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Christians today often speak of transforming society. A dramatic example of how a theological teaching had a revolutionary social impact is the Reformation doctrine of vocation. Society in the Middle Ages was highly structured, hierarchical, and static. That would change, beginning in the 1500s, as an unintended consequence of Luther’s doctrine of vocation.
The Doctrine Of Vocation
For Luther, vocation—the Latinate word for “calling”—means far more than a job or profession. Vocation is Luther’s doctrine of the Christian life. More than that, vocation is the way God works through human beings to govern His creation and to bestow His gifts.
God gives us our daily bread by means of farmers, millers, and bakers. He creates and cares for new life by means of fathers and mothers. He protects us by means of the lawful authorities. He proclaims His Word and administers His sacraments by means of pastors. Vocation, Luther said, is a “mask of God,” a way that He hides Himself in the ordinary relationships and tasks of human life.
A key text for vocation is 1 Corinthians 7:17: “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” The immediate context of that passage has to do with marriage. Our families, our citizenship in a particular community or society, our congregations, and, yes, our workplaces are all facets of the life to which God has assigned and called us.
The purpose of all of our callings is to love and serve the neighbors that each vocation brings into our lives (in marriage, our spouse; in parenthood, our children; in the workplace, our customers; and so on).
We are saved only by grace through faith in the work of Jesus Christ. But then we are sent back into our callings to live out that faith. God does not need our good works, Luther said, thinking of elaborate efforts to merit salvation apart from the free gift of Christ, but our neighbor does need our good works. Our faith bears fruit in love (Gal. 5:6; 1 Tim. 1:5), and this happens in our families, our work, our communities, and our congregations. In these callings, we also bear our crosses, we sin and find forgiveness, and we grow in faith and holiness.
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?