Theology of Work Project, Inc.
Paper read by William Messenger
**The following paper is reprinted with permission of Acton Institute and was originally published in the Journal of Markets & Morality.**
When Christians ask about calling, we usually mean: Is God calling me to a particular job, profession or type of work? This is a significant question because the work we do is important to God. If work is important, it makes sense to ask what work God wants us to do.
In the Bible, God does indeed call people—some people, at least—to a particular work and gives various kinds of guidance for all people in their work. So, as a preliminary answer, we can say, yes. God does lead people to particular jobs, professions, and types of work. However, in the Bible, the concept of calling goes deeper than any one aspect of life, such as work. God calls people to become united with himself in every aspect of life. This can only occur as a response to Christ’s call to follow him. The calling to follow Christ lies at the root of every other calling. It is important, however, not to confuse a calling to follow Christ with a calling to become a professional church worker. People in every walk of life are called to follow Christ with equal depth and commitment.
After exploring the call to follow Christ, we will explore the calling to particular work in light of many the biblical passages related to calling. We will show how the cooperative work of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—guide and model our work. We will provide links for further theological exploration of calling. Along the way, we will examine related topics such as how to discern God’s guidance in work, the community nature of calling, the calling to church versus nonchurch work, callings to the creative and redemptive work of God beyond just the workplace, the importance of how you work at whatever job you have, and the ultimate freedom that Christians enjoy in their work.
Types of God’s Callings
The Call to Belong to Christ and Participate in His Redemptive Work in the World
In the Bible, the word call is used most often to refer to belonging to Christ and participating in his redemptive work in the world. This sense of calling is especially prominent in the letters of Paul.
including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:6)
All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
[God] desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4)
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:17–20)
The calling to belong to Christ goes deeper than the kinds of workplace callings, which is the main focus of this article. For this reason, it is important to start our exploration of calling with the call to follow Jesus. It is a call to a restored relationship with God, with other people, and with the world around us. It encompasses all of a person’s being and doing. It reminds us that the call to a particular kind of work is secondary to the call to belong to Christ and to participate in his redemption of the world.
In particular, our work must be an integral part of our participation in Christ himself. His work of creation underlies the act of creativity and production in the universe (John 1:1–3). His work of redemption can occur in every workplace through justice, healing, reconciliation, compassion, kindness, humility, and patience (Col. 3:12). Christ’s redemptive work is not limited to evangelism but encompasses everything necessary to make the world what God always intended it to be. This redemptive work occurs in harmony with the work of creation, production, and sustenance that God delegated to humanity in the garden of Eden. The Bible does not indicate that the work of redemption has superseded the work of creation. Both continue, and, in general, Christians are commanded to participate in the work of both creation and redemption.1
A Direct, Unmistakable Call to Particular Work
With the understanding that the ultimate image of calling in the Bible is the calling to follow Jesus, we are ready to explore callings to particular kinds of work. If by calling, we mean a direct, unmistakable command from God to take up a particular task, job, profession, or type of work, then calling is very rare in the Bible. No more than a hundred or so people were called by God in this sense. God called Noah to build the ark. God called Moses and Aaron to their tasks (Ex. 3:4; 28:1). He called prophets such as Samuel (1 Sam. 3:10), Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4–5), Amos (Amos 7:15), and others. He called Abram and Sarah and a few others to undertake journeys or to relocate (which might be taken as a kind of workplace calling). He placed people in political leadership, including Joseph, Gideon, Saul, David, and David’s descendants. God chose Bezalel and Oholiab as chief craftsmen for the tabernacle (Ex. 31:1–6). Jesus called the apostles and some other of his disciples (e.g., Mark 3:14–14), and the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul to be missionaries (Acts 13:2). The word call is not always used, but the unmistakable direction of God for a particular person to do a particular job is clear in these cases.
Aside from these, very few people in the Bible received an individual call from God. This strongly suggests that a direct calling from God to particular work is also very rare today. If God is calling you directly and unmistakably to particular work, you do not need guidance from an article such as this, except perhaps for the affirmation that, yes, this type of calling does occur in the Bible in rare instances. Therefore, we will not discuss direct, unmistakable, personal calling further, but will instead focus on whether God guides or leads people to particular types of work through less dramatic means.
The Universal Call to Work
Before we can discuss the possibility of God’s guidance to a particular kind of work, we must acknowledge God’s command that everyone work to the degree they are able. God’s command or call to work comes at the very beginning of the Bible, where God chooses to involve human beings in the work of creation, production, and sustenance. Work continues through to the very end of the Bible. There is work in the garden of Eden, and there is work in the New Heaven and New Earth.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:27–28)
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.… So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. (Gen. 2:15, 19–20)
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. (Ex. 20:9)
For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. (2 Thess. 3:10)
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Rev. 21:24–26)
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Isa. 65:21–22)
Based on these passages, we could say that everyone is called to work, as long as we recognize that in this sense called really means “commanded.” God commands you to work, even if he does not mail you a specific job offer. In fact, God’s command to work might be fulfilled in some other way than a paid job. We will discuss God’s guidance to a particular job or kind of work a bit later.
Calling to Life, Not Only to Work
Although we are focusing on God’s call to work, work is only one element of life. God calls us to belong to Christ in every element of our lives: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17).
Our jobs are not necessarily the most important aspect of our calling or our service in Christ’s work of redemption. First, we must remember that work is not limited to paid work. The work God leads us to may be unpaid work, such as raising children or caring for a disabled family member or tutoring students after school. God probably does not call many of us to paid jobs that prevent us from unpaid work entirely.
Even if you have a paid job, the main work God calls you to may be outside the job. The job may meet your need for money—and that in itself does make it part of God’s command to work—but it may not fulfill all the other purposes God has for your work. We have seen that caring for children and for aged or incapacitated people is a kind of work, and many people who do it have another paid job. On the other hand, a so-called hobby could be the work God is leading you to instead of your paid job. You might work at writing, painting, music, acting, astronomy, leading a youth group, volunteering at a historical society, maintaining a nature reserve, or a thousand other kinds of work. If something like this is your calling, you will probably engage it in a more serious way than someone else to whom it is a leisure activity. There is a distinction between work and leisure.2 However, any given activity could be work—paid or unpaid—for one person, yet be leisure for another.
Second, we must take care not to let work dominate the other elements of life. Even if God leads you to a particular job or profession, you will need to set limits to that work to make room for the other elements of God’s call or guidance in your life. If God leads you to be married and to be a small business owner, for example, then you will have to balance the time and responsibilities of both callings. Work should not crowd out leisure, rest, and worship. There is no formula for balancing work and the other elements of life. Thus, take care not to let a sense of calling to a job blind you to God’s calling in the other areas of life.
God’s Guidance to Particular Work
At this point, we are now able to delve into the possibility of God’s guidance to a particular task, job, career, or type of work. We have seen that (1) everyone is called to belong to Christ and to participate in his creative and redemptive work; (2) it is rare for God to call someone directly and unmistakably to particular work; (3) everyone is commanded to work to the degree they are able, but God does not usually provide a particular job offer; and (4) God calls us to a whole life, not just to a job.
Putting these four together leads us to conclude that your profession is not God’s highest concern for you. If it were, he would make a direct, unmistakable call to you. Barring that, God is much more concerned that you engage in work in accordance with his word and that you come under the saving grace of Christ and participate in his work of creation and redemption. Exactly what kind of work you do is a lower-level concern.
Although getting us into the right job or career is not God’s highest concern, that does not mean it is of no concern. In fact, the distinctive work of the Holy Spirit is to guide and empower people for the life and work to which God leads them. In the Old Testament, God gave people the skills needed for their work on occasion, as we have seen with Bezalel and Oholiab. Now, the Spirit routinely guides believers to particular work and gives them the skills they need (1 Cor. 12:7–10).3 He provides guidance for both what kind of work people do and how to do that work.
Discerning God’s Guidance to a Particular Kind of Work
Guidance to a Job or Profession
Although God does not give most people a direct, individual, unmistakable call to a particular job or profession, God does give guidance to people in less dramatic forms, including Bible study, prayer, Christian community, and individual reflection. Developing a general attentiveness to God’s guidance in life is beyond the scope of this article. However, we will look at three major considerations for discerning God’s vocational guidance.
The Needs of the World
The first consideration is the needs of the world. The single strongest indicator of what God wants you to do is probably your awareness of what needs to be done to make the world more like what God intends. This does not necessarily mean huge, global problems but simply anything in the world that needs to be done. Earning a living to support yourself and your family is one example mentioned in the Bible:
The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children. (Prov. 13:22)
The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands. (Prov. 14:1)
Whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:8)
Let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive. (Titus 3:14)
Another biblical example is working to meet the needs of individuals around you besides your family:
Happy are those who are kind to the poor. (Prov. 14:21)
Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you. (1 Thess. 4:11)
The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:10–11)
A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. (Prov. 11:25)
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:34–36)
Working to serve the good of the larger society is also a biblical imperative:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5–7)
Of course, it is impossible for you to meet every need of the world, so you have to narrow it down a bit. Start with needs for which you are personally responsible, such as raising your children or paying your debts. Beyond that, pay attention to needs that you are in a good position to meet or that few other people are willing to address or that you find especially pressing. You might be in a good position to run for an elected office in your own city or town, for example, compared to moving away to find work. On the other hand, you might be one of the few people willing to document human rights abuses in a country half way around the world. Or you might become convinced that teaching troubled youth is more pressing than joining a band. Moreover, it might become clear that something in your life other than your job or career is the most important way you are helping to meet the world’s needs. It would be pointless to get a job counseling troubled youth, only to neglect your own children.
The point is that God has given everyone the ability to recognize something of what the world needs. He seems to expect us to notice it and get to work, rather than waiting for a special call from him. There is no biblical formula for translating the needs of the world into a precise job calling. That is why you need to seek God’s guidance in the various forms of discernment available to you.
Your Skills and Gifts
The second consideration is your skills and gifts. The Bible says that God gives people gifts for accomplishing the work he wants them to do, and it names some of the gifts and skills that God imparts:
Do those who plow for sowing plow continually? Do they continually open and harrow their ground? When they have leveled its surface, do they not scatter dill, sow cummin, and plant wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and spelt as the border? For they are well instructed; their God teaches them. (Isa. 28:24–26)
We have gifts that differ,4according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in pro- portion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (Rom. 12:6–8)
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:7–10)
As the last two passages show, when Paul discusses the gifts of the Spirit, he is usually referring to their use in the church, but if all work done by Christians is done for the Lord (Col. 3:23), then we can infer that the Spirit’s gifts are also given for use in the workplace. Gifts and skills therefore provide an element of guidance for discerning God’s guidance.
A number of tools have been developed to help people discern their gifts and make use of them in workplace settings. However, it is easy to pay too much attention to your skills and gifts. The present generation of Westerners is the most gift-analyzed in human history, yet this penchant for analysis can lead to self-absorption, crowding out attention to the needs of the world. These passages say that God gives gifts for the common good, not personal satisfaction. Besides, in many cases, God gives his gifts only after you take the job in which you will need them. Paying too much attention to the gifts you already have can keep you from receiving the gifts God wants to give you.
Nonetheless, the gifts you already have may give you some indication about how to best meet the needs of the world. It would be narcissistic to declare that God has called you to be the world’s greatest pianist, and then expect him to download the necessary talent into you after years of mediocre piano playing and lukewarm practicing. Career guidance by way of skills and gifts is a difficult balancing act, which is why it must be sought in the midst of relationship with God and fellow Christians.
Here again, we must not become focused on work to the exclusion of the rest of life. God also gives gifts for our family life, friendships, recreation, volunteering, and the whole breadth of life’s activities.
Your Truest Desires
Finally, the Bible says that your truest or deepest desires are also important to God.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps. 37:4) He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them. (Ps. 145:19)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5:6)
Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:24)
Christians sometimes expect that if God calls them to some job, it will be something they hate. Otherwise, why would God have to call them to it? One morbid Christian fantasy is to think of one country you would hate living in, and then suppose that God is calling you to be a missionary there. However, the best missionaries have a great desire for the place and people they serve. Besides, who says God wants you to be a missionary? If God is guiding you toward some kind of job or profession, it is more likely that you may find a deep desire for it in your heart.
However, it can be exceedingly difficult to get in touch with your truest or deepest desires. Our motivations become so confused by sin and the brokenness of the world that our apparent desires are often far from the true desires that God has implanted in the depths of our hearts.
But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead.… I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom. 7:8, 15, 21–23)
For this reason, we cannot just say, “Do what makes you happy.” What makes you happy—or seems to make you happy—might be far from meeting the needs of the world, or using your skills and gifts for the common good, or even from fulfilling your true desires. The opposite is often true and the work that would fulfill your true desire appears at first to be undesirable and may require great sacrifice and difficult labor. Your truest desires may be met in many areas of life, not necessarily in work. Knowing what you truly desire requires spiritual maturity, perhaps more than you may have at the moment when you are facing a decision. At least you can get rid of the idea that God only calls you to something you hate. In this light, Frederick Buechner writes: “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”5
Freedom in Christ
These three considerations—the needs of the world, your skills and gifts, and your truest desires—are guides, but they are not absolutes. For one thing, in a fallen world, you may have very little ability to choose your job anyway. Throughout history, most people have had the job of slave, farmer, or homemaker, and that is still the case in much of the world. It is hard to imagine that—residents of a few developed countries aside—God wants most people to be slaves, farmers, or homemakers. Rather, it seems that circumstances prevent most people from choosing jobs they truly desire to do. This is not to imply that some people do not or should not enjoy farming, homemaking, or any other kind of legitimate work but rather that the circumstances of the world dictate that many people work in jobs they do not like. Yet, under God’s care, even being a slave can be a blessing (Jer. 37:7–9; 39:18). In no way does this legitimize slavery in today’s world. It simply means that God is with you wherever you work. It may be better to learn to like the job you have—and to find ways to participate in Christ’s work in it—than to try to find a job you think you will like better.
Even in the developed economies, many people have little choice about the kind of work they do for a living. The Christian community would do well to equip people both to make choices about their profession and to follow God’s leading in whatever work we find ourselves doing. Whatever your job, God’s gifts enable you to work for the common good, to find more contentment in your work, and to overcome or endure the negative aspects of your situation. Most importantly, God promises eventual liberation from work’s toil, sweaty labor, and thistles.
Even if you do have the freedom to choose your job, these three considerations are guides, not dictators. In Christ, believers have perfect freedom:
So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor. 3:17)
That means you have the freedom to take risks, to fail, and to make mistakes. God might lead you to a job you know nothing about, have no present knack for, and do not think you would like. Would you be willing to take that job? Conversely, you might discover late in life that you missed God’s professional calling for you. Take heart; at the end, you will not be judged on getting the right job or fulfilling your God-given potential. You will be judged on the merits of Jesus Christ, applied to you only by God’s grace in giving you faith. The calling to belong to Christ is God’s only indispensible calling.
The body of Christ on earth is the community of believers (Rom. 12:5). Therefore, freedom in Christ means that God’s calling or leading is best discerned in dialogue with the community, not in isolation. We have already seen that the needs of the world (a form of community) are important as you discern what kind of work God is leading you toward. The community is also an important factor in how you discern God’s leading. What do others perceive as God’s leading for you? What do they experience as your gifts and skills, the needs of the world, and the deepest desires they discern in you? Engage in discussions about God’s leading with those in your community who know you well. It may be wise to talk with a spiritual companion or advisor, to gather feedback from people you work closely with, or to ask a group of people to meet with you regularly as you discern God’s leading.
The community is also an essential element in discerning who is led to the different kinds of work needed in the world. Many people may have similar gifts and desires that can help meet the needs of the world, but it may not be that God wants all of them to do the same work. You need to discern not only the work God is leading you to but also the work he is leading others to. The community needs a balanced ensemble of workers working in harmony. For example, physicians bring powerful gifts and skills—and frequently a deep desire for healing—into the world’s great needs for physical healing. Yet, in the United States, at least, there may be too many specialists and not enough primary care physicians to meet the community’s needs. One by one, medical students are matching their gifts, desires, and the needs of the world to discern a leading toward medicine. All things considered, the ensemble of physicians is becoming a bit unbalanced. Discerning God’s calling is a community endeavor.
Church Work—A Higher Calling?
Many Christians have the impression that church workers—especially evangelists, missionaries, pastors, priests, ministers and the like—have a higher calling than other workers. While there is little in the Bible to support this impression, by the Middle Ages, religious life—as a monk or nun—was widely considered holier than ordinary life. Regrettably, this distortion remains influential in churches of all traditions, even though the doctrine of virtually every church today affirms the equal value of the work of lay people. In the Bible, God calls individuals both to church-related and nonchurch-related work.
Calls to Church Work
Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. (Ex. 28:1)
And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:16–17)
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. (Acts 13:2, 5)
Calls to Nonchurch Work
The Lord said to Moses, “Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him.” (Deut. 31:14)
Moses and Joshua were both primarily military/political leaders, not cultic/religious leaders. They were both exceptionally close to God, but that does not make them religious leaders. Rather it shows that God calls people in all walks of life.
He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah. (1 Sam. 16:12–13)
Therefore, it would be inaccurate to think that God calls church workers but not other types of workers. Some confusion arises because many churches require that their individuals be called to be ordained or to serve as pastors, priests, or other ministers. Often the word call is used to describe the process of selecting a minister or the decision to enter church work full-time. However, as in the Bible itself, these situations are rarely direct, unmistakable, personal calls from God. Rather, they may describe a strong sense of guidance by God. As we have seen, God’s guidance can occur just as strongly in nonchurch-related jobs and professions. Because the Theology of Work Project does not take church work as one of its subjects, we will not attempt to evaluate whether callings to church work are more intense, more direct, more evident, or more necessary than callings to nonchurch work. We will affirm that church work is not in general a higher calling than nonchurch work, and that the term call applies just as much to nonchurch work as to church work.
We also affirm that nonchurch work is as much “full-time Christian service” as church work. All Christians are called (that is, commanded) to conduct everything they do, round the clock, as full-time service to Christ:
Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters (Col. 3:23).
Before concluding our discussion on this point, we should note that one stream of thought views 1 Timothy 5:17–18 as contradicting the view we have just laid out. According to this perspective, being a church elder (roughly equivalent to a pastor or priest in modern church usage) is in fact a higher calling.
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.” (1 Tim. 5:17–18)
Under this view, being a pastor is a “double honor” compared to other professions. However, most Bible commentaries reject this interpretation.6 A more accurate reading is that elders who do their work well are worthy of a double honor (or honorarium) compared to elders who do their work merely adequately. Alternately, the contrast may be between elders who volunteer in their spare time and elders who work full time for the church.7 The Old Testament quotations about pay further reinforce the sense that this passage is about rewarding high-performing or full-time elders, not about comparing church work to other work. It means that elders who work full-time for the church, and who do it well, deserve to be paid well by the church. The passage’s true comparison is among pastors, not between pastors and lay people.
The only jobs that do not have equal status in God’s eyes are those that require work forbidden by the Bible or those that are incompatible with its values. For example, jobs requiring murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, greed (Ex. 20:13–17), usury (Lev. 25:26), damage to health (Matt. 10:8), or harm to the environment (Gen. 2:15) are illegitimate in God’s sight. This is not to say that people who do these jobs have lesser status in God’s eyes. People whose circumstances lead them to illegitimate work are not illegitimate people. Such jobs might be the lesser of two evils in certain situations, but they could never be God’s desired work for someone.
If God leads or guides people to their work, could it ever be legitimate to change jobs? Would that be rejecting God’s guidance to the work you already have? Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant theologian, famously argued against changing jobs. This was based largely on his understanding of this passage:
Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called (1 Cor. 7:20).
Luther equated condition with profession, and concluded that it was not legitimate for Christians to change professions. However, Luther’s contemporary, John Calvin, did not accept this interpretation—and most modern theologians do not either. For one thing, it does not seem to take sufficient account of the following verse, which suggests that changing occupations is legitimate, at least in some circumstances:
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.8 (1 Cor. 7:21).
Miroslav Volf has written that because the factors by which God guides people to work may change over the course of a working life, God may indeed guide people to change their work.9 Your capabilities should grow with your experience in serving God. He may lead you to bigger tasks that require you to change jobs.
Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master. (Matt. 25:21)
Conversely, if you become a Christian later in life, might God require you to change jobs? It might seem that finding new life in Christ means getting a new job or career. However, generally, this is not the case. Because there is no hierarchy of professions, it is generally a mistake to think God wants you to find a higher calling on becoming a Christian. Unless your job is of the illegitimate type discussed earlier, or unless the job or colleagues threaten to keep you stuck in un-Christian habits, there may be no need to change jobs. However, whether you change jobs or not, you probably need to do your work differently than before, paying attention now to biblical commands, values, and virtues—as happened with Zacchaeus the tax collector:
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:5–9)
Discerning God’s Guidance for How You Work
We have hinted several times that how you work is at least as important to God as what job or profession you have. In every job, you have at least some opportunity to meet people’s needs, to employ your gifts and skills, and to express—or discover—your deepest desires. Your decision every day to serve God today is more important than positioning yourself for the right job tomorrow. In fact, the little you may be able to do in God’s service today is often the key to being able to do more in the future. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” said Jesus (Luke 16:10). Over a lifetime, you can serve Christ best by making the most of every job for his purposes, whether you feel called to every job or not. The specifics of how to follow Christ in the workplace are covered in a number of Key Topic articles by the Theology of Work Project, including #1 “The Meaning and Value of Work,” #9 “Relationships at Work,” #10 “Adverse Parties,” #13 “Truth and Deception,” #14 “Ethics,” #14a “Business Ethics,” #16 “Conflict,” #17 “Leadership,” and #19 “Evangelism.”10
In this article, we have taken seriously God’s calling and guiding of people to various kinds of ordinary work. In doing so, we are trying to correct the long-standing Protestant tendency to regard ordinary work as unimportant to God and unworthy of his calling. Thus, it would be equally wrong to elevate the importance of your job or profession to a position of idolatry. Getting the right job does not bring salvation, or even happiness. Moreover, the true aim of work for the Christian is to serve the common good and not to advance his or her interests. Over a lifetime, serving the common good comes far more from doing each day’s work to the best of your ability in Christ than from finding the best job for yourself.
William G. Messenger is the Executive Editor of the Theology of Work Project, Inc. He also serves as an adjunct professor of business ethics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. From 1999 to 2008 he was the Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
1 John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975, 2008), 48–54.
2 See Theology of Work Project Key Topic #4, “Work and Life” and Key Topic #18, “Rest” at www.theologyofwork.org.
3 The Steering Committee of the Theology of Work Project regards all gifts, skills, and talents as coming from God. The gifts of the Spirit discussed in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor. 12–14; Rom. 12; Eph. 4:11–16; and 1 Peter 4:10–12) are not limited to the particular abilities listed in those passages. Nor are they limited only to uses in the church. This article does not attempt to prove this position but merely to acknowledge it. For more, see the discussion of 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14 in “1 & 2 Corinthians and Work” at www.theologyofwork.org.
4 This verse (Rom. 12:6), by the way, was the inspiration for and source of the title under which the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator was published, and there can be no doubt that many in the world at large regard God’s gifts to be an essential element of professional calling. See Isabel Myers, Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type (Palo Alto, Calif.: CPP Books, 1993).
5 Frederick Buechner, “Calling,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993).
6 I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 610.
7 William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 46 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 309.
8 “Avail yourself of the opportunity” is the alternative reading given in the NRSV footnote. The main reading is more ambiguous: “Make use of your present condition now more than ever.” The NRSV alternative reading is congruent with most modern translations, including NIV, TNIV, NASB, and NEB, as well as with the King James.
9 Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 109.
10 Available at www.theologyofwork.org.