Calling language has been pervasive in theology since at least Martin Luther. Sometimes we speak as if God only calls people away from ordinary secular work into church mission or ordained ministry. But does God also call some people to stay, and serve God in their current occupations? Many theological debates have centred on the question of what scripture has to say about calling.
The background and classroom assignment below provide a starting point for thinking about how to include these important issues in a historical theology class.
A helpful definition of calling or vocation (from the Latin vocatio, “to call”) is from Os Guinness’ The Call: “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are…do…and have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service” (page 29).
In common English today the word “calling” is often applied to ordinary social or vocational roles. This dates back to Luther’s interpretation in I Corinthians 7:20, which influenced the King James Version: “Let every man abide in the calling wherein he was called.” This understanding of the verse overturned a longstanding tendency to treat “calling” as applying to the priesthood and other religious professions.
Reformation controversies aside, the New Testament primarily uses the language of calling to mean Christians’ common call to conversion and Christlike character, regardless of occupation (for example Romans 1:7; I Corinthians 1:2, 9 and 26, II Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:1, II Timothy 1:91, I Peter 1:15-16 and 2:9, I John 3:2-3). Guinness captures this primary call well: “First and foremost we are called to someone (God), not something (such as motherhood, politics or teaching) or somewhere (such as the inner-city or Mongolia)” (31).
God’s call to Christian conversion and conduct is not equated with these social spheres. But it is closely related to them, and sanctifies them as holy in I Cor. 7:17ff, especially v. 20: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called” (NRSV) or converted. A secondary but significant and related use of calling language for relational and work roles is still justified, as Gordon Fee notes in The First Epistle to the Corinthians (306f., 321f.):
By calling or saving a person in that setting, Christ thereby “assigned” it to them as their place of living out life in Christ….Precisely because our lives are determined by God’s call, not by our situation, we need to learn to continue there…“before God”….serv[ing] the Lord…whether it be a mixed marriage, singleness, blue-or white-collar work, or socio-economic condition.
Seminary courses often pay great attention to the vocation of church professionals, and rightly they should. But even a brief discussion about whether/how the Bible speaks of “calling” to other kinds of work will help students gain clarity about their own work and the work of those not called to the church as an occupation.
For an in-depth historical-theological perspective on calling, see my article from the Theology of Work Project. Note the section “Call in the Gospels” regarding those disciples who were called away from ordinary occupations (Luke 5:1-11; 27-32) and those called to stay in other professions, like the soldiers and tax collectors told to repent on the job by John the Baptist in Luke 3:10-14, Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 and the Gadarene demoniac in Luke 8:26-39, especially verses 38-39.
Sample Assignments: Short Essays
Evaluate Luther’s argument that the New Testament priority on “calling” to Christ does not apply exclusively to those with church callings or offices, but rather we all called to be Christs to one another, loving and serving in every kind of role.
What does Luther’s stress on staying in one’s situation, or Fee’s passage, say to today’s work-related and relationship-related restlessness and mobility?
To what extent does I Corinthians 7, especially verses 17-31, support or counter Luther and Fee’s emphasis on “staying” in one’s situation when called in understanding I Corinthians 7:17-20?