The doctrine of Christian Vocation has been defined by some as a self awareness and focus of one's own gifts and talents being put into use to the glory of God and advancement of His Kingdom.
This doctrine arguably was one of the triumphs of the Reformation. For in it the common man's life was elevated and given real spiritual purpose and meaning. One did not have to become an officer of the church, a clergyman in order to serve God. The common man engaged in trade or agriculture was now viewed as an equal participant in the building of God's Kingdom. This idea has even been reflected in the art which resulted from the Reformation.
While it is certainly true that the medieval order tended to overemphasize the clergy-laity distinction and view only tasks specifically related to the church as spiritual, the Protestant doctrine of Vocation represents an abuse of the Scriptural teaching of the Kingdom equally as grievous.
1 Corinthians 10 tells us that whatsoever we do, whether we eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. The context of the passage is dealing with the Christian's motivation of Love and how that is essentially our Law and its fulfillment. Dealing with such things as eating meat offered to idols and following on from the larger discussion beginning in Chapter 8, he discusses Christian liberty and how we must not abuse it. Love must be supreme even when employing our liberty and we must not trample the consciences of the weaker brethren. So even in things like eating and drinking, we do this to the glory of God.
Now, eating meat or drinking wine, are these Kingdom building activities? Yes and no. It is clear from the context, that how we eat meat is affected by the fact that we are Christians. By the eating the meat, we're filling our bellies and I see nothing beyond that unless we wish to read something into the text. By having breakfast or lunch we're not engaging in Holy acts, but common. We're creatures made to eat and our bodies have to be nourished. As with all common things, this can be abused. The New Testament teaches that if we think by withholding or abstaining from certain foods we are made more Holy....than we hold to demonic doctrine. That is not what Christian worship is about. And I would argue if we eat showing no moderation or control that too can become a spiritual issue. It's not about the food, it shows rather something of our character.
But in both of these abuses, please note, it's not really about the food or even the basic act of eating the food. In one it's attaching religious meaning to the act when God has not commanded it, thus by making something to be Holy which is not, true Christian service is perverted. Or, by taking something Common and letting it control us, we have bowed in a sense, to an idol.
So the thrust of the 1 Corinthians passage is to understand the preeminence of Love, our understanding of the New Covenant Law of Love, and the dangers, snares and temptations of idolatry. Along the way in chapter 9, Paul goes an aside and discusses the apostolic ministry and in the beginning of chapter 10, we have some lessons regarding the continuity between the Old and New testaments and basically an injunction to maintain antithesis even though our liberty allows us to eat meat offered to idols. But in our partaking of shall we say, often idolatrous Common Culture...we must be wise.
Nowhere from the passage do we get any notion that the actual acts, the mechanics of the eating and drinking are Kingdom building and thus Holy activities in and of themselves. Only things that are Holy and thus Kingdom will survive the Eschaton, where Peter tells us all will be burned up to make way for the New Heavens and the New Earth.
In fact by focusing on the actual acts we can get into trouble. Paul deals with the abstaining aspect in 1 Timothy 4. This is an abuse because we are to receive these things with thanksgiving. But what about the notion that you must treat these acts as Holy Kingdom building tasks? Paul mentions the food being sanctified by prayer, but does he mean the act of eating it is worship itself?
Here's where a lot of people seem to have problem. As I've written elsewhere, when culture is viewed as a Holy construct, we immediately have a dilemma. There is either the tendency to say, all that we engage in must be Holy. That's one way you could read the 1 Corinthians passage. Therefore, unless it is purely Holy activity we can't participate. Consequently, we can only read Christian books, listen to Christian music, etc... all cultural endeavours have to be Christian-ized. Thus, for these people they seek to retreat and form what some have called the Christian ghetto. Though the form may be different, in essence this is the same spiritual idea that led to monasticism. It's fleeing from the corrupting world.
Or, another response might be, since culture is Holy, or rather ought to be Holy, we need to as an act of worship engage in culture building and work to transform it in the Holy expression it's meant to be. Thus all the work we do since it is with a transformational focus becomes Holy, and thus can be identified with building the Kingdom of God. The artist painting a picture, the composer writing notes on the paper, the legislator crafting law, the scientist probing the atom, all these things become Holy endeavours.
Some of this camp, even follow through on the logic and argue since Holy things survive the fires of Judgment, our cultural pursuits will survive as well. They will undoubtedly be purged of sin, but man's discoveries, contributions and expressions will be with us in heaven. They would argue that when man discovers truth in law or even true beauty, these things are reflections of Eternal Truth. Thus, for these people they literally are building the Kingdom and believe we will have Bach, Rembrandt, Gothic architecture, and all other wonderful things in heaven.
However, no argument can be made from the New Testament for any such Cultural Continuationist notions. Unfortunately this view distorts the nature of the Kingdom by calling things Holy which are not Holy, but Common. Some may appreciate Bach and Rembrandt but they too are the productions of a fallen world and Peter assures us will be destroyed. Whatever things we have that show beauty or stir the soul I would argue are meant in a way to frustrate us. Though we can enjoy them, we ought to realize that we are unable to even grasp the wonders of sin-free recreated Paradise and in the end Bach is but nails on a chalkboard and Rembrandt the brushstrokes of a pre-schooler. It strikes me as a very and low and terribly disappointing view of Heaven to embrace such a notion and it seems incongruous with laying up our treasures there if I can find suitable treasures at the local concert hall or museum.
So am I arguing the Medieval view was correct? No. But what does the Bible say about vocation and the related term of calling?
Advocates of the Christian Vocation, often speak of someone's calling. Fred is called to be a doctor, or Ed is called to be a lawyer. They will even suggest someone is called to be a janitor, though you will rarely find much in the way of development of the idea for these lower callings. More on that below.
There is a sense in which we certainly recognize people are given gifts of aptitude at certain tasks. There's no doubt Vladimir Horowitz had gifts pertaining to playing the piano. I can almost weep watching him play. There's no doubt someone like Michael Jordan has gifts concerning basketball. Even though I have no interest in the sport, watching clips of the guy play is undoubtedly amazing. His athletic ability was above and beyond what many of even the most dedicated could ever hope to attain. One can even say that Providence meant for them to do these things by giving them these gifts.
People like this who are not Christians will answer for these gifts when they stand before God. They did not glorify God by acknowledging Him for these abilities. And thus in the end they contribute to their damnation. What about for Christians? They most certainly will praise God for what He's given them, and certainly this recognition should play out in their lives. When praised, they instead praise God. When asked of the source of these gifts, rather than speak of themselves, they can point to their Creator etc....
But do the mechanics, the actual physical acts in and of themselves contribute to the Kingdom? Transformationalists and those who hold to Vocation argue yes. I'm saying, it's no different than the mechanics of eating the meat in 1 Corinthians, which is really the only passage we can turn to for any guidance on the issue. The whole discussion is really beyond the scope of the text.
What does 1 Corinthians teach us? It's not the actual acts, but rather our Christian motivations behind what we do that matter. So if I'm a piano master, my fingers pressing on ivory is no more a Holy endeavour than putting a fork to my mouth. I have to do it in love, with wisdom, laying aside pride or superiority etc.... but the physical act is nothing. Now the food benefits my body and is entirely legitimate, but in the end it doesn't matter if I ate fillet mignon or cheese and crackers. It was a means to end. I can be thankful when something tastes good. It's legitimate, but not Holy. When I hear Horowitz, I can be thankful, the music is stirring. I watch in awe as his fingers move over the keys. Even fallen man is capable of many wonderful and beautiful things. Should I lay up my treasures and hopes here? No, enjoy the music, but remember what's coming is much better.
1 Corinthians 7 speaks of calling as well, but the context there is concerning virgins and the whole notion of being content where God has placed us. We shouldn't become slaves to men, but use whatever status we're in to the best of our ability.
Would that make the work of a slave Holy? The carrying of pitchers and tending of fires, the preparation of food? Rather, it is the heart of the slave living out the Law of Love that is the Holy activity. Can living out this Law mean bringing someone water, or sweeping the floor with extra care? Sure. But the actual sweeping or the physical carrying, the mechanics in and of themselves are not Holy acts. They're a means, not an end.
Elsewhere in the Scriptures the idea of Christian calling or vocation is strictly tied in with our being Christians. We are called to serve God, turn from sin, rest in Him, worship Him. Nowhere do you find any notion that someone laying bricks or writing a novel is contributing to the Kingdom. We're called as Christians to be fathers and husbands, wives and mothers etc… There is no doubt a Christian man will view being a father and a husband in a way that the common man doesn't. But even marriage as wonderful as it is, will not survive in the age to come. So in the end, it's not about tossing the football around or taking out the garbage as good as those things are. No one is suggesting those tasks are holy. So why do they do so with Rembrandt and his brush? Was that more important in light of eternity?
Again I argue this whole discussion flows out of the notion that somehow culture is holy. Vocationalists seem to argue the Medieval order de-legitimized something like brick-laying. Only the clergy were 'really' serving God with their lives. That too would be a mistake. Even the bricklayer serves God with his life. But it's not about the laying of bricks. Rather by laying bricks he makes money to put food on the table and feed his Christian family. He is providing for them, showing the Law of Love at work. He's obeying God by caring for his charge, and he's loving his family by providing for them. Verily this is worship, but it has nothing to do with mechanics of flipping mortar from a trowel onto a course of bricks and pressing the next one onto it. This is just a means, not an end. It is entirely legitimate, because the Common Grace realm which includes culture is the matrix for the gospel. We have the peace and stability of civilization (or the city) during this regime of delay. We live in the City of Man alongside the lost. We help build the City of Man, so that we may promote peace and stability and we too benefit as we go about the work of the Kingdom, the Holy task of Worship. That's what we're made for. This is the supreme Kingdom activity. We worship God, and proclaim His Word. Just our very presence has a leavening effect. The Christian bricklayer is being salt and light because he's not a crook and does decent work. He's fair, and should show Love even to his clients. This will affect even the lost. But again, it's not really about laying the bricks.
So where does this notion of Holy Vocation come from? Why this emphasis on culture? It's an old theme, a drum I keep beating and we've already hinted at it. When Culture, which includes government is viewed as Holy and confused with the Kingdom we have embraced Sacralism.
Suddenly when your notion of your culture is conflated with the Kingdom of God you have a whole new impetus and drive to try and shape what is happening all around you in the City of Man. Common tasks become Kingdom tasks. And yet, try as you might, you cannot find this doctrine in the Scriptures. There are the token verses and perhaps the flagship verse is the 1 Corinthians 10 passage. Even a cursory glance shows this verse does not support the theological framework Vocationalists are arguing for.
We've written elsewhere of the Kuyperian-Van Tillian cultural construct and how this has been used. Admittedly this teaching is older, but never had it gained so much emphasis nor did it carry as much as weight until was cast in the Reformed mold. The modern expressions of this teaching have swept through the Evangelical world and it is quite common to hear it discussed in mainstream Christian circles.
There's no problem in granting validity to the work of the lay person. But validity cannot mean the common tasks are themselves building the Kingdom of God. I want to keep labouring this point because it is very important and I want to address the inconsistency in how this is applied.
With all the talk of granting validity to the work of the common man the emphasis you will find is basically in relation to what we might term high culture. For the cultural building Transformationalist community the people on the lower tier of the cultural expanse really have very little to offer to their overall vision. The rubbish collector, the plasterer, the clerk at the local convenience store, sure their work is valid and to a Transformationalist even Holy, but there's really no explanation of this. How is the person running a cash register building the Kingdom of God? How does this work come with us, so to speak, into Heaven? What will the application be there? When I'm painting a wall, or installing a toilet, how is that building the Kingdom?
As I've said, (I don't want anyone to misunderstand) by supporting my family and interacting with people, yes I can be building the Kingdom of God. But remember the advocates of Vocation are asserting the work itself is building the Kingdom. But you see, the work their talking about is for the civilizational goals. So art, music, architecture, and law become quite important, because these are the markers by which civilizations are identified.
Changing diapers, installing toilets, and punching keys on a cash register are not. I've seen no argument for their eternal application. I think we all know, there isn't one. They are valid but common tasks, not glamourous or transformational, but quite necessary.
I would argue much of high culture is exactly the same. I can benefit from Mozart, but in light of eternity, I'm benefitting equally from the toilet being installed. They're both rather nice to have, but in the end, neither will mean much in the age to come. Will Mozart affect me differently than the toilet. Maybe. Contrary to the continued arguments of the champions of Western triumphalism, it's all rather subjective. I know complicated arguments are made for what makes good music, but it is rooted in Sacralist argument and far beyond any grounding in Biblical doctrine. Some find Bach to be moving, I find it irritatingly redundant and dry. Some find Rachmaninoff to be chaotic, I often find him moving. Some would say I just need training, but in what? Where can I find this in the Bible? I though the Scriptures are sufficient for the Christian life? To be a better Christian or rather culture builder, I need musical appreciation? Are all other non-western music types invalid? Am I sin because I often prefer those? These discussions are largely a waste of time and the church has wasted much time on them for the past few decades.
I argue the doctrine of Christian Vocation is basically a Sacralist formulation, an abuse of a much more basic Biblical idea, and is like all Sacralist constructs harming the Biblical model of the Kingdom. This is not a Pilgrim ethic. It is failing to understand the words of the Apostle:
But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away. (1Cor. 7.29-31)
People are distracted by this doctrine, and since its real aim seems to be more about winning the culture war by focusing on high culture, it has taken on an elitist flavour.
I've mentioned a latent prosperity gospel in Reformed circles, especially among Dominionists. Aside from cultural bias, this is the ideological source of this tendency. As you interact with Reformed people one will find great emphasis on one's career and tasks. It's not just middle class interest, it's about influence and the overall strategy. No one's going to come out and attack a blue collar working class person. In fact, verbally their work will be validated. But it is clear, and I've had many reports of this and have experienced it first hand, you should not be content in this lower tier. You ought to aspire to climb up a few rungs. One almost gets the impression that they could serve the Kingdom better if they could just ascend a bit and interact at a higher cultural level. It's not just cultural snobbery, for these folks it is a moral issue.
Look at Reformed circles. There is a tremendous drive to push children into at the very least the white collar world, but more specifically a push for children to pursue careers that will take them into the realms of high culture.
It's interesting because there have been recent divisions among these camps. Some Dominionists are now refusing to send their daughters to college. The argument is usually rooted in anti-modernism. Yet, this has caused dismay among some of their Transformationalist colleagues, because to them, they're gutting the army by half!
This is a theology of the bourgeoisie, the middle class. This is an elitist tendency rather wrapped up in its own little world with its own sets of values and aspirations. It's adherents seem rather blind to the plight of the majority of people, the reality of their lives, and certainly Christians around the rest of the world. For many people it's not about finding meaning in their work or having a consciousness that the mechanics of their labour is contributing to the Kingdom of God. For them it's about survival. The sweat shop worker is not thinking about building the Kingdom as they work their fingers raw. They're thinking about their next meal.
The Christian who works as a coal miner in China does not view his work as building the Kingdom. And by contributing to the economical infrastructure of a Totalitarian regime, it certainly isn't. But somehow the coal miner in America is? I also find a lot of the emphasis also seems biased toward American exceptionalism. There are many double standards. It's okay for Christians to be patriotic in America, but what about Christians being patriotic in France? Work that helps America is important, but what about in Vietnam? The coal miner in China is certainly legitimate, but let's not be confused about what he is doing. And now apply it to the miner in eastern Kentucky or the Ruhr. It's the same thing.
This theology has utterly failed to reach out to the lower classes. Rarely does one find very many common or lower class people in Reformed circles. Some of this may have to do with the theological emphasis, but from what I've seen firsthand, it is often Reformed elitism that drives people away. The lower classes flock to Baptist and Charismatic churches, because there they find people they can relate to. In Appalachia where I live, you find lots of people working dead end and quite depressing jobs. Vocation makes no traction among these people. Interestingly in some ways, they have more wisdom about the world, the nature of business and power, than many of the optimistically giddy Transformationalists who often strike me as some of the most naïve people on the planet. The local factory worker will just laugh if you try to tell them that by working for company X, they're helping people, by producing product Y, civilization is benefitting. No, even the Nascar guy in the baseball cap driving a forklift will tell you, he's only helping to line the pockets of the owners of company X, and the goods they produce are cheap junk that people waste their money on.
Now, I would still say, the Nascar guy can work there. He's putting food on the table, but the work itself is just common, certainly not Holy.
I have to ask what the doctrine of Vocation has done to the overall gospel message? There's something quite wrong when Reformed Christianity can't seem to reach the lower classes. Large swathes of the United States are lacking any Reformed witness. And you'll usually find they're poor regions. Yet they teem with Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Why? Oh, there are other reasons as well. There is pastoral elitism, a standard of living and wage demanded by an educated clergy. This kills many a developing congregation. Polity also comes into play. But I've watched Reformed works try and get started even in my own area and I've tried not to roll my eyes as I watch a pastor or elder try and stir people with the doctrine of Vocation. It doesn't work, except for middle and upper class people.
So what kind of work is Holy? Work that builds the Kingdom, work that even common people engage in when they worship and pray, but also when they talk to their neighbour over the fence. Vocation has attacked the idea that Christian Ministry is somehow more important to the Kingdom. I remember hearing Bahnsen say there was no difference between a Christian pastor and a garbage man. While both are legitimate means of income, there is no doubt the Elder is engaged in a higher work. Does that make him intrinsically a better person? Of course not, but his calling is indeed higher. Vocation is actually profaning the true Holy Work of the Church. By placing Culture as the supreme Kingdom-goal, it severely lowers the Higher work of the Church, and elevates the Common work of people to a level it shouldn't have. And everywhere there is confusion and distraction. The argument is always cast in terms of Vocationalist v. Medievalist. Both are wrong.
Rather than focusing on and building the Kingdom of God, we're trying to build up the City of Man. By not focusing on the gospel, the people that should be reached are left behind and sometimes even despised. The work of the Church is lowered, and even people who do not embrace Transformationalist eschatology end up wasting their time on trying to beautify the city of man.
We are pilgrims here. Let us go about our work with zeal and vigour but let us understand what it's really all about. It's not about eating and drinking, putting brush to canvas, drawing a bow across a string, oral argument in court, nailing wood together, or even drafting legislation. These are all the very real, necessary, and beneficial tasks of common grace culture. Let us not confuse them with the Kingdom of God.
We ought to do our jobs as Christians, but understand the jobs are not Christian. Our treasures are in heaven, not here. Transformationalism is another gospel promoting another Kingdom. Let us also avoid the doctrines it develops by implication.