There are few passages of Scripture that run more counter to society’s attitude than these. Paul summarizes that, “for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Jesus Christ and put no confidence in the flesh”. He means that our training and background ultimately are not what empower us to serve in ministry but it is the power of our Lord that empowers us to serve in ministry. While Paul goes on to describe his ministry “training and background” in these passages and calls them “gain” (ie he does not despise them), he realizes that training means nothing when compared to knowing the Lord and the new life that comes from knowing Him and the power of that new life to reach out to others. This is the proper perspective on relating our worldly achievements with spiritual ministry.
However I have seen this abused in 3 ways. Of course the first trap is to assume that because one has the pedigree (family, education, money, position), ministry doors and success should “just open up”. This is the prime attitude these verses speak against. The second trap is to use these verses as an excuse to not prepare. The call to ministry is important, but the call does not allow one to say that therefore “I do not need to prepare”…that God will make it happen “in spite of me”. He may, but to me the call is not a release from preparation but a challenge to do even more to prepare. It is the melding of the work of the Holy Spirit with our own spirit (as in Romans 8) to be used of God that gets one ready for ministry. How could one be called to worship ministry and not practice their instrument, or called to preach but not study scripture (apart from sermon prep). I am respectfully concerned as a lay person that this is part of the reason the clergy is not viewed with the same esteem as in the early 20th century. While esteem from secular society has no bearing on ministry, the fact that there oftentimes is no professional preparation for ministry allows some who think they have the call but do not, to easily enter without the benefit of training (like Paul’s years with Christ in the desert, Galatians 1). Again in the spirit of Philippians 1, sovereign God can and does use this for his purposes, but oftentimes there are ministry train wrecks.
The third trap is more subtle but more devastating. This trap is the “despising” of another’s preparation out of hand simply because it is there. Whether there is jealousy or pride involved with that I do not know. But how often have I heard from the pulpit disparaging remarks about seminarians as being the example of what not to do if you want to be in ministry. While it may be true that “seminarians” often put pride in the flesh and draw some of this criticism on themselves, this trap sends a very destructive message. First of all it diminishes the importance of preparation to reaffirm the call. But more importantly it tells lay people that being the best we can be professionally is not important. We need the church full of PhD’s, MD’s and JD’s. We need our students interacting with the cultural challenges of worldview by interacting with controversial books. The Spirit empowering the call will utilize any, all or no “fleshly” preparation in unique and special ways to bring His message of hope to a dying and despairing world.