The Reformation doctrine of vocation teaches that even seemingly secular jobs and earthly relationships are spheres where God assigns Christians to live out their faith. But are there some lines of work that Christians should avoid?

The early church required new members to give up their occupations as gladiators or actors. Whether Christians should enter military service has been controversial at several points in church history. So has holding political or judicial offices. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that Christians should not become professional athletes. He observed that “the moral ethos of sport”—which centers on pride—“is in tension with the moral ethos of faith,” which requires humility.

So what guidance can we find from the doctrine of vocation? There is more to that teaching than most people realize, so let’s review some of its more salient points. (To study this in more depth, you can check out my book God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life and follow the Bible references and footnotes. Also see my new book Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood for yet more facets of this critical teaching for how Christians can live out faith in the world and in their everyday relationships.)

God Never Calls Us to Sin

“Vocation” is simply the Latinate word for “calling.” The doctrine of vocation means that God assigns us to a certain life—with its particular talents, tasks, responsibilities, and relationships—and then calls us to that assignment (1 Corinthians 7:17). God never calls us to sin. All callings, or vocations, from God are thus valid places to serve. So strictly speaking there are no unlawful vocations; the question should actually be whether or not a particular way of making a living is a vocation at all.

God himself works through human vocations in providential care as he governs the world. He provides daily bread through farmers and bakers. He protects us through lawful magistrates. He heals us by means of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. He creates new life through mothers and fathers. So we can ask whether or not God extends blessings through a particular line of work.

The purpose of every vocation, in all of the different spheres in which our multiple vocations occur—the family, the workplace, the culture, and the church—is to love and serve our neighbors. Loving God and loving our neighbors sums up our purpose (Matthew 22:36-40). Having been reconciled to God through Christ, we are then sent by God into the world to love and serve him by loving and serving our neighbors. This happens in vocation. So we can ask of every kind of work we doing, “Am I loving and serving my neighbor, or am I exploiting and tempting him?”

Obviously, those who make their living by robbery are not loving their neighbors. Heroin dealers, hit men, con artists, and other criminals are hurting their neighbors and have no calling from God to do so.

But there are some legal professions that also involve harming their neighbors instead of loving and serving them. An abortionist kills his small neighbor in the womb. An internet pornographer is abusing the neighbors he is exploiting sexually and, moreover, causing the neighbors who are his customers to sin.

Can Soldiers Be Saved?

Other occupations may not be so cut and dry.

We are told not only to love our neighbors but to love our enemies, but the work of a soldier is to kill his enemy. So should Christians not enlist in the military? Luther took up this question in an important treatise, Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved. The short answer he gives is yes. Though as individual Christians we must not kill, God certainly has the right to take human life. And God works through the governing authorities, which according to Romans 13 are his agents in restraining and punishing evil so that a society of fallen human beings is possible. Those agents specially include those vocations that “bear the sword” (Romans 13:4). Luther concludes that soldiers in a Romans 13 chain of command are authorized by their calling to love and serve their fellow citizens by defending them, even when that means killing the enemy. Soldiers, as Christians, should indeed love those enemies—not hate them, hold malice against them, or mistreat captives or civilians—but they have an authorization to do what soldiers have to do.

This point must not be missed: vocation comes with an authorization, so that someone within that vocation may do things someone outside it may not. Sexual intercourse is a sin outside the vocations of marriage, but a good work within those vocations of husband and wife. Physicians can do things to someone else’s body—whether see a patient naked or cut the patient open—that others should not.

Pleasure Through Vocation

Still, opinions will vary about other professions. One of the Lutheran confessions in dealing with the doctrine of vocation specifically condemns the notion “That a Christian cannot with a good conscience be an inn-keeper, merchant, or maker of weapons” (Formula of Concord XII). A gunsmith can love and serve his neighbors with his craft. A merchant should not cheat his neighbors or give them bad merchandise, but rather love and serve them by providing goods and services that meet the neighbor’s needs. Inn-keepers were more controversial since the inns of the day were usually also taverns, places of drinking and revelry. Some Christians may think that selling alcohol or running a nightclub might not be a valid vocation. We Lutherans are confessionally bound and personally inclined to disagree.

This brings up the entertainment industry, which spans actors disapproved by the early church through professional athletes disapproved by David Brooks. It seems that providing pleasure is a way of loving and serving people. To be sure, there are sinful pleasures. But why shouldn’t God, who adorned his creation so beautifully and has given us a joy in other people that is in fact akin to love, create pleasure through vocation?

On the analogy of God giving us our daily bread through the vocation of farmers and creating new life through the vocation of parents, we can say that God creates works of beauty and meaning through the vocation of artists. Vocation is a function of the talent, abilities, interests, and opportunities that God gives to each individual. This applies to scientists and craftsmen, and it surely applies to those who have the talent to make music, to draw, to devise stories, and (yes) to act. (See God’s gifts for artists in Exodus 35:30-36:2, a key biblical passage on vocation.)

Athletes too have their talents and abilities from the hand of God. Of course it is legitimate to use them. And they can use those gifts in bringing pleasure to those of us who marvel at them, just as musicians play for an audience and so bless them, and just as the hundreds of people listed in the credits of a motion picture can in a powerful film bless those of us in the audience.

Profiting from Sin

Again, we need to make distinctions. A casino blackjack dealer might be considered part of the “entertainment industry,” bringing a jolt of pleasure and excitement to her customers, but her main goal is not to love and serve them but to win their money. She is also profiting from the sins of her neighbors. A Christian blackjack dealer may argue that she is giving her customers the entertainment of a game of chance in exchange for what she takes from them. Still, this job may be morally problematic. A defensive lineman may execute a good hit on the opposing quarterback—that is the nature of his job—but to injure the quarterback on purpose, as in the current NFL bounty scandal, is clearly to sin in one’s vocation.

Vocations, in general, must carry out their proper work and fulfill their proper purpose. A business owner must make a profit; a professional athlete must help his team win. To say these involve selfishness and pride, making them off limits to Christians, confuses different realms. The earthly laws of economics depend on participants following their rational self-interest; but the Christian, while doing so, can also turn the same productive labor into an expression of love and service. The athlete can trounce his opponent and joy in the victory while still being a selfless teammate who honors those on the other side.

Not Equal

Yet here is an irony. Before God all vocations are equal. But that is not so in the world. Often the highest-paying and the highest-status jobs do less for the neighbor than do jobs that the world tends to look down upon. I am ready to concede that the professional athlete and the movie star have legitimate vocations in giving brief moments of pleasure to millions of people. But the love and service rendered by the men who pick up our garbage every week or the women who clean up our hotel rooms is far more immediate and far more important.

The wealthy, esteemed, and honored often have a more problematic vocation than do the poorer folks who, in a kind of labor the Bible especially honors, work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11). The “idle rich”—those with inherited wealth who did nothing to earn it and just spent it all on themselves—inspired many rants from the Puritans. Not that the Puritans opposed wealth—many of them were busy pioneering capitalism—but in their minds wealth needs to be productive. Usury, by which was meant lending money at interest, was traditionally seen as unchristian, multiplying one’s wealth by taking advantage of a neighbor’s need. Today’s economy, of course, depends on a robust financial system in which lending and investment are very productive indeed, building homes and new businesses and doing great social good. Bankers, financiers, and venture capitalists are indeed legitimate vocations from God.

And yet, what are we to say of the derivative trader, who sits in front of his computer manipulating the finance system without adding goods or services to the collective good? Does he even have a neighbor, since he works in isolation without the slightest interaction with the people whose mortgages he is trading or the companies whose stock he is manipulating? I’m not sure—I’m not even sure what a derivative is!—but his work is probably more problematic vocationally than that of the factory worker or the retail clerk or the food service worker.

Since we do not, strictly speaking, choose our vocations but are called to them, they are not completely within our control; rather, God providentially places us in our vocations. So a blackjack dealer who becomes a Christian may well be stuck in that position at least for a time with no other prospects of employment to support her more family (probably her most important vocation), and God may lay upon her the cross of finding a way to live out her faith even in the casino. The same may be true of the derivative trader.

So are some occupations off-limits for Christians? No doubt, but it is not always clear what they are. Vocations are unique—that is to say, God calls and equips individuals in distinct and highly particular ways—so they may resist hard and fast and universally applicable rules and moralistic dictates. Since vocation is about God’s work as well as human work, it has to do not just with the law but with the gospel; since vocation is where the Christian life is to be led, it will be an expression of Christian freedom.

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