In my last blog, I discussed Dr. Gary D. Badcock’s book The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998). I outlined his research into vocation (calling) as found in the Old and New Testament. He theologically concludes that the Bible is silent on career choices. Scripture defines vocation as God’s call to a life of repentance, faith, and obedience. His answer to the question “What do I do with my life?” is to love God and one’s neighbor, as Jesus taught.
Martin Luther (1483–1526) lived in a very different culture than our postmodern culture. He interpreted 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 in a society with few social or occupational choices. Luther believed a person’s standing or office (Stand in German) was set by God. Everyone has a standing because Luther defined it to include parent, husband, friend, volunteer, and other roles. A Christian has faith in God and their vocation is used to love their neighbor. Luther’s theology binds faith and vocation together.
Badcock places Luther’s vocation theology in the context of Luther’s historical period. “In its original usage, the station is fundamentally a medieval and feudal conception, presupposing the idea of the social organism in which each member has a given part to play. The modern social ideal differs sharply, based as it is on the ideal of freedom. … It would be very strange to modern ears to hear Luther preach on the religious duty of the calling as rooted in one’s standing. His whole conception of vocation as a religious duty is totally foreign to modern culture.” The same concept can be applied to Paul’s Corinthians letter. “He is also giving voice to his profound social conservatism, a conservatism that many today find shocking or even offensive. … One cannot straightforwardly transfer biblical teaching concerning the call of God to the modern world.”(page 40–44)
Badcock compares Luther’s vocation theology to a modern theologian, Karl Barth (1886–1968), whose views on vocation parallel Scripture more accurately. “The unique person and work of Jesus Christ are actually what is in question in the doctrine of vocation, for the divine call is to faith and obedience to this one and to no other. There is no suggestion that any sense of self-fulfillment or self-realization can legitimately enter into the discussion or that a free human response to God is what is in question. Rather, throughout the treatment of vocation, Barth focuses on the objective event by which humanity is set in the light of life. He argues that it is solely on the basis of the coexistence of Jesus Christ with us—on the basis of his existence as the God-man and his work as the Reconciler—that we have new life. But it is precisely this which constitutes the Christian calling, for it is the call to this new life and to its proclamation.”(page 57) Barth does not address the importance of the occupation one chooses because it is not the ultimate concern of vocation.
God is the source of vocation and if God calls, then the faithful are commanded to perform the called task. However, as witnessed in Scripture, God does not call the vast majority to perform tasks or actions. God does give gifts, charismata, and we are to use these gifts in service to our neighbors. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30 and Luke 19:11–27) illustrates the importance of using our gifts well. God calls people to action, not inaction. “A vocation is something lived, something enacted in a concrete life story. Its primary reference is to the person called rather than to the God who calls: ‘What will I do with my life?’ is vocation’s question. God does not act out the details of my living for me, or even in me; instead, my existence is one of created freedom. Even though my entire being is dependent on God, I nevertheless choose and act, and I build my own life story through the decisions and projects that I undertake.”(page 53)
Babcock then decides to change his original question of “What ought I to do?” to “What sort of person ought I to be?” Focusing on the occupational question takes the spotlight away from Biblical vocation and centers it on the secular definition of vocation. Christians are a people of faith first and workers second. The first thing humans did was celebrate the Sabbath, not work. Deciding amongst a myriad of occupation choices is not the primary vocational task or goal towards self-fulfillment. The Christian way of life is faith in God and living a life of love and discipleship.
“The human vocation is to do the will of God and so to live life ‘abundantly’ (John 10:10), but the will of God does not extend down to the details of career choice. And once this is realized, I [Badcock] believe, then it becomes possible for us to live more adventurously, more freely, breathing in an atmosphere of love rather than law, looking for our own way to share the good news of the gospel in daily life, whether in career choices or in business or in the ordinary transactions of the daily round.”(page 142)