The History of Vocation


Vocation, which commonly in our culture, refers to a person’s job is actually rooted in significant theological roots. Vocation, which comes from the latin vocatio, literally refers to God’s calling.  And within the Christian understanding, a person’s work is often connected and properly understand as one’s calling from God.

The theological understandings of vocation have not always been the same.  At different periods in history, the way that theologians primarily understood vocation has put the weight into different components of the doctrine.  While none of these periods abandon vocation all together, in each of them you’ll notice that there are different points that are over or under-emphasized when it comes to a biblical understanding of God’s calling.

Note: The source that helped shape this insight is Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation.

The History of Vocation

Vocation as the Call to Christ

The first way that Christians understood vocation had little to do with careers, ministry, or even one’s relationship with their family.  In the earliest years of Christianity, Christians were a minority and becoming a Christian had significant implications for a person’s life. The call (vocatio) to Christianity meant that many parts of their life would no longer take place.

For the earliest Christians, vocation was not seen as the work God is calling them to but instead is God calling them to be a Christian? And secondly, how does that calling as a Christian affect a person's public image?

Vocation as the Call to Ministry

In the Middle Ages, Christianity was no longer the minority but instead an overwhelming majority. The struggle of whether or not someone was called to be a Christian was largely ignored; everyone believed they were called to be children of God.

The issue instead became, what kind of Christian am I?

Indeed, for medieval Christians "having a vocation" (in Latin, vocatio) meant almost exclusively joining the priesthood or some monastic order. Thus the central vocational choice for Christians was - should I stay a part of my family, marrying, having children; or choose the priesthood or the "religious" life in a convent or a monastery or as a wandering friar ("religious" usually meant "monastic”)? - from Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation

Vocation as All of Work

In the time of the Reformation, a shift in vocation happened as Luther and other protestants would begin to embrace what we know as “the priesthood of all believers.”  Certainly some were called to be pastors and priests but others were called to the political office, others to work on the farm, and some to stay at home and raise a family.

This understanding of vocation recovered the realities that Jesus was a carpenter, the apostles were fishermen, and Paul was a tentmaker.  All work was seen as sacred, not just a particular work and each person should focus on loving their neighbor in the work that God had assigned to them.  Luther especially emphasized this in terms of a person’s job, which is why we often see the word vocation used when talking about a person’s career.

But Luther understand vocation not simply to be a person’s job but any work in which God has called someone to. This is important, especially in our day and age - because while a person may not like their job, may be retired from their job, or may not even have a job - none of these determine whether or not a person is called. A person’s calling is found in the place where God has given them an opportunity to serve their neighbor. And that happens within their workplaces, homes, churches, and neighborhoods.

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