Part XIII: God, work and our “Calling”

Any examination of bivocationalism in the context of church planting must first take a look at the wider issue of calling and how it relates to work and ministry in particular

A Christian’s vocation is primarily to live as a child and servant of the living God. (Rom.1:6,7; 1 Peter 2:9)


The Atrium at Regent College, Vancouver.  The College has been at the forefront of integrating work and faith over the past 4 decades

One of the authors who has written most extensively on the interplay of vocation, work and ministry is Vancouver professor-pastor-tentmaker Paul Stevens, (a former teacher of mine and someone I am enjoying spending time with again this month). He writes in the terrific and recommended Complete book of Everyday Christianity that our vocation should be seen as: “a comprehensive and liberating summons of God… The heart of vocation is not choosing to do something but responding to the Call to belong to Someone and because of that, to serve God and our neighbors wholeheartedly.”

In terms of living out our Christian, and indeed human, vocation, Stevens writes elsewhere that we must not imagine that this refers only to certain types of jobs, to certain aspects of our jobs, or to so-called “spiritual” activity. Barbara Zikmund has noticed that there are four options with which Christians have traditionally been presented in terms of living out their vocation: i) that vocation has nothing to do with our jobs; ii) that it has little to do with our jobs; iii) that it has something to do with all jobs; iv) or that it has everything to do with all of life. She believes that these are “either simplistic and shallow, or they are so demanding that people pale at the task… No wonder good Christians get confused.”  in a recent book Stevens believes that “the concept of a theology of work is a fairly recent development, coming into the Western world after the Second World War largely as a result of Roman Catholic theologians”.  While this may be true in terms of a systematic treatment of the topic, there is no doubt that Reformation theologians did have something to say on the matter.

Based on the creation mandate of Genesis 1:27-30, and in contrast to the medieval Roman Catholic position of “vocations” being lives devoted to prayer and holy orders, Reformation theologians expounded a more comprehensive theology of work. In Calvin’s words: “there will be no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our vocation) as not to appear truly respectable and be deemed highly important in the sight of God.”  Or, as Alister McGrath summarized, in Calvin’s mind: “one cannot allow the human evaluation of an occupation’s importance to be placed above the judgment of God who put you there.”

This Reformation perspective was a radical departure from the inherited European tradition. McGrath reminds us:  “To appreciate the significance of Calvin’s work ethic, it is necessary to understand the intense distaste with which the early Christian tradition, illustrated by the monastic writers, regarded work. For Eusebius of Caesarea, the perfect Christian life was one devoted to serving God, untainted by physical labor. Those who chose to work for a living were second-rate Christians. The early monastic tradition appears to have inherited this attitude.”

The magisterial reformers, therefore, sanctified work, and knew nothing of a sacred/secular divide: McGrath continues:  “The work of believers is thus seen to possess a significance that goes far beyond the visible results of that work. It is the person working, as much as the resulting work, that is significant to God. There is no distinction between spiritual and temporal, sacred and secular work. All human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God. Work is, quite simply, an act of praise—a potentially productive act of praise.  McGrath is therefore arguing that, contrary to some later interpretations of Calvin’s work ethic, his purpose was not – as a type of proto-capitalist – to link work with productivity in terms of results or wealth, but rather to link it to productivity in terms of the personal and spiritual development and integrity of the worker.

Stevens unites the Creation mandate with the commission of Matthew 28:18-20 and sees their separation as a tragic mistake:  “When so separated, mission becomes disconnected from life and becomes a “discretionary-time” activity…The Christian life is essentially unbalanced and fragmented when God intends it to be unified.”

This is different from Edmund Clowney (whose work on the call to ministry is still widely read). He writes: “God’s first command still stands: man is to replenish the earth and subdue it; but the Great Commission takes priority over it.”  Stevens, however, wishes work of all kind to be seen as an application of both the Creation mandate and the Great Commission. Ecumenical missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin has a similarly redemptive vision for the Christian’s work:  “Everything – from our most secret prayers to our most public political acts – is part of that sin-stained human nature that must go down into the valley of death and judgment, and yet knowing that as we offer it up to the Father in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, it is safe with him and – purged in fire – it will find its place in the holy city at the end.”

European theologian Miroslav Volf has questioned some aspects of the reformed paradigm of work, in his book Work in the Spirit.  He aims to free our understanding of work from “the dead hand of vocation” and wishes to re-examine the subject from a different perspective. (theologically: a pneumatological and eschatological one)  He has several concerns with how a theology of work had developed within Protestantism.  He believes a) it can lead to an indifference towards alienation in work; b) it can be misused ideologically to support or cultivate ambivalence towards dehumanizing work; c) it can become reduced to being equated with gainful employment; d) it can confuse vocation and occupation; e) it is furthermore inapplicable to an information culture and one where job-changing and serial vocations (in his words “a synchronic plurality of employment”) is more common.

He is, nevertheless, appreciative of how Luther and Calvin gave work a dignity hitherto unexpressed in much of the church. He quotes Luther’s assertion that we were intended to work “without inconvenience… in play and with the greatest delight;” and believes that “a responsible theology of work should seek to preserve Luther’s insight into God’s call to everyday work with its two consequences.” (Those two consequences being the greater value attached to work, and that all work is of equal value – one is no more holy than another). However, says Volf, his “notion of vocation has serious limitations, both in terms of its applicability to modern work, and its theological persuasiveness.”

He wishes to liberate vocation from being seen as something one does, and by definition, therefore, may restrict us to one particular field of work, to vocation being inextricably tied up with who we are becoming in Christ and by the Spirit. This means that a change of vocation, multi-vocational pursuits and even Sabbath and rest can all be seen as aspects of one’s overall vocation. In answer to Calvin’s fears that the lack of a single all-embracing understanding of work would lead to either a chaos in self-understanding or idleness, Volf counters intriguingly: “Rather, freedom from the rigidity of a single, permanent vocation might season with creativity and interrupt with rest the monotonous lives of modern workaholics”.

In short, Volf feels the Reformers’ theology of work, while a helpful development on the Catholic understanding of vocation, was still too limited and static, time-bound in the economics of their own era, not sufficiently broad or flexible to encompass the vocational challenges of a different time and, at root, theologically incomplete. Volf’s thesis is of relevance in that it would render obsolete a number of the objections raised concerning, and problems associated with, bivocational ministry.


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