I published an article in Tabletalk Magazine about the concept of “duty,” tying it via the Small Catechism to the works of vocation.
Duty is one of those words that used to carry great weight but really doesn’t anymore. It is still an important concept in military circles, but elsewhere doing something because it’s your duty has acquired a negative connotation. “You just say you love me because you think it’s your duty.” “They just go to church out of a sense of duty.”
In the nineteenth century, though, calls to duty were inspirational. Just before the sea battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson sent up signal flags that sent this message to the fleet: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” The words electrified not just the sailors, inspiring them to victory over Napoleon, but the English people, who turned the line into a national slogan. William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet with a revolutionary impact, but he wrote an emotional celebration of the concept in his great poem “Ode to Duty.”
Duty carries a moral weight, but it is not exactly the same as morality. A soldier might consider it his duty to keep his uniform immaculate and his barracks always ready for inspection, but there is no moral commandment that requires it. A Victorian gentleman might be a womanizer, a gambler, and a wastrel, but if you accused him of failing to do his duty—to his family, his country, or his profession—he might challenge you to a duel.
A duty is an obligation related to a position, office, or station. In Christian terms, duties are the responsibilities that come from a person’s vocations.