By the beginning of the third century we begin to see a subtle shift in the way Christians understood vocation. Conflicts with Jews and pagans gave rise to persecution, which led Christians to see themselves at war with the surrounding culture. They worshipped a different God, lived by a different law, had a different inward character and therefore saw the world as simply wicked.
In this light, early church philosopher Tertullian, argued that Christians could not participate in the military, in politics, or in trade with the world. “After we become Christians,” Tertullian said, “we have no need of Greek philosophy. Jerusalem and Athens have nothing to do with one another.”
By the end of the third century, with the end of persecution, the separation between Jerusalem and Athens began to disappear. The Church Fathers began to be more heavily influenced by Greek thought. In their theology, the positive view of all work as God’s work began to change to the Greek view that work is demeaning. We can see this influence in the writings of Eusebius and Augustine.
Considered the “father of church history,” Eusebius of Caesarea writes in the fourth century of two contrasting ways to live. There is the “perfect life,” the vita contemplativa, consisting of sacred vocations dedicated to contemplation; this life is reserved for priests, monks, nuns, and those in similar religious orders. Then there is the “permitted life,” the vita activa, which encompasses secular vocations dedicated to action, such as governing, farming, trading, soldiering, and homemaking.
For Eusebius the perfect Christian life was one devoted to serving God untainted by physical labor. To him, those who chose to work (or had to work) for a living were second-class Christians. Here we see the beginnings of the early monastic tradition, which would fully develop in the medieval church during the Middle Ages.
Similarly, Augustine distinguished between the active life and the contemplative life. While both kinds of life were good—Augustine had praise for the work of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants—the contemplative life was of a higher order. At times it might be necessary to follow the active life, but wherever possible, one should choose the other. According to him, “the one life is loved, the other endured.”
The church not only embraced Augustine’s view but expanded it to the point that it dominated Christian thinking until the Reformation. The duality between the spiritual and secular was being established for the first time in the Church, unfortunately it would not be the last.
Pursuing the contemplative life or a professional role in the church would soon be considered the only truly religious vocation.
Question: Have you ever felt that your work was not as “holy” as work in “full-time” ministry? Leave a comment here.