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Part One

“We live in a post-vocational age. Without any theology of vocation we lapse into debilitating alternatives: fatalism (doing what is required by ‘the forces’ and ‘the powers’); luck (which denies purposefulness in life and reduces our life to a bundle of accidents); karma (which ties performance to future rewards); nihilism (which denies that there is any good end to which the travail of history might lead); and, the most common alternative today, self-actualization (in which we invent the meaning and purpose of our lives, making us magicians). In contrast the biblical doctrine of vocation proposes that the whole of our lives finds meaning in relation to the sweet summons of a good God” (R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Word, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 72)

In this three-part study I address the question of “calling”. Many today are wondering if there is such a thing as a distinct and divine “calling” into Christian ministry, and if there is, how may I know if God is extending one to me.

I want to begin by looking at some distortions of “spiritual vocation” within both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

(1)       Within Catholicism a distinction has traditionally been made between the spiritual and the secular, leading to a virtual dualism in their understanding of divine calling. Those who entered the Catholic priesthood were viewed as pursuing the higher life, the sacred life, a life more favored of God. All other “callings” were of a lesser order, certainly permitted but not preeminent. Augustine spoke of these two as vita contemplativa (the contemplative life) and vita activa (the active life).

This approach by which the notion of “calling” is narrowed, thereby excluding the majority of Christians, has the potential to breed a form of ecclesiastical elitism. It can lead to the idea of a church of first-class (the priesthood) and second-class (the laity) citizens. No better example of this can be cited than that of John Chrysostom in his “Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood” (in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, trans. W. R. Stephens, P. Schaff ed. [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899-1908]):

“But when one is required to preside over the church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also; and we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others, and soar as much above them in excellence of spirit as Saul overtopped the whole Hebrew nation in bodily stature . . . but let the distinction between the pastor and his charge be as great as that between rational men and irrational creatures, not to say even greater, inasmuch as the risk is concerned with things of greater importance” (IX:46).

“Ministry” came to be understood as what a priest or bishop does. The people or the “laity” are those to whom it is “done”. Christian service or ministry was not what all did but what a few did, not simply on behalf of, but instead of the many. Ministry was thus in large measure restricted to what happened in church, but not extended to how Christians in general conduct themselves in the market place, in the school, or at home. The notion of all believers functioning in the power and authority of a divine “call” that constituted them co-workers with God in the exercise of his dominion over all creation, and not merely the ecclesiastical sphere, awaited the insights of the protestant reformers.

(2)            Protestantism, on the other hand, has generally interpreted the notion of “vocation” more broadly so as to encompass all areas of work as in a real sense “sacred”. The protestant concept of vocation is grounded in the truth expressed by the familiar and oft-quoted words of Abraham Kuyper: “No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Os Guinness articulated this emphasis when he defined calling as “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service” (The Call [Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998], 4).

No one articulated this concept more clearly than Martin Luther:

“The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone. . . . Indeed, the menial housework of a manservant or maidservant is often more acceptable to God than all the fastings and other works of a monk or priest, because the monk or priest lacks faith” (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church).

Again, addressing the average man or woman:

“What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God. . . . We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow” (quoted in W. R. Forrester, Christian Vocation: Studies in Faith and Work [London: Lutterworth Press, 1951], 147-48).

Luther points to the negative impact of a theological bifurcation of divine “calling”:

“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 fulfill only the commands; but there simply is no special religious vocation since the call of God comes to each at the common tasks” (quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978], 156).

For Luther, calling was not a particular job or occupation or trade but a person’s station in life, their place in society as a whole:

“The idea that the service to God should have only to do with a church altar, singing, reading, sacrifice, and the like is without doubt but the worst trick of the devil. How could the devil have led us more effectively astray than by the narrow conception that service to God takes place only in church and by works done therein. . . . The whole world could abound with services to the Lord, . . . not only in churches but also in the home, kitchen, workshop, field” (quoted in O. E. Feucht, Everyone a Minister [St. Louis: Concordia, 1979], 80).

John Calvin’s insights are helpful:

“The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life. And that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living ‘callings.’ Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander throughout life” (Institutes, III.x.6).

Calvin speaks of a consolation that each will experience upon realizing “that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight” (III.xi.6).

The theological roots of this concept of “vocation” are found in the biblical doctrine of creation and divine sovereignty. We are by God’s creative decree shaped in his image and thus designed to reflect in all our endeavors the purposeful activity of God himself. All Christians, therefore, should ideally embrace their “work”, however secular and uneventful it may appear, as a calling of God, a responsibility for which they have been uniquely endowed that is designed in its own way to glorify God. One’s “job” or “career” or “occupation” thus has a meaning beyond mere personal fulfillment. “Ministry” is therefore not what the majority of Christians perform as “a discretionary time activity – something done with the few hours that can be squeezed out of the week’s schedule after working, sleeping, homemaking, neighbouring, washing and doing the chores” (Stevens, The Other Six Days, 132). It is, rather, all of life when discharged in faith.

One should take note of the double reference in Gen. 1:26-28 to humanity “ruling over” or exercising dominion in regard to the creation. God has thus ordained that humanity should rule on his behalf. We are God’s vice-regents, the exercise of which is part of what it means to be the image of God. Thus every person is called or has a vocation insofar as she/he is an image-bearer and is endowed by God for the purpose of exercising dominion within that realm of creation in which one has been placed. But within that larger, more universal, notion of vocation there is the quite specific and focused task of serving the community of faith, the church.

The problem, however, is that within Protestantism, and largely as a reaction to the Catholic emphasis, there is the potential for an equally misguided theology of “calling”. If Catholicism severed the sacred from the secular, Protestantism tended to identify them. By arguing that all Christians are “called” of God, that all tasks are invested with spiritual significance, dualistic and elitist distinctions are undermined. But at the same time this leveling blurs the biblical emphasis on the office of ordained ministry and the critical importance of a called and educated clergy capable of guiding and nurturing the body of Christ.

We should also note the potential within Protestantism to unwittingly undermine cross-cultural missionary service. If one reduces the notion of “calling” to simply taking up a station or career in life, in which it is possible fully to serve God and engage in “full-time” ministry, what reason remains to respond to the urgent need for heeding a special “call” to forsake the comfort of western society and subject oneself to the hardships of “ministry” abroad?

Some within the protestant tradition insist that the NT knows nothing of a distinction between “clergy” and “laity”. The latter term was first found in Clement of Rome at the close of the first century but is never used in the NT of untrained, uncalled, second-class Christians. Similarly, the term “clergy” (from the Greek kleros) is used of all within the community of faith but never of a select group authorized (by ordination) to exercise a ministry or authority that is withheld from the mainstream of believers.

Having said that, it should be noted that apart from a few denominations descended from the “radical reformation” most Protestants retained at least in minimal form the clergy-laity distinction of medieval Catholicism. The protestant concept of the “priesthood of all believers” was more soteriological than ecclesiological. Any and all could approach God apart from clerical or sacramental mediation, but in terms of hierarchy within the church and the discharge of ministerial duties, little changed. The “preacher” simply took the place of the “priest”.

Both Catholicism and Protestantism are, therefore, right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.

Catholicism is correct to emphasize the sacred duty of preaching the word and administering the sacraments and leading the people of God. They are right to stress the necessity of a called, educated and ordained clergy if the church is to flourish and accomplish its divinely imposed mission. It is wrong when it permits this emphasis on the calling of pastors/priests to diminish the importance and dignity of all of life and of all labor.

Protestantism is correct to emphasize that all of life is sacred, that all Christians are called to do God’s work, that the routine and mundane are sanctified tasks no less important to God than preaching and pastoring. It is wrong when it permits this emphasis to diminish the reality of a “calling” for an educated ministry in the church. Not everyone is called to serve the community of faith in the same way. Serving as a pastor or in some other capacity on a church staff should not be reduced to simply having a job. Vocation is not the same as work or employment.

The point is that there is a primary sense in which all Christians are “called”, for Jesus Christ is Lord over all of life, over every task, over every endeavor. But there is another sense in which only some are “called” to fulfill those special responsibilities and ministries set forth in Scripture on which the life and order of the church directly depend.

For most people today, both Protestant and Catholic, the “clergy” or “called” are a separate and somewhat elite group who are the subjects of ministry, while the “laity” are a subordinate group who, passively, are the objects of ministry. A more biblical model would envision but one people (the true laos of God), among whom emerge leaders whose principal task is to equip everyone for ministry to everyone else. See Gordon Fee, “Laos and Leadership Under the New Covenant,” in Crux, Vol. XXV, No. 4 (December 1989):3-13.

In Part Two of this study I will address the characteristics of the call to ministry and the criteria by which one discerns if he is being called of God.