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Show Me Your Vocations

Last time out I touched upon the work-related implications of God’s “dominion directive.” Because it is such an important concept (and so integral to the free market concept I proudly embrace) I want to take the space of another post up to talk about work again – or more rightly put, vocation. Staying in Genesis (2:15-16), we read:

The Lord took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.”

While I fully appreciate just how obnoxious it can be when seminarians and greenhorn pastors attempt to justify their training in Greek and Hebrew by lowering their proverbial shoulders and forcing ancient translations and word studies on unwilling audiences, let me quickly point out two key words in these verses.

First, the “work” in “to work it” (in Hebrew “abad”), indicates that one is preparing and tending to something of importance.

Second, the “keep” in “keep it,” in Hebrew (“shamar”), denotes essentially the same thing as “abad,” and further emphasizes the personal stake we ought to feel in the task.

We can rightly glean from these words (and the surrounding context) that work is not simply showing up and mindlessly completing some futile task. Work, in its highest form, is an embrace of the task God has for us, a dedicated effort toward the completion of the task, and a pursuit of excellence in all that we do. Few things are more personal and important to an individual than their job – their vocation. But for much of human history, jobs outside of the elite clergy class were often regarded as inferior, less important, and in some cases, mere necessary evils. Some of this was self-induced among the masses. Some of this was imposed from the top-down by members of the clergy who lorded their privileged position over the common-folk.

Regardless of how it happened or who was causing it to occur, it was wrong. Categorically and theologically wrong.

As the late Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying, “If Christ is Lord, He is Lord of all.” All things belong to Him and are only possible through Him. There is not a single profession – apart, perhaps, from “woman of the night” and “policeman who waits to meet his speeding-ticket quota until the last few days of each month and nails me peeling out of a Taco Bell parking lot with Fourth Meal in the front seat next to me” – that cannot bring God glory by its faithful completion. Being a pastor or missionary are not the only God-honoring careers one can pursue. In fact, the Hebrew verbs we translated above, verbs used in Genesis to define Adam’s tasks in the garden, are the same ones used to describe the priestly work of the Levites in the tabernacle (see: Numbers 3:7, 18:7).

John Calvin was a theologian and pastor who spoke and wrote frequently on the topic of vocation, which he defined as “the calling that carries with it that God is beckoning with His finger and saying to each and every individual, ‘I want you to live this way or that.’ This is what we call the ‘stations of life.’” Calvin wanted Christians to realize and embrace their calling from the Lord. In his commentary on Genesis 2:15-16, Calvin wrote that, “human beings were created to employ themselves in some work … so important is work for human beings that to remove work would throw human life into ruin.”

Where I’m headed with all of this is the same place John Calvin wanted to lead his followers and readers to: the development and cultivation of a comprehensive worldview and divinely inspired work ethic. Calvin started from certain premises – man made in God’s image, man given dominion (and stewardship) over the earth, man called to work (and work hard), man finds nobility in all types of work – and ended up with what is loosely called a “Protestant work ethic.”

That term, coined by German sociologist/economist Max Weber in the first decade of the 20th century, may mean different things to different people, so let me define what it is I mean by “Protestant work ethic” and then explain why this concept leads many Christians to identify with free-market enterprise.

The Reformers of the 16th century re-conceptualized and re-framed work for their followers. Instead of hard work and effective stewardship simply being “things you do” – or in more extreme cases, “things you do to earn your salvation” – they now were seen as the appropriate fruit borne out of a redeemed life. Grace through faith resulted in a transformed heart, soul, strength, mind, as well as a transformed view of work, productivity, creativity, and stewardship. In the minds of the Reformers, Scripture confirmed what far too many church leaders had forgotten. Protestant leaders like Calvin and Martin Luther articulated these ideas, these ideas infiltrated the hearts and minds of millions of believers, and consequently Europe (and by extension, America) were placed on new social, political, and economic trajectories.

The people most responsible for the pioneering of free-market capitalism (as we have known it) in the West were those who embraced the Reformers’ teachings on work, vocation, and stewardship.One of the most eloquent and thoughtful defenses of this claim comes from Rodney Stark in his book The Victory of Reason.

Evangelicals today are so far removed from the history of their own faith – a history they could and should know, but that has either been ignored or purposely distorted – that for many it is difficult to believe there was a time when Christians were pioneering free enterprise, establishing political liberty, and influencing the culture around them (instead of being so heavily and negatively influenced by the culture).

I know what you’re thinking: This doesn’t match up with the charges of greed and exploitation levied by modern opponents of capitalism. This doesn’t jive with the unflattering caricatures of capitalists and adherents of a Puritan work ethic promulgated by liberals inside and outside of Christianity over the past century. This doesn’t fall in line with the shameful view many young evangelicals today have of the financial success their parents had (which provided the financial means to send those same young evangelicals to good schools that pick the worst parts of capitalism and magnify them as the only parts of capitalism).

In all honesty, I mean no disrespect to those who have differing socio-economic views than me. What you’re hearing is not sour grapes or ill-will as much as frustration with what I see as gross misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the theology, history, and economics involved in the development (and wild success) of free-market enterprise. For evangelicals, the worldview of work, vocation, stewardship, and commerce I’ve been describing (and will continue to flesh out in coming weeks) is our heritage. Like all good things, we’ve messed up along the way. I get that. I see that. I happen to think that the proper response is reformation, not abandonment.