Happy Vocation Day! It was formerly known as Labor Day, but this blog has crusaded to take over this national holiday–day off work, last day of summer vacation, cook-out customs and all–and add it to the church year as a commemoration of the doctrine of vocation.
That topic is a major theme of this blog. Vocation is more than just the notion that you can do your work to the glory of God. It has to do not only with how we make our living–though it includes that–but also with our life in our families, our churches, and our cultures. The doctrine of vocation is filled with specific details and practical guidance. It is, in short, the theology of the Christian life.
A good activity for Labor Day would be to read up on the doctrine of vocation. You could read from my two books on the subject– God at Work and Family Vocation–or, if you are in a hurry to get the car loaded, I’ll post a brief article with a sidebar that I wrote on the subject for Modern Reformation. Click “continue” to read it.
Our Calling and God’s Glory
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned him, and to which God has called him.
1 Corinthians 7:17
“Justification by faith alone” is surely the most important contribution of the Reformation. The second most important, arguably, is the “doctrine of vocation.”
Whereas the doctrine of justification has wide currency, the doctrine of vocation has been all but forgotten. The word vocation can still be heard sometimes, but the concept is generally misunderstood or incompletely understood. The doctrine of vocation is not “occupationalism,” a particular focus upon one’s job. The term means “calling,” but it does not have to do with God’s voice summoning you to do a great work for him. It does not mean serving God by evangelizing on the job. Nor does the doctrine of vocation mean that everyone is a minister, though it is about the priesthood of all believers. It does not even mean doing everything for God’s glory, or doing our very best as a way to glorify God, though it is about God’s glory, at the expense of our own.
The doctrine of vocation is the theology of the Christian life. It solves the much-vexed problems of the relationship between faith and works, Christ and culture, how Christians are to live in the world. Less theoretically, vocation is the key to strong marriages and successful parenting. It contains the Christian perspective on politics and government. It shows the value, as well as the limits, of the secular world. And it shows Christians the meaning of their lives.
The Swedish theologian Einar Billing, in his book Our Calling, noted how our tendency is to look for our religion in the realm of the extraordinary, rather than in the ordinary. (1) In vocation, however, God is hidden even in the mundane activities of our everyday lives. And this is his glory.
Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation
To understand fully the doctrine of vocation, one should begin not with the Puritans-who tended to turn the doctrine of vocation into a work ethic-but with Luther and with Lutherans, from the composers of the Book of Concord to modern theologians such as Billing and Gustaf Wingren. It goes something like this: When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And he does. The way he gives us our daily bread is through the vocations of farmers, millers, and bakers. We might add truck drivers, factory workers, bankers, warehouse attendants, and the lady at the checkout counter. Virtually every step of our whole economic system contributes to that piece of toast you had for breakfast. And when you thanked God for the food that he provided, you were right to do so.
God could have chosen to create new human beings to populate the earth out of the dust, as he did with the first man. But instead, he chose to create new life-which, however commonplace, is no less miraculous-by means of mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, the vocations of the family.
God protects us through the vocations of earthly government, as detailed in Romans 13. He gives his gifts of healing usually not through out-and-out miracles (though he can) but by means of the medical vocations. He proclaims his word by means of human pastors. He teaches by means of teachers. He creates works of beauty and meaning by means of human artists, whom he has given particular talents.
Many treatments of the doctrine of vocation emphasize what we do, or are supposed to do, in our various callings. This is part of it, as are the various aspects that I outlined above, but it is essential in grasping the magnitude of this teaching to understand first the sense in which vocation is God’s work.
God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid, said Luther. According to Luther, vocation is a “mask of God.” (2) He is hidden in vocation. We see the milkmaid, or the farmer, or the doctor or pastor or artist. But, looming behind this human mask, God is genuinely present and active in what they do for us.
The sense of God acting in vocation is characteristically Lutheran in the way it emphasizes that God works through physical means. Luther and his followers stress how God has chosen to bestow his spiritual gifts by means of his Word (ink on paper; the sound waves emanating from a pulpit) and Sacrament (water; bread and wine). And he bestows his earthly gifts by means of human vocations.
More broadly, in terms Reformed folk can relate to, vocation is part of God’s providence. God is intimately involved in the governance of his creation in its every detail, and his activity in human labor is a manifestation of how he exercises his providential care.
For a Christian, conscious of vocation as the mask of God, all of life, even the most mundane facets of our existence, become occasions to glorify God. Whenever someone does something for you-brings your meal at a restaurant, cleans up after you, builds your house, preaches a sermon-be grateful for the human beings whom God is using to bless you and praise him for his unmerited gifts. Do you savor your food? Glorify God for the hands that prepared it. Are you moved by a work of art-a piece of music, a novel, a movie? Glorify God who has given such artistic gifts to human beings.
Of course, that vocation is a mask of God means that God also works through you, in your various callings. That God is hidden in what we do is often obscured by our own sinful and selfish motivations. But that does not prevent God from acting.
Faith and Works
Was the farmer who grew the grain that went into that piece of toast I had this morning a Christian? How about the artist whose movie made such a powerful impression? I happen to know that he is not a Christian. How can I glorify God for the work-or farming-of an unbeliever? The doctrine of vocation answers that question. In his governance of the world, God uses those who do not know him, as well as those who do. Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). But human beings sin in their vocations and sin against their vocations, resisting and fighting against God’s purpose.
On the surface, there does not seem to be a great deal of difference between a Christian farmer tilling his field and a non-Christian farmer who does essentially the same thing. God can use both to bring forth daily bread, which he, in turn, distributes to Christian and non-Christian alike. But there is a huge difference. The Christian farmer works out of faith, while the non-Christian farmer works out of unbelief.
Luther actually uses two different words for what I have so far been collapsing under the general term vocation: “station” (Stand) and “calling” (Beruf). Non-Christians are given a station in life, a place where God has assigned them. Christians, though, are the ones who hear God’s voice in his Word, so they understand their station in terms of God’s personal “calling.”
God’s Word calls people to faith. This is the Christian’s primary vocation, being a child of God. But God has also stationed that Christian to live a life in the world. The Christian, in faith, now understands his life and what God gives him to do as a calling from the Lord. As contemporary theologian John Pless explains it,
Luther understood that the Christian is genuinely bi-vocational. He is called first through the Gospel to faith in Jesus Christ and he is called to occupy a particular station or place in life. The second sense of this calling embraces all that the Christian does in service to the neighbor not only in a particular occupation but also as a member of the church, a citizen, a spouse, parent, or child, and worker. Here the Christian lives in love toward other human beings and is the instrument by which God does His work in the world. (3)
“We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and the neighbor,” said Luther. “He lives in Christ through faith, and in his neighbor through love.” (4)
The Christian’s relationship to God, for Luther, has nothing to do with our good works, but everything to do with the work of Christ for our behalf. But God, having justified us freely through the Cross of Jesus Christ, calls us back into the world, changed, to love and serve our neighbors.
Luther’s monastic opponents argued that we are saved by our good works, by which they meant rejecting the world, performing spiritual exercises, and by their vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience having nothing to do with “secular” vocations. But Luther denied that such private, isolated piety intended to serve God had anything to do with good works. He would ask, Who are you helping? Good works are not to be done for God. Rather, they must be done for one’s neighbor. God does not need our good works, said Wingren summarizing Luther, but our neighbor does.
If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even for one’s enemies, a husband for his wife and children, a wife for her husband, children for their parents, servants for their masters, masters for their servants, rulers for their subjects and subjects for their rulers, so that one’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, heart and desire is for others; these are Christian works, good in nature. (5)
We sometimes talk about serving God in our vocations. Luther might take issue with this formulation, if by it we imagine that we are performing great deeds to impress the Lord and if we neglect our families or mistreat our colleagues in doing so. But Jesus himself tells us that what we do-or do not do-for our neighbor in need, we do (or do not do) to him (Matt. 25: 31-46). So when we serve our neighbor, we do serve God, though neither the sheep nor the goats realized whom they were really dealing with. God is hidden in vocation. Christ is hidden in our neighbors.
The Four Estates
As Christians live their ordinary lives, God assigns them certain neighbors to love and calls them to multiple realms of service. These constitute the Christian’s vocations in the world.
Vocations are multiple. Luther spoke of God’s callings in terms of three institutions that God has established, along with a fourth realm of human activity. The doctrine of vocation and the doctrine of the four estates are themes that run throughout Luther’s writings. A particularly succinct treatment can be found in Luther’s Confession of 1528. After criticizing monasticism, by which some think they can merit salvation, Luther contrasts these humanly devised orders with the orders devised by God himself: “But the true holy orders and pious foundations established by God,” Luther writes, “are these three: the priestly office, the family and the civil government.” (6)
All those who are engaged in the pastoral office or the ministry of the Word, are in a good, honest, holy order and station, that is well pleasing to God, as they preach, administer the Sacraments, preside over the poor funds and direct the sextons and other servants who assist in such labors, etc. These are all holy works in God’s sight.
This Luther would term the estate of the church.
Likewise, those who are fathers or mothers, who rule their households well and who beget children for the service of God are also in a truly holy estate, doing a holy work, and members of a holy order. In the same way when children or servants are obedient to their parents or masters, this also is true holiness and those living in such estate are true saints on earth.
This for Luther is the estate of the household. This includes above all the family, which itself contains multiple callings: marriage, parenthood, childhood. This estate also involves the labor by which households make their livings. Luther had in mind what is expressed in the Greek word oikonomia, referring to “the management and the regulation of the resources of the household,” (7) the term from which we derive our word economy. Thus, the estate of the household includes both the family vocations and the vocations of the workplace.
Luther conflates human labor also with the third estate, the state, which includes, more generally, the society and culture:
Similarly princes and overlords, judges, officials and chancellors, clerks, men servants and maids, and all other retainers, as well as all who render the service that is their due, are all in a state of holiness and are living holy lives before God, because these three estates or orders are all included in God’s Word and commandment. Whatever is included in God’s order must be holy, for God’s Word is holy and hallows all it touches and all it includes.
Medieval Catholicism exalted religious and monastic orders as the way of spiritual perfection. In doing so, the required clerical vows-such as celibacy and poverty-in effect denigrated the so-called secular lifestyles of marriage, parenthood, and economic activity. Luther, though, boldly reverses that paradigm. Fathers, mothers, and children; servants, maids, clerks, and rulers-these are the true holy orders.
Christians preoccupied with their families, struggling to make ends meet, living their mundane lives “are all in a state of holiness,” according to Luther, “living holy lives before God.”
And then Luther goes beyond the specific roles God has given us to play in this world to an overarching estate:
Above these three estates and orders is the common order of Christian love, by which we minister not only to those of these three orders but in general to everyone who is in need, as when we feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, etc., forgive enemies, pray for all men on earth, suffer all kinds of evil in our earthly life, etc.
Here is another of Luther’s great phrases: “the common order of Christian love.” This is the realm of the Good Samaritan. People of all three orders come together here, ministering to each other and “to everyone who is in need.”
The Priesthood of All Believers
The doctrine of vocation is an integral part of the Reformation teaching of the priesthood of all believers. This does not mean, at least for Luther, that the pastoral office is no longer necessary. Rather, being a pastor is a distinct vocation. God calls certain individuals into the pastoral ministry, and he works through them to give his Word and Sacraments to his flock.
The priesthood of all believers means, among other things, that one does not have to be a pastor or to do pastoral functions in order to be a priest.
John Pless shows how the medieval Roman Catholic view, which considered callings to the religious orders to be the only holy vocation from God, is replicated in American evangelicalism:
Medieval Roman Catholicism presupposed a dichotomy between life in the religious orders and life in ordinary callings. It was assumed that the monastic life guided by the evangelical counsels (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount) provided a more certain path to salvation than secular life regulated by the decalog. American Evangelicalism has spawned what may be referred to as “neo-monasticism.” Like its medieval counterpart, neo-monasticism gives the impression that religious work is more God-pleasing than other tasks and duties associated with life in the world. According to this mindset, the believer who makes an evangelism call, serves on a congregational committee, or reads a lesson in the church service is performing more spiritually significant work than the Christian mother who tends to her children or the Christian who works with integrity in a factory. For the believer, all work is holy because he or she is holy and righteous through faith in Christ.
Similar to neo-monasticism is the neo-clericalism that lurks behind the slogan, “Everyone a minister.” This phrase implies that work is worthwhile only insofar as it resembles the work done by pastors. Lay readers are called “Assisting Ministers” and this practice is advocated on the grounds that it will involve others in the church as though the faithful reception of Christ’s gifts was insufficient. It is no longer enough to think of your daily life and work as your vocation, now it must be called “your ministry.” (8)
Einar Billing made the point that Luther and the Lutherans displaced the monastic spiritual disciplines away from the cloister and into the world, to be practiced in vocation. (9) Celibacy? Be sexually faithful within marriage. Poverty? Struggle to make a living for your family. Obedience? Do what the law and your employer tell you to do. Almsgiving? Be generous to your neighbors. Self-discipline? Steel yourself against the temptations that you will encounter in everyday life.
Priests perform sacrifices. Christ’s sacrifice for our sins was once and for all. We no longer need to repeat that sacrifice, which is taught to happen in the Mass. But Christ’s disciples are called to take up their own crosses and to follow him. His royal priesthood will sacrifice themselves in their callings, as they love and serve their spouses, children, customers, employees, and fellow citizens. “Luther relocated sacrifice,” says Pless. “He removed it from the altar and re-positioned it in the world.” (10)
“The Christian brings his sacrifice as he renders the obedience, offers the service, and proves the love which his work and calling require of him,” writes Vilmos Vatja. “The work of the Christian in his calling becomes a function of his priesthood, his bodily sacrifice. His work in the calling is a work of faith, the worship of the kingdom of the world.” (11)
“You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). These sacrifices are, precisely, “eucharistic sacrifices”; that is, “sacrifices of thanksgiving” in response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. (12)
It may seem strange to think that such mundane activities as spending time with your spouse and children, going to work, and taking part in your community are part of your “holy” calling, and that the daily grind can be a “spiritual sacrifice.”
It is not as strange, though, as what currently tears many Christians apart: a “spiritual” life that has little to do with their families, their work, and their cultural life. Many Christians treat other people horribly, including their spouses and children, while cultivating their own personal piety. Many well-intentioned Christians lose themselves in church work and church activities, while neglecting their marriages, their children, and their other callings.
But ordinary life is where God has placed us. The family, the workplace, the local church, the culture, and the public square are where he has called us. Vocation is where sanctification takes place.
True, we sin badly in all of these vocations. Instead of loving and serving our neighbors, we want to be loved and to be served, putting ourselves first. But every Sunday, we can go to be nourished by God’s Word, where we find forgiveness for our vocational sins and are built up in our faith. That faith, in turn, can bear fruit in our daily vocations.
The divorce rate among evangelical Christians, their spiritual escapism, and their cultural invisibility are all symptoms of the loss of vocation. Conversely, recovering vocation can transfigure all of life, suffusing every relationship and every task put before us with the glory of God.
The Family, the Society, and the Church
The family comprises many different vocations. A particular person may have, at the same time, the vocation of being the husband to his wife, a father to his children, and a son to his own parents as long as they are living. Each of these family vocations has a specific-and limited-number of neighbors who are to be loved and served according to the proper responsibilities of each calling.
The vocation of marriage entails just one neighbor. The husband is to love and serve his wife. The wife is to love and serve her husband.
Too often, Christians distort what the Bible teaches about the various vocations by reducing everything to power and authority: who has to obey whom? But, as Jesus teaches, that is the mindset of nonbelievers: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43).
How does each member of the marriage couple serve each other?
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Eph. 5:23-25)
Notice how Christ is hidden in marriage. Wives love and serve their husbands by submitting to him, as to Christ. But this does not mean husbands should “lord it over” their wives. Christ does not relate to his bride the church as a tyrant or dictator. Rather, Christ “gave himself up.” Husbands are to love and serve their wives by giving themselves up for their wives. Both the husband and the wife exercise their royal priesthood by sacrificing their own needs for the other. But in that mutual self-denial, both of their needs are met.
In the vocation of parenthood, the father and mother love and serve their neighbors, namely, their children. And children are to love and serve their parents. In this vocation, too, God is hidden, as the Father and Son are the origins of human fatherhood and human childhood.
For all of our pretensions of independence, it is clear that God did not create us to be alone. Few people have to kill their own meat, grow their own grain, build their own houses, weave their own clothing, and protect themselves against predators, all alone. Rather, people are interdependent. Human beings always exist in cultures, and this is by God’s design.
That we were born in a particular place and time is part of God’s assignment for each of us. We have a vocation as citizen. Some have a further calling as rulers. Some are subjects. In a democratic republic such as ours, the rulers are themselves subject to the people who elect them, who are therefore simultaneously subjects and rulers.
Romans 13 spells out in explicit detail how God works through the agency of vocation:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:1-4)
All authority belongs to God. He, in turn, institutes human authorities and works through them to restrain and to punish the most flagrant external outbreaks of sin, to make societies possible.
Thus, holding governmental offices and positions in the legal system-such as judges, police officers, jailers, and even (according to Luther) executioners-are legitimate vocations for Christians to hold. So too (according to Luther), are the military vocations, those who “bear the sword” in a lawful chain of command.
But rulers are to exercise their God-lent authority in love and service to their neighbors. God calls no one to be a tyrant, the sort who punishes good conduct and rewards wrongdoers. Romans 13 must not be used as a pretext for political quietism. But it leaves no doubt that God himself is present in earthly governments and that he works through human institutions.
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). And these he has placed into the church.
Christ is hidden in his church, present in his Word and Sacraments, so that the church is described as the body of Christ. And it consists of individuals who are utterly different from each other, and yet, like the discrete persons of the Trinity, constitute a profound unity.
If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:19-27)
The members are called to love and serve each other. The people who perform all of the seemingly mundane tasks in a local church-the musicians, the ushers, the committee members, those who prepare the fellowship dinners-are helping each other, in tangible ways, to worship God.
Callings from God are also mediated. Congregations call pastors. They are to love and serve their congregations by preaching God’s Word-not their own-distributing Christ’s sacraments and giving spiritual care to Christ’s flock. Faithful pastors are channels of God’s work. Christ baptizes and distributes his body and blood through the hands of the pastor, whom he has called to this work.
The typical local church may not seem to be so significant. The members squabble with each other and with their pastor, who, in turn is exasperated with his people. The sermon may be dull, the music poor, and the worship seemingly perfunctory. But behind these insignificant-seeming appearances, where God’s Word is proclaimed faithfully, Christ animates his body.