Some Thoughts on the Doctrine of Vocation

July 9th, 2014 Post by

Since the word “vocation” is thrown around so much, I have been trying to work out in my mind and through study of God’s Word how we may actually speak of and teach about vocation. The following reflects what I have been working through for a few years, and I would appreciate any input.

luther-familieVocation is from the Latin word, vocatio, a calling. If something is your calling, then that means that God called you to do it; it means God told you to do it. And if God told you to do X, then it follows that he ordained and instituted the specific work of X. There are particular vocations, such as pastor, father, mother, husband, wife, and child. God has also instituted the government to maintain worldly order and peace. And then there is the general vocation that he extends to all Christians, known as the call of love (vocatio charitatis). Some particular estates or vocations take priority over others. If a Christian holds a governing office, and he is neglecting his family, then he should step down from his office. In fact, the same goes with a pastor (1 Tim 3:4,5). We consider the preaching office both spiritually as well as orderly, that is, in the order of creation. This is why Paul forbids women from teaching and preaching publicly (1 Tim 2:12-14; 1 Cor 14:34-37). Now, according to its specific task to preach the gospel, the office of pastor is the highest office (1 Tim 3:1; Heb 13:17). But according to creation, the office of parent takes the cake (LC I, 141).

So God called me to be a father, a husband, a brother, a brother in Christ, a neighbor, and a citizen. He has also called me to be a pastor, though it won’t be ratified for another month.

What do all of these things listed have in common? That they entail good works and service for the church? Sure, that’s one thing. But more specifically, they are all instituted by God. I really can’t say for sure that God called me to do something – that is to say, God told me to – unless he has actually instituted and commanded it in his Word. All of these vocations listed above are actually instituted by God in his Word. If such or such an office is not instituted and specifically commanded by God in his Word, then we have no certainty or liberty to say that someone has a call to such office. A humanly instituted office may include very good work that serves the church, the home, and society, but that does not mean that that office is itself a vocation from God. It may contribute to a specific vocation – and certainly often does! – but we cannot call it a vocation as such unless God has actually said so.

Allow me to give some examples of services that, though often beneficial to assisting divinely instituted vocations, are not themselves vocations. Having just spent my final year at seminary, what comes to mind is the office of deaconess. The office of deaconess is instituted by the church in her freedom to offer various kinds of charitable care in Christian love. Many deaconesses do very good works of service, especially to other women. However, the office of deaconess is not instituted by God in his Word. God has commanded all Christians to love one another and care for one another according to various needs.  And he has given a general mandate to the older women to instruct the younger women in what is good, teaching them to care for their children and submit to their husbands (Titus 2:3-5).  But he did not institute a particular church office of deaconess to carry these tasks out. Such specific task of deaconess serves the general call to love and care for the neighbor.

The office of Christian day school teacher is also instituted by the church in her freedom to assist parents in educating their children in both secular as well as spiritual disciplines. Much good work is accomplished through this office. However, God never specifically instituted the office of Christian day school teacher.

Other examples go beyond the church. There is the job of fireman, barber, butcher, baker, and candle-stick maker. The specific job-descriptions of being on call for when there is a fire, for cutting hair, baking bread, or making candles – many good things – are not specifically given in God’s Word.

So what? Are such labors of Christians in vain? Of course not! Christians use various occupations to serve their neighbors and confess the truth. Christ says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).” So you serve your neighbor by means of material goods. That is your vocation. What the specific job you do to acquire that material wealth is not necessarily your vocation. In fact, the mammon will itself fail, as Jesus says. But your service to your neighbor will not fail if it is done by faith in Christ. Your specific job description is not what defines you in your vocation as a Christian unless that job description is specifically given and commanded by God. What is given and commanded by God is that you serve and help your neighbor. So if you are a deaconess, a school teacher, a financial planner, a journalist, or a candle-stick maker, you use your occupation to serve your neighbor. But the occupation might change.

So why the distinction? Why is it so important to distinguish between a fireman and a husband, or a deaconess and a mother? I suppose there are a number of reasons why it is important to clarify what God actually did and did not institute. But one reason that comes to mind is priority. A woman might have to quit her job so she can take care of her children. Or in other cases, she might have to work from home or outside the home for the very purpose of helping her husband support their family. A Christian father might need to take a different job if his current occupation is pulling him away from his duties at home. The circumstances may vary, but the office is the same.

Another reason that comes to mind is that we should be careful not to allow the offices that we institute to deprive us of other divinely instituted offices. Rather, the former should serve the latter. This is especially crucial when we consider offices that churches have established to promote the truth and Christian charity. When Christian husbands and wives, for example, purposefully deprive themselves – whether temporarily or permanently – of the office and calling of parent so that they can “serve the Lord” in an auxiliary office in the church, then the church has defeated her own purpose. It becomes a terrible irony!

So let’s think about how we speak of vocation. A vocation is not simply whatever job you have managed to get. It is a bit simplistic to define vocation as: “Having a job that isn’t in itself sinful + Being a Christian = Having a Vocation.” Now, your general vocation is to love your neighbor, which includes whatever boss or supervisor who might have authority over you. But just because you are called by God to treat whoever has authority over you with honor and respect does not mean that the occupation you have, in which you fulfill this general call, is, as such, your vocation.

A Christian man, in Christian liberty, is free to quit his job as a cook, for example, if he finds, according to the call of love, that he would be better off doing something else to serve his neighbor. Often a woman who serves as a deaconess or a school teacher – or what ever – determines, according to the law of love and in Christian liberty, that she should quit her job for the sake of her family or perhaps for some other godly reason. According to the call of love, it behooves them to give their supervisors as much due notice as possible before they quit their particular occupations. But they are nevertheless free to make these decisions.

On the other hand, a man is not free in the gospel to quit being a father or to prevent himself and his wife from being parents in order to fulfill some other aspiration. The same is true for mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, Christian brothers and sisters, and pastors. Sometimes pastors must lessen their loads or are even not able to fulfill their duties anymore due to old age or poor health. And often a pastor takes a call to serve another congregation of Christ’s flock. But for a pastor arbitrarily to decide that he just isn’t up to it anymore is not godly. St. Paul first tells the Ephesian bishops to take heed unto themselves, and then unto the flock (Acts 20:28). In other words, examine yourself, and remind yourself what God has called you to do; do not neglect the gift – the duty! – that was given you (1 Tim 4:14).

This article has been almost completely law. And that’s alright, but since I am compelled to speak (or write) the gospel, here is how it relates. When God tells you to do something specific, the comfort is in the fact that what he has created he has also redeemed. When God tells you to be a father, he does this by means of giving you a son or a daughter. He sets you in an office that he created by creating that which makes you in the office. And he redeems his creation. That is to say, he forgives you your sins that you commit in your calling and credits to you through faith the obedience of his Servant whom he has sent.

God gives you neighbors to love, teaching you how to love your neighbor. He desires to save all of your neighbors (1 Tim 2:4). And your service to your neighbor is not in vain. Even when a Christian laments over his heathen acquaintances who only seem to scoff at his Christian confession, he can take comfort in Christ’s promise that whoever confesses him before men has the comfort of Christ’s intercession to his Father in heaven (Matt 10:32).

Our Lord redeems his creation. A father takes comfort that his children who are raised in the instruction of Christ are in the care of their Lord who created them and redeemed them. And even when parents mourn the unforeseen apostasy of their child, they take comfort in the Word of the Spirit that they know sanctifies their struggles and creates faith — even calls back to faith — where and when God pleases (John 3:8; AC V). In other words, by God’s grace, solely because of Jesus’ merit, our labors are not in vain. And a Christian who labors in the work that was prepared for him to walk in (Eph 2:10) knows that he serves not man, but his Lord, who is gentle and kind to him (Col 3:24) and has saved him by grace (Eph 2:8,9), confident that his Lord rewards him, not because of his own efforts and struggles, but because of the merits of Christ (Eph 6:7,8). A woman whose husband is a jerk continues to serve and honor him for Christ’s sake, taking comfort in the hope that her Lord has set before her. She know that whatever she does, she does in the name of Christ, her merciful Lord and Savior (Col 3:17) who saves her from sin and hell by his grace even throughout her childbearing (1 Tim 2:15).

For the sake of Christ’s obedience unto death, God declares you righteous through faith. That is to say, he credits to you the perfect obedience of Jesus. And this means that he credits to your labors the labors of a righteous man. When Paul says what he says in Ephesians 2:10, he isn’t moving beyond verses 8 and 9. His point is rather that the labors that God prepared for you to walk in are not in vain, because he has saved you by his grace through faith. So we extol all good works that contribute to the the general vocation of loving the neighbor. And we especially extol the specific vocations that God has instituted, trusting, even when it isn’t so apparent, that what God has created he has also redeemed.


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  1. Libby North
    July 11th, 2014 at 18:34 | #1

    Thank you so much for this helpful article. I often feel that the way we Lutherans use the term vocation is simply a sanctimonious version of the secular use of the same term. Isn’t this helpful distinction hindered by our indiscriminate use of the term, “called” for non-pastoral workers. DCEs get calls, Christian teachers get calls, it seems that everyone on the church’s payroll is “called” these days, except for some unfortunate pastors who happen to be truly called.

  2. Bryce
    July 15th, 2014 at 00:14 | #2

    Excellent delineation of vocation vs occupation. This will be very helpful in the future.

    One question though. You say that one must prioritize their vocations, with that of parent being among the most important. That one must be careful to not limit their vocations with their occupation. So my question is, how would you respond when two vocations conflict?

    Specifically, I’m talking about the vocations of husband/father and armed service member. We clearly see in Romans 13 that the government’s sword, the armed forces, are instituted by God, and so qualify as a vocation. Our confessions also support this. But the unfortunate reality is that serving in the capacity of an armed service member will require neglecting the family for a while, from as little as a few weeks up to as much as two years at a time.

    I’m just curious to see what other people think.

  3. July 15th, 2014 at 08:28 | #3

    @Bryce #2
    Bryce, that’s a great question! I have been thinking a lot about that specifically. First of all, the way our society now thinks about the armed forces has been thrown in a whirlwind. For example, the authors and original subscribers to our Confessions would have been appalled at the idea that a woman would be deployed away from her children in order to fight a foreign war. I believe that this is one issue that we cannot remain quietists on, and it requires much discussion among us. But to answer your question, notice in my article that I used the word “estate.” I purposefully did that, because it seems that when we enter into the civil realm, it doesn’t become so specific. So yes it’s true that God has instituted the governing authority. But he did not institute any specific kind of government. So when it comes to the civil realm, I think we need to speak more broadly.

    So a police officer is part of the civil estate. Police officers should do their duties according to this estate, knowing that their duties to the U.S. government or Indiana government (or whatever state they’re in) actually serve something that God has instituted — not specifically the particular form of the U.S. government or Indiana government, but the civil rule in general that these governments serve to uphold. But if a police officer needs to attend to his family (whatever the urgency might be), it may be wise for him to take time off or even (again, depending on the urgency) find a different occupation. There is no hard and fast rule, but there is guidance in what God has instituted. Also, if a man stops being a police officer, he hasn’t departed from the civil realm. The civil realm includes rulers and citizens. That, as such, is the form of the estate God has instituted. And that, as such, is the general call that God gives. But the civil realm becomes tricky, especially since it wasn’t instituted at creation and since no specific form of government has been prescribed. It was instituted after the fall, and it derives its authority from the rule that God instituted at creation: parent. So the priority simply requires informed discretion on the part of the Christian. It also requires that we emphasize Christian freedom. The problem with a lot of the moralistic views of vocation is that they pressure you to find out exactly what God wants you to do. And the Lutheran response is very good, namely, that we don’t need to go searching for what we cannot see. But at the same time, I think we need to be careful not to teach a doctrine of vocation that gives too much security. What I mean is that when we talk about vocation, we immediately are faced with what our culture has created for us. There is a danger in understanding vocation in light of the status quo. As I mentioned above, that danger comes out in how we understand the vocations of mother and soldier, for example.

    So really, the doctrine of vocation is really the teaching of the third use of the law. It teaches that God has created work for us to do. And while often we might be guessing what this work is, we more often than not have some clear direction in God’s Word. But it isn’t like God gives us a check list or a step-by-step program. He simply teaches us what the Christian life looks like by teaching us what he has instituted for this life. The culture has taught us a warped version of God’s law, completely rejecting the order of creation. But this order is not meant to be burdensome. It is burdensome only because we are sinners, and we stand accused. But when we keep our minds set on what God has actually instituted, we are given perspective. And we cling to God’s promise through faith, knowing that he has taken away the law’s accusations. Sorry about the long response. And again, thanks for your question.

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