I see more and more talk about vocation in Christian circles these days. It has primarily to do with reclaiming the laity’s role in the broader scope of ministry in the world. But too often, the concept is confused with occupation – a sense that our profession is somehow a calling from God. I don’t think so and I don’t think the Bible teaches it, either.
The word calling, as in the sense that God calls us to some identity or role, is not used much in the New Testament. When the word “call” occurs in the gospels it is usually someone calling out to someone else (i.e. – “He called out…”) and has to do with making a sound. In a few cases it has to do with a name (i.e. – “a man called Matthew…). Neither of these is what is implied when we speak of “vocation” which comes from the Latin “vocatio” which has to do with being called out or set apart (for some purpose).
The sense of being called out for some purpose occurs in the other writings in the New Testament in that sense. Almost all of the references to “calling” in that way, refer to the people of God collectively. Ephesians 4:1-6 is a great example of this. The sense of call is referred to 4 times in those verse, always plural, and always communal. Biblically, calling first and foremost something we are called to together. It is not primarily individuals who are called by God – but a people, connected to Jesus, who are called to carry on his work. Only within that framework can we then understand our individual calling.
This means that my occupation, my family, my civic responsibilities, my involvement in the life of the church are NOT my calling – they are various ways I live out the one calling we all share. It is not about me finding the perfect job that God wants me to have. It is about engaging the life I do have with a sense that I am called to be the presence of Christ and a witness to God’s work in that situation, no matter how well I actually like the specific job. To be sure, when our gifts and passions match the work we find, that is the ideal. But for many, such an idea is a distant hope – especially in tough economic times. Just having a way to keep food and a roof is a stretch for many among us. Yet they are equally called at this moment as those in religious occupations who feel like they are in exactly the right spot. This is not because they cannot or should not dream of connecting gifts and passions with their occupations in a new way – but it is to say that as followers of Jesus they still share in the one vocation that belongs to all of us. Our occupation is an expression of our calling in some way – but it is not the same thing.
We are the body of Christ. We share in his work in the world. There are many places and ways that we do this. Some feel like a better fit than others sometimes, and we all long for the freedom to find the best fit for our gifts and passions as we can. But always and in all ways, our vocation is the same – we watch for what God is doing where we are and we use what we have to join in.