In 2019, the GFM Ohio Valley staff team developed a curriculum on vocation to use at a student retreat, and with campus groups. With their permission, we are reprinting a series of articles from that curriculum, with the hope that it might be a useful resource for other student and faculty groups, and for personal reflection. This article by Robin Capcara traces the idea of vocation through scripture and church history.
In contemporary parlance, “vocation” usually refers to one’s occupation—a job. It can be used interchangeably with “career” or “profession.” But the word “vocation” doesn’t usually imply just any job. It carries the sense of a job that is particularly meaningful or impactful or particularly suited to the person who has it, something that person feels passionately about. For example, “She has missed her true calling.” or “The law is his real vocation.” These nuances come directly from Christian history.
The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocatio meaning a call or summons, vox meaning voice and vocare meaning to call. The implication of the word “vocation” is that there is a Voice somewhere that is calling. For the Christian that Voice is God Himself.
Christians have always believed that God calls His people to various tasks. In the Bible we read the stories of the calls of people as disparate and unique as Moses, Samuel, Mary, Matthew and Paul. Few of us, however, imagine ourselves to be one of God’s prophets or apostles. Were those call stories recorded in Scripture precisely because of how unusual and special they were, or does God also call ordinary people to ordinary tasks?
Interestingly, the word “call” in the Bible usually refers to something much deeper and more basic than a call to a particular task. It involves our whole lives and not merely our jobs. It’s usually about God’s challenging invitation into discipleship and a relationship with Him.
- “And you also are among those…who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6).
- “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) [emphasis mine].
Our work lives, then, are part and parcel of this call to follow Jesus, a call which encompasses everything we are and everything we do. “The calling to follow Christ lies at the root of every other calling.”
Work itself was a direct command of God from the very beginning. God is a worker (Genesis 1-2, John 5:17) and He created us in His image (Genesis 1:26-27) and so we are workers too. He gave us responsibility and work to do from the very beginning.
- “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:28).
- “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).
These two verses taken together have been called The Cultural Mandate, God’s command to rule over, develop and take care of His own creation, i.e. to make culture. Human beings are the only creatures of God given this weighty responsibility. This is part of what it means, in the Biblical view, to be a human being. To be a person made in the image of God is, at least in part, to be a worker with responsibility over God’s creation—to care for it and to develop its potential.
All human work, then, is some form of caring for or developing the good material world that God has entrusted to us. As such work is good. Sadly, human sin has turned work into something toilsome (Genesis 3:17-19) but it remains good at root. We are reminded by Paul that every created thing—and that includes work—is good even though every created thing has been infected and damaged by sin. “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).
Even though work is at its core a good thing, human sin has negatively affected it. In addition to its being toilsome and frustrating, it can be an avenue of injustice and harm. Part of the repentance that both John the Baptist and Jesus called for when inviting people into a life of discipleship involved their jobs.
When Zacchaeus, a Jew who worked for the Roman occupiers as a tax collector, encountered Jesus he spontaneously offered:
“Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Tax collectors made their money by charging whatever they wanted above and beyond what they owed the Roman government. We are told that Zacchaeus “was rich”(v. 2) which means he had often charged above and beyond the legally required tax, perhaps exorbitantly so. He was a thief and an extortionist who used his job to rip off and oppress his fellow Jews. Part of his repentance included making amends for the ways he’d distorted his job to harm others. Jesus affirms Zacchaeus’ offer of divestiture and restitution as proof-positive of his repentance and salvation, “Today salvation has come to this house” (v. 9).
Prior to the ministry of Jesus, when John the Baptist was preaching repentance, people asked what they should do in order to repent and avoid impending judgment. (Luke 3:7-10) John answered: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” John challenged people to stop doing wrong things and begin doing right things to show the genuineness of their repentance. This included how they did their jobs. Even people with despised, religiously abhorrent jobs—Roman soldiers and tax collectors—could repent and avoid judgment. The way they lived out that repentance changed the very way they did their jobs.
In the Middle Ages, the idea of a “vocation” was usually reserved for those with a “religious vocation”, i.e. priests, monks and nuns. This idea probably arose because in the Scriptures, those whose “call narratives” are recorded for us were called to engage in the mission of God–to serve Him as prophets (like Samuel,) apostles (like Matthew) or instruments in advancing the salvation of the world (like Mary). And so, it may have seemed that a “calling” from God was reserved for religious jobs. There was also a sense that religious vocations were superior to the call of the laity and even that the laity were “second class citizens” of the Kingdom of God.
But beginning with the Protestant Reformers, these ideas began to change. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that God called all of His people to serve Him, some in religious vocations and some in other forms of work–all of which had equal value in God’s eyes and in their service to others.
“The idea that the service to God should have only to do with the church altar, singing, reading, sacrifice, and the like is without a 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. Gottesdienste [worship service or liturgy] –not only in churches but also in the home, kitchen, workshop, field” -Martin Luther.
“…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, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another…” -Martin Luther.
Sadly, those earlier medieval ideas about the superiority of religious vocations have continued in Protestantism despite the teaching of the Reformers. This thinking is manifest in the belief that God calls people to be pastors and missionaries but not really anything else. (“He felt God calling him to go to seminary and become a preacher” or “She sensed a call to go to China as a missionary”). In some parts of the Church it seems the best one can hope for in a “secular” job is to contribute financially to the ministry or missionary work of others!
The Reformers challenged the notion that religious or sacred callings are inherently more important than secular ones. They taught, instead, that the separation between the sacred and secular was itself suspect. All of life was to be considered sacred because it all belonged to God.
“From the outset, Protestantism rejected the critical medieval distinction between the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ orders. While this position can easily be interpreted as a claim for the desacralization of the sacred, it can equally well be understood as a claim for the sacralization of the secular. As early as 1520, Luther had laid the fundamental conceptual foundations for created sacred space within the secular. His doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ asserted that there is no genuine difference of status between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ order. All Christians are called to be priests – and can exercise that calling within the everyday world. The idea of ‘calling’ was fundamentally redefined: no longer was it about being called to serve God by leaving the world; it was now about serving God in the world” ― Alister E. McGrath [emphasis mine].
And so it seems that God does call ordinary men and women to engage in meaningful work of all kinds, for His glory and for the benefit of others. What might that mean for you? Has He called you to the university? To your program or discipline? To a future (or current) career in which you can serve Him and bring some good to the world?
 “Calling & Vocation: Overview”, Theology of Work Project, https://www.theologyofwork.org/key-topics/vocation-overview-article, accessed 10/16/19.
 From Everyone a Minister, by O.E. Feucht, Concordia, 1979 as quoted in The Other Six Days, by R. Paul Stevens, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 77.
 From “An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility”, http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/nblty-03.html
 From Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution: A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, HarperOne, 2008, p. 336.
- How did you come to be at your university? Did you then or do you now, in retrospect, sense the hand of God anywhere in that series of events?
- How did you come to choose your program or discipline? Again, did you or do you see the hand of God anywhere in that process?
- As you imagine your future, how do you envision serving the Lord and the world with your work?
Next week: Work and the Missio Dei
About the author:
Robin Capcara has worked in university and church-based ministry for forty years. She currently serves with InterVarsity Faculty Ministry in Pittsburgh, ministering to professors at Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and Duquesne universities and as a spiritual director in private practice. She holds a M.A. in Higher Education from Geneva College and studied at Trinity School for Ministry (Anglican.)