The Vocation of Every Christian
By Dr. M. Vernon Davis
To be a Christian is to be called to become a minister of Jesus Christ. Too frequently in the lexicons of believers words such as “vocation,” “call” and “ministry” are defined in overly restrictive ways and applied primarily or exclusively to the ordained leadership of the church. The concept of Christian vocation is relevant to the work of those who are chosen for leadership within the church; but it is also the foundation of the purpose of every believer’sVocation and Ministry
life in the world. Every Christian has been given what Elton Trueblood has called “the vocation of witness.” When the people of God do not take seriously this universal responsibility and privilege of ministry, the life of the church is diminished and its influence in the world is diluted. “The harm of too much localizing of religious responsibility in a few--however dedicated they may be--is that it gives the rank and file a freedom from responsibility which they ought not to be able to enjoy.”1
Ministry is selfless service given to others as a response to the grace we have received through Christ, the call we have heard from Christ, the gifts we have been given by the Spirit of Christ, and the example we have witnessed in the life of Jesus. Ministry is the means through which God’s redemptive love is made visible, believable, and desirable in the church and in the world. Ministry becomes the means by which the believer both gives and grows. There is a receiving that can be experienced only in giving. There is a blessing that comes to the one who blesses.2 An authentic theology of ministry sees serving as a comprehensive way of life. It does not consist of a certain way of doing special things; it is a special way of doing everything. Ministry becomes the life-response of persons to the God who is both creator and redeemer, the Lord of life in its totality. A call to minister in the name of Christ
comes to every believer, and it is to be reflected in every life relationship.
Vocation as Response to God’s Call
The Christian does not simply choose to minister from among the many options presented in life. Whether we are receptive or resistant to life as ministry, we cannot claim that it is our own idea. In the community of faith we are nurtured, nudged, and/or nagged by an inescapable necessity to become fully who we say we are--servants of the Servant Christ. In the discovery of our own gifts, in the response to human need, and in the arresting word thatcomes to us through the Scriptures and the lives of others,we hear a call from God to reflect God’s life and love through our own.
In the models of ministry seen in the Scriptures there is a consistent witness to ministry as life in response to an inescapable call. It is heard in Jeremiah’s words: “If I say,‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). The reality of call is clear in Paul’s confession: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I an entrusted with a commission” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Again, Paul identified this “obligation” in his affirmation that “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Most compelling is the experience of Jesus, especially as seen in the writing of Luke. He repeatedly uses the word dei to convey Jesus’ sense of divine necessity and urgency throughout his life. The term carries the meaning of necessity or compulsion. For Jesus the greatest need in life was to do the will of God.
In the gospels Jesus moves through his life and ministry as a man under divine constraint. He must be in his Father’s house. He must move on to preach the Kingdom of God to other cities. He must journey on to Jerusalem. He must go to the house of Zacchaeus. He must suffer many things. He must be delivered unto death. He must be numbered among the transgressors. The Scriptures must be fulfilled. This divine must of Jesus’ ministry is in some sense unique, but it is not unlike the experience of every disciple who knows that the mission of our Lord must truly become our own. However it comes to us, the must of our ministry is the divine call that draws us into the life of service and keeps us there.
At the heart of the disciple of Christ is the divine sense of call, the must of the will of God. We have to minister, for it is the only authentic expression of our new nature in Christ who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Such commitment is our only way to make the message of the reconciling gospel visible, believable and desirable in a culture so distracted from things eternal.
Vocation in Birth and Baptism
A theology of the vocation or calling of every follower of Jesus takes seriously two fundamental theological affirmations. First, the God whom we serve is both creator and redeemer, the God of Genesis 1:1 and John 3:16. Second, humans are created as unitary beings, body and 4 spirit in a continuing, interpreting relationship. A person cannot be defined in terms of one without the other. Ministry that grows out of these convictions addresses the needs of the whole person, body and spirit. It does not emphasize one order of concerns at the expense of the other.
The Christian is called to become a witness to the presence of the creative and redemptive love of God in every human relationship. Christian ministry has as its purpose to join the living Christ in the commitment to complete what is not yet finished and restore what has been broken and distorted. Such service refuses to separate life into neat categories of sacred and secular, eternal and temporal.
A person is equipped for Christian vocation both by one’s unique natural abilities and by the gifts of the Spirit. Both kinds of personal resources provide the means by which a disciple can respond to the calling of God in every human circumstance. The shape of one’s obedience to the call of God comes from who one is as a unique child of God both in creation and in the experience of salvation. One’s vocation is implicit in birth and baptism. Parker Palmer in reflecting on his own experience says: “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person i was born to be, to fulfill the original seflhood given me at birth by God..” 3
Barriers to Understanding Life as Vocation
The understanding of Christian vocation as applying to every believer and extending to all of life has been difficult to sustain throughout Christian history and especially in our time. The source of opposition has come both from within the church and from the assumptions of secular culture. As the Church grew from a dynamic movement into an ecclesiastical institution, the concepts of vocation and ministry came to be defined more narrowly in terms of power and privilege than service. In the medieval age the idea of vocation was restricted primarily to those who were chosen for religious duties in the service of the institutional church. “Vocation infuses all mundane activities--domestic, economic, political, educational, and cultural--with a religious significance the Catholic Church of Luther’s day restricted to monastic or ecclesial activities.” 4 One of the contributions of the classic Protestant Reformation was the recovery by Luther and Calvin of the idea of vocation as applying to every believer in every life circumstance. Yet, even today the hierarchical view of vocation has pervasive influence throughout the churches.
A primary emphasis of the Baptist tradition has been the affirmation of the ministry of every Christian. The doctrines of the priesthood of every believer, the competency of the individual soul before God, and religious liberty form a triumvirate of ideas that express the sometimes fierce individualism of Baptists. Often Baptists have championed the priesthood of all believers with greater emphasis upon an affirmation of the right of direct access to God and individual interpretation of Scripture than upon the responsibility to become priests to one another in the name of Christ. When Baptists are at their best, they recognize that the freedom we have in Christ always brings with it a radical responsibility we cannot delegate to another. The priesthood of all believers stands against every attempt to define the Christian life and vocation in terms of power and privilege rather than love and service. Another primary barrier to understanding one’s life in terms of divine vocation arises from the basic presuppositions of a secular culture. “The social and cultural milieu of America today is opposed to constitutive themes of Protestant vocation, making it exceedingly difficult to sustain a sense of life as vocation. Vocation infuses mundane secular life with religious meaning, but secularism and capitalism strip mundane life of its religious meaning. Can a vital sense of God’s call amid mundane activities be sustained in a society that systematically privatizes religion in splendid isolation from the secular social orders?” 5
In such a setting it is easier for people, even in the church, to interpret the work of the ordained minister according to secular criteria than to understand the daily life and work of every person in terms of sacred vocation. Instead of infusing “mundane secular life with religious meaning,” it has become more likely that we understand the life of the spirit in materialistic and secular terms. A critical task of the ordained ministry today is to challenge the people of God to recover a vital sense of vocation in daily life.
In the experience of baptism a person often hears the minister proclaim that “we are raised to walk in a newness of life” (Romans 6:4). In becoming disciples we experience new life in an old world. We face the challenge of reentry into the world of daily life with a new vision of the possibilities for its common ventures and basic relationships. We live from a new center of meaning and power, hearing the beat of a different drummer, or perhaps more accurately responding to the demands of a divine calling.
1 Elton Tureblood, The Company of the Committed (New York: Harper and Row, 1961).
2. Vernon Davis, “Ministry,” in A Baptist Theology by R. Wayne Stacy, ed. (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helweys, 1999), 133-52.
3. Parker Palmer, Let your Life Speak:Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2000), 10.
4. Douglas J. Schunrman, Vocation:Discerning Our Calling in Life (Grand Rapids: Ecrdmans, 2004), 5.
5. Schunrman, xul, 8.