Medieval society was divided into three estates: the clergy (“those who pray”); the nobility (“those who fight,” or, in practice, “those who rule”); and the commoners (“those who work”).
The clergy were thought to have a “vocation,” a distinct calling from God to pursue “the spiritual life” apart from the world. Devoting oneself completely to prayer and spiritual exercises was considered to be of far greater merit than what could be found in the secular estates. Entering a religious order required the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. For Luther, not only was this pursuit of merit a rejection of the gospel, but such vows repudiated the very realms of life—family, work, government—that God has established. These realms, he insisted, were Christian vocations as well.
Luther redefined estates as institutions designed by God for earthly life. These are the church, the state, and the household (the family and its economic labor). These parallel the medieval estates of the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. But whereas in the Middle Ages these were three separate social categories, for Luther, these are spheres of life that every Christian inhabits and in which every Christian has vocations.
The rigid social distinctions between three estates—those who prayed, those who ruled, and those who worked—crumbled. The life of prayer is not just for a priestly class but for all believers. The state is not just the concern of a ruling elite but for all of its citizens. The household is not just for commoners. Everyone, including the clergy, can be called into marriage and parenthood. Everyone, including the nobility, is called to productive work. Everyone prays. Everyone (eventually) rules. Everyone works.
The Social Impact Of The Reformation
Another name for the doctrine of vocation is the priesthood of all believers. God does call some Christians to be pastors, but He calls other Christians to exercise their royal priesthood by plowing fields, forging steel, and starting businesses. But all priests—including peasants and serving girls—need access to God’s Word. So during the Reformation, schools opened and literacy flourished.
Educated commoners moved up the social ladder and would eventually govern themselves. Workers who loved and served their customers by their labors found economic success. Whereas Luther addressed a static late-medieval society, Calvin and later the Puritans adapted vocation to the emerging modern world. They stressed the callings of the workplace and encouraged Christians to embrace the new opportunities to which God was calling them. Thus, the Reformation brought unprecedented social mobility.
The doctrine of vocation has been strangely forgotten today. What would a rediscovery of vocation do to today’s society?