There is a growing backlash these days against the radical missional movement. Anthony Bradley lit the powder keg like so:
Being a ‘radical,’ ‘missional’ Christian is slowly becoming the ‘new legalism.’ We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Mt 22:36-40).
The irony in the debate is that in reality these two sides–the “ordinary Christians” and the “radical missionals”–are just that: two sides of the same coin; two phases of the same element; two peas from the same podcast. Back of both sides lays our fascination with and unshakeable faith in the peculiarly modern, decidedly Western, and grievously unbiblical notion of individual “calling.”
Do a word study of the word “calling” in the New Testament and watch what emerges: The only “calling” the New Testament knows about is the calling to receive the salvation of God–or, in other words, the calling to follow Christ. 2 Peter 1:10 (NIV) is representative (though to check out the other eleven instances of “calling” in the New Testament, click here):
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble.
In New Testament parlance, “calling” is always used in the way Jesus uses it when, for example, he says in Matthew 22:14 (ESV), “For many are called, but few are chosen.” This ain’t, in other words, no vision quest:
A vision quest is a rite of passage, similar to an initiation, in some Native American cultures. It is a turning point in life taken before puberty to find oneself and the intended spiritual and life direction. When an older child is ready, he or she will go on a personal, spiritual quest alone in the wilderness, often in conjunction with a period of fasting. This usually lasts for a number of days while the child is tuned into the spirit world. Usually, a Guardian animal will come in a vision or dream, and the child’s life direction will appear at some point. The child returns to the tribe, and once the child has grown, will pursue that direction in life.
This idea that each of us has a special destiny or purpose beyond that which we take on at baptism, one we are to vision-quest for through prayer and individual discernment, is both syncretic and gnostic (not to mention heretical). It is nowhere commanded in the Scripture, nowhere commended in the Creeds, nowhere condoned by the faithful church throughout the ages. Instead, it is found at the confluence of three troubling tributaries:
- Our disdain for practical, methodical, comprehensive discipleship training coupled with our sense that God is glorified by our complete lack of preparation. In the secular world, if one decides to be a doctor, one recognizes that an arduous road of training lay ahead. In the church, if one senses a “call” to North Korea, one immediately sends an email to me (I received two in the past week alone) announcing that one is ready for the plane trip to Pyongyang. Even the Apostle Paul spent years of preparation–maybe more than a decade–in Arabia and Tarsus before being sent out on the mission trail.
- Our unquestioning conviction that God will speak to us individually, not to the church, about where we will serve, what we will do, and when we will do it. This is completely at odds with the witness of the New Testament, which shows that God speaks through the church to set aside even apostles themselves. See, for example, Paul and Barnabas’ call in Acts 13:2. Or Matthias’ replacing Judas in the Twelve in Acts 1:23-26. The New Testament church is no mere confirmer or blesser of individually apprehended vision. It acts as if it has the right (and the duty) to dispatch its members according to its corporate discernment.
- The disregard we have for the honor and glory of the one, basic, foundational summons to follow Christ. Through stadium events and emotional altar calls and polished evangelistic presentations we rush the largely unsuspecting into the Kingdom of God. Contrary to Jesus’ admonitions in the New Testament, these poor souls enter the Christian life not only without understanding it but also without having counted the cost. “Discipleship” then becomes a gnostic practice of vision questing and spiritual gift surveying rather than the obvious next step of what they signed up for, namely, learning how to take up their crosses daily to follow Jesus.
So the question is not whether we are “called” to ordinary lives of faithfulness in the suburbs or to radical missional abandonment halfway around the world. The decision is not ours to make or discern. Saved by grace through faith, we are restored to the original vocation of humanity, namely, co-regency with Christ over the world he created.
As with any co-regency, there’s an awful lot to learn. That’s why we begin with and in our own families, according to 1 Timothy 3:1-5. Then as the church, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, discerns that we have been faithful in a little, we are raised up to serve the family of God known as the local church. From there, it is the collective, Holy Spirit-empowered discernment of the wider body of Christ that propels us (often against our will, inclination, comfort, and physical safety) to leadership over regions and/or missionary service to other lands.
And this is precisely what is embedded in the Great Commission, where it is noteworthy that Jesus does not say “Go unto all nations, obeying everything I have commanded you” but rather “Go unto all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Teaching others requires that you’ve done it well yourself, first in your own household, then in the local body, then on behalf of the wider body, whether you wanted to or not. It is that wider body that discerns by the Holy Spirit when you are ready to go and where you are needed. You don’t, you know, get to choose, and you probably won’t want to go (especially when and where they want to send you). The idea of someone leaping up in church and saying, “Guess what? I’m going to India!” would strike the early church as exactly the indication that such a person has no business going to India and probably is having problems in their own individual and family walk with Christ.
Some of the best (and, sadly, least imitated) stories in the early church involve Christians being called by the church to the next higher level of leadership but running away in an attempt to avoid the call. Gregory of Nazianzus is but one of many such “reluctant saints”:
Gregory was an introverted and very sensitive soul, and his rote reaction to crisis was, somewhat humorously, to run. He ran away when his father forcibly ordained him to the priesthood. He ran away when his friend Basil forcibly ordained him to the episcopate. He ran away when his father’s church tried to make him his father’s successor as bishop after the latter’s death. He ran away when the political tides turned against him at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Gregory loved to run. And better yet, Gregory loved to complain about it.
It is time for us to recognize the false dichotomy between “radical/missional” and “ordinary Christian,” time for us to repent of the conceit of individual calling. Let us restore to the church its Holy Spirit-bestowed honor and responsibility to discern the proper deployment of the resources God has entrusted to it to steward. And let us restore to ourselves the humility of recognizing that Christ speaks through his whole body about what to do with us, not just to us individually.
There ought to be more pastors and missionaries running away from their calling than there are untrained, undiscipled Christians rushing toward it.