Some early church fathers co-opted pagan holidays and turned them into Christian celebrations. Labor Day is ripe for a Christian takeover. A day that had its origins in the early struggles of the labor union movement is now little more than the last long weekend of summer vacation, a final time to fire up the grill before the fall grind starts up again. But celebrating the human capacity to work is an occasion to recover one of Christianity's most important, yet nearly forgotten teachings; namely, the doctrine of vocation.
Vocation is nothing less than the theology of the Christian life. It provides the blueprint for how Christians are to live in the world and to influence their cultures. It is the key to strong marriages and effective parenting. According to the classic Protestant theologians, our multiple vocations-in the family, the culture, and the workplace-are where sanctification and discipleship happen.
Today many Christians have become disillusioned with political involvement and are floundering for ways to engage the culture. Christians struggle as much as non-Christians with broken marriages and troubled families. The stumbling economy and the pursuit of prosperity seem like materialistic treadmills.
Rediscovering the doctrine of vocation could energize contemporary Christianity and show Christians how once again they can be the world's salt and light.
The Reformation brought to the fore three key teachings that would characterize the Protestant movement in all of its variations: the authority of Scripture, justification by faith, and the doctrine of vocation.
Modernists would reject the authority of Scripture and postmodernists are currently questioning justification, but vocation-despite contributing to the vast social changes brought on with the Reformation-was perhaps taken for granted and so faded from the church's memory.
The word is simply the Latinate term for "calling." Perhaps the best summation of the concept is in 1 Corinthians 7:17: "Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him."
God "assigns" different kinds and places of service for each Christian and then "calls" each Christian to that assignment. The Reformation theologians fleshed out this concept with other biblical teachings about God's workings in society and the Christian's life in the world (e.g., Ephesians 5-6, Romans 12-13, 1 Corinthians 7).
The great theologian of vocation was Martin Luther, who developed the teaching in his battles with monasticism-the view that the spiritual life requires withdrawal from secular life-and in defining "the priesthood of all believers."
For Luther, vocation, like justification, is ultimately God's work. God gives us our daily bread through the vocations of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. God creates new human beings through the vocations of fathers and mothers. God protects us through lawful magistrates.
Vocation is, first of all, about how God works through human beings. In His providential care and governing of His creation, God chooses to distribute His gifts by means of ordinary people exercising their talents, which themselves are gifts of God.
Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.
God thus looms behind everyone who provides us with the goods or services that we need. In one of Luther's many memorable lines, God milks the cows through the hands of the milkmaid. This means that all work and all workers deserve honor. Whereas the world might look down on milkmaids and garbage collectors, they actually bear the sacred presence of God, who works in and through them.
God created us to be dependent on others-meat processors, manufacturers, journalists, lawyers, bankers, teachers, parents-and, through them, we are ultimately dependent upon God Himself.
Just as God is working through the vocation of others to bless us, He is working through us to bless others. In our vocations, we work side-by-side with God, as it were, taking part in His ceaseless creative activity and laboring with Him as He providentially cares for His creation.
Today the word vocation has become no more than a synonym for "job." The theological term includes the work that we do, but it includes much more than that. God calls us to many different tasks and relationships. The unemployed still have vocations from God. Every Christian has multiple vocations.
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.
But according to the doctrine of vocation, the church is the place where Christians meet every week to find the forgiveness of Christ, feed on God's Word, and grow in their faith. Whereupon they are sent out into their vocations-to their spouses, children, jobs, and culture-for that faith to bear fruit.
Faith bears fruit in love (Galatians 5:6;
1 Timothy 1:5). The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors.
God doesn't need our good works, Luther said, but our neighbor does. Our relationship with Him is based completely on His work for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But just as God is hidden in vocation, Christ is hidden in our neighbors. "As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers"-feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and imprisoned-"you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). We love and serve God in our vocations by loving and serving the actual human beings He places into our lives.
Every vocation has its particular neighbors. Members of a congregation are called to love and serve each other. In marriage, husbands are to love and serve their wives, and wives are to love and serve their husbands. Parents love and serve their children, who, in turn, love and serve their parents. Rulers love and serve their subjects. Workers love and serve their customers.
Certain vocations exercise authority. But authority itself is not just a matter of exercising power over others. "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them," said Jesus. "But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. . . . For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).
Of course, we often sin in and against vocation. Instead of serving, we want to be served. Instead of loving our neighbor, we often use our neighbor for our own selfish purposes.
Vocation clarifies moral issues. Mothers are called to love and serve their children, not abort them or abuse them. Doctors are called to heal their patients, not kill them. Leaders are called to love and serve those under their authority, not exploit and tyrannize them.
Some actions are sinful when done outside of vocation but good works when done within vocation. We have no calling from God that would authorize having sex with someone to whom we are not married. But within the vocation of marriage, sex is not only authorized, it becomes the means by which God creates a one-flesh union, engenders new life, and builds a family.
Vocation has to do with the priesthood of all believers. A priest is someone who performs a sacrifice. We no longer need sacrifices for our sins, since Christ, our great High Priest, offered Himself as our sacrifice once and for all (Hebrews 9:26). But, in light of that sacrifice, God calls us "to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1).
Loving and serving involves an act of self-denial for the sake of someone else. That is, it involves a sacrifice. Again, Mark 10 says that rulers are to serve as Christ did, giving His life as a ransom. Today's "Gentiles" not only seek to "lord it over" others, they are obsessed with self-fulfillment and self-assertion. Vocation focuses on self-sacrifice.
The Bible instructs wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. At the same time, though, the Bible instructs husbands to love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25). The husband is not to receive the wife's submission in domination or in "lording it over" her, since that was not how Christ loved the church. Rather, he is to emulate Christ precisely in "giving himself up" for his wife. Thus, both the wife and the husband are called to sacrifice themselves for each other. Both are presenting themselves as living sacrifices.
The father, coming home from work dead tired, has presented his body as a living sacrifice for his family. So has the mother who drives her kids to soccer practice when she has many other things she would rather do. So has the worker who has put in long hours to do the best job possible for the company's customers.
Christ, who is in vocation and in the neighbor, takes up all of these sacrifices, small or great, into His sacrifice. And He loves and serves His creation by means of our love and service in our vocations.
In all our religious and ethical life," says Einar Billing in his classic work on vocation, Our Calling, "we are given to an incredible overestimation of the extraordinary at the expense of the ordinary." We look for miracles, spectacular events , and mountain top experiences. Meanwhile, the spiritual significance of everyday life gets overlooked. Vocation, though, transfigures our ordinary, mundane existence, charging it with spiritual significance and with the very presence of God.
Luther said that changing a baby's diaper is a holy work. A child doing his chores is outperforming the Carthusian monks in works of holiness. By extension, we can see the office desk, the factory machinery, the computer screen-likewise the voting booth, the marriage bed, the dining room table-as altars upon which we exercise our royal priesthood.
Vocation is where sanctification happens, as Christians grow spiritually in good works and in their relationships. Vocation is where evangelism happens, as Christians teach their children and interact with nonbelievers. Vocation is where cultural influence happens, as Christians take their places and live out their faith in every niche of society.
Vocation changes the quality of what we do. An artist with a sense of vocation will create not just to express himself or to advance his career but to love and serve-not corrupt or ridicule-his audience. A businessman who sees his customers as the objects of his Christian love will serve them with his very best work.
From the outside, the economy has to do with the division of labor, individuals pursuing their own self-interests, laws of supply and demand, and other impersonal forces. And so it is, as part of God's created order. From the inside, however, the economy can become transfigured into a vast network of mutual dependence and mutual service, and economic activity can become an expression of love.
Christians can celebrate on Labor Day the joining of our work with God's work.
To hear Gene Edward Veith discuss this topic on the Knowing the Truth radio program, click here.