Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Of Vocations and Jobs

Some thinking out loud for a paper I've been meaning to write for a long time and keep not getting around to. . .

Between Law & Gospel, Church & Ministry, Justification & Sanctification, and Vocation it is hard to know what the most abused distinctively Lutheran theological contribution might be. Today I think it might be vocation.

A job is not a vocation. You cannot have a vocation to work at MacDonald's or Lockheed Martin. You have a job at MacDonald's or Lockheed Martin that can help you fulfill your vocation, but that particular job is not your vocation. Otherwise, how could you ever decide to stop working at MacDonald's and start working at Lockheed Martin? What cause could you give for leaving your God-given vocation of flipping burgers?

That's one great misunderstanding of Luther's doctrine. I think it might spring from Luther's own time period. Luther's doctrine has more than a tinge of the notion of class to it. You should be content with your vocation, your station, in life. If you are a servant, you should not want to be a freeholder. If you are a freeholder you should not aspire to be a lord. If you are a lord, you should not try to make yourself king.

How does that kind of thinking map on to modern, technically class-free society? Not very well, I'm afraid. But I don't think it means Vocation is bad theology, I just think it means that Luther himself sold the idea a little too short. Modern classless society teaches us something that Luther perhaps could not quite see. Namely, that the God-given vocations (as opposed to jobs) are actually quite few in number: husband, father, wife, mother, son, daughter, brother, on down the list of family relationships; pastor and parishioner; subject and ruler; and that's about it. The other stuff amounts to a list of jobs that must be subservient to the vocation. A king can't take up the job of candlestick maker because it would interfere with his vocation. But a husband-father-subject can take up candlestick making, or butchering, or stockbrokering as he sees fit. He can pick his job, but not his vocation.

Either that or modern classless society is simply disordered. I'm willing to be convinced of that as well.

We also need to consider the idea of Providence more deeply in regard to vocation. Someday I'll pull down Gerhard's volume on this topic and learn enough to be about to write this paper, Lord willing. . .



  1. Writing as a Finn—about the world's most egalitarian, classless society, I'm told—in the United Kingdom—not quite so classless—on an American—delusions of classless egalitarianism in a deeply unequal society—blog is a fun little exercise in itself!

    I am one who is unconvinced about the God-givenness of a classless society, or that classlessness is somehow a more elevated, let alone better ordered, society. The trouble with class societies is the same as that with dictatorial governments (I include traditional unconstitutional monarchy there) is that they have a great tendency to lend themselves to oppression in ways which vaguely democratic and vaguely classless societies guard against, however imperfectly.

    I guess a lot of people wouldn't mind a classless society as long as they were in the ruling class.

    But to see democracy as the culmination of the growing-up of humanity and both the inevitable result of and necessary corollary of progress is a foolish and un-Christian enterprise. After all, every Christian lives in an absolute monarchy. κύριος Ιησους!

  2. Heath--you're right on. Petersen taught me this a long time ago at a Higher things Magazine planning meeting when he was explaining to a couple of people that a job is not necessarily your vocation.

    One thing I have long struggled with is whether or not non-believers can be said to have a "vocation" in the same sense as a Christian. Maybe there is an easy answer to that. But I've never quite understood.

  3. Perhaps I'm not entirely certain where you are coming from. Can you elaborate a bit more on how the doctrine of vocation is abused? It might help answer some of my following questions.

    Ephesians 6 seems to suggest that you left out a master/slave relationship, which seems to inform that there are other kinds of economic relationships, such as that of a boss to his employee.

    I would also argue that vocations can and do change from time to time. The best examples (aside from economic vocations) are perhaps those outside of the family, like your pastor/parishioner or ruler/subject examples. While those vocations always remain, their specific details do change. If I have to move, I may have a different pastor or even a different ruler, yet this would not negate the validity of that particular vocation.

    I would argue, in the same way, changing a "job" does not necessarily mean that I am "abandoning my vocation." Perhaps one ought to broaden the understanding to include all kinds of economic activity. The details may change from time to time, such as changing jobs, but the basic vocation to obey one's superior or to treat one's inferiors properly remains much in the same way that obeying the pastor or ruler remains even if the one who occupies that particular office changes.

  4. The Catechism lists employee/employer as a vocation. Pr. Curtis probably didn't intend to leave that out. I think the point is pretty close to what you are making Zelwyn. My job at McDonalds is not my vocation, but my role as an employee is. I am called to be faithful in that vocation, and obedient to my superiors, etc. At least, that is how I am reading it.

  5. I believe that Pr. Curtis didn't intend to leave it out, and I will admit that the two points are fairly close together. Yet, I think that there is a difference between "Your job is not your vocation" and "Your job is an aspect of your vocation."

    If the specific details of one's vocation can change, yet the vocation remains, then I would argue that this is a part of the vocation to be employer/employee. One cannot live out a vocation in abstracto. It must have an object, so to speak, so that the duties and responsibilities of the vocation may be fulfilled. I can't be a father without having a child.

    In the same way, one cannot be an employer/employee without having a specific job to fulfill that particular vocation.

    Maybe I'm still missing the point, but I think that at least some room for debate remains. If nothing else, it might help Pr. Curtis to further refine what he means and thereby help him write a better paper.

  6. Fr. Curtis,

    I agree with you, but for the sake of precision I question myself:

    Is the only thing that makes being a husband a vocation and a position at McDonald's a job the fact that you can quit your job at McDonalds? What makes a vocation a vocation?

    Being a spouse and a job at McDonalds have all of these things in common:
    1. Neither is commanded in scripture. (Indeed scripture praises the celibate life)
    2. Neither is given at birth.
    3. You must seek both in order to obtain them.
    4. God gives both. (Can we really say that God's hand is more involved in finding a spouse than it is in getting a job? Wouldn't that deny the doctrine of providence to some degree? Gerhard spends a lot of time talking about secondary causes in his locus on providence. I would need to review it, but I'm not sure there's really that much difference in seeking a spouse and seeking a job, as unromantic as that sounds.)
    5. Both are temporary.
    6. Anything else?

    The differences that I can think of are:
    1. Everyone is born with the capacity to be a spouse potentially. Not everyone may be born with the capacity to flip burgers (though most people can). However this difference could be negated because not everyone is born with the capacity to become a pastor or ruler, etc.
    2. The vocation of husband existed before the fall (though they still had jobs to do (e.g., gardening) )
    3. You can't stop being a father ad lib. (Even this is dubious. May a pastor ever retire, that is, cease to exercise his vocation? May a king abdicate? etc.)
    4. Anything else?

    So is that it? The only things (perhaps!) that distinguish a vocation from a job is that you can't leave a vocation voluntarily and all vocations are prelapsarian? There's got to be more to it than that.

    So I ask myself, what makes a vocation a vocation. And when we answer than, (if we can), will there be any room for a distinction between vocatio divina and vocatio ciuilis?

    Also, someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall "vocation" being treated as a dogmatic category. E.g., I don't recall the Augustana or Gerhard having a locus titled "Vocation," rather, they call it "Good works" right? Does scripture use the term vocation in the way we do to describe the things we do? That would be worth investigating. Could our theology be correct but our use of terms be sloppy. Should we rather talk about good works and duties (officia)?

    Those are my random thoughts. Anyway, that's what I would want to read about.

    Finally, I will say that I think one area where vocation has been underused (as opposed to abused) in the arena of evangelism. Too often I hear evangelism totally destroy any notion of vocation.

    1. This is what I mean by needing to talk more about Providence and finding a way to differentiate it from Vocation.

      For example, we could say that being a husband or father is God-given: What God hath joined together. . .

      But don't we receive everything from God's hand? Yes, but there is a difference between receiving a good deal on a Volvo and receiving a spouse.

      But the key distinction is, I think, the irrevocable nature Vocations. You can't stop being a husband or subject or king without sin.

      So can a pastor retire? Again, it's vocation vs job. A Pastor's vocation is to be a pastor, but his job might be in a parish, or serving a district, or as an institutional chaplain. He can change jobs, including leaving active service altogether, but he remains in his vocation according to the needs of the Church. So the retired guy can fill in on Sundays, counsel younger pastors, etc.


    2. Yes, but the only place in the NT I know of where vocation is used in the sense we're talking about here (everywhere else vocation refers to our vocation as Christians) is 1 Cor. 7:17ff. In that passage Paul specifically mentions slave as a klesis (perhaps Luther is drawing on this somewhat). But Paul says that you can stop being a slave if you have the means. So there we have a thing that scripture calls a vocation that you can stop having when you want/can.

      It seems to me, then, that irrevocability does not a vocation make (at least, not by itself). What makes a vocation a vocation?

    3. Well, you also stop being a spouse when your spouse dies, or your unbelieving spouse files for divorce. And your duties as a son change when you become a grown up.

      And you don't really stop being a slave when you gain your freedom, as you know: you become a freedman with a whole host of duties owed to your dominus now patronus.


    4. The only vocations out there are being a man or being a woman. God says this in His Word and by creation. Even men who are not yet married or widowed or celibate still are men and thus husband and father and lead and have dominion (in the broad sense of some of these words). What it means to be a man is to do these things. The Gottesdiensters, even though I am at times a little ruffled with the "Fr." designation, understand that the pastor, being a pastor, pastoring, is doing and being something that fits with being a man.

      We could get into an endless argument over what is a vocation and what is not, and I think it would be enlightening. However, at the end of the day, all this vocation stuff comes back to how God made us, man and woman, an inescapable biological reality. [Uh, oops, am I speaking a Law word now? Or a Gospel word? Whatever...]

      Anyway, being a man and being a woman is clearly and beautifully laid out in Scripture, shoot even natural law points us in the right direction along with some traditional wisdom/common sense. All what we do in this life is going to link back up with the orders of creation, or it will sail off into Gnostic chaos.

      The family is the fundemental unit of all society, and the distinction between male and female is what gives rise to families and is necessary for such to come into being. So, all that we do, are "called" to do, decide to do among many choices, etc., all flows from who God has made us.

      I move that we talk like this:

      God made _________ a man/woman. Being a man/woman is defined by Scripture thusly... How this particularly looks like from family to family is going to be diverse, yet within the beautiful picture/framework of how God has made man and woman. But I would reserve the "called" language for things of the essence or most intimately tied to being a woman: being under the authority a man, mothering, being a wife.

      But we ought spare everyone the line about some boy/man being called to be a student at this or that school, or work at this bank, or whatever.

      What one is called to be is a man, which means growing into being a man, learning, preparing, and eventually providing, husbanding, and fathering. Focus on being a man or a woman, know what that is, and work it out in fear and trembling...and joy!

      Much of the above has been prompted by a conversation with David Preus, who you Heath, should talk to, I think you're both in the process of writing the same paper.

    5. "The only vocations out there are being a man or being a woman. "

      I like where you're going with that (and yes, I too tire of hearing about how "God called me to move to Hawaii and start a surf shop there"). It's way clearer in my mind to talk about the Table of Duties and officia (offices/obligations) than it is to define precisely what a vocation is.

      But then what do you with 1 Cor. 7? Check the Greek. Paul clearly says there are vocations and slave is one of them. So the statement "The only vocations out there are being a man or being a woman," even though attractive, doesn't harmonize with what holy scripture says without qualification.

  7. And why isn't Christian (baptized child of God) included in our typical list of vocations? Isn't that THE vocation of which the scriptures speak? That is certainly the only eternal vocation I can think of.

    1. Yes, I forgot Christian!


    2. No, I think you had it right the first time, being a Christian is obviously assumed throughout the whole post. The point is is that there is no such thing as a generic Christian, just as there is no such thing as a generic human.

  8. Re: Slave & Master
    I didn't forget this. It is part of family relations. Note that this always occurs in the Household Codes of the epistles and that slaves are explicitly part of a Roman familia. Or think of Abraham: "I have no son and a member of my household shall be my heir. . . "

    Re: Employer/Employee
    It is specifically in this section of the Haustafel ("Den Knechten, Mägden, Tagelöhnern und Arbeitern") that Luther uses the idea of class. He applies the slavery family relationships of the Roman class system to to the class system of his day. A Knecht could never become a Herr. For him to have desired this would have been coveting a different vocation for Luther. But can't an employee of MacDonald's today aspire to one day owning his own franchise? You see the difference. . .


  9. "One thing I have long struggled with is whether or not non-believers can be said to have a "vocation" in the same sense as a Christian. Maybe there is an easy answer to that. But I've never quite understood."

    Can one who is dead have a "vocation?" The Catechism, in its Table of Duties, appears to provide a list of vocations that is clearly relationship-based. The vocation of father, for example, is expressed as actions directed at children; and that of widow, as actions of unceasing prayer and supplications (presumably, on behalf of others. In the subsection "To All in Common," Luther writes generally to each member of the the Christian community, and asserts that we are bound to love our neighbor as ourself (Rom 13:9); our self, note importantly, because in such fleshly house dwells our Lord, the Breath of Life. Vocation speaks to an Christianly awareness, then; an appreciation of our God, our neighbor, and yes, our own self.

    Vocation cannot be properly defined outside of the fully grasped I-Thou equation; and I don't think that the non-believer (or the mouldering body, for that matter) is genuinely capable of the grasping, beyond what is accomplished, maybe, by a frozen rigor mortis.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor


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