the individual congregation has only the right of suggestion or of limited choice.

More faithfully than these Anabaptism has preserved the principle of the congregational call to the ministry and has given the priesthood of believers its full place. The call is the business of the individual congregation and is given to a mature member of the congregation by a vote of the congregation. The oldest confession of the Anabaptists states it thus (Mart. Mir. D (I), 433 f., E 395; translated from the German Pirmasens edition of 1780): "Therefore shall the believers who lack preachers, after they have sought the face of God in ardent prayers (Acts 6:6), turn their eyes to a God-fearing (Acts 16:2; 1 Timothy 3:7) brother who keeps his body in subjection (1 Corinthians 9:27), and in whom the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) is evident. He, when he has been chosen through the votes of the members (2 Corinthians 8:19), shall be examined by the elder and overseer of the congregation (1 Timothy 3:10), whether he agrees with the congregation in all matters, according to the rule of God's Word, so that he may be capable of instructing others in the way of trudi which he himself understands and knows (Matthew 15:14; Isaiah 9:15). And he, if he is found capable (Titus 1:8), shall arise in the name of the Lord to proclaim the will of God to the people. If it is evident that God has entrusted him with the preaching of the Gospel (Galatians 2:7), namely, that he rightly divides the Word (2 Timothy 2:16) and with it brings forth fruit (Isaiah 55:11; Colossians 1:6), then the church, if it is in need of it, and if after the examination he is found to be of one mind with the congregation, can elect him by a regular vote (2 Corinthians 8:19) as elder and preacher in full office; the elders (1 Timothy 1:14; 2 Timothy 1:16; Acts 13:3) confirm it by the laying on of hands and permit him to work and labor in the Lord's vineyard (1 Corinthians 3:9), and also administer Christian baptism and the Lord's Supper with all that pertains to it."

The regulations in other Mennonite confessions, though shorter, have the same provisions. This is still the doctrine and practice of the Mennonite churches everywhere; i.e., that the call of the ministry is the exclusive right of the individual congregation. It is carried out by means of the vote, to which all mature members, in most churches including women, are eligible. A prerequisite of the congregational call is the divine call, which consists, not in receiving special revelations, but in the inner urge to preach given by God and in the possession of the necessary qualifications. Formal training, which at times and in many places was rejected as unscriptural, is coming more and more to be viewed as essential. In Holland, in the city churches of Germany, and in the country churches of the Palatinate it has become a requirement. The country churches of West Prussia, the Verband, as well as the churches of Russia and America still reject this as an absolute requirement.

Before 1795 some of the Mennonite congregations in the Netherlands were required to ask the consent of government in order to call a minister, or the called ministers were obliged to get approval in order to be allowed to accept the invitation. Usually the congregation did not comply with this law and called ministers without notifying the government. In 1745 at Almelo and in 1765 at Enkhuizen difficulties arose because the church board neglected to ask for the required approval. In both cases the government conceded.

In former times Mennonite congregations frequently asked the Lamist congregation at Amsterdam for consent to call ministers. Among others, this happened in the case of Den Burg in 1713 and 1714, Cadzand in 1758, Grouw in 1799 (when notified that the minister they intended to call did not belong to the Lamist Sociëteit), and Ameland in 1807. Consent was asked because Amsterdam gave subsidies to these congregations. After the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit (ADS, Dutch General Conference) was established in 1811, the congregations which received subsidies from the ADS were required to have the approval of this organization for the calling of the ministers they chose.

The opponents of 16th-century Anabaptism made vigorous attacks on the right of the Anabaptist preacher to preach; i.e., they challenged his call. This topic was one of the church questions discussed in practically all the disputations, held by state church authorities with the Anabaptists. The great Bern debate (Berner Gespräch) of 1538 is a striking example of this. The whole concept of corner preacher (Winkelprediger) as applied to the Anabaptists also expresses this. The Anabaptist answer was usually simply, "God has called us." But they did also commonly recognize the call by the congregation as soon as an ordered congregational life was set up. (See the Schleitheim Confession, 1527, article V.) (Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 198-200.)

The call to the ministry in the Mennonite churches of Europe (with the exception of the Netherlands) and of America has commonly been of two types: (1) by direct vote of the members of the congregation, or (2) by a nominating vote of members of the congregation followed by the casting of the lot if more than one candidate receives votes. Most of the groups in Europe and America use only a vote without the lot, and have done so throughout most of their history. In earlier times the minister, who was a lay-minister without special training or salary, was always chosen from the midst of the congregation. The employment of trained and salaried ministers usually means a call to someone from outside the congregation. In South Germany, France, and Switzerland the lot was used at certain times and places, and the 18th and 19th century immigrants from these areas to America brought the lot with them. It was consequently used regularly until recently in the Mennonite Church (MC), and all branches of the Amish. The Old Order Amish still use this method exclusively, but in the Mennonite Church it was being rapidly replaced in the 1950s by a direct vote or call from the outside. The lot ceased to be used in Europe by the end of the 19th century, with certain small exceptions. In the Palatinate the calling of trained ministers from the outside began in the first quarter of the 19th century.

A theological examination of candidates for ordination by the executive committee of a conference or by a special committee designated for this purpose, with or without a written questionnaire, has been introduced into the conferences of the Mennonite Church (MC).

The early practice in the Mennonite (MC) and Amish churches in America was to expect every male member to be available for a call to the ministry, and refusal of a call was considered a very serious matter and at times subject to discipline. Some baptismal vows included a commitment to accept a call to the ministry if one should be received. Occasionally inability or unwillingness to preach after ordination resulted in a complete non-functioning in the ministerial office. This was tolerated more readily than was refusal to accept ordination. The call to the ministerial office as expressed through the vote of the congregation and the lot was considered a divine call which could not be refused, whether one had an inner call or not. In more recent times it has been common to ask the candidate voted for whether he has an inner call from God. One who professes no such call is commonly excused from the lot. However, by many the vote and the lot are still considered sufficient evidence of a divine call.

The call to the ministry for service in special appointments under mission boards in foreign or home fields of service, or in institutions, did not usually require action by the congregation from which the candidate comes.

In the Mennonite Brethren in Christ-United Missionary Church a candidate for the ministry may offer himself for service but must received an endorsement by vote of his home congregation before he could be used in an appointment to the pastoral ministry elsewhere. A period of probation, usually three years under licensure, preceded full ordination.

The practice of licensing, whereby a candidate for ministerial service may be authorized to serve in a preaching or pastoral appointment, either in full charge or as an assistant to an ordained minister, was coming into many district conferences of the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1950s. In this case the call was extended by the bishop in charge, often without any vote by the congregation from which the candidate came, but frequently with a vote by the congregation where he was to serve. In the case of a mission station, no vote was taken. Licensure was usually for a year at a time only.


Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. 1, 198-200.

Author(s) Christian Neff
Harold S. Bender
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1957

Cite This Article

MLA style

Neff, Christian, Harold S. Bender and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Ministry, Call to the." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 5 Dec 2023.,_Call_to_the&oldid=162951.

APA style

Neff, Christian, Harold S. Bender and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1957). Ministry, Call to the. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 December 2023, from,_Call_to_the&oldid=162951.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 704-707. All rights reserved.

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