There is no higher calling

Phrases like “higher calling” may sound spiritual to our ears, but they are far from the truth of God.

By David Witthoff –

The pervasiveness of metaphor is evident in many kinds of sources, from news outlets to classical texts. One of the most basic metaphors is the use of the word “see.” It uses the domain of visual sight to describe understanding. This is why when we understand something new, we can exclaim, “Oh, I see now!”

This brings us to the issue at hand, which is the use of the term “higher” in phrases like “higher calling.” The use of “higher” and “high” in The Salvation Army context is almost always associated with “calling.” This is a problematic term in and of itself in our church. What do we mean when we use the phrase “higher calling,” then?

Our culture reveals the advantages of being higher through TV, films and books where having the high ground is valued. Penthouse apartments are the most expensive and CEO’s offices are at the top of buildings. Up is generally good or positive, and down is generally bad and negative (there are, of course, exceptions).

The New Testament witness on “calling” itself is that it is not a summons to work in ministry, but an invitation to follow Jesus. Sure, the apostles are literally called by Jesus (he spoke to them in person), but the figurative uses of “call” in the rest of the epistles are references to following Jesus; that is, to live the Christian life.

The fact that Scripture does not refer to ministry as a calling should encourage a critical examination of its use in this context, especially as it has become so frequently used to describe ministry. Calling has even been matched with the modifier “higher,” which is the object of this study. This pairing of terms is where things get even worse.

In Scripture, the concept of “high” or “higher” with other terms (realize again, that “higher calling” never appears in Scripture) refers to: 1) a place of honor; 2) the authority or status of something; 3) a way to reference heaven; 4) a way to describe honor; 5) a way to describe arrogance.

This fits with the general metaphor of “high” and “higher” being positive, better, greater and superior (it becomes negative with the association with arrogance, of course). When this concept of “high” or “higher” is paired with “calling,” the result is a chilling diversion from the biblical description of ministry. Are we really speaking about a better/greater/superior activity and status?

It appears to be the case. William and Catherine Booth used the phrase to describe the work of saving souls; Salvation Army personnel are quoted in modern times using the phrase for ministry and even local news uses the phrase to describe church work.

There is certainly a qualitatively good aspect to ministry. Paul considers the desire for ministry to be a good thing (1 Tim. 3:1). But high and higher are references to qualitative superiority, to honor and, quite simply, to being better than something else. Should we use the term high and the phrase “higher calling” to speak about our own work of ministry then? That seems blatantly self-congratulatory and in serious danger of falling afoul of Paul’s warning in Romans 12:3 not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think.

Scripture even warns against pastors becoming conceited, being arrogant and domineering over the people of the church. Jesus’ example is one of humility as well: He emptied himself to take the form of a servant. If the Great Shepherd takes the form of a servant, why do many pastoral leaders take on the behavior of an executive or CEO?

I’ll tell you why: they believe they have a higher calling that justifies it.

Jesus literally warned the religious leaders of his day from honoring themselves: And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40 ESV).

Scripture calls the way of Jesus a lowly way, or a humble way. Pastoral ministry is described by concepts of humility and servanthood. The use of “higher” in the phrase “higher calling” is a severe misdirection in terms of our pastoral theology. It leads to an inflated sense of worth based on worldly status that is directly opposed to the biblical testimony. Phrases like “higher calling” may sound spiritual to our ears, but they fall afoul of the truth of God and stand in contrast to what comes from the spirit of Christ.

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