Much is being written today about the call to ministry vocation. All believers have a calling from God, expressed in conversion, and lived out obediently as God assigns various tasks from time to time – marital care, parental leadership, hospitality among God’s people, sharing the good news, cross-cultural ministry. The relationship between calling and personal desire continues to challenge our understanding. Does God align our calling with our desires or conversely does He ignore our desires, by issuing a call to serve in something we can barely tolerate? We find stories in biblical and church history that illustrate both kinds of callings.
In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul writes that “if anyone sets his heart on [aspires to] (oregetai) the overseer role, he desires (epithumei) a noble task.” He uses two different words to describe strong motivations that urge a person to accept the trust of ministry leadership. At this point he does not comment on the source of such desire or aspiration, but he does applaud it and encourage it. So he believes that God’s calling does align, in many cases, with the desires of our hearts. Perhaps it is because God’s Spirit generates such desire in the first place.
The first word (oregein) occurs infrequently in the New Testament, but always in the middle form followed by a noun in the genitive case (as it does in 1 Timothy 3:1). This usage has the literal sense of reaching to or grasping at something. In certain contexts it carries the sense of yearn for or aspire to. Paul only used it in 1 Timothy. Once (6:10) it has negative connotations, describing an “eagerness or striving (oregomenoi) for money” that leads some disciples away from the faith. In the previous verse Paul describes how desire for wealth is a “temptation and a trap”, leading people “into foolish desires (epithumias)” which bring “ruin and destruction”. Context determines whether oregomai describes a good or bad desire. At 3:1 it has a more positive sense, i.e. aspire to a certain position or duty.
Its other use in the New Testament at Hebrews 11:16 describes the yearning (oregontai) that the patriarchs – Abraham, Noah, Enoch, Abel – had “for a better country – a heavenly one.” In this case their aspiration is based on God’s promise, a function of their faith. So in the midst of difficult and risky circumstances their faith-filled aspiration, fueled by prior experiences with God, sustained them. Paul also used the cognate noun orexis at Romans 1:27 to describe the sexual lust that men expressed for other men. In the Wisdom of Solomon this noun describes “the desire (orexis) for financial gain” (14:2) that motivates people to risk their lives in ocean commerce. This usage expresses the potent nature of the yearning or aspiration defined by the verb. It is a yearning that leads people to give up other things so that they can gain something else.
Philo used these same two verbs (which Paul has in 1 Timothy 3:1) to describe men “who desire (epithumountas) and long for (oregomenous) opportunities of wrongdoing and cannot get them” (Allegorical Interpretations III.211). When commenting on Exodus 33:13, Philo says that Moses “yearns (oregetai) to see God and to be seen by Him,” imploring God to reveal Himself (Posterity 13). In this same essay Philo talks about “the soul just beginning to crave (oregomenēn) after instruction, and now to some extent engaged in learning” (Posterity 131). When he wrestles with Abraham’s actions to sacrifice Isaac, Philo condemns those who “throw away a son or a daughter through desire (oregomenos) for glory” (Abraham 187). Whether Philo in these instances is using the term in the sense found in Stoic philosophers is debated. The Stoics used this word to define a desire that builds upon a “decision of the will guided by human reason.”1 Few interpreters would ascribe this Stoic philosophical sense to Paul’s usage of this verb in 1 Timothy 3:1.
Josephus also used this verb to describe certain kinds of aspirations. When he defends his actions in the city of Gischala, he criticizes a man named John because “he was eager (oregomenon) for revolution and ambitious (epithumian) of obtaining command” (Life 70). The author of the so-called Aristeas to Philocrates (c. 130 BC)2 describes a purported series of interactions between Jewish scholars and Ptolemy Philadelphus. The Egyptian king asks one Jewish scholar (section 211) “What is the essence of kingship?” The man concludes his reply with these words “do not reach after (oregou) many things, but only such as are sufficient for kingship.” Earlier he had warned the king not to be consumed by wealth, fame or extravagant desires (epithumēsai).
So as we consider the interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:1 in the light of this data, we conclude that Paul, in using the verb oregein wants to emphasize the strong nature of the aspiration or eager striving for the oversight role (episkopēs) in the church. His use of the phrase “this is a trustworthy saying” to introduce this statement underscores its importance. For some reason Paul must encourage and assure people that this role is a “good task” and something that Christians should yearn to engage. He does not at this point give a position description for this role, but it seems to incorporate elements of sincere care, good management, and Gospel guidance so that the faith community is nurtured and protected. Whether Paul intended to use this verb in its Stoic sense, i.e. an aspiration or strong yearning based upon careful discernment and rational evaluation, will continue to be debated. However, the context suggests that a person would strive eagerly for this role because he has thoughtfully and prayerfully counted the cost, considered its significance, and willingly embraced the sacrifices that this role might require. It is a “good work” to which one should aspire. To discern in this context a sense of “ambition” in this verb probably stretches its connotations inappropriately.
It would seem from this passage that Paul discerns a linkage between God’s calling and personal aspiration. This is not a failsafe mechanism because we know that our discernment can be distorted by many causes. Yet, if we sincerely examine our hearts before God and discern within ourselves an aspiration, tested in various ways, for a serving role within the church, then we should embrace it and pursue it. God is probably giving us some direction.
- take a few moments and reflect upon your sense of calling. Do you discern a relationship between your personal aspiration and the role in which you currently find yourself?
- what do Christians do when they discover their aspiration for a serving role disappears once they begin to fulfill it? Will our aspiration always be present? Can it be recovered if it wanes?
- Peter discusses these same issues in 1 Peter 5:1-4. He outlines some key tests that help us evaluate our aspirations, to make sure they are properly motivated. Consider the final one, the eschatological test – i.e. what will Jesus say when he appears?