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Arenas of service

"Arenas of service" Continued...

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

Luther sorted them out into four "estates," or spheres of life that God has established: the church, the household, the state, and what he called "the common order of Christian love."

Every Christian has been "called" through the gospel into the life of faith (Romans 8:30), becoming a member of Christ's body, the church. While God providentially works through nonbelievers as well as believers in their labors, "vocation," strictly speaking, applies to Christians, those who hear themselves addressed in God's Word. In response to that Word, Christians recognize their other callings as works of faith. But God also calls people to tasks in His church. Pastors speak rightly of being "called" into the ministry, whereupon God works through them to teach His Word, preside at His sacraments, and give spiritual care to His people. Laypeople too are called to do tasks in the local congregation, singing in the choir, serving on committees, serving meals, and in other ways blessing their fellow members.

Being in a family is also a calling. God established marriage, and being a husband or a wife is a vocation. Being a father or a mother is also a vocation. So is being a son or a daughter. So are being a brother or sister, a nephew or uncle, a grandmother or grandfather. (Notice how one person holds multiple vocations within a family: A woman may be the wife of her husband, the mother of her children, the daughter of her mother, the sister of her brother, and more, with each vocation having its particular dimensions of service.)

For Luther the estate of the "household" includes both the family and the activities by which it supports itself. He had in mind the concept expressed in the Greek word oikonomia, the laws of the household, from which we derive our word economy. For Luther, in his day of family-based labor, economic life is connected with family life.

We also have vocations in the state. We were each born into a particular time, place, and society. The cultural context in which we find ourselves is thus part of the life that God has assigned us.

We thus have responsibilities to our government and to our culture as a whole. Some Christians are called to positions of authority in the government. Americans have the unusual calling of being both subjects and rulers at the same time, since our democratic republic places the governing authorities themselves under the authority of the people who elect them. Christians thus have the vocation of citizenship, which means that politics, civic involvement, and cultural engagement are all realms of Christian service.

Our formal positions in the family, the workplace, the church, and the culture are not the only spheres of service to which God assigns us and to which He calls us. Journalists like to refer to themselves as "the fourth estate," but Luther's fourth estate is the "common order of Christian love." This is the realm where people of different vocations interact informally. In Christ's parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite were on the way to serve in their vocations, but they ignored the man bleeding by the side of the road. In the ordinary course of everyday life and in our relationships with our friends and neighbors, God also calls us to service.

In stressing the spiritual significance of these so-called "secular" estates, Luther was challenging the Roman Catholic practice of reserving the terms vocation and calling for religious orders, to an individual's calling from God to become a priest, a monk, or a nun. To enter into these "spiritual" offices required taking a vow of celibacy (thereby rejecting marriage and parenthood), poverty (thereby rejecting full participation in the economic life of the workplace), and obedience (which involved substituting the authority of the church for that of the state).

The Reformers insisted that the Christian life requires not withdrawal from the world but rather engagement in the world. The Christian faith is to be lived out not primarily in "church work" but in vocation.

What this meant in practice is that the "spiritual disciplines" moved out of the monastery into secular life. Celibacy became faithfulness in marriage. Poverty became thrift and hard work. Obedience became submission to the law. Most importantly, prayer, meditation, and worship-while still central to every Christian's vocation in the church-also moved into the family and the workplace.

Today even Protestant Christians have often slipped into the assumption that serving God is a matter of "church work" or spiritual exercises. Churches set up programs that can take up every night of the week. Some Christians are so busy doing church activities, making evangelism calls, or going to Bible studies that they neglect their spouses and children. Some Christians are preoccupied with "the Lord's work" while letting their marriages fall apart, ignoring the needs of their children, and otherwise sinning against the actual responsibilities to which God has called them.

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