The Christian faith is cluttered with buzzwords—terms and phrases that spiritually authenticate the stuff we do. We "invite Jesus into our heart," repeat the phrase "we just..." throughout our prayers, and we try live "missionally." We “do community,” “live on mission,” do "life on life," and we “feel led by the Spirit” to do all sorts of things from attend a Bible college to attend a Dodger game. Some of these Christianized sayings contain a measure of biblical truth. Others have little or no biblical backing. They are pure, grade A, unexamined products of our American Evangelical subculture. In any case, there is one phrase that has received hardly any reflection. It’s so embedded in our lingo that we think it’s a verse, or at least we think it should be. It’s the phrase that contains the words “feel” and “call” somewhere at its core.
We feel called to minister and called to marry. We feel called to missions and called to serve. We feel called to go to church, or we feel called to stay home. We feel called to work at Burger King instead of MacDonalds, but when we land a higher paying job at Starbucks, we feel called to serve Baristahood.
Is anything wrong with this? I think there can be. But first, a quick word study. The Greek verb kaleo is the main word that’s translated as “call.” The word occurs quite often in the New Testament, but it’s never used to spiritually validate our feelings. Kaleo usually refers to someone audibly summing another person (Matt 2:7, 15; Luke 22:3) or naming somebody (Matt 1:23, 25) or something (Matt 2:23; 21:13; Rev 11:8): Mary’s son was “called” Jesus (Matt. 1:21).
When the verb is used in a deeper theological sense, it most often refers to God’s election unto salvation (Matt 9:13; 1 Cor 1:9; 7:18, 22; Gal 1:6, 15; 1 Thess 2:12; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:9). We are “the called.” The only time it’s used in terms of a more specific calling on someone’s life is when Paul talks about being “called” as an Apostle (1 Cor 15:9). But the only “feeling” he had on the Damascus road was terror, not a warm sensation that what he wanted to do was God's will.
Paul never "felt" called to be an Apostle. He was simply summoned, unbearably, by his Creator.
Another word translated “called” is the adjective klesis, which occurs ten times in the New Testament. Nine of these refer to being called to salvation (Matt 22:14; Rom 1:1, 6, 7; 8:28; 1 Cor 1:2, 24; Jude 1:1; Rev 17:14) and one time it refers again to Paul being called as an Apostle (1 Cor 1:1).
The last word related to “calling” is the Greek word proskaleo, which is close to kaleo but simply means “to call to” something or someone. Most of the time, proskaleo is used in a general sense of summoning someone else (Luke 16:5; Acts 5:40; 6:2). However, on two occasions it refers to someone being called to a particular task:
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:7). “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10).
These two verses are as close as we come to a biblical basis for our buzzphrase “feeling called to” do such and such. Here, Paul and his companions were summoned by God to embark on a particular missionary endeavor. Even still, there are no feelings dictating their call. Rather, God is objectively and unambiguously (and audibly, I would argue) telling them to pursue the mission that they were already engaged in, only this time in a particular area whether they felt like it or not. One should not use these texts to prove that all aspiring missionaries must feel a particular sensation from God to venture overseas.
Lastly, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 uses the term kaleo several times that could be taken to refer to a particular calling on one’s life—to live single or married; to work at Costco or at First Baptist church. However, a close look shows that the term “call” here refers to salvation and not a particular vocation. Paul is telling the Corinthians to remain in the position they were in at the time of their calling; that is, at the time when they were saved. “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision” (7:18). Apart from the Apostles’ audible summons to Asia Minor and Greece, the word “call/calling” is never used in terms of particular decisions Christians make in life and it’s never associated with a feeling.
No one in the New Testament ever “felt called” to missions. Christians were called to salvation and were therefore launched into a mission.
No one in the New Testament ever “felt called” to be a pastor. They desired to be one (1 Tim 3:1) and others confirmed that they had the gifts and character. But as far as I can tell, the phrase “felt called” is never applied to pastors or elders.
No one in the New Testament ever “felt called” to ministry. Ministry is something that all Christians have been given gifts to engage in. Our obedience to ministry isn’t contingent upon us feeling up for it.
But does it matter whether we still use the phrase “I feel called to…?” I think it does. I’ll explore some potential problems with this phrase in the next post.