I have been researching vocation from a theological perspective for the past 18 months. It is a broad subject with an ever-growing bibliography. Many people, especially youth who are making career decisions, struggle with this topic. Vocation tied into my earlier theology of work research. I made a tactical decision not to tackle this subject when writing my first book, although work is a subset of vocation.
I stumbled upon a theological gem while doing my research. Dr. Gary D. Badcock, the Peache Chair of Divinity at Huron University College, wrote The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998) during his 1996 sabbatical leave from the University of Edinburgh. He created this book to answer the question: What do I do with my life? Badcock is a theologian, so he examined vocation from a theological framework. His book is written is a clear, non-scholastic style which was one of many reasons I enjoyed his book.
His first chapter contains a section titled Vocation in the Bible (pages 3–10). Most orthodox theologians use Scripture as their primary source. He first searched the Old Testament for the Hebrew verb ‘to call’ (עדק) and discovered that it is “a personal or collective summons by God.” For example, God personally called Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4) and God used the prophets to call His chosen people to repent. During my vocation research, I developed a spreadsheet of all Hebrew verses containing words like call and chosen with the assistance of a Hebrew graduate student. My research came to similar conclusions.
Badcock next tackled the New Testament and searched for the Greek word ‘to call’ (χαλεīν). Jesus uses this verb to personally call his disciples to follow him and Jews, in general, to repentance and discipleship. “Jesus calls people to follow him in his ministry, so much so that a whole New Testament genre can be discerned in the collected call stories.” Paul also used the same Greek verb to call people to salvation. Again, I developed a Greek spreadsheet for ‘call’ verbs with the assistance of my niece, an associate professor of classics, and agree with Dr. Badcock’s findings.
There are a few troubling verses in 1 Corinthians (7:17–24) that possibly tie work to vocation. “This is an important text—indeed, a crucial one, for upon it rests the whole attempt to argue from the Bible that one’s work can be a vocation in the strict theological sense.” Verse 17 (NRSV) states: “However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches.” Badcock states that the Greek is obscure and literally means “each one as God has called.” He believes that the NSRV did not translate the Greek correctly and the Jerusalem Bible is a better translation: “what each one has is what the Lord has given him, and he should continue as he was when God’s call reached him.”
Why is this so important? After the Reformation, theologians interpreted these few verses as the omnipotent God assigning individuals to a specific vocation/work. What God commands should not be changed! Badcock, and other theologians, disagree with this interpretation. “Here the sense of the ‘call’ is the same as elsewhere in the Pauline writings—indeed, in the whole of the Bible: the summons to faith, obedience, and salvation that is so basic to the Word of God.”
Verse 24 (NRSV) is even more troubling: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” The literal Greek translation is “each one in the calling in which he was called.” Several theologians believe that this verse refers to a person’s occupation and a Christian should not change their occupation. Badcock disagrees since neither occupation nor employment is mentioned in the verses. Badcock also examined the surrounding verses and concluded: “Paul’s purpose seems to be to resist the idea that the new life of the Christian entails an upheaval in the social, legal, and racial spheres.”
Badcock theologically concludes that calling in the Bible on career choices is “silent on the whole matter. … In the Bible, after all, the Christian calling refers to the reorientation of human life to God through repentance, faith, and obedience.” Calling means simply to live the Christian life. “This must always be the substance of the doctrine of vocation—and the core of our answer to the question ‘What will I do with my life?’”
For many Christians, this may come as a complete surprise as many were taught (and still believe) that vocation means occupation and God called them to their particular occupation. Many have struggled and prayed to God for God’s will when choosing their occupation. Did I correctly hear the voice of God? Did I make a mistake and upset God? Babcock believes that unless one encounters God like Moses and Paul did (and God commanded action, not occupations), then God does not care what occupation you choose as long as you live the Christian life, as revealed in Scripture. “The Christian calling is nothing less than to love God and one’s neighbor, as Jesus teaches—or alternatively, to respond to the Word of grace with faith and obedience.”