Is everyday work spiritually second-class? Not according to these Christian thinkers

Refocused Vocation

Thanks to Leadership Journal for asking me to write the following. It’s now up at

Refocused Vocation

Over the centuries, it’s been distorted, but history also sharpens our view of every Christian’s calling.

Chris R. Armstrong

In the first history class of each new year at Bethel Seminary, I have my students talk about their sense of calling. Many of them tell a similar story: “I quit my job to go into the ministry.” What drove them to this decision was a sense of frustration and meaninglessness in their daily work. They didn’t see their workas pleasing to God or useful in the kingdom. The frequent assumption is that ordained ministry is where people are really working for God.

If that’s true, where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of their lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours in non-church work? Can they see secular jobs as a holy vocation? Can non-church work be a means to serve others, giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (Mt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Those in secular work often feel like only those doing things of significance in ministry positions will get to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This sense that ordinary work is spiritually second-class isn’t so much taught as caught.

For years after graduating from university, I worked in corporate communications. But in my church, I never heard anything suggesting that God approved of any sort of secular work. The only faint praise we heard about secular work was that it was good to have a job and earn money, because then you could give that money to the church—for the real work of God.

Our church would have commissioning services for teenagers going on short-term mission trips, but I never saw a commissioning service for businesspeople, or lawyers, or (heavens!) professors.

Fortunately, when I told my youth pastor about my desire to go into academics, he told me it seemed I was gifted by God to do this work. Simple words, but they struck a deep chord that echoed through my church’s resounding silence about work outside its own ministries.

The problem, as I now understand it, starts in our universities, where the classical understanding of vocation (God’s calling in whatever sphere you’re in) has been exchanged for what essentially amounts to skills training for specific jobs, without any sense of their larger significance. Princeton ethicist Max Stackhouse suggests that the way most of us are trained for work leaves a gaping spiritual void. We are living in what author Gordon Preece calls a “post-vocational world.”

“Part of burnout is losing track of your purpose. Now you’re working harder and harder, faster and faster for that which is seemingly more and more meaningless,” said Jeff Van Duzer, dean of Seattle Pacific University’s business school and author of Why Business Matters to God: And What Still Needs to Be Fixed. If only we could truly believe that what we do is “part of the architecture of God’s kingdom,” this would be a tonic more invigorating than any shot of Five-Hour Energy!

Of course, this is a pragmatic argument: “vocation from necessity.” We must also ask: Is there a theological tradition, rooted in Scripture, that affirms “secular,” even menial jobs as part of a larger picture of God-given vocation?

In a word, yes.

Vocation in the Bible

The Bible term we translate as “vocation” or “calling,” in Hebrew qr‘, in Greek kaleo, in Latin vocatio, started off meaning the announcement of a message, whether to one or many. The Hebrew qara‘ could mean crying out suddenly, but also calling or commanding someone to a duty-we hear its echo in the Islamic Qur’an.

This dimension of command is present in Genesis as God “calls” various newly created things by name (“light” and “darkness,” “male” and “female,” etc.)—meaning that he not only names but is Lord over them. And this sovereignty extends to humans since they are, as Stackhouse puts it, “given a stewardly dominion over the creatures and a vocation to create culture.”

In the New Testament, the word used for the church, ekklesia, “the called-out ones”—is borrowed from Greek culture, where it denoted the ruling political assembly. This suggests a calling to care for the physical and economic well-being of others.

Of course, in the New Testament, God’s primary call to the church is to preach and to disciple. Yet, says Stackhouse, “many passages also recognize that people have earthly obligations, and the calling is closely identified with one’s responsibilities in life, which one is to fulfill dutifully.” He mentions 1 Corinthians 7:20 and Philemon as two examples.

What we do not find in the New Testament is any general call for Christians to withdraw from participation in everyday life and work. Jesus does call a few fishermen to leave their nets, but this seems a special call for a specific few, limited to the time of his ministry on earth.

Many others who believed in Jesus while continuing their work as soldiers, tent makers, purveyors of purple, and so forth.

Professionalizing “vocation”

At first, vocation was understood to mean that everyone is called to both salvation and service, without a clergy-laity divide. Eventually, however, the role of clergy grew as one of special function and authority. By the time, after Constantine, that Christianity moved toward becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 300s, “vocation” was applied to clergy, on the analogy of the holy, set-apart priesthood of ancient Israel. The distinction was strengthened in the 11th century, when Western clergy were mandated to celibacy—and thus separation from the ordinary life of family and business.

The most influential thinker in Western Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, distinguished two spheres of human endeavor: the “active life” and the “contemplative life.” Augustine included in the active life all the ways humans serve one another—farming, crafting, trading, raising families—the “horizontal” dimension of life.

The contemplative life turned the focus Godward, in prayer, worship, and spiritual disciplines—the “vertical” life. While both spheres of life were good, the contemplative life, pursued to some degree by clergy and with full commitment by monastics, was of a higher order.

So “having a vocation” came to mean becoming either a minister or a monastic. Os Guinness labels the ensuing two-class system “the Catholic distortion.” He criticizes it as dualistic, meaning that it separates spiritual things from earthly things, and thinking from doing. Guinness also identifies a later “Protestant distortion,” which has completely secularized the terms “vocation” and “calling”—such that these now become bare synonyms for simply having a job, participating in the economy.

How can we regain the richness of the biblical understanding of God’s calling to everyone who believes?

The Incarnation

Even in the early and medieval church, we will find important theological resources for thinking about ordinary work—resources that both Protestants and Catholics are in danger of losing.

The appearance of Christ on the scene as a human being, with all the physical needs, skills, and temptations we all share means that the church must not fall into the error of the Gnostics, calling the material world evil and thus assuming God is not active in our interacts with the material world.

Today we are in danger, not of viewing the material world as evil (most Western folk are little tempted to that error!), but of marginalizing our time-bound material existence as “non-spiritual.” We may value the work we do in the world, but we see in that work no spiritual dimension. On Sunday, we go to church to be spiritual. The rest of the week, we go to work in the world and largely shelve our spirituality.

Instead, when we reflect on the unity of the Incarnation, we see that just as God joined divinity and humanity to work in time and space in the embodied Jesus, so he continues to work in our own times and spaces. To be true followers of the Incarnate Christ, we cannot ignore any sphere of our time-bound, material existence—least of all our work. In the words of modern Reformed thinker Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

The Contemplative Vs. Active Life

Another key development came in the 6th-century papacy of Gregory the Great. Gregory was a monk, and remained one during his papacy—the first pope to do so. He had been taught to value the contemplative life more highly than the active life. He was devastated when called out of his monastery and into the flood of administrative duties he had to perform as pope. His ensuing spiritual crisis led him to a view that the active life of service to others was not indeed an unwelcome and spiritually damaging distraction from the contemplative. Rather, he saw that in order to become truly spiritual, one must move not only away from the distractions of the flesh to reach the spirit, but also back from the heights of the spiritual life to the concerns of bodily life.

This was true for Gregory for several reasons. First, because in the church’s understanding at the time the active life did not just mean a life of running around and being active, like the bumper sticker “Jesus is coming back soon. Look busy!” Rather, this is the life of service to others (which is what all work is still ultimately about). And second, in the midst of that service to others, one encounters all the intractable sinfulness of humanity—both in our relationships with others and in our own responses within those relationships. At work we have our sins revealed, and we realize every day that we need the power of God in order to get anywhere in dealing with other human beings. Isn’t that what each of us finds in our daily work?

So Gregory concluded that one needed, yes, times of contemplation, but also times of action, both in order to love the neighbor and fulfill the Matthew 25 mandate and indeed to drive us back to contemplation, where we bring those frustrations and revelations to the Lord. Work, in other words, becomes for us a sanctifying thing, as iron sharpens iron. It drives us to our knees, making our times of contemplation all the more transformative.

Gregory, far from indulging “the Catholic distortion,” instead taught that the spiritual and material dimensions of our lives strengthen each other in a never-ending cycle: the contemplative life equipping us for the active life, and the active life grounding us in acts of love to our neighbors, to keep us from floating off into spiritual pride and irrelevance. Now he saw those who lived the active life—marked at its best by such physical and spiritual ministries as feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, teaching the ignorant and humbling the proud—as better equipped to experience the contemplative life than those who absorbed all their hours in spiritual pursuits. All of us, whether we find ourselves in a cloister or the priesthood or the workaday world, can at times enjoy blessed contemplation. And when we do, we must never stay there: our souls and our effectiveness both depend on serving others too. Thus, though Gregory still valued the monastic life highly, he confessed that a married cleaning woman might attain to greater spiritual heights than a cloistered monk.

In the Middle Ages, Benedict made manual labor the duty of every monk. Monastic houses often served guests, and indeed Benedict insisted in the Rule that each guest be served as the monks would serve Christ himself. Especially after Bernard of Clairvaux’s organization of the Cistercian order in the early 12th century, some orders of monks or nuns became schools, orphanages, or practitioners (and innovators) in various kinds of food production, including brewing and wine-making, which became quite profitable. Indeed, as Stackhouse tells us, the monastic houses “began to shape the whole civilization of the West.”

The monastics understood their own service activities as essential parts of a life lived for God. Gregory taught that every part of creation and every sphere of human experience bore sacramental significance.

And because medievals saw the world as filled with God’s presence, and were prepared to hear him speaking to them in everything they do (the first word of Benedict’s Rule is “Listen!”), work itself, which comes from the cooperation of flesh and spirit in us, could be transformed and offered to God in sacrifice.

Work as Means of Sanctification

We see this worked out theologically by the German Dominican friars Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1327) and Johann Tauler (c. 1300 – 1361). Along with other German mystics of their day, Eckhart and Tauler affirmed a non-monastic call of God. For them, not just monastics but ordinary working folk could achieve the highest title of traditional monasticism, “friend of God.” They kept alive Gregory’s understanding of the symbiotic relationship between action and contemplation, acknowledging that at times external work is more useful than internal.

For example, Eckhart says, “If one were in an ecstasy, even if it were as high as that of Paul, and knew that beside him there was an infirm man who needed a bowl of soup from him, it would be better for him to abandon his ecstasy and serve the needy man.” And this is not just a momentary concession. “We are brought forth into time in order that our sensible worldly occupations may lead us nearer and make us like unto God.” Thus “One can gather nettles and still stand in union with God.”

Tauler criticized those who believed the work of the businessperson who “knows all the secrets of commerce” to be a spiritual obstacle: “It is certainly not God who has put this obstacle.” Rather, the working life of active service is simply a different way of serving and knowing God. This work, too, is a calling, and the person who obeys it “with singleness of purpose” is truly on the way to God. And so the door to “calling” was opened, centuries before Luther, to the common working person.

So despite the early appropriation of the word “vocation” by clergy and monastics, the spiritual life and the ordinary working life were never as strictly divided as we might have thought.

Luther on Vocation

For the Reformers, as for the early church, the primary meaning of the term “calling” remained the call to Christian discipleship and community. But as Stackhouse says, for Luther and the rest, “to think that vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were signs of spiritual superiority seemed to them to be moral and spiritual pretense. In fact, living and working one’s ordinary station in life with a heart renewed by the love of Christ, and showing forth there a pattern of life that glorified God and served humankind, enacted a more faithful life of prayerful discipleship.”

The Reformers made this insight into a social reality by closing the monasteries, confiscating their property for the public good, and finding marriage partners for the monks and nuns (famously, Luther’s own wife, Katherine Von Bora, was an ex-nun). And as for the privileged spiritual status of the priesthood, Luther emphasized that every husband, wife, peasant, and magistrate was just as much a priest (in status and ability, if not in function) as the clergy. The ordained ministry was necessary for an ordered society—to have everyone doing the duties of a pastor all the time would be chaotic, just as not everyone was their own lawyer or cobbler—but in a pinch, any laborer could give communion or hear confession.

Luther, however, was no social leveler. If you find yourself the son of a baker, he counseled, then bake. That is the work to which God has called you, and in it, you will find your vocation—no less spiritual than the vocation of priest or monk. A medieval man, Luther affirmed the hierarchical order of society.

But spiritually, if not socially, he preached an absolute equality of all callings. As he wrote in his Open Letter to the Christian Nobility, “A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and the office of his trade, and they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

In fact, when his own sovereign, Frederick the Wise, neglected his administrative duties to do devotional exercises, as if he could serve God better that way, Luther reprimanded him.

At its root, what Luther was attacking in this re-evaluation of vocation was what Reformation scholar Carter Lindberg calls “the perennial human tendency to devalue what is close at hand and seek to do something extraordinary.”

Luther’s concern was pastoral. He saw that “People did not want to fulfill mundane God-given tasks such as being a parent, but rather devised their own tasks, such as celibacy, which they thought would please God and make them holy.” As Frederick did, they would neglect the less exciting duties of their earthly callings in pursuit of a higher spiritual call. Thus when Luther talked about vocation, he liked to use the most mundane examples: “the father washing smelly diapers, the maid sweeping the floor, the brewer making good beer.”

It was in such mundane work, Luther believed, not only that we serve others, but that in fact God serves others through us: “[One] should regard all [human labor] as being the work of our Lord God under a mask, as it were, beneath which he himself alone effects and accomplishes what we desire. He commands us to equip ourselves for this reason also, that he might conceal his own work under this disguise … Indeed one could very well say that the course of the world and especially the doing of the saints are God’s mask under which he conceals himself and so marvelously exercises dominion.”

By doing our appointed work in society, we become means or agents of grace through which God serves others. The farmer who cultivates the fields and brings forth food is in fact carrying out God’s providential care for hungry people. Sin blinds us to this, but that does not make it less true. “Indeed,” says Samuel Torvend, “Luther would argue that growing crops to feed the hungry is something just as great as [Jesus’] multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the wilderness.”

Ordinary working Germans were captivated by this Lutheran vision, in which “the daily labor of a cleaning woman, a farmer, or a lawyer could be as valuable, as ‘sacramental,’ as holy as the ministration of a nun, a priest, or a bishop.” Just as God provides salvation in Christ through the water of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, and the words of the preacher, so he provides for our material needs sacramentally through the work of others. Gene Edward Veith puts it like this: “When I go into a restaurant, the waitress who brings me my meal, the cook in the back who prepared it, the delivery men, the wholesalers, the workers in the food-processing factories, the butchers, the farmers, the ranchers, and everyone else in the economic food chain are all being used by God to ‘give me this day my daily bread.'”

From Then to Today

This was the Lutheran doctrine of vocation. Calvin elaborated on it, freeing people to pursue the vocations of their choosing rather than to remain in a single “social standing.” The Puritans developed the idea that people serve God primarily in doing their job or trade in directions that prepared the ground for the flourishing of capitalism: as Weber argued, obedience, diligence, delayed gratification, and other “ascetic” virtues were transferred in Puritan Calvinism into the world of work, and resulted in the creation of tremendous wealth.

Puritans often condemned the pursuit of money and goods for their own sake. Their “work ethic” was never about money-making. But “it opened the way to a career in business, especially for the most devout and ethically rigorous people.” Leland Ryken describes the Puritan idea of calling as including “the providence of God in arranging human tasks, work as the response of a steward to God, contentment with one’s tasks, and loyalty to one’s vocation.”

The rest of the story, from the Puritans to today, is largely one of the secularization of work. But as we now live, as Paul Marshall says, in an age of “an economic asceticism increasingly devoid of religious heart,” the time has come to reconnect with the riches of long Christian reflection on work as God-given calling.

2 responses to “Is everyday work spiritually second-class? Not according to these Christian thinkers

  1. Shawn T. Miller

    Also, have you ever read any of the books written by Michael Novak? He writes well on this subject.

  2. Shawn T. Miller

    This is a good article, but I wonder how Luther’s doctrine of “solo fide”, that-is-to-say faith alone without works, fits into all of this? How can a person’s work really matter much if it does not in the least way affect his or her salvation?

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