At Work & Theology 101

Christian Education Should Teach Students the Dignity of Work and the Doctrine of Vocation

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After ten years of teaching in higher education and interacting with students from a wide range of backgrounds, I’ve come to realize that most young people lack the resources for thinking clearly about their vocations.

Unfortunately, this is also true at Christian colleges and universities.

The purpose of Christian institutions of higher learning is multi-faceted. At the very least, they ought to teach students how to think critically and how to love God with their minds.

They should also equip students to apply their faith with authenticity, to all spheres of their lives.

Given that the successful completion of a college degree ideally results in students acquiring a job in their area of emphasis, it follows that Christian universities and colleges should also be passionately instilling in students a biblical vision for their future careers.

Christian Education Should Teach Students the Value and Dignity of Work

The scriptures clearly emphasize the value and dignity of work. Not only that, but there’s some reason to think that work will continue in the new heavens and new earth, albeit redeemed from the curse of the Fall.

In the book of Revelation, for example, it is proclaimed that:

No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.

Work itself is not a product of the fall, but rather work as drudgery.

As Nancy Pearcey helpfully explains in Total Truth:

We cannot know exactly what life will be like in eternity, but the fact that Scripture calls it a new ‘earth,’ and tells us we will live there with glorified physical bodies, means that it will not be a negation of the life we have known here on the old earth.  Instead it will be an enhancement, an intensification, a glorification of this life.

If work does have eternal value, it follows that it’s embedded with an intrinsic dignity, and is not to be viewed as a “necessary evil,” but rather as an essential component of glorifying God and manifesting the Imago Dei.

Furthermore, this suggests that although the accumulation of wealth can be used for kingdom purposes, and certainly shouldn’t be rejected as “worldly” or “carnal,” this is not to be viewed as work’s ultimate end or telos.

Along similar lines, in Creed or Chaos? Dorothy Sayers argues that:

Christians must revive a centuries-old view of humankind as made in the image of God, the eternal Craftsman, and of work as a source of fulfillment and blessing not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

Of course, according to the Protestant Reformers, the notion of calling extends beyond one’s profession, and even applies to the work of the husband, wife, and parent.

As Martin Luther taught:

When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling.

It’s crucially important that our emphasis on vocation gives proper attention to those callings associated with the institution of the family, which is fundamental to the health of a flourishing society.

Christian Education Should Teach Students the Doctrine of Vocation

One of the reasons our vocations glorify God is because they serve the common good, causing us to fulfill the role of agents of God’s grace in the lives of believers and non-believers alike.

To the degree that people are made aware of this role, it provides the occasion for them to express gratitude for God’s loving providence over his creation.

Andy Crouch, in an insightful piece for Christianity Today, comments that:

Seeking the common good in its deepest sense means continually insisting that persons are of infinite worth—worth more than any system, any institution, or any cause. Societies are graded on a curve, with the fate of the most vulnerable given the most weight, because the fate of the most vulnerable tells us whether a society truly values persons as ends or just as means to an end.

The ideal, in Christian colleges and universities, of integrating faith and learning is laudable and worthy of emulation.

However, it’s not sufficient to merely have a Christian view of science, economics, government, education, business, parenthood, and so on. Schools must also teach students to view their pursuit of these disciplines, and their future stations in life, through the lens of the doctrine of vocation.

Young people need to grasp and appreciate the fact that although some are called to be pastors or missionaries, most individuals have been designed to thrive in other cultural spheres, which from the eternal perspective, are just as important and valuable.

Otherwise the risk is that Christians, blinded by a dualistic outlook, will possibly do one of two things:

  • Either pursue work in professional ministry for which they might be ill-suited, causing them to feel inadequate and overwhelmed, resulting in a disservice to the believers under their care;
  • Or tolerate a career in the “secular realm,” causing them to feel unsatisfied in the significance of their work and unmotivated to approach it in a holistic way, resulting in a disservice to everyone who would otherwise benefit from their efforts.

As part of their commitment to the integration of faith and learning, Christian institutions of higher education might consider developing orientation courses for first-year students, designed to inculcate in freshman a biblical understanding of God’s purpose for work.

One of the results will be that students will be liberated to think more broadly about God’s call in their lives, thereby putting them in a better position to glorify God, given their unique temperament and skills.

In addition, the career services departments at Christian universities and colleges should not only connect students with potential vocational opportunities, but also provide them with the resources for discerning the call of God in their lives.

This process, though deeply spiritual in its focus, should be thoroughly practical as well, enabling students to perceive how God has designed them and what sort of vocations would be most complimentary to that design.

The goal of all such efforts should be nothing less than the joyful advancement of God’s kingdom on earth.

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  • Spence Spencer

    Thanks for engaging this topic in such a holistic way, David. So much of this is worldview orientation and something that needs to be developed as a foundation. Having the doctrine of vocation introduced during a freshman orientation would be helpful, but I’m wondering if there isn’t a need to introduce a more intermediate vocational orientation. Freshmen are typically overwhelmed like deer in headlights at the beginning and get saturated with instructions about how to survive. It’s the sophomore-junior year the many are finally settling into majors. I wonder if that might be the best time to talk about it?

    It’s interesting to notice that at Southeastern, there has been a statistically significant shift in college students that have changed their minds from “ministry” vocations to other “secular” vocations since we’ve started talking about vocation more. That scares some folks, but overall it seems like a good thing.

    • Yeah, it’s a fair point, Spence. Most freshman need time to get their feet wet in the college experience, before thinking seriously about their vocation. Maybe the initial focus could be on simply introducing students to the concept, and sort of casting a vision for what their college education is supposed to be all about (e.g. preparing them to be active and faithful ambassadors for Christ in the public square). Then later, perhaps in their second or third year, really start equipping them to connect their interests with the needs of society, and helping them to think clearly about their temperament, strengths, gifts, etc.

  • Thanks for this very helpful approach to vocation. As much as I would like to think that this holistic notion of vocation has become widely accepted, I keep learning that we are on the upward slope of the curve. Hopefully your work will catalyze greater momentum.

    • Thanks, Vincent. That would be my desire as well. I’m glad you found it helpful. Blessings! 🙂

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