When it comes to evaluating the call to pastoral ministry, a personal sense of calling isn’t enough. The subjective sense of calling must be objectively validated by others. External assessment is an essential cord that tethers you, and your church, to safety.
Why is this kind of assessment and validation from others needed? Because it’s a biblical principle. The biblical record presents some wonderful and diverse examples of how external confirmation plays out. Throughout the history of Israel, there’s a practice of annointing and acclamation. It represents a public recognition that God is summoning a man for his purposes. Even Jesus submits himself to baptism, which proves to be a moment of confirmation for his public ministry. At the end of his ministry, Jesus, in various ways, commissions his disciples for the work of the gospel – most notably in the discourses of John 13-17 and in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). So when the disciples turn into first-generation church planters, they’re operating with a deep sense of having been sent by another. What we glean from this biblical pattern is that the inner call stirring the soul is validated by confirmation external to the man.
This intertwining of internal call and external information is clarified in one of the few books on pastoral ministry which fall into the must-read category for any man sensing a summons. The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges is near the top of my list of such books. On the matter of calling, Bridges nails it as he carefully explains both the subjective aspect – “a desire for the work” – plus an objective one – “fitness for the office”.
Our authority is derived conjointly from God and from the Church – that is, originally from God – confirmed through the medium of the church. The external call is a commission received from and recognized by the Church, according to the sacred and primitive order; not indeed qualifying the minister, but accrediting him, whom God had internally and suitably qualified. This call communicates therefore only official authority. The internal call is the voice and power of the Holy Ghost, directing the will and the judgment, and conveying personal qualifications. Both calls, however – though essentially distinct in their character and source – are indispensable for the exercise of our commission.
Bridges is pointing to God’s sovereign activity in both internal and external calls. It’s not like the internal call comes from God and the external comes from man. No, God works through people in both cases. In the internal call God works through the human agency of our own will and judgment; in the external call he works through the human agency of his church.