The English word vocation comes from the Latin vocatio, which means “calling”; they are the same thing, though this is not obvious to the people who use these words. Experiencing and living by a calling provides a fundamental orientation to everyday life. But most of the world today has strayed from this and defines calling as a self-chosen career, usually a professional one that involves keeping appropriate standards and norms.
The fact that many people speak of their jobs as their “vocation” while pastors and missionaries speak of “being called” shows how inadequately we have grasped the universal call of God to every Christian. As Os Guinness says, calling means that our lives are so lived as a summons of Christ that the expression of our personalities and the exercise of our spiritual gifts and natural talents are given direction and power precisely because they are not done for themselves, our families, our businesses or even humankind but for the Lord, who will hold us accountable for them. A calling in Scripture is neither limited to nor equated with work. Moreover, a calling is to someone, not to something or somewhere. This last statement is sublimely significant but missed in this postvocational world.
There are many indications that we are living in a postvocational world, one which views human beings as determining their own occupations and roles. Some difficulties arise from a secular approach, others from a distorted religious understanding.
Secular misunderstanding. In the secular mindset, a calling has been reduced to the occupation a person chooses. But “choosing a vocation” is a misnomer. To speak of a calling invites the question “By whom?” It is certainly not oneself! In line with this, vocational guidance has been reduced to career selection. As a secular perversion of calling, careerism invites people to seek financial success, security, access to power and privilege, and the guarantee of leisure, satisfaction and prestige (Donahue, p. 318). Some young people despair of finding a career and wrongly assume they lack a vocation. When people retire or become unemployed, they think they have lost their vocation.
One consequence of reducing a calling to an occupation is that work and ministry easily become professionalized, introducing a dangerous distortion. Without a deep sense of calling many people drift into a toxic mix of drivenness expressed in workaholism and the compulsive pursuit of leisure, a debilitating substitute for the freedom of the called life and the experience of sabbath. But if the secular world has missed the meaning of a calling, the people best positioned to teach it seem also to have misunderstood it.
Ecclesiastical misunderstanding. In most churches the average Christian has a job or profession, which he or she chooses. The minister, however, has a calling. The professional ministry has been elevated as the vocation of vocations and the primary work to which a person should give evidence of a call. Martin Luther was eloquent on the tragic results of this two-level view of vocation, stemming as it did from medieval monasticism, though now extending into modern Christianity:
Monastic vows rest on the false assumption that there is a special calling, a vocation, to which superior Christians are invited to observe the counsels of perfection while ordinary Christians fulfil only the commands; but there simply is no special religious vocation since the call of God comes to each at the common tasks. (Bainton, p. 156)
As we will see, this profound misunderstanding is partly responsible for the widespread difficulty of relating Sunday to Monday and translating Christian faith into everyday activities. Unfortunately the Reformation introduced another distortion.
Reformational misunderstanding. Following the Protestant Reformation, a calling became equated exclusively with the personal experience of the providence of God placing us in a “station,” or “calling,” where we were to serve God as ministers. Called people live in harmony with their gifts and talents, discerning circumstances and accepting their personalities and life situations as God’s “call.” The Reformers did not universally teach this.
On the basis of 1 Cor. 7:17 (“Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him”), Luther opposed the prevailing idea that in order to serve God fully, a person should leave his or her previous way of life and become a member of the priesthood or of a religious order (Kolden, pp. 382-90). This is the one place where Paul, or any other New Testament writer, seems to use call language for the “place in life” or “station” we occupy (for example, slave, free, married, single, etc.). It is complicated by the fact that in 1 Cor. 7:17 Paul speaks of the situation as that “to which God has called him” and in 1 Cor. 7:20 of “the situation which he was in when God called him.” Though such life situations get taken up in God’s call and are transformed by it, the call of God comes to us in these situations (1 Cor. 7:20) and is much more than occupation, marital status or social position. Although Paul comes very close to seeing the setting in which one is called as calling itself, he never quite makes that jump. At most, calling refers to the circumstances in which the calling took place. This does not mean that a person is locked forever in a particular situation: “Rather, Paul means that by calling a person within a given situation, that situation itself is taken up in the call and thus sanctified to him or her” (Fee, 309-10).
This Reformational overemphasis on staying where God has placed us has led to reducing mission, suspecting charismatic gifts and, ironically, downplaying nonclerical ministry. But there is a half-truth in this distortion. The purpose of God is revealed in our personality and life path. Elizabeth O’Connor says, “We ask to know the will of God without guessing that his will is written into our very beings” (O’Connor, pp. 14-15).
Reasons for the Loss of Vocation
Several factors have converged to produce the contemporary postvocational society. First, medieval monasticism, based ultimately on Greek dualism, contributed a two-level approach to Christian living: the ordinary way (in society) and the spiritual way (in the monastery or priesthood). This distinction is now thoroughly embedded in all strands of Christianity, including evangelical Protestantism.
Second, the Protestant Reformation, in part because it was a reaction, failed to liberate the laity fully. In medieval monasticism Christians elected a superior religious life by embracing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. Against this, Luther and the Reformers restored the central place of the Ten Commandments as God’s direction for the whole of life and exalted the civic vocation of the ordinary Christian: “true Christianity” is now located in the everyday life and work of the layperson. “The real ‘saint’ is the ‘secular saint’—not the one who withdraws from society” (Bockmuehl, p. 30). Luther said his milkmaid was potentially more holy than the monks on pilgrimage. The emphasis on a “secret” call taught by John Calvin, however, produced a ministerial elite, and the long-term result was the reestablishment of an unbiblical clergy-lay distinction. The Protestant preacher replaced the priest.
Third, in one sense Martin Luther’s famous “Here I stand” speech expressed the emerging individualism of the Western world, an individualism antithetical to the corporate nature of calling. It is primarily in North America that Calvin’s fears of the lawlessness of the “believers’ churches” were realized, namely, that people would claim to be “guided by God” (for example, in adulterous relationships or immoral business deals) even though the path led to a transgression of God’s commandments (Bock-muehl, p. 33). In contrast, biblical vocation involves mutual accountability, membership within the people of God and ethical living for the common good.
Fourth, with the increasing secularization of Western society, a biblical perspective on work was lost. Work is commonly regarded as a curse from which we should seek deliverance or an idol through which we should find ultimate satisfaction.
Fifth, consumerism, the compulsive pursuit of leisure, the loss of sabbath, the alienation of workers from management typified in the complex union movement and increasing organizational complexity in society (Almen, p. 136) all have contributed to the loss of vocation. The Western world is now oriented toward individual self-fulfillment in the pursuit of career and profession. The recovery of biblical vocation is desperately needed.
Call Language in the Bible
Call (qara) language in the Old Testament is used primarily for the people of God who are summoned to participate in God’s grand purpose for the world. It is a call to salvation, a call to holiness and a call to service. In the New Testament it is the same. The word call (kaleō and klēsis) is used for the invitation to salvation through discipleship to Christ, the summons to a holy corporate and personal living and the call to serve. All Christians are called. All are called together. All are called for the totality of everyday life. What does biblical theology teach us about the meaning of being called?
The one and the three. In the Bible there is only one call of God that comes to God’s people, but there are three dimensions in that call: to belong, to be and to do.
First is the call to belong to God, to become persons who have their identity as children of God and members of the family of God (Hosea 11:1-2; Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32; Acts 2:39; Romans 1:6-7; Romans 8:28; Romans 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:24, 26; 1 Cor. 7:17, 20; Ephes. 1:18; Ephes. 4:1; Phil. 3:14; 1 Thes. 2:12; 1 Thes. 5:24; 2 Thes. 2:14; 1 Tim. 6:12). Second is the call to be God’s people who exist for the praise of his glory as we live out our true identity in all aspects of life in the church and world. This is expressed in holiness or sanctification (1 Cor. 1:9; 1 Cor. 7:15; Galatians 5:13; Ephes. 4:4; Col. 3:15; 1 Thes. 4:7; 2 Tim. 1:9). Third is the call to do God’s work, to enter into God’s service in both the church and the world. This involves gifts, talents, ministries, occupations, roles, work and mission (Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 41:2, 4; Isaiah 42:6; Matthew 4:21; Mark 3:13-14; Ephes. 4:1; 1 Peter 2:9-10). In this way Christian vocation fulfills the human vocation mandated in Genesis 1:27-28, a vocation also with three (parallel) parts: (1) the call to enjoy communion with God (belonging), a communion lost through sin; (2) the call to community building (being) and the mandate to build a family; and (3) the call to cocreativity (doing), through which humankind expresses stewardship of the earth and makes God’s world work.
Unfortunately, most discussions of the human vocation center on the third dimension exclusively. In reaction to this Christians normally focus on the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) without understanding that Christ’s work of salvation enables people to recover their full humanity and embrace the threefold creation mandate. A truncated understanding of vocation as merely relating to the Great Commission has resulted in the tragic loss of dignity to persons working in various so-called secular occupations. Thus teachers, lawyers, doctors and homemakers have been tacitly placed in a subordinate rank to pastors, evangelists and missionaries, these last being designated as ministers. The gospel involves us in serving God’s purposes in the world through civic, social, political, domestic and ecclesiastical roles. All three dimensions of the human vocation are fulfilled by the single command to love: loving God (belonging in communion), loving our neighbor (being a community builder) and loving God’s world (doing God’s work on earth).
The many and the few. In the Old Testament the people as a whole were called to fulfill Adam’s vocation in the context of being a chosen nation: (1) to belong to God as a chosen people and so to enjoy God; (2) to live as a covenant community in holiness, justice and mercy; and (3) to serve God’s purposes in the world through missionary outreach (Jonah) and winsome living (Zech. 8:23), thus being a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6) and a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). That is the call to the many. But within the people of God under the older covenant, some people were called individually to special roles of service as prophets, priests and kings: Moses (Exodus 3:4), Samuel (1 Samuel 3:10-14), David (1 Samuel 16), Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-19), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2), Amos (Amos 7:15). This is the call to a few for special anointed service.
Under the new covenant the call of God is both individual and corporate. Individually we are called to belong to God through adoption, live holy lives and serve God. The individual experience of the call of God means that each person is led by God and invited so to live, work and minister in the light of the wisdom and Spirit of God. While it may be appropriate to speak of one’s daily work or specific ministry initiatives as included in the calling, the New Testament does not normally do so! This individual call also has three dimensions, which Greg Ogden outlines in these terms: (1) we experience an inner oughtness; (2) it is bigger than ourselves; and (3) it brings great satisfaction and joy (p. 209). You have a sense that you were “born to this.”
Corporately, the call of God brings into existence a people that belongs to God (1 Peter 2:9-11) with members belonging to one another. Together we live a community life that bears witness to our true identity and serves God’s purposes of humanizing the world until Christ comes again. This call of God is comprehensive (Ephes. 4:1) and embraces work, service in the church, family life, civic and creational responsibilities, mission in the world and personal spirituality. The call of God engages us totally and not merely in the religious sector of our lives.
The general and the particular. The distinction between a general calling to salvation and discipleship and a particular calling to a specific context for discipleship was elaborated by the Puritans. William Perkins, the only Puritan author to describe callings in a systematic way, emphasized calling as “a certain kind of life ordained and imposed on man by God for the common good” (p. 46), though Perkins himself often spoke of callings as though they were simply occupations, some of which were not lawful callings. It seems Perkins fused the two ideas of duties and occupations. In time the Puritan movement lost this synthesis that reflects the biblical balance of calling to salvation expressed in the concrete everyday contexts of our life (family, nation, city, etc.).
In summary, God’s call is primarily soteriological rather than occupational—we are called more to someone (God) than to do something. Luther “extended the concept of divine call, vocation, to all worthy occupations” (Bainton, pp. 180-81), but he meant that the Christian is called to be a Christian in whatever situation he or she finds himself or herself, rather than equate vocation with occupation (Kolden, pp. 382-90). Further, there is no authority in the Bible for a special, secondary call from God as a prerequisite to enter the professional ministry. The call to leadership in the church comes from the church! While a special existential call may be given by God in some cases, the primary biblical basis upon which a person may enter pastoral leadership is character (a good reputation and ethical behavior) and God-given gifts of leadership (1 Tim. 3; 1 Peter 5:1-10). There is no status difference between leaders and people, so-called clergy and so-called laity, and only in some areas is there a functional one.
In the same way there is no need to be called through an existential experience to an occupation or other responsibilities in society. God gives motivation and gift; God arranges circumstances and guides. Through God’s leading, work, family, civil vocation and neighboring are encompassed in our total response to God’s saving and transforming call in Jesus. Misunderstanding on this point has been promoted by the overemphasis of 1 Cor. 7:17, mentioned previously. Focusing on this one text has had several side effects: (1) it minimizes the corporate, people-of-God aspect of vocation, (2) makes too much of the specific place one occupies in society as though the place itself were the calling, and (3) focuses on task, or doing, to the exclusion of being. Nevertheless, one should regard the various contexts of life—marriage and singleness, workplace, neighborhood, society—as taken up into the call of God and therefore expressed in terms of holiness and service rather than arenas chosen for personal self-fulfillment. Thus vocational guidance is not discerning our call but in the context of our call to discipleship discerning the guidance of God in our lives and learning how to live in every dimension in response to God’s call. (For an investigation of the process of making occupational and life decisions in light of the above, see Vocational Guidance.)
Living as Called People
Understanding and experiencing calling can bring a deep joy to everyday life. Paraphrasing Os Guinness, I note several fruits of living vocationally rather than simply yielding to careerism, occupationalism or professionalism. First, calling enables us to put work in its proper perspective—neither a curse nor an idol but taken up into God’s grand purpose. Second, it contributes to a deep sense of identity that is formed by whose we are rather than what we do. Third, it balances personal with public discipleship by keeping our Christian life from becoming either privatized or politicized. Fourth, it deals constructively with ambition by creating boundaries for human initiative so that we can offer sacrificial service without becoming fanatical or addicted. Fifth, it equips us to live with single-mindedness in the face of multiple needs, competing claims and diversions—the need is not the call. Sixth, it gives us a deep sense of integrity when living under secular pressures by inviting us to live in a counterculture and a countercommunity—the people of God—so we can never become “company people.” Seventh, it helps us make sense of the brevity of our lives, realizing that just as David “had served God’s purpose in his own generation, [and] fell asleep” (Acts 13:36), we can live a meaningful life even if our vision cannot be fully realized in one short lifetime. Eighth, the biblical approach to calling assures us that every believer is called into full-time ministry—there are no higher and lower forms of Christian discipleship.—Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, The