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                 Doctrine of the Call

 

All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Christian Unity.” The sermon was preached at Westminster Chapel, London, between 1954 and 1962 and first published in 1980 and reprinted in 1998.

 

`But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.'. . . `And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers'. (Ephesians 4:7 & 11)

 

 We must turn our attention now to these two particular verses. We have been considering the parenthesis in verses 8-10 because it is essential that we should grasp its teaching if we are truly to understand the teaching of these two verses which surround it. The Apostle, having written the statement which we have in verse 7, namely, that `Unto everyone of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ', instead of going on immediately to explain what exactly the Lord Jesus Christ does give, first of all explains how He is in the position to do this. We must also remind ourselves once again that the fundamental theme of the entire section is that of the unity of the church. He is also concerned to show that this unity does not imply a drab mechanical sameness, but is a unity in variety, a unity in diversity, the result of the work our Lord, as the Head of the Church, has done on behalf of His people.

In these two verses the Apostle begins to work out this principle in detail and as we see it, or should see it, in the life and the activity of the Christian Church. This theme is a most important one, and particularly important at the present time when there is so much talk and writing about the church and ecumenicity and unity. Never perhaps has it been more important that we should consider and try to understand the Apostle's teaching with regard to this essential matter. As we do so let us be careful to observe that the Apostle does not lay down a rigid system of church order. Indeed it is questionable whether any such thing is to be found anywhere in the Scriptures. Nevertheless it is important to observe that certain principles are laid down which we are meant to observe and to practise. We must therefore be careful to avoid two dangers. The one danger is to go beyond the Scripture and to impose some rigid, legal, mechanical system of order upon the church. The other is, that in our fear of doing so, we should have no system at all, making it impossible to do everything `decently and in order' according to the apostolic injunction. We must turn, therefore, to an examination of these principles.

The first is that Christ, and Christ alone, is the Head of the Church. There is only one King in the Church, it is King Jesus, as the Scotsman Andrew Melville said in the 16th century. . . .  No man or woman can ever be the head of the Church. Church history shows that this has often been forgotten, and many a battle has had to be fought concerning it. Christ in the Church is the Head of the Church, and wherever two or three are gathered together in His name He is there in the midst. We must re-assert this central truth in these days when all these principles seem to be again in the melting pot in the minds of the vast majority of people. Did our forefathers fight in vain about these matters? Is it of no consequence that we say that there is no Head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ, and that no man must ever be placed in that position? Christ is the Head, and we are the body, and members in particular.

The second principle is that the Church consists of members, each having a function under the Head. This is what is stated in verse 7, `But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ'. When the Apostle says `grace given' he is not referring to the grace of salvation, because he has already dealt with that subject. He is concerned now with the functioning of the Church as the body of Christ. Obviously we have all been given the grace of salvation, otherwise we are not in the Church at all, but now, as the expression `and He gave some, apostles' indicates, his theme is the grace given to every single member of the Christian Church enabling him or her to perform some particular function. A particular function is given to each one and with it He gives the ability to exercise that particular function. The analogy of the body makes this quite clear. Every particular part in my body has some function to perform. We do not always know what the function is; but the fact that we may not know does not mean that it does not have a function.

Scientists have often fallen into error concerning this matter. A hundred years ago, and later, there were those who, believing in the theory of Evolution, were saying quite dogmatically that the thyroid gland had no function, but that it was one of a number of vestigial remains. They spoke similarly concerning various other ductless glands. But today we know that these glands perform vital functions. Such people are still saying that the appendix has no function, but what they really mean is that they do not know what it is, and they will probably discover that it has a most important function. The point I am stressing is that there is nothing in the body, nothing even in a single smallest cell, not a hair, but has a function, a purpose. It may appear to be very insignificant in and of itself; but it is in the body and it works with the other elements, and has its part to play.

As we look at this truth and test ourselves by it, how do we find ourselves as members of the Christian Church? A fatal tendency has come in to think and to say that the vast majority of people in the Church are meant to be entirely passive. Many seem to think of the Church as just a building to which they come to sit and listen to sermons and addresses, and in which they do nothing. This is a denial of the fundamental proposition that to every one of us is grace given in the Church and as parts of the body of Christ. Every one of us has a function, and we are not meant to be entirely passive. The whole secret of the working of the human body is that every part and particle has a particular function which it is meant to fulfil.

The first thing we have to do, therefore, is to discover what our function is. As we realize this we discover what a privilege it is to be members of the Christian Church. The glory of our position is that in this body which Christ is forming through the Spirit we all have a part and a place. In 1 Corinthians chapter 12 we are reminded of some of these functions, but Paul does not supply us with an exhaustive list. There is some particular position that every one of us is called to occupy, and in which to work. So as we believe in Christ, and in the Church, and as we believe that the Church is the custodian and guardian of the only message which can save man in this terrible modern world, our first duty is to discover what our function is and to exercise it. This function may appear to be unimportant, as I am going to show, but that does not matter; the vital thing is that there is something for every one of us to do---`Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ'.

The third principle is that it is Christ Himself who gives each one of us this particular grace. The Apostle emphasizes this point in the 7th and 11th verses. The grace is given to us `according to the measure of the gift of Christ'. In verse 11, unfortunately, the Authorised Version does not bring out the meaning and reads, `And He gave some, apostles'. But the right and better translation is, `And He Himself gave some to be apostles'. It is emphatic; not `He' but `He Himself', lest we might fail to realize and to remember that it is the Lord Himself who gives all these various gifts.

 

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We come next to the most important practical aspect of this whole matter. From the standpoint of the activities in the Church today it is certainly one of the most important questions. In other words, we are going to consider what is known as the doctrine of the Call. Men and women in the Church are called to given functions and given the ability to perform them by the Lord Himself. This is a difficult subject and one that is frequently misunderstood. We can but deal with some of the principles involved in it.

The first principle is that one does not call oneself. We are not to decide to do this or that in the Church, as has often been done. For example, a man decides that he is going to preach, and he does so. He is not interested in the doctrine of the Call; he has never heard of it. He does what he wants to do. But according to the Apostle's teaching a man does not call himself; still less, of course, does he enter the ministry, or any other office in the church, as a profession. The history of the dead periods in the annals of the church shows how the idea of entering the ministry as a profession tended to prevail. The tradition and the custom in great families was for the eldest son to join the Navy, the second son went into the Army, while the third son entered the ministry of the church as a clergyman. The son who went in for ministry did so in exactly the same way as his brothers went into the Navy or the Army. This has frequently accounted for the sad state of the Christian Church. And let us not imagine that this custom is confined to the past; there are still those who go into the ministry in exactly the same way. A man who may be a poet and who desires a quiet life in which he will have time for reading literature and time to compose poetry or to write novels, or other types of literature, may enter the ministry for these reasons. This explains why the Church is so often weak and ineffective. Men have forgotten that it is Christ who calls, and that we ourselves do not decide what we do in the Church in any capacity.

We must go yet further and emphasize that the need is not the Call. This is an important negative, because a popular evangelical teaching has urged that the need is the Call. The reply to that is that it is the Lord who calls. He may of course call us to do something because of a certain need; but the need cannot be the Call, for the good and sufficient reason that if the need constitutes the Call, then every one of us should be responding to that need, and that is patently ridiculous. The need is not meant to be the Call. The Lord Himself sees the whole field, and is the Head of the whole body. He sees a need here and a need there, at the same time. He does not see, as we see, in a partial manner; He sees perfectly. We must emphasize this principle, that simply because I see a need in a given place I must not thereupon conclude that it is incumbent upon me to satisfy it. It may not be the Lord's will that I should do so. He may have something else for me to do, and He may will that someone else should perform the work that I unwisely rush to undertake. The teaching that the need is the Call is not only unscriptural, it is a denial of the teaching that the Lord, as Head of the Church, is the only one who can give the Call, and that He gives it directly to us.

In the third place we must emphasize that the Church alone does not give the Call. I am not putting forward my own opinion or interpretation of what the Apostle says here---‘Unto every one of us is grace given, according to the measure of the gift of Christ . . . And he himself gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers'---for Christ Himself gave the same teaching in the oft-quoted statement found in Matthew 9: 'The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few'. Is the church therefore to lay hands upon people and thrust them forth into the harvest? Our Lord's reply is, `Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest' (vv. 37-38). We do not thrust forth labourers; He does so; and all we do is to pray to Him to send them forth. In our carnal zeal and enthusiasm we often deem it to be our business to call people to tasks in the church, and we do so in different ways. We suggest to young men that they should enter the ministry, or preach, or teach. How scandalous this is! We have no right to suggest to another what his function may be in the church or what he ought to do. There are many men in the ministry for one reason only, namely, that at a given point an old minister or some elder or deacon went to them and asked them whether they had ever thought of entering the ministry and then persuaded them to do so.

 

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Forgive a personal reference which may help to illustrate this matter. Some thirty years ago when I felt called of God to enter the ministry and to preach the Gospel, I received a letter from the General Secretary of a certain Foreign Mission Society. In his letter he suggested to me that instead of preaching the Gospel in this country I should be a Medical Missionary in India. It seemed so obvious to him. At the time there was a man needed very badly in a certain hospital in India, and here was I going to preach the Gospel in Great Britain when obviously I was the man to fill that post in India. My reply to that good man---whose motives, of course, were excellent and with whom I had great sympathy---was simply to ask him a question. I asked him whether he believed in the biblical doctrine of a Call, whether he believed that the Lord of the harvest still chose the men and chose where to send them? I told him that, for myself, I not only believed it but acted upon it, and hence I did not go to India.

There is indeed an element which is almost impertinent, spiritually impertinent, in this false teaching about the need being the Call. We think we understand, and so we often blunder in our own efforts. In our ignorance we do not hesitate to legislate for the Church and decide what men are to do. It is not the business of the Church to suggest, or to call, still less to bring pressure upon men as is so often done and in an emotional atmosphere. The need is outlined and impressed upon young people; then an appeal is made for all to be ready to volunteer. It is a most unscriptural procedure.

I am emphasizing this, not only because it is a matter of theological interest, but also because tragedies have often followed this practice. There are people whose whole life has been ruined by this teaching which proclaims that it is the business of every young Christian to go to the Mission Field. Do not trouble about absence of feeling, it says, the need is the call; go to the Mission Field and if you find when you have arrived there that you are not meant to be there, well then, go home! That is the exact opposite of our Lord's teaching and also of the Apostle's teaching. Thus confusion enters the Church and many a life is ruined simply because of failure to apply the teaching of the Scripture.

Each one of us is to be willing to do anything that the Lord may call us to do---to go to the Mission Field, and equally perhaps, not to go to the Mission Field. Sometimes it may be easier to go than not to go. There are people who comfort and satisfy their consciences by doing something heroic, such as going to the heart of Africa and building a hospital. But it may not be God's will that they should do so. It may be His will that they stay doing something drab and ordinary in this country. As Christian people, as members of the body of Christ in particular, we are to be at His disposal, to be ready to do anything He calls us to do. Those whom He calls to go and sends do a faithful work and bring glory to His name.

There has been much confusion in connection with this whole subject of Foreign Mission work, and Christ's name has often been brought into disrepute. People who rush emotionally into the work discover their mistake when they get to the Field, and when they come home on furlough they do not go back again, and this becomes known to those who are outside the Church. I have heard that in some countries only about one in three return to the Mission Field after their first furlough. This is so because they have been called by men and not by the Lord; the need has been regarded as the Call, or the Church has given the Call. They have never realized that we are but individual parts and members of a body, and that it is the Head who decides and calls, and that this is His prerogative, and His alone.

 

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But someone may ask as to how we are to know when this Call comes. They ask whether the Church has anything to do with this. What is to be done with a man who comes forward and says that he has been called of the Lord to do some particular work? The Scripture provides an answer to the problem. It starts, as we have stressed, with the great central doctrine that the Lord Himself is the One who calls. But in addition, the Scripture shows that what any one of us may regard as a Call is to be tried and tested. It is just here that the Church comes in; but the function of the Church is mainly negative. The Church is to apply certain tests to a man who claims that he is called by the Lord to a task. Such a man should not act immediately, he should come to the Church and make his statement; and then the Church should consider the matter.

Take for instance what we find in the sixth chapter in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and also in the Pastoral Epistles. There we find detailed rules and regulations with regard to elders and deacons and about those who preach and teach. It is the business of the Church to apply these tests to any candidate. There are two sides to this question. I can illustrate this by repeating a well-known story about Charles Haddon Spurgeon who had his own way of applying these principles. A young man once went to him and said that he had been called, and told by the Spirit that he was to preach the following Thursday in Spurgeon's Tabernacle. Spurgeon replied that this was very odd because the Spirit had not told him (Spurgeon) anything about it. When the Lord calls through the Spirit He not only tells the young man, He tells Charles Haddon Spurgeon also! ‘Everything must be done decently and in order', says Paul, lest the ministry be blamed. There must be no confusion in the Church: and when the Spirit acts He always does it in an orderly manner. So we are given these instructions to the Church, and thus have a check which makes sure that we are not misled by a passing impulse. We are all so frail, and the enemy is so subtle. He can `turn himself even into an angel of light' in order to confuse us. A man who is truly called is a humble man who does not set himself up; he goes to the Church and says that he believes he has been called by Christ. He presents himself before the Church; and the Church examines him.

It is most important, of course, that the Church should do this correctly; and there are errors and dangers and pitfalls on all sides here. The Church must do this testing in a spiritual manner. She herself must be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit. She must not act in a legalistic manner nor in a rigid manner nor in a merely formal manner. The Church has made tragic mistakes at times. There have been men who have been truly called of God, and who have gone to the Church only to be told that they were not Called. The Church has rejected them. But in some instances the Church has been entirely wrong. The Church is not infallible and must not act in a legalistic manner; she must respect the liberty of the Spirit, and the balance of the Spirit. So it behoves us all to keep ourselves in the Spirit and under the influence of the Spirit so that we may `judge righteous judgment' (John 7:24).

Church history shows very plainly that whether we like it or not it is the Lord Himself who calls. The treatment meted out to George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers by the Church of England two hundred years ago supplies us with a perfect illustration of this point. The Anglican Church at that time was blind, and could not see that it was the Lord who had called these men and sent them out on their mighty ministries. The Church could not see it; and the Church was wrong. It is the Lord who gives His gifts to the Church; and nothing is more fascinating in Church history than to observe the way in which He does so. How unexpectedly He acts at times! He lays His hand on an immoral philosopher like Augustine of Hippo, He takes hold of a monk like Martin Luther, or a great legal brain like John Calvin. Thus we see Him giving His gifts. He calls and He gives. The Church does not always understand; but that does not mean that we must ignore the Church and say that the Church does not matter. She may make mistakes because she is not scriptural and not spiritual, but He is the Head and can over-rule even her errors.

Nothing is so far removed from the Apostle's picture of the Church as institutionalism and ecclesiasticism. These 'isms' are not to be found anywhere in the New Testament. Institutionalism is a denial of the picture of the Church as the body of Christ, and of Christ alone as the Head, and of the Holy Spirit making and preserving this blessed unity. Ecclesiasticism is as much a denial of the scriptural teaching as is the chaos that is seen in other circles at the present hour where men set themselves up and recognize no authority whatsoever. We must be guided by the whole of Scripture and endeavour, as we are given grace and strength by the Spirit, to preserve a true balance.

 

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This brings us to the fourth principle, which is still more practical. This grace which the Lord gives to every one of us differs and varies from case to case. `He gave some to be apostles, and some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers'. It is He who appoints the various offices and functions in the church; therefore anyone who does not believe in any organization at all is in an entirely unscriptural position. There are people who imagine that it is very spiritual to have no organization, but to have a loose, free fellowship. But our Lord has determined upon specific offices in the Church. This is not a man-made device; it has all come from Him through these inspired Apostles. He has not only appointed that there should be offices and functions, but has also determined their nature and variety. This is taught clearly in I Corinthians chapter 12. Some offices are more important than others, and yet every one of them is essential. As in the physical body some parts are not as comely as others, yet these uncomely parts are necessary and we bestow the more abundant honour upon them. The various functions differ from each other and they are meant to be different; yet they are all essential to the harmonious working of the whole.

Furthermore, we are also told that our Lord also appoints the men to these offices. `He gave some to be [or as] apostles'. It is the Lord Himself who chose the apostles, the prophets, and all others. He establishes these different offices, calls men to them, and gives them the ability to exercise the functions they are meant to exercise in that particular office. Here again there is obvious inequality. The Scripture itself teaches that exceptional honour is to be given to those elders who preach and teach, for that function is exceptionally important. There is a gradation of offices in the Church; some are more important and others are less important, but all are essential. So we are to hold these two things constantly in our minds at the same time---the division of offices, the gradation in offices, and yet the fact that they are all equally essential, and are all appointed by the Lord Himself.

The carrying out of this teaching in practice is highly important. We start by recognizing the inequalities; and far from being disturbed or upset at the inequalities we recognize that they are of His appointing, and that they are for the full and harmonious functioning of the Church. Then, having recognized these differences and gradations, we must respect them. Hence James teaches in the third chapter of his Epistle, `My brethren, be not many masters' (v. 1). There were people in the early Church who claimed that all were equal, that all were teachers, all preachers, all able to do the same things. We are not all meant to be masters! We must recognize that there are different functions, different offices, different abilities, different callings in the Church. But I must add immediately that we must not harden this into a rigid, absolute division. There is nothing in the Scriptures to support a monarchical idea of Church government. We are to call no man lord in the Church. There is no monarchical authority.

It is interesting to observe that it is the Apostle Peter of all men who wrote, `Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock' (1 Peter 5:3). Our Puritan and Free Church forefathers shed their blood for this principle; but there is a tendency today to say that these things do not count at all. We must recognize that there are different functions and callings and offices; but they are not to be hierarchical in character. The man in a lower office is not to bow the knee to one in a higher office and call him `My Lord'. We have all received the same grace, and although we have been given different functions, we are all equally essential. I call no man lord, and I call no man master, in the Church. I recognize the divisions, and I look up to a man who has a higher function to perform than I have, but not in a slavish manner, not as a subject to a lord or king or one who has some monarchical authority. The monarchical idea is a denial of what is plainly taught here.

 

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We must learn how to regard these things aright both in ourselves and in others. As regards ourselves, if you feel that you have been called to a high office or that you have been given some remarkable gift, do not be proud, do not boast of it, and do not despise another brother. As Paul argues, `Who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?' (1 Cor 4:7). If you are in an exalted position, be humble; what you have has been given to you; the office has been given, the gift has been given; the ability has been given. You have nothing but what you have received; do not boast, therefore, and do not despise others. On the other hand, if you are the man in the humbler position, do not be envious, do not be jealous. Do not look at another and say, Why has he got this, and not I? Read 1 Corinthians chapter 12 and be corrected. We must all be content with the function which we have been given, the task to which we have been called. I care not how lowly, or how insignificant it is; I care not if I am not lauded by men, and if my name is never in the newspapers; that is quite unimportant because it is the Lord who has called each one, and my function is essential. I do all to His glory; I rejoice in it; I praise God that I am in the body at all, even though I may be one of the less comely parts which does not seem to be necessary. `I am what I am by the grace of God'. It is He who has called me, it is He who has given me the appointment and the ability.

We must apply this also with regard to our view of others. This is what they had failed to do in Corinth, with the result that the church was divided up into sects and schisms and groups, each following a particular man and boasting of a particular gift. They had forgotten that `Paul is nothing, and Apollos is nothing, but ministers of Christ', and that not one of them would have had any gift whatsoever if the Lord Christ had not given it to him. So Paul tells them not to glory in man, but to glory only in the Lord, the Giver of the gifts, the Head of the Church.

Is it not increasingly obvious that it is our failure to study the Scriptures that leads to the troubles and the confusion, the divisions and the schisms, the heart-rendings, the heart-breakings, the jealousy, envy and rivalry, and all the muddle and confusion in the churches, and that causes Revival to tarry? How can the Lord honour such a Church, such a collection of people? We must return to the biblical teaching concerning the Church. This is not something theoretical for church elders and leaders only, not only something to be discussed in Church councils. This Epistle was written to every member of the church at Ephesus. We must all have clear ideas about these things so that when we read about them we may have opinions and express them. It is our duty to see that the Church functions as her Lord intended her to do. Let us therefore, all of us, humble ourselves before Him, let us confess our pride or our jealousy, our envy or failure, our self-seeking, our self-importance, our feelings that we are neglected. Let us return to Him, I say, and humble ourselves before Him; let us ask Him to forgive us, to cleanse us; let us ask Him to make plain and clear to us what He has called us to do, what He desires us to do: and then let us rise up and do it with all our might, relying upon the might and the authority and the power of the Holy Ghost Himself. [168-180]

 

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