In my first three blogs on Karl Barth’s theology of vocation found in Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation III.4 (Freedom in Limitation, Chapter XII, Section 56, T&T Clark International, G. W. Bromiley & T. F. Torrance, Editors, 1960, pages 565–647), Barth commented on the process where an individual has “sought, chosen, entered and to the best of his ability filled his sphere of operation according to the plan and providence of God. The command of God has called him to this place, and according to this command he has now tried to work in it under the will and plan of the divine providence.” In this final blog, Barth tackles a confining verse in Scripture: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” (1 Corinthians 7:20, NRSV)
I found this verse troubling. It implies that an individual should not change occupations or jobs. Like marriage, our chosen field of work should be a lifelong commitment. Barth translates the verse: “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” He begins by stating that a person should remain in their calling. “He will remain in it so long and so far as the command of God summons him to do so. On this presupposition he must prove his faithfulness in this vocation.”
Then Barth asks a question: “But what does it mean to abide in his calling? He answers this question by stating “it certainly means that he must not glance aside at the calling of others. It certainly means that he must apply himself wholeheartedly to his own. It certainly means, therefore, that he must not allow this application to be challenged or disturbed by the thought of other desirable or very different callings. There is no other calling for any man. Each has his own calling.”
I wrote in my earlier blogs that Barth defined calling as God’s summons and our acceptance. The summons is to each individual personally and each person is commanded to accept. God gives individuals gifts, and we are instructed to use these gifts to the best of our abilities. We are not to get sidetracked pursuing other persons in their respective vocations. We are to concentrate exclusively on our vocation. But can we change, pursue another task or sphere of operation? Barth says yes, “only so long and so far as it is allotted to him by the calling of God.” What must remain is “the calling, the Word, the command of God, not the sphere of operation.” Remaining in the calling means being open and ready to be called elsewhere.
Obedience to a calling means being open to change, “not on the basis of one’s own ideas and opinions or those of others, nor under the pressure of external circumstances or one’s own rambling fancies, but in obedience to one’s calling.” “Did God err when He previously led me to this or that field and bade me work in it?” Barth answers no; God does not err, only humans err. God perhaps led a person in a direction to discover some new direction. We must be open to change within our calling.
Barth references John Calvin (1509–1564) as stating that Christians can change their sphere of operation. “It might be fitting for a tailor to learn another trade, or a salesman to switch to farming, and therefore why should not a doctor become a minister or a minister a doctor or politician, a scholar a man of affairs or a man of affairs a scholar?” These changes do happen, and one can still remain in one’s calling “even though so sharp a change is involved.”
Changes can happen that are more minor. One can work for the same company and be reassigned to a new location or position. A pastor can be transferred by a Bishop to a new congregation with different pastoral needs. A business closes and one seeks new employment. All these changes are still within the same calling. “Even in the same post within the same vocation new tasks can mean a radical shift in the personal sphere of operation. … Sickness or age may bring with them quite unbidden the problem of finding and occupying new spheres of operation.”
With all these possible changes, there are risks of errors and failures within human matters and choices. Humans are fallible, not God’s calling. “The more serious the change in question, the more we have to ask ourselves whether it is really the calling of God and not just our own caprice that we think we must follow. … God will have both the first and last word above, in and in spite of all the human error which may creep in, and that in view of this we may make the boldest ventures.”