The attitude of many in today’s West, and of the world in Paul’s day, is that some forms of work are superior. This understanding of work stems from the thinking of the ancient Greeks, who looked down, in particular, on manual labor.
The Bible radically challenges such snobbishness. To consider a lawyer or architect or doctor as somehow superior is profoundly unchristian. To assume that an academic qualification makes our role more holy is elitist snobbery. To believe we will only fulfill our potential if we pursue a professional career—and that anything else would be “beneath” us—is not only ugly, but pagan. The Christian gospel calls us to repent of such snobbery. As C. S. Lewis writes:
I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious—as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. . . . The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a [housekeeper], become spiritual on precisely the same condition—that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.”
Realizing all jobs are dignified should profoundly influence how we view ourselves and the position in which God has placed us. Indeed, it will influence what kind of work we’re prepared to do for the gospel’s sake.
No One Has a ‘Special’ Vocation
Not only should we as Christians not be snobbish about work, we also shouldn’t be super-spiritual about it. This is vital, as we can use God’s Word to support our perspective on our work in a worldly, unchristian way.
The mistake comes from misreading one verse: “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him” (1 Cor. 7:20). The NIV translates two uses of the word “to call out” differently: once as “situation” and once as “called.” But the words “called out” or “called” appear twice in the verse. The ESV translates it as “in the condition in which he was called.”
The language of calling, translated as “situation” (NIV) or as “condition” (ESV), is used by some to speak of a “vocation.” The 16th-century reformers picked up on this language to correct a wrong understanding that persons with a special “calling” from God to be a priest or a church worker had a higher “calling” than the average person in the street. The reformers argued that everyone has a calling or vocation from God and that all vocations are of equal value.
This language has been understood by some today to suggest that God has for each one of us a unique calling that is ours and ours alone. The conclusion drawn is that, for each individual, there is a job that only that person with that person’s particular range of gifts and abilities can fulfill. The application of this teaching becomes that all Christians have a responsibility to find the position or “vocation” to which they’re “called” by God. This is, of course, basically the same idea as the world’s view that we must fulfill our potential. But this view fundamentally misunderstands Scripture’s teaching on work. It never speaks of “calling” that way, and never uses the word to speak of a particular job fitted for one person specifically.
Avoid Garbage Advice
There are at least 51 uses of the word “calling” in the New Testament. Forty-six refer to becoming a Christian (e.g., Rom. 1:7), and four to living a holy or peaceful life (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:15). In just one case (1 Cor. 7:20), it’s used to speak of the station to which we have been appointed.
As always, we must understand this verse in its context. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is explaining that some people have been put in the station of being single; others in the station of being married. Some are circumcised; others are not. Then, in verses 21 to 23, Paul addresses those who have been put in the station of a slave. With all these, he’s saying what matters is not the station to which we’ve been appointed but that we live out our calling as God’s holy children in that station. We see this in verse 19: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” Then we read in verse 20: “Each one should remain in the situation [or “condition”] which he was in when God called him.” Again, the word “calling” here is used twice: first to speak of the “station,” then to speak of conversion. Paul’s point is that we are to live holy lives in the position in which we found ourselves when we were converted, and we aren’t to keep on chopping and changing our situation or condition. Verse 20 has nothing to do with God having a special place for you as an individual.
Nevertheless, many Christians in the 21st century persist in suggesting we have a particular “vocation” to find. Since Sally has been gifted in jazz piano, for example, she can only fulfill her vocation if she becomes a jazz pianist. Or because Godfrey has a PhD in math, he can only fulfill his vocation if he becomes an accountant. Interestingly, we rarely find people using this language for those whose job is packing boxes for a mail delivery firm or working on a production line.
This teaching resembles the advice of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson more than the Bible. It’s what David Brooks denounces as the “garbage advice” of the middle-class mantra, and it’s certainly not biblical. God is far more concerned with how we live where he’s placed us than with the particular job we do.
How liberating it is to know God doesn’t consider the housekeeper any differently than the poet because of the type of work they do, but because of how they offer it to him.
Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from William Taylor’s new book, Revolutionary Work: What’s the Point of the 9 to 5? Copyright © 2016. Used by permission of 10ofthose.us.