Vocational Stewardship for Fashionable Christians

Vocational Stewardship for Fashionable Christians September 25, 2012

A Review of Kingdom Calling:  Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy Sherman

Reviewed by Paul D. Miller

There is so much to admire about Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling:  Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good that its flaws, omissions, and oversights were grating.

Sherman’s basic argument, extending the line of thought covered by Andy Crouch in Culture Making and James Davidson Hunter in To Change the World, is that secular work is not less important than paid “full time ministry.” Secular vocations are a form of ministry because they can and should be devoted towards building “foretastes” of the Kingdom of God by bringing peace and justice to our neighbors and our cities.  Bringing peace and justice through our worldly work is exactly what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” (Ephesians 2:10).  This is the complete Gospel—the Gospel of the Kingdom, as opposed to what Sherman calls the incomplete Gospel of individual salvation that is preached by contemporary American evangelical churches.  Sherman covers this ground in the first few chapters before spending much of her time explaining how churches can better encourage different methods of vocational stewardship.

Sherman nails a few things exactly right.  She is careful to say that we build only “foretastes” of the Kingdom, not the Kingdom itself.  She thus avoids the postmillennial, social-Gospel trap into which prior thinkers with a passion for Christian engagement in the world have fallen.  The Kingdom is only truly built when Christ returns and inaugurates it with his sudden, unilateral act, with no need of assistance from us.

And I think she is exactly right about how worldly vocations can and should contribute to peace and justice in the world, thereby holding up pictures of God’s character.  I wish she was a little more clear about the purpose:  we do so out of love for our neighbors and our cities; out of love for God and a desire for His glory to be evident in our world; and out of an evangelizing desire for non-Christians to see practical, existing, historical examples of what we mean when we talk about God’s salvation and God’s kingdom.

She is careful to say that the “incomplete Gospel” of individual salvation is not wrong; and, in fact, it is the “beautiful center” of the good news; she is simply arguing that there is a further implication of the Gospel that evangelicals often neglect:  that we are now commissioned to join in God’s “mission” in the world of spreading justice and peace while preaching His word to the nations.

So what’s wrong?  Sherman liters her book with scores of examples of what she means by vocational stewardship.  They are almost all examples of Christians pursuing fashionable causes through non-governmental institutions, including working for affordable housing and urban renewal, spreading the arts, providing pro bono legal care for the poor, protecting the environment, and saving women from the sex trade.  These are wonderful causes: but there are two problems with Sherman’s examples.

First, she leaves out one massive vocational calling:  public service.  Governments are collectively one of the top employers in the developed world.  Sherman’s book says almost nothing about how millions of public employees are to use their vocational calling for the common good.  It is not hard to see why:  her argument—that we should seek to foster peace and justice in our vocations, as understood and guided by Scripture—applied to government service would lead to theocracy, or at least to an inappropriate application of Scripture to public life.

The concept of vocational calling call still be applied to government service, but it needs another layer of nuance—filtered through a post-Reformation political theology—that other vocations do not require.  Sherman simply avoids the problem by ignoring public service.  She does so because she, like Crouch and Hunter, is trying to move beyond tired debates about Christians’ involvement in politics.  I understand the fatigue, but it is an important debate to have so long as Christians work for the government—which will be, I pray, so long as our Republic lasts.  In their haste to declare the culture wars over, Christian thinkers are abandoning fellow believers who still need pastoral care and vocational guidance in the government jobs in which they’ve invested their professional lives.

Which leads to the second omission from Sherman’s book:  unpopular or controverisal causes.  Virtually every example she gives is something that would be favorably covered by a front-page in-depth feature in the New York Times.  But what about vocational stewardship for a soldier in the U.S. Army who wants to think seriously about how and which wars to fight to best honor God?  Or who is deploying to Afghanistan and wants to know if his work is genuinely contributing to peace, or simply to more war?  What about the Department of Defense official in charge of Guantanamo Bay?  What about the legislator called on to cast votes on abortion and gay marriage?  These are controversial topics on which people disagree strongly and which often provoke opposition by the world.  Sherman does not give a single example of Christians who, in their effort to spread peace and justice through their vocations, discover that they disagree on what that peace and justice should look like—nor any examples of Christians who encounter persecution rather than admiration for their efforts.  For her, apparently, the definition of justice is unproblematic and popular.  If so, she should run for office.

In fact, working for peace and justice requires, as a first step, having an idea of what justice is, and then the courage to pursue it in the face of persecution by the world.  That, by itself, may be the largest and most difficult step for many Christians, especially those in public service.  Sherman’s otherwise excellent book gives them no guidance.

I have other quibbles.  Sherman wants to see churches take a much more proactive role fostering vocational stewardship.  I’m ambivalent:  on the one hand, I would love to receive vocational mentoring through a church sponsored program.  On the other, I never want that to detract from the church’s main mission:  to teach the Word of God.  Speaking of the Word, there is very little of it in Sherman’s argument, including few, if any, references to the numerous Proverbs on work (for example, 10:4; 12:14; 12:24; 12:27; 13:4; 16:3; 18:9; 19:5; 21:5; 24:27; and, my favorite, 22:29, to name just a few)  Finally, relegating the theology of vocation to an appendix was a poor editorial decision; that material, some of the best in the book, belonged up front.

I am a little harsh because I liked this book so much.  The idea of building “foretastes” of the Kingdom is very similar to how I’ve been describing my vocation (in public service) to myself for my entire career.  It is nice to see the idea validated by a credentialed theologian.  This was almost a very good book.

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