At Work & Theology 101

Bivocational Ministry Through a Faith and Work Lens

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We recently received an email from one of our readers asking if we had written anything specific about bivocational ministry. It came from someone who runs a small company and serves as the pastor of a small church, which is quite common both in the United States and around the world. In fact, a recent Christianity Today article suggested that more than one-third of all American pastors are bivocational, and they predict that number to increase.

A bivocational pastor is typically someone who pastors a church and at the same time works part-time or full-time in another job outside the church. Many suggest the Apostle Paul was the first bivocational minister. It appears from the Book of Acts that Paul periodically worked to support himself as a tentmaker during his ministry (Acts 18:3; 20:34). How does this idea fit in with the Bible’s understanding of calling?

A Biblical View of Calling

The doctrine of vocation was developed with its greatest rigor by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers. They believed that our first call is to follow Jesus out of darkness into light and out of death into life.

This “primary calling” includes a call to faith in Christ (Rom. 8:28-30; 1 Cor. 1:9), a call to the kingdom of God (1 Thess. 2:10-12), a call to eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12; Heb. 9:15), and a call to holy living (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15).

The reformers also recognized something else called vocational calling, which is the call to God’s service in one’s daily work. In his book The Call, Os Guinness suggests that we have four secondary callings of which vocation is one. Our obedience to our primary calling to Christ can be seen working itself out in four distinct ways through these four secondary callings. They are our calling to human family, to the church, to community, and to vocation.

Call to Family

The first aspect of our secondary callings is to be a part of our human family: brother, sister, son, daughter, father, or mother. God established marriage in the Garden and told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, which implies families. The family is one of the ways we are to fill the world with the image of God and thus fulfill part of the cultural mandate.

Call to the Church

The second aspect of our secondary calling is to the church. All members of the church possess spiritual gifts, natural gifts, and abilities. We are called to use our gifts in service within the church to build up the body of Christ, to strengthen the body, and to carry out its purpose within the world. The diversity of gifts, each supporting the other, strengthens the whole church “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

There are some in the church whose call goes beyond this general call to the more specific call of pastor or teacher. (Eph. 4:11) Part of their job is to equip the saints for works of service which takes place in all four of the areas of secondary calling.

Call to Community

The third aspect of our secondary calling, which flows from our primary calling, was described by the Puritan author William Perkins as “a certain kind of life ordained and imposed on man by God for the common good.” The gospel commands us to serve God’s purposes in the world through civic, social, political, domestic, and ecclesiastical roles. We are to love God and our neighbor in the larger community beyond the church by engaging in justice and mercy as God leads us.

Pastor Tim Keller in his book Ministries of Mercy insists, “To say that evangelism can be done without also doing social concern is to forget that our goal is not individual ‘decisions,’ but the bringing of all life and creation under the lordship of Christ, the kingdom of God.”

Call to Vocation

The fourth and final aspect of secondary calling which follows from our primary calling is our call to vocation. As Alister McGrath writes,

The work of believers is thus seen to possess a significance that goes far beyond the visible results of that work. It is the person working, as much as the resulting work, that is significant to God. There is no distinction between spiritual and temporal, sacred and secular work. All human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God. Work is, quite simply, an act of praise—a potentially productive act of praise. Work glorifies God, it serves the common good, and it is something through which human creativity can express itself.

The purpose of all the work we do in these four areas, both paid and unpaid, is to bring flourishing to the communities that God has called us to serve: family, church, community and vocation. We work full-time in all these areas.

We affirm that a Christian’s work is not a specific type of occupation but rather an attitude that sees work as Dorothy Sayers writes,

…not, primarily as a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. . . . [Work] is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s gifts, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

We always need to remember that all the work we do in these four areas is important to God. Even the bivocational pastor’s work outside the church is as important as what he does in the church—different, but just as important. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)

Editor’s note: Learn more about the eternal value of all work in How Then Should We Work?

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