Vocation as the Christian Life

Fitting in with my vast conspiracy to take over the secular holiday of “Labor Day” and turn it into a Christian holiday celebrating Vocation, I was asked to write about the subject for a special Labor Day issue of  World Magazine .   I believe full access is for subscribers only, so I will take a point of special privilege and reprint it here, in full.   This essay reflects the fruit of my study of the topic since I published God at Work, so it includes some additional aspects than the ones I explore in that book.  I offer it to you as a Labor Day present (presents being a good way to make a holiday popular):

Arenas of Service

Work & Calling | A return to Luther’s doctrine of vocation would mean a return to God’s priorities for our lives—and a return to being more effective salt and light in the world | Gene Edward Veith

Some early church fathers co-opted pagan holidays and turned them into Christian celebrations. Labor Day is ripe for a Christian takeover. A day that had its origins in the early struggles of the labor union movement is now little more than the last long weekend of summer vacation, a final time to fire up the grill before the fall grind starts up again. But celebrating the human capacity to work is an occasion to recover one of Christianity’s most important, yet nearly forgotten teachings; namely, the doctrine of vocation.

Vocation is nothing less than the theology of the Christian life. It provides the blueprint for how Christians are to live in the world and to influence their cultures. It is the key to strong marriages and effective parenting. According to the classic Protestant theologians, our multiple vocations—in the family, the culture, and the workplace—are where sanctification and discipleship happen.

Today many Christians have become disillusioned with political involvement and are floundering for ways to engage the culture. Christians struggle as much as non-Christians with broken marriages and troubled families. The stumbling economy and the pursuit of prosperity seem like materialistic treadmills.

Rediscovering the doctrine of vocation could energize contemporary Christianity and show Christians how once again they can be the world’s salt and light.

The Reformation brought to the fore three key teachings that would characterize the Protestant movement in all of its variations: the authority of Scripture, justification by faith, and the doctrine of vocation.

Modernists would reject the authority of Scripture and postmodernists are currently questioning justification, but vocation—despite contributing to the vast social changes brought on with the Reformation—was perhaps taken for granted and so faded from the church’s memory.

The word is simply the Latinate term for “calling.” Perhaps the best summation of the concept is in 1 Corinthians 7:17: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”

God “assigns” different kinds and places of service for each Christian and then “calls” each Christian to that assignment. The Reformation theologians fleshed out this concept with other biblical teachings about God’s workings in society and the Christian’s life in the world (e.g., Ephesians 5-6, Romans 12-13, 1 Corinthians 7).

The great theologian of vocation was Martin Luther, who developed the teaching in his battles with monasticism—the view that the spiritual life requires withdrawal from secular life—and in defining “the priesthood of all believers.”

For Luther, vocation, like justification, is ultimately God’s work. God gives us our daily bread through the vocations of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. God creates new human beings through the vocations of fathers and mothers. God protects us through lawful magistrates.

Vocation is, first of all, about how God works through human beings. In His providential care and governing of His creation, God chooses to distribute His gifts by means of ordinary people exercising their talents, which themselves are gifts of God.

Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.

God thus looms behind everyone who provides us with the goods or services that we need. In one of Luther’s many memorable lines, God milks the cows through the hands of the milkmaid. This means that all work and all workers deserve honor. Whereas the world might look down on milkmaids and garbage collectors, they actually bear the sacred presence of God, who works in and through them.

God created us to be dependent on others—meat processors, manufacturers, journalists, lawyers, bankers, teachers, parents—and, through them, we are ultimately dependent upon God Himself.

Just as God is working through the vocation of others to bless us, He is working through us to bless others. In our vocations, we work side-by-side with God, as it were, taking part in His ceaseless creative activity and laboring with Him as He providentially cares for His creation.

Today the word vocation has become no more than a synonym for “job.” The theological term includes the work that we do, but it includes much more than that. God calls us to many different tasks and relationships. The unemployed still have vocations from God. Every Christian has multiple vocations.

Luther sorted them out into four “estates,” or spheres of life that God has established: the church, the household, the state, and what he called “the common order of Christian love.”

Every Christian has been “called” through the gospel into the life of faith (Romans 8:30), becoming a member of Christ’s body, the church. While God providentially works through nonbelievers as well as believers in their labors, “vocation,” strictly speaking, applies to Christians, those who hear themselves addressed in God’s Word. In response to that Word, Christians recognize their other callings as works of faith. But God also calls people to tasks in His church. Pastors speak rightly of being “called” into the ministry, whereupon God works through them to teach His Word, preside at His sacraments, and give spiritual care to His people. Laypeople too are called to do tasks in the local congregation, singing in the choir, serving on committees, serving meals, and in other ways blessing their fellow members.

Being in a family is also a calling. God established marriage, and being a husband or a wife is a vocation. Being a father or a mother is also a vocation. So is being a son or a daughter. So are being a brother or sister, a nephew or uncle, a grandmother or grandfather. (Notice how one person holds multiple vocations within a family: A woman may be the wife of her husband, the mother of her children, the daughter of her mother, the sister of her brother, and more, with each vocation having its particular dimensions of service.)

For Luther the estate of the “household” includes both the family and the activities by which it supports itself. He had in mind the concept expressed in the Greek word oikonomia, the laws of the household, from which we derive our word economy. For Luther, in his day of family-based labor, economic life is connected with family life.

We also have vocations in the state. We were each born into a particular time, place, and society. The cultural context in which we find ourselves is thus part of the life that God has assigned us.

We thus have responsibilities to our government and to our culture as a whole. Some Christians are called to positions of authority in the government. Americans have the unusual calling of being both subjects and rulers at the same time, since our democratic republic places the governing authorities themselves under the authority of the people who elect them. Christians thus have the vocation of citizenship, which means that politics, civic involvement, and cultural engagement are all realms of Christian service.

Our formal positions in the family, the workplace, the church, and the culture are not the only spheres of service to which God assigns us and to which He calls us. Journalists like to refer to themselves as “the fourth estate,” but Luther’s fourth estate is the “common order of Christian love.” This is the realm where people of different vocations interact informally. In Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite were on the way to serve in their vocations, but they ignored the man bleeding by the side of the road. In the ordinary course of everyday life and in our relationships with our friends and neighbors, God also calls us to service.

In stressing the spiritual significance of these so-called “secular” estates, Luther was challenging the Roman Catholic practice of reserving the terms vocation and calling for religious orders, to an individual’s calling from God to become a priest, a monk, or a nun. To enter into these “spiritual” offices required taking a vow of celibacy (thereby rejecting marriage and parenthood), poverty (thereby rejecting full participation in the economic life of the workplace), and obedience (which involved substituting the authority of the church for that of the state).

The Reformers insisted that the Christian life requires not withdrawal from the world but rather engagement in the world. The Christian faith is to be lived out not primarily in “church work” but in vocation.

What this meant in practice is that the “spiritual disciplines” moved out of the monastery into secular life. Celibacy became faithfulness in marriage. Poverty became thrift and hard work. Obedience became submission to the law. Most importantly, prayer, meditation, and worship—while still central to every Christian’s vocation in the church—also moved into the family and the workplace.

Today even Protestant Christians have often slipped into the assumption that serving God is a matter of “church work” or spiritual exercises. Churches set up programs that can take up every night of the week. Some Christians are so busy doing church activities, making evangelism calls, or going to Bible studies that they neglect their spouses and children. Some Christians are preoccupied with “the Lord’s work” while letting their marriages fall apart, ignoring the needs of their children, and otherwise sinning against the actual responsibilities to which God has called them.

But according to the doctrine of vocation, the church is the place where Christians meet every week to find the forgiveness of Christ, feed on God’s Word, and grow in their faith. Whereupon they are sent out into their vocations—to their spouses, children, jobs, and culture—for that faith to bear fruit.

Faith bears fruit in love (Galatians 5:6;

1 Timothy 1:5). The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors.

God doesn’t need our good works, Luther said, but our neighbor does. Our relationship with Him is based completely on His work for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But just as God is hidden in vocation, Christ is hidden in our neighbors. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers”—feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and imprisoned—”you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). We love and serve God in our vocations by loving and serving the actual human beings He places into our lives.

Every vocation has its particular neighbors. Members of a congregation are called to love and serve each other. In marriage, husbands are to love and serve their wives, and wives are to love and serve their husbands. Parents love and serve their children, who, in turn, love and serve their parents. Rulers love and serve their subjects. Workers love and serve their customers.

Certain vocations exercise authority. But authority itself is not just a matter of exercising power over others. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” said Jesus. “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. . . . For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Of course, we often sin in and against vocation. Instead of serving, we want to be served. Instead of loving our neighbor, we often use our neighbor for our own selfish purposes.

Vocation clarifies moral issues. Mothers are called to love and serve their children, not abort them or abuse them. Doctors are called to heal their patients, not kill them. Leaders are called to love and serve those under their authority, not exploit and tyrannize them.

Some actions are sinful when done outside of vocation but good works when done within vocation. We have no calling from God that would authorize having sex with someone to whom we are not married. But within the vocation of marriage, sex is not only authorized, it becomes the means by which God creates a one-flesh union, engenders new life, and builds a family.

Vocation has to do with the priesthood of all believers. A priest is someone who performs a sacrifice. We no longer need sacrifices for our sins, since Christ, our great High Priest, offered Himself as our sacrifice once and for all (Hebrews 9:26). But, in light of that sacrifice, God calls us “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

Loving and serving involves an act of self-denial for the sake of someone else. That is, it involves a sacrifice. Again, Mark 10 says that rulers are to serve as Christ did, giving His life as a ransom. Today’s “Gentiles” not only seek to “lord it over” others, they are obsessed with self-fulfillment and self-assertion. Vocation focuses on self-sacrifice.

The Bible instructs wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. At the same time, though, the Bible instructs husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The husband is not to receive the wife’s submission in domination or in “lording it over” her, since that was not how Christ loved the church. Rather, he is to emulate Christ precisely in “giving himself up” for his wife. Thus, both the wife and the husband are called to sacrifice themselves for each other. Both are presenting themselves as living sacrifices.

The father, coming home from work dead tired, has presented his body as a living sacrifice for his family. So has the mother who drives her kids to soccer practice when she has many other things she would rather do. So has the worker who has put in long hours to do the best job possible for the company’s customers.

Christ, who is in vocation and in the neighbor, takes up all of these sacrifices, small or great, into His sacrifice. And He loves and serves His creation by means of our love and service in our vocations.

In all our religious and ethical life,” says Einar Billing in his classic work on vocation, Our Calling, “we are given to an incredible overestimation of the extraordinary at the expense of the ordinary.” We look for miracles, spectacular events , and mountain top experiences. Meanwhile, the spiritual significance of everyday life gets overlooked. Vocation, though, transfigures our ordinary, mundane existence, charging it with spiritual significance and with the very presence of God.

Luther said that changing a baby’s diaper is a holy work. A child doing his chores is outperforming the Carthusian monks in works of holiness. By extension, we can see the office desk, the factory machinery, the computer screen—likewise the voting booth, the marriage bed, the dining room table—as altars upon which we exercise our royal priesthood.

Vocation is where sanctification happens, as Christians grow spiritually in good works and in their relationships. Vocation is where evangelism happens, as Christians teach their children and interact with nonbelievers. Vocation is where cultural influence happens, as Christians take their places and live out their faith in every niche of society.

Vocation changes the quality of what we do. An artist with a sense of vocation will create not just to express himself or to advance his career but to love and serve—not corrupt or ridicule—his audience. A businessman who sees his customers as the objects of his Christian love will serve them with his very best work.

From the outside, the economy has to do with the division of labor, individuals pursuing their own self-interests, laws of supply and demand, and other impersonal forces. And so it is, as part of God’s created order. From the inside, however, the economy can become transfigured into a vast network of mutual dependence and mutual service, and economic activity can become an expression of love.

Christians can celebrate on Labor Day the joining of our work with God’s work.

Copyright © 2010 WORLD Magazine
August 28, 2010, Vol. 25, No. 17

Vocation Day weekend

This is normally a weekday blog, but to celebrate Vocation Day weekend–which some call Labor Day weekend–we are going to do something a little different.  On Saturday, I am going to put up a long post reflecting my latest study of this important but oft-neglected teaching.  Please read it and contemplate it on Sunday.  Then on Monday I’ll post a series of questions and discussion topics drawing on that article.  Of course, if you are actually fulfilling your vocations by spending time with your family this weekend, that’s even better.  Even then, you might look in from time to time.

God in the public square

In the course of our discussion of Glenn Beck, Mormonism, and civil religion, Another Kerner raised a question that is worth our consideration:

A sincere question or two may be called for here:

What groups and/or events, of a semi-political or political nature may Christians attend in order to bring about the return to a constitutional republic without demanding doctrinal purity or spiritual accord with all others in attendance?

May we recite the Pledge to the flag with others not of our own Confession?

I am well aware of the profound differences between some Christian denominations and others….. and certainly am conscious of the origins of Mormonism and know what must be rejected….and my family also has a considerable working acquaintanceship with the American “civil religion”, so called.

If the two kingdoms are confused, tyranny often results…no argument from me.

But folks, what political action committees, ad hoc committees, and/or organizations (aside from the two primary political parties), and what rally or event may Christians join or attend in order to gather together with others who are working to preserve freedom?

As mentioned elsewhere, it is going to take more than confessional Lutherans in the body politic to secure continuned religious freedom: and it is certainly going to take more than confessional Lutherans to hold back the onslaught of the Turks.

She alludes, quite learnedly, to the invasion of the Turks during the Reformation, something Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Reformed worked together–putting their own disputes on temporary hold–to turn back.

The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms teaches that God is the King of both realms.  Is there a way to acknowledge His reign in the earthly sphere without lapsing into a “civil religion” that usurps the revealed faith in His spiritual kingdom?

Conservatives for Gay Marriage

According to the Huffington Post, so many conservatives are embracing gay marriage that many Democrats are worried that their issue is being taken away from them:

The notion that the gay rights community would abandon the Obama White House over its unwillingness to fully embrace their legislative priorities may seem absurd to the casual political observer. But the recent embrace of same-sex marriage by prominent conservatives, most notably former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman, has some Democratic operatives concerned.

On Monday, former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt argued that there was a “strong conservative case to be made in favor of gay marriage” and that more and more Republicans are dropping their opposition to the cause. Shortly thereafter, a prominent Democratic consultant got in touch with the Huffington Post to make the case that the Obama administration risks losing the gay rights community (or at least depressing their votes) with its tepid embrace of their priorities.

“I think they have been put in a tough place by these conservatives and they should be,” the consultant said. “There are a whole group of people who are to the left of them on gay rights. And they are Republicans. It should make them feel uncomfortable.”

LBGT voters are not, of course, monolithic. And on a host of other fronts, they are repulsed by the GOP’s policies. Talk about abandoning Obama and the Democrats, in some respects, has been driven more by a desire to scare the party into action than sincere intent to vote Republican.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for an electoral shift to take place or that there aren’t those in the GOP who welcome siphoning off the LBGT vote. Though hardly a barometer for the Republican Party’s collective psyche, John McCain’s daughter, Meghan, made overtures along these lines on Tuesday night.

“We get the bad rap as Republicans being against gay marriage,” she told Fox News. “[Obama] isn’t doing anything for the gay community.”

Indeed, even in the Democratic tent there is some marvel, concern and even a twinge of envy at the changes taking place within the GOP.

“There has always been this libertarian segment of the Republican Party who thinks the government ought to get out of your life, and that group has, for various reasons, become more emboldened,” said Steve Emeldorf, an aide to former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who is fundraising with Mehlman in support of same-sex marriage. “Maybe ten years ago they were scared of this issue, but as it becomes more acceptable the libertarians are like, yeah, this is our philosophy.”

“You had the most conservative vice president in the history of the world [Dick Cheney] with a lesbian daughter who over the last couple years has signaled he is for gay rights and marriage,” Elmendorf added. “And if you have this guy who is the icon of the right wing there… It sort of snowballs.”

via Obama Should Feel ‘Uncomfortable’ That Conservatives Are Co-opting Gay Rights Issues: Top Dem.

Let’s see. . . in addition to the ones mentioned, there is Ted Olsen and the new leader of religious revival Glenn Beck.  Who else?

As I understand it, there are three “conservative” arguments for gay marriage:  the libertarian view that the state should not restrict what consenting adults desire to do; the related view that the state should “get out of the marriage business” altogether; the social conservative view that letting homosexuals marry is a better alternative than gay promiscuity and that marriage is always a social good.

Can you answer–or defend–these?  (In regards to #2, Luther and the Reformation worked mightily to insist that marriage IS properly the state’s business, and tried to get the Church, with its stultifying canon laws, out of the marriage business!)

Deep-fried beer & chicken-fried bacon

Texas cuisine. . . .

The beer is placed inside a pocket of salty, pretzel-like dough and then dunked in oil at 375 degrees for about 20 seconds, a short enough time for the confection to remain alcoholic.

When diners take a bite the hot beer mixes with the dough in what is claimed to be a delicious taste sensation.

Inventor Mark Zable said it had taken him three years to come up with the cooking method and a patent for the process is pending. He declined to say whether any special ingredients were involved.

His deep-fried beer will be officially unveiled in a fried food competition at the Texas state fair later this month.

Five ravioli-like pieces will sell for $5 (£3) and the Texas Alcoholic Commission has already ruled that people must be aged over 21 to try it.

Mr Zable has so far been deep frying Guinness but said he may switch to a pale ale in future.

He said: “Nobody has been able to fry a liquid before. It tastes like you took a bite of hot pretzel dough and then took a drink of beer.” Mr Zable previously invented dishes including chocolate-covered strawberry waffle balls and jalapeño corndog shrimps.

Last year’s winner of the Texas state fair fried food competition was a recipe for deep-fried butter.

via Deep-fried beer invented in Texas – Telegraph.

HT: The Pearcey Report

Would you like some chicken-fried bacon with that?

Occasionally throughout history, a visionary comes along who should be honored for his Herculean efforts in swimming upstream against the tide of political correctness.

Such a man is Frank Sodolak, who is pretty darned sure he invented chicken-fried bacon.

“I ain’t never heard of it anywhere else,” Sodolak said. 

Sodolak, owner of Sodolak’s Original Country Inn in this small town (population 489) about 13 miles southwest of College Station — that’s about 100 miles northeast of Austin — serves the breaded and deep-fried bacon as one of his appetizers. For that totally brown meal, he says some people order it as an appetizer to go with their chicken-fried steak. . .

Sodolak makes his chicken-fried bacon by double-dipping uncooked bacon strips in milk and flour. Then he tosses the breaded strips in a Fryolator and nukes them in animal/vegetable oil for three or four minutes.

For that final touch, the chicken-fried bacon is served with a bowl of cream gravy. . . .

“I’ve never heard of anything worse,” said Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington D.C., the same bunch of food frumps who warned us about theater popcorn, guacamole and Chinese food.

“They’ve taken fat, they’ve doubled-coated it in fat, they’ve fried it in more fat, and then served it with a side order of fat.”

HT:  George Clay

A Mormon on the Glenn Beck rally

Here is a discussion of the Glenn Beck rally–what it means and what it achieves–from Mormon official Greg West:

I believe that Glenn Beck’s desire, in some measure, was to create a “King Benjamin moment.” The Book of Mormon relates a landmark gathering of some of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas to hear the words of one King Benjamin. Benjamin declared principles of piety, humility, service, and faith to his people. He preached to them repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, who would be born in centuries to come, relative to his time. The result was a turning back to God by his audience that brought the Holy Spirit upon them. It was a moment of national renewal and personal recommitment to do good in God’s name. This was Beck’s template for the event that took place today.

As a Mormon, I have to consider an unintended message throughout Beck’s work, which has culminated in this event. That message is: “Mormons are Christian believers.” Despite nearly two centuries of misrepresentation and religious envy by sectarian Christianity, Beck has achieved the visibility, prominence, and has had the time day after day, week after week, to speak openly and truly about his core beliefs. Those statements of faith have disoriented and confused those who had previously believed the lies about Mormons. Just a few weeks ago, Beck discussed the heresies evident in “Liberation Theology” and declared his belief of individual salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. One confused person commented on Free Republic, a frequent forum for open Mormon-bashing, that “this would mean that Beck is ‘born-again.”

Jim Garlow, a popular and influential pastor who partnered with the Mormon faithful in California to defend traditional marriage was quoted recently in CNN’s Belief Blog, saying, “I have interviewed persons who have talked specifically with Glenn about his personal salvation – persons extremely well known in Christianity – and they have affirmed (using language evangelicals understand), ‘Glenn is saved…’ He understands receiving Christ as Savior.”

Hallelujah! The light bulb has been switched on after nearly two centuries! Every single member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that a person must be “born again” and receive Jesus Christ as his Savior and Redeemer. Our holy books teach that salvation comes only in and through the atonement of Christ and that there is no other way a person can be saved. Those beliefs obligate us to do our best to keep God’s commandments and to follow the example of Jesus in doing good. Glenn Beck’s beliefs are mainstream Mormon beliefs. Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, was a Christian prophet. He was an apostolic witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As Rev. C.L. Jackson said in his speech today after accepting the medal for faith, “God sent his Son to this earth so that we could all gather, and I think that’s the dream and the vision of Glenn Beck.” I myself have reacted, defensively and perhaps provocatively, to the attacks of Christian pastors on Mormons in the past. If anything, Glenn Beck has brought mainstream Mormonism into the public eye and has reached out to our fellow Christians in a powerful way. Perhaps it signifies the crossing of a threshold where Mormons and our fellow Christians can work together for good, to revitalize our country, and enshrine the principles of faith, hope, and charity–restoring honor once again to our familes, our communities, and our nation.

Indeed, lots of evangelicals are saying that Glenn Beck is a Christian because he has “accepted Christ” and believes he is saved through Christ’s “atonement.” It turns out that Mormons in general believe that. So, if that’s all there is to it, Mormons must be Christians. Belief in the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, and the other tenets of historic Christianity are being dismissed as just “theological differences” and thus not all that important. (See, for example, what David Barton is saying. [HT: Rich Shipe])

HT: Brannon Howse


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