A Biblical Perspective on Calling

As Baylor University’s motto, Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana, indicates, the university is committed to the flourishing of both congregations and the wider culture that is their context. It affirms, therefore, that discovering and claiming one’s sense of calling matters for congregations not only because of the particular vocational identities of each congregant but also because the identity of the church is itself tied to calling. Though conversations about vocation often begin with the Latin vocare, “to call,” it is important to remember that the Greek term for “church” is ekklēsia, “called out ones.” The primary vocational identity of believers is therefore not their profession, their role within a family, or even any ministerial position they may fill. Rather, the primary vocational identity of believers is as those whom God has called to a life of faith in service to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Consequently, who we are to be and how we are to live as Christians requires an awareness and ever-deepening understanding of the God who calls us. The narrative of scripture depicts a God constantly calling people into relationship and to obedience to God’s good will for the world. In the Old Testament, the moment when God called the people of Israel from bondage into freedom largely defines them: “I loved the child Israel,” says the Lord in Hosea, “and out of Egypt I called my children” (Hos. 11:1). In the Gospels, Jesus Christ in a very literal way calls Lazarus from death into life (John 11:38–44) and calls others to follow him into eternal life (Matt. 16:24; Luke 5:27–32). Faith in and relationship to the God who called Israel was the animating factor empowering their efforts to live as a kingdom of priests who would bless the nations (Gen. 12:1–3; Exod. 19:5–6). Likewise, faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ is the animating factor that empowers the church’s efforts to live as God’s people (Matt. 28:19–20; Rom. 12:1–2; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:9–10). Without a Caller, we cannot be called. The starting point of vocational discernment is therefore cultivating spiritual practices that help us to know, hear, and follow the voice of God.

The contemporary context for congregations, however, creates challenges we need to examine and resist. Twenty-first century America is characterized largely by ideologies of dualism (i.e., a strict divide between the secular and the sacred, the public and the private), materialism (i.e., success, happiness, and personal fulfillment derive from financial and material resources), and individualism (i.e., each person ultimately operates in the world independent of others). Unfortunately, these dominant but pernicious cultural assumptions produce people—including Christians—who often lack a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives. The faith they practice on Sundays seems unrelated to what they do the rest of the week; they sense a gap between professional advancement and feelings of contentment and joy; and they may be lonely but desperately seeking community. The solution to these challenges begins with recovering a biblical understanding of vocation and learning how to discern God’s voice.

When congregations help Christians live out their faith commitments more fully by discovering and claiming their sense of calling, they become their namesake: ekklēsia, the “called ones” who follow Jesus Christ as Lord; who use their gifts to strengthen the church; and who become a church that reaches out to the world. Only when individual congregants recognize their collective identities as “called ones”—as part of the church that is called—can the church fully fulfill its role in the world by being salt, light, and a royal priesthood in the manifold roles our lives might bring, not just in one particular career path.

The Problem of dualism
A biblical perspective on calling can be a corrective to dualism when we consider that the vocational model Christian scripture presents is not a “two-spheres” model that sharply divides our participation in the church and our work in the world. Rather, it is one concerned with how one lives every day in relationship to God and others. The task is not to think only about what God wants one to do for a job but to think also about how God wants one to be Christ-like whatever one’s job.

But thinking rightly is not enough; our desires and passions need to be disciplined so that we respond faithfully to God’s calling. Christians who seek to lead whole lives—not fragmented lives with competing allegiances—need to be formed into the virtues that enable them to strive for genuine flourishing. As ancient philosophers like Aristotle teach us, virtue grows through habit—through perseverant practice. Likewise, virtue cannot grow apart from families, friends, schools, workplaces, playgrounds, and congregations that enable people to strive for faithfulness. No account of Christian vocation can ignore the central place of moral and spiritual formation: we cannot respond to God’s calling, let alone hear it, without being disciplined into concrete practices of faithful people. Likewise, no Christian account of vocation can ignore the fact that virtue is not purely acquired through our own efforts; it is also received as a gift of the Spirit. When we allow God to work in and through us, we open ourselves up to God’s plans and purposes in ways beyond our imagination. In a world that seemingly wants to keep God at bay, Christians should strive to become people whose faithfulness knows no bounds, and whose vision, desires, actions, and ways of life are ever enlivened by the calling of God.

The problem of materialism
Reclaiming a biblical view of vocation about who—and whose—we are rather than what we do for work can be an antidote to blind ambition and materialism, allowing us to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment regardless of the job we have. This should be good news for many. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that only 13 percent of people worldwide enjoy their work.[1] Moreover, for a variety of reasons, many people have little to no choice about what career they pursue and can find themselves virtually trapped in a profession about which they are indifferent or in which they are miserable. These realities can render conversations about discerning one’s vocation elitist rather than inclusive of all Christians if our idea of “vocation” becomes too entangled with work.

Instead, our vocation involves living as one whom God has called from death to new life, and successful pursuit of this vocation can look very different from what the larger culture considers successful (e.g., the prophet Jeremiah only had two converts out of a decades-long ministry, the widow’s mite was the greatest gift, and Jesus’s exaltation only came with his humiliation on the cross). As followers of Christ living out our vocation, we do not have to find our worth in professional advancement, high standards of living, or social status (Matt. 16:24–26). We find fulfillment in being just and merciful, in being patient and kind, and in being witnesses of Jesus Christ who give the world a taste of God’s kingdom in all that we do.[2]

The problem of individualism
A holistic understanding of vocation has the potential to be a corrective to the cultural impulse toward individualism and to reanimate both individual church members and the church as a whole. When we think about “vocation,” we tend to think about it in individualistic terms: “What am I called to?” “God is calling me to be a doctor.” “Maybe God is calling you (singular pronoun) to singleness.” In Christian scripture, however, the calling of God—even when addressed initially or partially to an individual—is a communal matter. We are all called together, as part of the ekklēsia, “called ones.”

Reframing our lives in terms of participation in the work of the body of Christ helps us recognize the worth of every type of work and every relationship in which we engage. As the Apostle Paul writes, no part of the body is any more or less valuable; each part contributes something unique and essential to the other parts of the body and to those whom the body serves (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12). Our unique gifts may prompt us to pursue different professions, but our calling is ultimately to use our gifts in whatever profession we find ourselves rather than to think of calling merely as to a particular profession. Similarly, the particular ways in which we use our gifts may change with our ages and situations, but our calling to follow God remains the same. No matter life’s season, we are all called together, as part of the ekklēsia, to use our unique gifts to the same end: service to God, church, and neighbor (Gal. 5:13; Eph. 4:1–4; 1 Pet. 4:10). Our calling is always outwardly focused, and it is never followed in isolation.

 

[1] Jena McGregor, “Only 13 percent of people worldwide actually like going to work,” The Washington Post (10 October 2013).

[2] Cf. Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), 23.