Acton Institute Powerblog

A biblical theology of work, Part 3: Call and vocation

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In Part 1 of our “theology of work” series, we examined why we work, concluding that following our calling, whatever that may be, provides us with meaning and purpose, and represents a command of God in creation. Part 2 examined the virtues of work, earning a living and using that wealth honorably. Part 3 will explores “call and vocation” as a full expression of the creative wonder and beauty of God in which we participate, in Christ. […]

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Are we meant to lead meaningless or purposeful lives? Ecclesiastes shows us that meaninglessness, rather than purposefulness, will fill our lives, if we are not productive. With God that cannot be so.

Vocation and calling are central to any theology of business and work. The idea is deeply embedded in the theology and thought of Martin Luther. Dorothy Sayers in her famous 1942 essay (Why Work?) argued that it “is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation as such is sacred.”

Scriptural foundations

There are some key concepts in the scriptures in relation to vocation and call.

  • The creation mandates and the command to work (Genesis 2:15)

The point in terms of vocation and call is a simple one: All are called to work, a universal command, with no distinction between secular and sacred callings as part of the creative activity of God himself in which we participate.

  • The endowment with skill (Exodus 35:30)

The principle here is that calling and vocation are a reflection of the skills endowed by God. Moses, in the construction of the tabernacle, pointed to Bazalel and said, “he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge.”

  • Our participation in Christ is participation in the creative activity of God (John 1:1-3)

As Christians, followers of Christ in the covenant of redemption, John 1:1-3, reminds us that in Christ we also participate in the creation and the creative activity of God.

  • All are called, not just some (1 Peter 2:9)

“You are … a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” reminds us of the essential unity of the call to office, whether ministerial or temporal, as equal callings in the household of God.

  • Called to serve in whatever we do (Colossians 3:17,23)

Here Paul reminds the Colossians to give their all in whatever they do, working heartily for the Lord in their calling.

The scriptural trajectory reflects the unity of our calling to serve God in the world. From that position some are called into ministries of preaching, teaching and leadership; others, indeed, most, are called into roles in the temporal world – not least, the world of business and commerce.

Luther and vocation

Martin Luther conceived of two kingdoms: the temporal and the eternal. The first of these, the temporal, is the earthly kingdom, the place of life and discipleship in this world. The second is our ultimate destiny: the spiritual kingdom to which we aspire. Here’s the important thing: The two kingdoms stand alongside each other, and both are under the providence and sovereignty of God. They are different from each other, but not hostile to each other. Each kingdom has its respective role. Humanity lives in the earthly kingdom yet hopes for the eternal.

This has implications for calling and vocation. We belong in both kingdoms. The calling to particular offices or stations in the temporal kingdom is the way in which humanity serves God. It is here we exercise our discipleship, and we are accountable for our discipleship in our earthly calling to God.

Luther also rejected the priority of the spiritual office over the secular. He wrote in his “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation”:

“A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other.

Vocation and calling in the later Protestant tradition

We should also mention Abraham Kuyper, the idea of sphere sovereignty, and how that idea relates to vocation and calling. Kuyper developed the concept of sphere sovereignty both in his “Lectures on Calvinism” and in his inaugural address at the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880. He viewed the world as divided into spheres, each of which was independent and had its own rights and prerogatives, each sphere being under the sovereignty of God. Hence each sphere was to be honoured in its own right. Business was one such sphere. In the third of his lectures on Calvinism, he wrote:

“. . . we understand hereby, that the family, the business, science, art and so forth are all social spheres, which do not owe their existence to the state, and which do not derive the law of their life from the superiority of the state, but obey a high authority within their own bosom; an authority which rules, by the grace of God, just as the sovereignty of the State does.”

The implication of this for both vocation and work generally is clear. For Kuyper, this is the beginning of ethics:

“Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of God, he is employed in the service of God, he has strictly to obey God, and, above all, he has to aim to the glory of God.”

Kuyper’s voice needs to be heard again in any theology of work and enterprise.

The collapse of modern evangelicalism into pietism

The contemporary Protestant has replaced vocation and calling with pietism. Darrell Cosden, in his “Theology of Work,” argues that:

“Ordinary, daily, mundane work was at best a mission field, and at worst a distraction in the spiritual life.”

Modern evangelicalism with its overemphasis on the inner life has fallen into the trap from which the Reformation liberated us. Essentially, pietistic evangelicalism prioritizes the spiritual over the secular, the latter only useful if it serves the former – a dualism which the reformation sought to end. Spiritual work is seen as superior.

How ironic then that Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, recognizes the same dilemma but deals with it by elevating the secular employment to the level of the divine. In “The Forge,” he wrote: “You cannot forget that any worthy, noble and honest work at the human level can – and should! – be raised to the supernatural level, becoming a divine task.” Escrivá adds, in “Friends of God,” that “we Christians must not abandon the vineyard where God has placed us.”

We see something similar in the recent official teaching of Roman Catholicism:

“The vocation of the businessperson is a genuine human and Christian calling. Pope Francis calls it ‘a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all’. The importance of the businessperson’s vocation in the life of the Church and in the world economy can hardly be overstated. Business leaders are called to conceive of and develop goods and services for customers and communities through a form of market economy. For such economies to achieve their goal, that is, the promotion of the common good, they should be structured on ideas based on truth, fidelity to commitments, freedom and creativity.”

Vocation is an important building block in a theology of work as enterprise – or, in other words, why business matters to God. Perhaps the idea can be best understood as a dynamic expression of discipleship under God in the temporal kingdom. Not the end of ethics, but the beginning. Not a retreat into pietism, but rather a full expression of the creative wonder and beauty of God in which we participate, in Christ.

A biblical theology of work, Part 1: Why work?

A biblical theology of work, Part 2: Wealth creation

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.