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Vocation vs. occupation: 4 callings in the Christian life

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Is there a difference between “vocation” and “occupation”?

The term “vocation” comes from the Latin, “vocare” – to call or receive a call. For almost two millennia in Christian-influenced communities and cultures, vocation referred to a religious calling: a monastic order, missionary work or parish labor. During the medieval era, vocation expanded beyond the clerical and embraced medicine (the doctor), the law (the attorney) and teaching (the professor/teacher). Other occupations were respected, but not given the same status.

The Reformation rekindled the priesthood of all believers (Exodus 19 and I Peter 2) and started honoring everyday work as a calling from God. Martin Luther’s delightful observation that Christian shoemaking is not about adding crosses to shoes but making good shoes was a breakthrough for workers in all classes. But alas, the potential of gospel liberation was often stymied by ungodly divisions and stereotypes of class, gender and race. And the clerical vocation continued being placed above the others.

In most gospel-centered communities, we are now seeing better elevation and economic empowerment of all believers, without despising the important callings of those set apart by Christ to nourish the Body and make him known locally and globally.

But the term “vocation” is being muddied and overused in our zeal for encouraging missional living by our church members. With this context in mind, let’s define vocation and occupation.

Occupations involve everyday labor for the glory of God and good of others that express our vocation(s) while not itself being the full expression of our callings. Vocations are general and specific callings from God that edify the Body, enhance the world, and transcend current occupational assignments.

Christians have the following four vocations or callings, even as they participate in the economy and work at many particular occupations:

1. Relationship with Christ: The first and greatest vocation is God’s calling to enter a relationship with the Triune Lord through Jesus Christ. This is the “general calling” to repentance and faith unto salvation, with Spirit-infused faith, hope and love engendering security about identity and destiny (Romans 5-8). Obedience to this vocation begins with the Great Commandment of Jesus to love God with all our being and love our neighbors unselfishly as ourselves (Matthew 22, John 13-17).

2. Good Works: The second vocation consists of discovering and doing the “good works” designed by Jesus Christ for each believer. These works include our daily tasks but are more than job assignments. These works include discovering and expressing our gifts and wisely investing the resources our Lord has entrusted to us (Matthew 25). Some of these good works are found within Christian gatherings. Others are expressed in and through the public and private work done all day. Here is where integration of vocation and occupation occur. I may be called as an elder and teacher in my church. My daily job as a customer service manager will allow me to use my vocational gifts for the business while not allowing the business to define my life. Conversely, I am no less as elder, pastor, apostle or prophet if I sustain myself and my family with daily labor outside the largesse of the church!

3. Economy and Society: God calls his people to specific domains that are part of God’s providential ordering of society,from labor to leadership, intellectual and cultural domains and all sorts of jobs. We should never rain on the parade of a believer excited about any kind of daily work! What we can do is expand their sense of calling while affirming the goodness of their daily work.

Whichever construct or framework is chosen – whether “sphere sovereignty” or “seven mountains” or otherwise – the guiding idea is that God calls (vocare) people to influence and leadership is these areas. People may discover this calling accidentally or deliberately learn about their field(s) of impact for God’s kingdom. Quoting Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer, when we see God’s activity in all of life, there are “no little people” – only particular assignments. For example, there are people gifted with concrete artisan abilities and others with abstract intellectual gifts…and many with various combinations of desires and abilities. Shaping personal and family mission around God-given capacities (which can grow) and dreams makes life richer and more adaptable.

4. Family: God’s calling here includes covenant fidelity, shared mission and, if so blessed, the nurture of the next natural generation in the ways of God. Single women and men have advantages and challenges in their estate (I Corinthians 7) and married spouses must sacrifice for each other’s good. For believers, marriage and family constitute a true vocation.

The above order is not placing work over family or ministry over care for spouse or children. It is movement from general/universal vocations to more particular ones. There is not a list of priorities, but facets of a beautiful life God has designed.

Believers fulfill all their vocations in their own lives, but also as they work and participate in relationships and the economy at large.

Image: Public Domain

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Charlie Self Dr. Charles Self is an Associate Professor of Church History at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

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