Vocation from Union with Christ: Overcoming Dualisms in the Calling of the Church
Vocation is a big word! And it needs so much clarification. It may conjure up visions of personality inventories, or pictures of a target whose bullseye is hit when passion, charismatic giftings, and personality all line up to indicate where you should serve in the church or in the world. Actually, this interpretation already tilts us towards a naked, individualistic approach to vocation, one that is uncritically of Modernity. Make no mistake, personal vocation is important. The call to respond to salvation in Christ, pursue holiness, serve in the church, and live into all of one’s vocations in society (e.g., the marketplace, academy, and church) are all uniquely personal and of equal value. The core of vocation is to be human and thus bearers of the image of a triune God, which means our vocation is to be persons, since God is three persons in one. Our human personhood may not be exactly the same as God’s, since the concept of “person” in the Godhead is not univocal (having exactly the same meaning) with human personhood. It is analogous, however. Jesus, as the divine person who became fully human as a person, is the analogy. Christ is our justification for calling ourselves persons. So personhood—our remarkable and irreducible identity—matters, and our vocation is wrapped up in it.
However, “person” does not mean the same as “individual.” So a theological approach to calling does not begin with individuals. Just as God is not three individuals (which is the heresy of tritheism) but three persons-in-communion, so human personhood has no meaning in Christian thought apart from our being persons-in-relation with God and our fellow humans. So, when it comes to understanding personal vocation, we must begin with the vocation of the community—that is, the church. The church’s vocation frames the meaning and context of each person’s vocation.
But even before we speak about the church and its vocation, there is a more fundamental question: Who is doing the calling anyway? The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare. But whose is the voice that is calling us as the people of God in Christ? When we gain a sense of who is calling, and when we understand who is called, many of the dualisms that exist around calling will disappear, and the church will be able to fulfil its calling. And, during the current pandemic especially, the church urgently needs to be a redemptive, humanizing influence in our world.
One of the graces in the pandemic that humanity is encountering is the gift of being able to create and employ technology. This is God-like, an image-bearing function, though it can quickly become an obsession and an idol. I have imagined what it must have been like when pandemics struck people in times when there was little communication. Being able to FaceTime my children and grandchildren has been a huge comfort for me—and, I hope, for them! Having Zoom for educational purposes has made communities like Regent viable. However, this use of technology has also brought to the surface the core challenges of the pandemic. It has struck at the heart of what we as humans are by preventing us from being in the presence of each other as embodied persons. This has educational consequences for learning: it accentuates a dualism of mind and body, and strikes at the very core of our being as persons-in-relation. The sovereign God calls us to participate as he works redemptively in even the bleakest of circumstances. Perhaps exposure of the inadequacies of technology and disembodied learning, and the longings within the human heart to be with other persons, will prove to be one of those redemptive areas to which the church can speak.
So if the Caller is God himself, who is he calling? The whole church and every person in it, not just a favoured few. And what is he calling his church to be and do? What is the church’s vocation? It is called to be a community of persons who together reflect the image of the Trinity. And out of that communal-personal being in Christ, it is called to hear the commands of God.
There is no document in Scripture that speaks to the matter of vocation quite like Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It may be only a slight oversimplification to suggest that the first three chapters define the calling of the church, with an emphasis on the character of the Caller and the identity of the called ones, and that the last three chapters describe how to live according to that calling: “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1).
The absolute core concept of this epistle—and, indeed, the whole New Testament—is the phrase, “in Christ.” The end for which every Christian was chosen and redeemed by God was not first the forgiveness of sins, but union with Christ. Forgiveness, or justification, comes to us because we are in Christ, and along with justification comes sanctification—that is, our moral and spiritual formation and transformation. John Calvin, contrary to popular opinion, made union with Christ, not justification, the primary category of soteriology (i.e., the study of salvation). Flowing from union with Christ came the twin graces of justification and sanctification. A twentieth-century Reformed theologian who built much of his theology on that of Calvin was Karl Barth. So closely did Barth see our vocation as linked to our union with Christ that he added a third grace to Calvin’s two. He announced that the third grace was vocation, or, as he also called it, mission. Mission is our identity, not a program. This was not for a favoured few in the church, the super-Christians. It was endemic to being in Christ. If you belonged to Jesus, the One sent from the Father, you too were a sent person with a serious calling. But first you were together, a sent church. The church is the first missionary; secondarily, every child of God in the church is also a missionary. Missional theologian Lesslie Newbigin once said that Jesus called his disciples to be fishers of men, but that he did so by “forming a community.”
This immediately dealt a blow to one of the great dualisms in the way in which the church had viewed vocation: the dualism of clergy and laity. In the medieval period of the church, it was asserted that people called to monasteries or the priesthood had a higher calling than people called to be plumbers or doctors. This dualism lives on in the church when we hear people who are pastors or missionaries speak of being called, but never plumbers or doctors. This may account also for a dualism around the work of those who are not called to be in “full-time ministry” (which is a profoundly problematic term). I am referring to the dualism of Sunday and Monday to Friday. Paul Steven’s The Other Six Dayspresents a theology for what people spend most hours of their lives doing: working as lawyers and realtors and artists and scientists and DJ’s and electricians and parents-at-home. William Tyndale, the English Reformer, caught the essence of this:
Moreover, put no difference between works; but whatsoever cometh into thy hands that do, as time, place, and occasion giveth, and as God hath put thee in degree, high or low. For as touching to please God, there is no work better than another. God looketh not first on thy work as the world doth, ... But God looketh first on thy heart, what faith thou hast to his words, how thou believest him, trustest him, and how thou lovest him for his mercy that he hath shewed thee: he looketh with what heart thou workest, and not what thou workest; how thou acceptest the degree that he hath put thee in, and not of what degree thou art, whether thou be an apostle or a shoemaker ... Now if thou compare deed to deed, there is difference betwixt washing of dishes, and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God, none at all: for neither that nor this pleaseth, but as far forth as God hath chosen a man, hath put his Spirit in him, and purified his heart by faith and trust in Christ. ... Let every [person], of whatsoever craft or occupation he be of, whether brewer, baker, tailor, victualler, merchant, or husbandman, refer his craft and occupation unto the common wealth, and serve his [community] as he would do Christ himself.
Tyndale’s words are a significant corrective of vocational dualism. What is it that counters dualisms? A view of vocation that begins with Christ the Caller, who defines what it means to be human in his own person and then calls his church—that is, all of us—into what it means to be human in the new humanity. It begins with Christ, who empowers us by the Spirit to do justice and imparts sent-ness within our very being (since we are in union with him; John 20:19–23), with a view of vocation that includes every believer in Christ, one that is first communal and second personal.
There are three concentric circles that define the vocation of the church in Christ:
- As the new humanity in the last Adam, it is called to fulfill the cultural mandate to be human (e.g., to be in relationships, to work, to care for creation).
- As the new covenantal people of God, the new Israel, it is called to fulfill the Great Commandment to love God and neighbour (e.g., justice and compassion).
- As the community empowered by the Spirit, it is called to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt 28, John 20) to make disciples who in turn will love God and neighbour, and grow towards being fully human.
Keeping these three aspects of vocation together will ensure we overcome our dualistic thinking about vocation, and, more positively, release every Christian into a life that flourishes in the way God intended.
When we understand this corporate mission of the church, our personal pursuit of vocation becomes clearer. Most of what we do is obey the commands of God given to the church. What is the will of God for us? To be fully human in Christ, to be holy, and to be hospitable to lost and broken people. Two verses in Psalm 119 emphasize the simplicity and joy of vocation as obedience to the commands of God enabled by his transforming of our minds and hearts. In verse 32, the psalmist says, “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” (WEB). In verse 35 he adds, “Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight” (NIV).
And yet, coming full circle, there is still a personal character to vocation. Regent’s former professor of ethics, Klaus Bockmuehl, used to speak about vocation as a wedding cake. The largest part of the cake was the base, which he called the ethics of the Father because it was the command of God to all humans to respond to the cultural mandate and the moral law as they could perceive it. The next layer up was the vocation of the Son, which involved the calling to be holy and obedient to all the commands given to the church. It was less wide than the bottom human layer, since it was for the church specifically. The top layer of the wedding cake was the vocation governed by the Holy Spirit. This was the arena of personal vocation which is discerned by the guidance of the Spirit. Using the smallest layer of the cake to represent personal vocation was intentional on Bockmuehl’s part. It wasn’t just that it represents persons rather than the church or humanity—the relative size indicated that, though we as modern and postmodern Christians make so much of the pursuit of vocations and of occupations that are aligned with them, this should actually be emphasized the least. It also indicated that the discovery of personal vocation is almost inevitable when we live into our human and church vocations. In other words, when you find where you fit into your community and society, there you find you.
Every year I tell students in my Soul of Ministry class that if they struggle with vocational ambivalence, to take heart, for their professor is the master of vocational ambivalence! I have been a chemistry teacher, a medical representative, a chemistry researcher, a pastor, and now a professor. These, of course, are all occupations, not vocations, but they tell a story of a vocational struggle nevertheless. I have come to see during a long journey with much agonizing that my vocation is to be a teacher, a vocation that has been present in most of these occupations. The more my occupation gels with my vocation, the more at rest I am.
There are no easy answers to the conundrum that some people know their vocations and occupations from the time of childhood while others struggle all life long. There are often underlying emotional issues that cause the struggle. Parental affirmation, or lack of it, is a significant factor. There is no doubt that a lack of communal orientation and feedback is also crucial. Whether it be the pastoral call or any other call, the affirmation of the ecclesial community is the crucial issue. Calvin stressed the importance of an inner conviction when discerning a pastoral call, whereas Luther wisely commented that a pastor does not have a call until a church calls them! I take my stand firmly on the fence between the views of these Reformers. Drawing from Paul’s description of an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, I think it is fair to say that a pastoral call involves four things: a desire born of right motives, godly character, charisms of teaching and shepherding and management; and, above all, recognition from the community. Their recognition of motives, character, and charisms are what matters most. Their calling upon you is what matters most in the end. If you think you’re a leader, but nobody’s following you, there’s a good chance you’re not a leader. If you think you’re a teacher but nobody is learning from you (a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew), you’re probably not a teacher.
Without over-simplifying, these principles of the pastoral can be extrapolated to apply to all the vocations. First, as you seek to discern your vocation, ask what desires God has placed deep within you. What about the world moves you to make a difference? As Frederick Buechner has said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”. Second, how is your character and how are your relationships as you listen to hear the voice of God, and as you engage in the workplace? Third, what are your spiritual and natural giftings? Perhaps we make this matter of person vocation too complicated. Buechner also said: “Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.” And fourth, what does your church community say, your small group of trusted spiritual friends, and your spiritual leaders?
When we understand our personal vocation in light of the human and churchly vocations, seek it with a profound orientation towards the other and especially the needs of a broken and exploited humanity and creation, and, above all, when we see ourselves as persons in union and experiential communion with Christ, vocation will be less of a maze or an egotistical holy grail and more of a given responsibility to obey the commands of God. An emphasis on our human doing as grounded first in our human being is vital, especially in pandemic days when many people are unable to work. An emphasis on our being as persons in relation is crucial in such days when embodied community is scarce, for it will drive us out of ourselves to use whatever means that we have to connect with others, no matter how imperfectly, and to connect more deeply than ever with those we can connect within our bubbles. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last but the vocation to love our neighbour remains crucial even if it is expressed in ways that are strange: hearing and honoring the science from my scientist neighbours (though not uncritically), isolating appropriately for the sake of my neighbours, leaving food at people’s doors, and so on. In these times, more than ever, our world desperately needs Christians who are participating in Christ’s vocation to the world of people and our planet.
 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 227.
 William Tyndale, A Parable of the Wicked Mammon(1527) https://www.adventbeliefs.com/assets/BBR/23/Parable-of-the-Wicked-Mammon-The-William-Tyndale-16th-Cen.pdf. Emphasis added.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: HarperOne, 1973), 95.
 Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 25.