If you’ve spent any amount of time in a church setting, you’ve likely felt this implicit pressure to elevate the callings of pastor, missionary and other “full-time” Christian workers. To be clear, this pressure comes from a good place. Those are amazing, praise-worthy callings, and I love my pastors and missionaries. But is this a healthy way to view God’s calling on each of our lives? Are those called to something other than “full-time ministry” somehow second-class citizens in this faux-hierarchical arrangement of callings?
Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Reformers argued in the strongest terms that all work, even so-called “secular” work, is important.
Sometimes this message is even explicit. I can remember vividly a moment I experienced in my undergraduate schooling that—confession is good for the soul, bad for the reputation here—almost literally shocked me awake in an early morning mandatory chapel service. The speaker, a visiting pastor, confidently asserted, in so many words, that if “you’re not planning on going into ‘full-time ministry,’ you aren’t following God’s calling for your life.” I sat up in my seat. Was this one of those semantic shock techniques, designed by a professional and polished public speaker, to get the attention of an early morning crowd of college students attending a compulsory chapel service—the big reveal something along the lines of, “so we are all in ‘full-time ministry’ no matter what profession you choose”? No, his message was clear. God wants each of us to aspire to be a pastor, missionary, or—playing to the crowd here—a Christian educator. All of the other professions? Second-class. Second-best. Not in God’s will.
My heart raced. That couldn’t be right. I certainly didn’t have the benefit of having taken the excellent “Doctrine of Work” course at Southeastern Seminary yet, but I just knew something was off. My major was Business, not Bible. I was planning on getting my MBA and starting a business. Was that plan something less than God’s best for my life? What about all the other students in the business department? Were we destined for a life of simply being good tithers to support those who were “really doing God’s will for their life”?
So, I did what any know-it-all college student does: as soon as the service ended I made a beeline for the speaker, followed by a cadre of fellow business majors who had heard my grumbling. My question was simple. “Are you telling me that if I believe God is calling me to be an entrepreneur, I should follow your advice and your personal calling instead?” To his credit, the pastor graciously backtracked. He admitted he had gotten a little carried away in his enthusiasm for his personal calling as a pastor and his desire to see other young people raised up to follow in his steps. He instructed each of us to follow God’s specific call on our lives, whether that was to become a pastor or business person. I thanked him, and walked to accounting class to classmates’ cheers of having “won” the “debate.”
Every vocation is important. The work we do matters to God. We should not lightly esteem any calling God has given us.
An Unbiblical Hierarchy
In my friend Jordan Raynor’s outstanding book, Called to Create, from which this personal story is also recounted, he reminds us that this tendency to assign each vocation a slot in a hierarchy of callings is not only unbiblical, but also not in line with much of church history. Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Reformers argued in the strongest terms that all work, even so-called “secular” work, is important, and it is just as much a calling from God as the most esteemed pastor, priest or missionary. Our highest calling is God’s calling of us to Himself, to serve and glorify Him in the context and vocation He has placed us, using the skills, personality traits and opportunities He has provided to us. Sometimes we can best serve and glorify Him in some form of classic “full-time ministry,” while quite often we do so by being a baker, bus driver, barber or business owner.
Every vocation is important. The work we do matters to God. We should not lightly esteem any calling God has given us. May we respect and honor our pastors, missionaries and those of us called to “full-time ministry,” but may we recognize that each of our callings is no less important to God, His Kingdom and the ever-marching, ever-transforming work of Christ in our hearts and the world around us.