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A Theology of Vocation

It has become increasingly apparent to me over the past three to five years that evangelicalism suffers from a serious deficit of careful thought to our theology of vocation. Though evangelicals pay lip service to the notion that every believer’s work is valuable in the sight of God, in practice we do not act as though this is true. We do not, deep down, seem to actually believe that working as a software engineer or an electrician or a clerk or a manager or a lawyer or even a doctor is really important and God-honoring. Or at least, not as much as doing ministry.

This takes two forms. First is the overt emphasis on the work of people who are vocational ministers, whether pastors, missionaries, college ministers, or others. I cannot count the number of godly young men and women I know who, simply because they have a passion for God and a heart to lead others, are directed into one or another of these forms of ministry. Though this is not all bad, and I am glad that many of my acquaintances are in these roles, I wonder: ought we assume that simply because someone loves the things of God, they ought to make their vocation full-time ministry?

And I have an answer: no. We should not assume that everyone who passionately loves God and his word is called to vocational ministry; quite the contrary. That we do assume this reveals just how little we honor other paths.

One of the men who most profoundly influenced my outlook on the world served as the primary teacher in my youth group throughout my teen years. He taught us how to study scripture and why, he modeled for us a passion for truth and a bedrock commitment to the authority of the Bible, he demonstrated the power of a prayer life saturated through with the word of God, and he called us to follow him in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. He never received a penny for any of this.

Though he was and is a profoundly wise, biblically knowledgeable, and godly man, he made it a priority not to go into vocational ministry. Now, to ordinary evangelical ears, this sounds strange, even silly. Here we have a man who loves the word of God, is a skilled teacher and has made an enormous difference in the lives of everyone he has taught, who steadfastly refuses to become a paid minister. What in the world could motivate him?

From what I know of the reasons behind his decision, I think he is absolutely on the right track, and I wish others could grasp what he has. Years ago, he commented to me that one of the reasons that he has not chosen to become a full-time pastor is because, by remaining where he is in the workplace as a network administrator, he can have an equally great impact for the kingdom. How? By demonstrating to everyone around him that one does not have to be a vocational minister to lead a life dedicated to the glory of God, to passionately pursue righteousness, to be set apart for something higher than the petty aims of this fallen world.

Because of this commitment, he has had many opportunities through the years to share Christ with coworkers who might never have otherwise heard, and to challenge fellow believers to walk more potently with God. His example serves to repudiate all those who think that really effective gospel proclamation and exhortation is done best by someone being paid to that end.

Equally importantly, though, he has had a chance to do good work to the glory of God. Here is the other way we evangelicals have diminish non-ministerial vocations: we forget that they have value apart from their opportunities to proclaim the gospel. The work itself is valuable in the sight of God.

The Reformers understood this concept, as did many of their Puritan progeny. Indeed, one of the great triumphs of the Reformation was its recovery of and insistence on a full-orbed theology of work. The structures of the Roman Catholic church had, intentionally or otherwise (a discussion for another time), set a clear demarkation between secular and sacred tasks. The priesthood was for those who wished to truly serve God; everyone else had tasks that were perhaps necessary but certainly not glorious.

The Reformers formulated a radically different view, one founded in the creation mandate itself. They noted that Adam was not forced to work as punishment for his sin, but given work God before the Fall. They noted that every task, no matter how ignoble, could honor God when done with a joyful heart that saw the task as a gift from the Creator and an opportunity to praise the Savior. They believed that every ploughboy was of equal worth – and his job of equal worth – to any priest.

Yes, some tasks are more obviously spiritually meaningful. Some tasks have more weight and import about them. Yet the fact that being a political leader, for example, has more responsibility and greater consequence for the lives of others than does being a graphic designer does not belittle the latter. Worldly weight and import are not the same as real importance. God has created us each in his image, and we are all called to reflect his glory in unique ways – the man who manages a McDonald’s no less than the President of the United States. No task is so menial that it may not glorify God, and no task is so magnificent that it may not be ultimately meaningless.

Evangelicals have long embraced a (thoroughly American) tendency to reduces people to their jobs and their jobs to their measurable impact. That in our case the “measurable impact” is simply the number of times in a given week we share the gospel – however well or poorly, and however badly we may be doing our actualy job along the way – does not change the sad reality that we have bought the lies of our culture. Jobs are good in and of themselves; they honor God themselves, not merely as means to other God-honoring ends.

Finally, I suspect there is a third, less abstract reason that we struggle with this. For many of us, work is not a source of joy, and we can little comprehend how God would be honored in our drudgery. Too many of us have come to believe – whether because of our own sinful ways of thinking or because of the awful jobs we have to work – that work itself is a bad thing. We idolize our time off. And yet, speaking from experience born of infectious mononucleosis, I can affirm that we need work. Anyone who thinks sitting at home playing video games for a month would be nothing but fun has never had to experience it.

Making and doing are integral parts of the way we humans are built. We are not meant to be static or relaxed all the time; we are designed to work, and when we are unable to or choose not to work, we eventually waste away. That some people’s jobs are awful, unfulfilling things that can cause their own blend of misery points not to the badness of work but to the cost of the Fall.

We evangelicals need to recover a robust, truly Christ-shaped vision of work and vocation. We need to remember that we were made to work before evil ever entered the world, and that we will likely be working for the glory of God when evil has been banished for good. And it will be good.


  • Ame thought to say:

    i love this. we want to righteously say that every tiny thing we do for God is valuable, but we do not support that. i’ve heard preachers say that we must think BIG! if someone else can have a HUGE impact on the world, why can’t I?! i think we’ve lost the perspective of ‘huge’ impact for Christ … and that the little we have is much in the eyes of God.

    when i was a single mom and the (formal) church turned their back on me, a woman (who i thought was my friend, but who i found out later stabbed me in the back) told me that if i wanted the church to be there for me, i needed to volunteer all over the place, be more involved. i was a single mom with a special needs child and no family or family support – i was on my own. my daughter couldn’t handle child care situations, and she needed a night-time routine which meant (and means) i have never, and still cannot, make any committments at night, especially a school night.

    so, according to what this woman who was deeply involved in the church told me … if i did not visibly volunteer in prominent roles, i was not worthy of being helped. what they did not know b/c it was not worth telling them and b/c they did not care to see, was that i was helping people all the time. i did what i could when i could whenever God brought someone my way. my ‘profession’ was being a 24/7 mom to two wounded and hurting daughters, one with significant special needs. my ‘ministry’ was being willing to do what (little) i could when God asked. i never did, nor do i know, nor will i ever, want any special recognition of any kind for what i do, for it is never about me and always about God. i only share to reinforce what you have written … that no ‘profession’ is too menial, and no amount of time, whether big or small, is too menial, for God to use. we are to give from what we have been given, from what we have. and that is enough for God.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • I think that motherhood in our culture is particularly vulnerable, because not only do we devalue all non-ministerial professions in evangelicalism, secular culture is busy at work trashing motherhood and glorifying careers. (I’m not opposed to women having careers, but I am deeply opposed to the way our culture devalues motherhood as a viable option.)

      Offer a rejoinder↓
  • Like! I’m reading Angels in the Architecture right now by Doug Wilson and Doug Jones…it talks about beautiful aspects of Christian culture in the Middle Ages, and a Protestant vision for a future with booming *Christian* culture again. Your post reminded me of similar themes–the need for us evangelicals to un-docetize our view of daily worship and work in the world.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Add to reading list! :) But seriously, I’m increasingly bothered by the ways that evangelicals have embraced the secular-sacred divide, forgetting that the Reformers fought this point nearly as passionately as they did the question of justification. In fact, I would argue that evangelicalism is probably friendlier to Catholicism than historic Reformed thought on many points of practice; the only really major division I see between mainstream evangelicalism and mainstream Catholicism in America is justification.

      The other theme I hinted at broadly in this post that I’m going to come back to in the future is the cost of evangelicalism’s reductionism. It’s essentially a necessity for the movement – at least at some level -but it’s costly when carried too far, and it is easy to carry too far.

      Offer a rejoinder↓

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