In Romans 10, after declaring that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” Paul asks a number of questions: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15). Verse 15 speaks to the fact that preachers are sent out to preach; they do not send themselves out to preach. I once heard Arturo Azurdia preach on this text. In the course of his exposition, he lamented the fact that within American Protestantism there are too many self-sent preachers. He went on to say that this reality is one of the downsides of the Protestant Reformation. I agree.
The problem, as I see it, is that these self-sent preachers have not been properly examined; they have not made a trial of their gifts; and the local church has not affirmed their gifts/calling. In short, they have not been properly ordained to the ministry. They have, in a sense, called and ordained themselves. These attitudes and actions are at odds with the picture one finds in Scripture of a man who has been called to the ministry.
First Timothy 3:1-7 is the passage that speaks to the qualifications of an elder:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
What I’ve always found interesting in this passage is how Paul balances the objective and subjective aspects in a man’s calling to the ministry. First, notice the subjective aspect: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (emphasis mine). The call begins with a desire. At times, this can be a subjective thing. However, Paul does not leave it there. He goes on in verses 2-7 to give objective criteria that must be found in ministerial candidates. The question that comes to mind for our purpose is: How can a man who desires to be a pastor have his life and character examined if the local church is left out of this process? Furthermore, if a ministerial candidate has never committed himself to a local body of believers for any significant period of time, how can he make trial of his gifts and receive unanimous affirmation of his calling by his elders and fellow believers?
One of the issues, I think, is that many aspiring pastors think their calling comes directly from God and bypasses the affirmation of the local church. The mindset seems to be something like: “God has called me to the ministry and who are you to stand in my way?!” More often than not, in my experience, this mindset is found in those denominations or churches that believe God speaks directly to people. This makes examining these aspiring pastors much more difficult since anyone who opposes these individuals is made to feel like they are opposing God. After all, if God spoke directly to them, who are you to question God? You can see the problem, can’t you? Appeal to a direct voice from God effectively absolves them from examination and trial.
The biblical portrait of ordination appears to be a lengthy and arduous process. Paul informs Timothy, for example, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Tim. 5:22). He told Titus that an elder/pastor “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict” (Titus 1:9, emphasis mine). If a pastor is to be able to “rebuke those who contradict,” it means he must know the Bible well enough to spot error. This doesn’t come without one devoting himself to a process of study. Thus, we find the Apostle Paul exhorting young pastor Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Speaking on the topic of examining aspiring pastors, Professor David VanDrunen writes, “[W]e do not simply take the most pious man in the congregation and make him the pastor, nor are we satisfied with someone who has memorized many Bible verses or catechism answers. We want pastors who are generally well-educated and specifically, in J. Gresham Machen’s words, experts in the Bible.” Earlier, VanDrunen noted that pastors must be well versed in the areas of Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, systematic theology, church history, and apologetics. He concludes this section of his essay by stating: “Zeal and piety are requirements for the ministry, but without knowledge and learning to accompany them a pastor is ill-equipped for his work.”
In order to become proficient in the areas mentioned above, one must devote himself to study, prayer, contemplation, and reflection. Crucial to the entire process is membership in a local church, becoming an apprentice to an experienced pastor, and a healthy congregation where one is able to put his gifts to the test. Above all, a ministerial candidate must be involved in a congregation where he can see what a healthy church looks like and how a healthy church functions. He needs to be involved in the lives of the people in his fellowship; he needs to counsel those struggling with sin and depression. He needs to see what pastoral ministry is like.
Then, and only then, is he ready for “the council of elders [to lay] their hands on [him]” (1 Tim. 4:14). Only then is he ready for ordination. To be sure, this is a long and arduous process. Aspiring pastors, take the long road. You’ll be glad you did.