Today’s guest post is by IM friend Pat K, from New Reformation Press.
Way back in the early Eighties, shortly after becoming a Christian, I attended a Bible College in Houston, Texas. It quickly became evident that God’s Church was much larger than the small Holiness sect I was evangelized into, and Houston provided ample opportunity for me to explore what seemed to me to be an almost unlimited selection of denominations.
After sojourning awhile, and being intrigued by a number of different denominations, the theology I held at the time dictated that I couldn’t in good conscience wander too far out of the box. I settled on a very large and prominent Southern Baptist church and joined up.
Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I still love that church, and my comments here are not meant to take away anything from a great congregation and a magnificent ministry. For years afterward, the now sainted Pastor of that congregation was an inspiration and a role model to me. He embodied an excellence in ministry that has left a lasting impression long after my theology changed.
This was a large church, at the time approaching 15 or 20 thousand members, and had just completed construction on the most magnificent church and ministry facility I had ever seen. A huge sanctuary, a gymnasium, complete with bowling alleys, and an educational wing that contained six floors of Sunday School classrooms.
The model of ministry they subscribed to was an all out push for evangelism, in every Sunday service, and by all members inviting others to church. There were manifold outreach ministries too. Once someone made a proffession of faith they were baptized then ‘plugged in’ to some kind of ‘ministry’. To serve in some capacity in the church was considered an important part of discipleship.
On the surface this seemed to be a good plan. Seemed to be eminently successful.
Until one day I was walking into the sanctuary, in awe of the buildings, and the thought hit me. “To what end?”
Not every church could emulate this model for one thing. And secondly, would we add more floors of Sunday School to keep a never ending flow of converts working in some capacity of ministry? It seemed like a pyramid in which we gain converts to build the church to gain more converts to build the church. Is plugging someone into volunteer church work the only way to ensure the spiritual growth of the newly evangelized?
I was troubled, because this was really the only model of ministry that I had been exposed to and no obvious scriptural alternative was immediately apparent. I wrestled with this for a number of years, never really arriving at a satisfactory answer. I had a nagging sense that if I was not volunteering at church then I was not involved in ‘real ministry’ and was somehow a second class christian. (If I was volunteering at my church, I suspected anyone who wasn’t volunteering was a second class christian. Yeah, I know that’s bad.)
This continued, kind of on the back burner, but would surface from time to time and cause me real discomfort. I was putting in fifteen and twenty hours a week at some of the churches I subsequently attended. After awhile I became exhausted and resentful. I didn’t have any kind of life outside of church, and the supposed spiritual benefits I was told I would receive from this kind of service didn’t seem to materialize.
We ended up completely dropping out of church.
After a hiatus from church for about a year, I resurfaced in the Lutheran Church. It was here in catechism class I was introduced to the doctrine of vocation. When I started to grasp this doctrine, it hit me like a hammer. Here were the answers to my questions concerning discipleship and growth in the Christian life. (Let me say right here that this is one of a handful of doctrines from the Lutheran Reformation that I think can be of benefit to every Christian regardless of denominational affiliation.)
So, what is the doctrine of vocation?
It consists of a couple of main ideas. The first is that God deals with us through means. His presence, for our benefit, is mediated. We don’t deal with God in His naked Glory. We would be consumed if we did. So God deals with us through the incarnation of His Son, the scriptures, through the Lord’s Supper, through baptism, and through each other. These are His means or tools He uses to communicate to us and to bless us.
My Pastor puts it this way. When we pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ loaves of bread don’t fall from the sky.(We don’t see manna or multiplying loaves much any more.) A Farmer plants and harvests wheat. A miller grinds it. A baker bakes it. A truckdriver hauls it to a store and the store sells it to us. These are God’s means of providing our daily bread. These vocations of farmer, miller, baker, truck driver and store owner could almost be seen as masks of God. He is behind each one of these providing bread to eat.
God has placed each one of us uniquely in our vocations, as sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, fathers or mothers, employees, employer, students, teachers, govenors or citizens. Each has specific duties and responsibilities to serve our neighbor, in ways unique to each station in life, outlined in God’s word, that as Christians we strive to accomplish. This is where the rubber meets the road in the Christian life. This is Christ in us serving our neighbor,and it is also us in Christ serving Him.
The second part of the doctrine of vocation is that all true and valid vocations are equally pleasing to God. During Luther’s time the church had developed a two tiered approach to the Christian life. Those who really wanted to serve God and obtain his blessings became priests and nuns,
or attached themselves to one of the monastic orders. These people were considered to be more holy and better Christians than the average guy warming a pew. They also invented a whole list of made up works that elicited God’s favor. Pilgrimages and fasts, taking vows and joining a monastery. These were considered more pleasing to God than doing a good job at work or being a good parent. Luther considered the whole scheme to be hogwash and stated that a mother lovingly changing her infant’s diaper was doing a holier work than anyone taking a monastic vow or going on a pilgrimage. He said any true vocation done with faith in Christ was just as pleasing to God as the vocation of being a priest or monk.
In the Lutheran church today, the vocation of Pastor is held in no higher esteem than any other vocation.
This knowledge has been incredibly freeing to me and a number of friends and relatives. By being a good worker and a good dad and husband I am serving Christ. By voting and paying my taxes I am serving Christ in my vocation as citizen. It is truly good news to those of us who thought that we had to be working in the church to serve the Lord.
Please note that I am not discouraging people from working in their churches or saying that it is a bad thing to do. Becoming a minister or volunteering at your church is also a needed and God pleasing vocation, but it is not the only avenue of service to the Lord.
This is really a very brief introduction to the doctrine of vocation. If any of you wish more in depth study, here are a couple of resources to check out.
God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in all of Life by Gene Veith. This is an excellent and accessible introduction to the doctrine of vocation, and has been instrumental in helping a number of my friends and relatives.
Luther on Vocation by Gustaf Wingren. This is the definitive study of Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Some heavy reading at times but the payoff is well worth it.