A Biblical Theology of Work and Identity, Part 1

The Bible never gives an example of a specific vocational “call” for ordinary Christians to identify themselves with an occupation or work.

From the beginning of creation, God intended man to work.

Even before sin entered the world, man was doing the work that God had given him to accomplish. Work, like everything else in God’s created world at this time, was a good thing.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 CSB)

The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it. (Genesis 2:15)

By working, Adam and Eve were fulfilling God’s purposes in life. At this point, God had worked and rested on the seventh day. Man and woman were working in the garden. And all this work was good.

And He said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘Do not eat from it’: The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

Work was not part of the curse of sin. The ground was cursed because of sin, not work. Sin makes work more difficult and painful, but that doesn’t mean the work itself is bad. Work is still good and necessary; it has just become more laborious because of our sin. Therefore, we see that avoiding work is not equivalent to avoiding sin. Work is still good and sin is still bad; they don’t have a direct relationship. We should not seek to avoid work in order to avoid sin. The opposite is true; if we seek to avoid work, we are sinning.

In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, emphasis mine)

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work…[.]” (John 4:34a, emphasis mine)

Work is still the accomplishment of God’s plan on earth. Changing a child’s diaper is just as necessary as teaching that child the gospel. We can’t dispense with either one of those tasks. Cooking food, washing dishes, making clothes, farming, raising livestock—all of these things are good and necessary to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. Work is vital to God’s redemptive plan. Remember that without sinning, Adam was the first farmer, and God himself was the first tailor.

Vocation vs. Occupation

Theologians within the church have at various times taught that certain people, such as monks and priests, are called by God to a life of contemplation on spiritual matters. These people may need to perform common work only when necessary and are meant to devote themselves to spiritual tasks like prayer, Bible study, Bible teaching, and performing religious ceremonies. They came to be known as the “clergy” and found their place in the medieval hierarchy as a separate class from the nobility and the commoners. At the time, the word “vocation” meant calling, but today it has a more general meaning. In medieval theology, only the clergy had a vocation, a special calling from God to perform a religious function in society. In this mindset, other Christians had “occupations” —farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, etc.—but not a “vocation,” because that was considered a special calling from God.

The nobility believed that it was their place in life to rule the commoners, who served to perform the menial labor in society. There were only three kinds of people: some were born simply to work, some to rule rather than work, and others has a special calling from God to serve in the church. Many believed that this was not only the natural order but was God’s design for society to function properly. People interpreted the passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:17 and Acts 6:2 in light of this worldview of society, government, and economics.

However, each one must live his life in the situation the Lord assigned when God called him. This is what I command in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” (Acts 6:2 ESV)

Modern Christian often us the word “call” for something different—like a call to the mission field. People say, “I think God is calling me to get a different job or to move to another town.” Or people may say, “I want to go to China, but I’m not sure if God is calling me in that direction.”

I am going to counter-cultural here and say that God never “calls” anyone to be a missionary or pastor. God certainly calls sinners to repentance as shown many times in the Bible and God calls Christian to holiness, but the Bible never gives an example of a specific vocational “call” for ordinary Christians to identify themselves with an occupation or work.

We can see from church history that it is dangerous to teach that a pastor or missionary is a person with a special calling from God on their life. That idea has led to abuse of authority and doctrinal error in ministry practice. With the exception of certain apostles and prophets, no such designation, calling, or vocation can be found in Scripture relating to the ordinary believer; it is a man-made tradition that has crept in and ebbs and flows at times within the church.

The Roman Catholic church came to teach that men with this special vocation are endowed with supernatural spiritual powers such as the ability to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation). Rome teaches that because of their vocation, priests are an alter Christus (another Christ) with the power to absolve people from their sin just as Christ did when he was on earth. Even outside of the Roman Catholic communion, it is common for people to mentally divide their concepts of time and work into “secular” and “sacred.”

Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin spent a significant amount of their time fighting against this dangerous view of religious vocation on special individuals. The Bible does not teach that pastors or missionaries have a special calling or vocation, but it does teach that all Christians are specifically called to serve him as a kingdom of priests.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9, emphasis added)

We must not fall into the trap of thinking that certain people only have a “occupation” in society that they must do to earn a living and provide for their families while others have a “vocation” or special calling from God to do spiritual work in the church.

As we will see in Scripture in the next installment, all Christians are called to live holy lives, and all are commanded to both serve the Lord and to work in order provide for their physical needs and those of their family. Every Christian is called to a “vocation” and is also commanded to have an “occupation.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part 1 in a series on calling and work as it relates to Christian identity and missionary life.