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Not too long ago, I was reading a new book by Ben Witherington entitled Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. Midway through the book, I saw that Witherington was interacting with Gene Veith’s book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life in order to underscore the differences between their perspectives.

I read Veith’s book several years ago and found it to be a helpful guide to thinking about matters related to a Christian’s view of vocation and calling. It struck me that Witherington and Veith, though working from different theological streams, weren’t as far apart as it seemed.

When I finished the book, I decided to bring Dr. Veith and Dr. Witherington together on this blog and host a forum on how our theological persuasions affect our view of labor. Within hours of throwing out the initial question, the emails from these two brilliant men had piled up so fast and furiously that I found I had to just get out of the way! By the end of the email conversation, I was satisfied that some good discussion had taken place and some differences had been hashed out.

After the conversation took place, Dr. Veith recommended that I break the conversation into separate posts in a series. He then wrote:

“I myself have gotten a lot out of this exchange.  It happens rarely enough, for people who disagree with each other in their publications to talk it out, to the point of finding at least some underlying agreements after all.  A blog actually makes it possible for this to happen, though few bloggers go to the trouble of using their forum in this way.   I really appreciate your doing this.   This could be a model for others to follow!”

I hope so, which is why I’m happy to devote the next couple of days to allowing Kingdom People readers enjoy an important conversation about work from two scholars who have spent many hours considering these matters.

WAX: What role does the church play in relation to a man or woman who is seeking to discern God’s call to a particular vocation?

VEITH: I think that the church’s main role is, quite simply, to teach the doctrine of vocation, according to its own theological light.

As Dr. Witherington says in his book, this is a topic that has been neglected by churches, despite how much the Bible teaches about the topic and despite the huge role that work plays in people’s lives today.

After that, the man or woman struggling over questions of vocation simply needs to be encouraged to see God’s hand in the normal processes and decision-making that goes into finding a job.  Dissatisfaction with what one is currently doing, particular interests and talents, opportunities that arise, doors that open and doors that slam in your face – all of these are factors in going in one direction or another.  Christians are still subject to all of these “secular” factors, but, through the eyes of faith, they can trust in God’s leading.

WITHERINGTON: I would say from the outset we need to distinguish between being called by God and some particular vocation.   So calling and ‘vocation’ should be distinguished.

I certainly think the church has an obligation to help persons discern the call of God on their lives at this or that point in time in their lives.  But a person can be called to a variety of tasks on a variety of occasions for a variety of ways of serving the Lord and edifying others.  As, you will have deduced from my book entitled Work,  I don’t really agree with either Luther’s two kingdoms approach, nor the subset of that, the notion that we are called to some specific vocation over the long haul  (e.g. one to be a plumber one to be a preacher etc.)

VEITH: I certainly agree that “vocation” includes much more than the work one does to make a living.  We have vocations – a term that is simply the Latin form of “calling” – in the family, the church, and the culture as a whole, as well as in what Luther called “the common order of Christian love” (the ordinary course of life outside of any particular office, the realm of the Good Samaritan, of friendship, and informal interactions).

In fact, Luther considered the things we do to make a living under the classification of the family, specifically “the household” (oikos, which is where we get the word “economy,” from oikonomia, the laws of the household).  In Luther’s day, economic activity and the family were not separated as they have been since the Industrial Revolution.  Most of Luther’s writings about vocation (as well as those of the Apostle Paul) had to do not so much with “economic activity” as with marriage and parenthood.

That the word “vocation” has narrowed to mean “employment” may be one of the reasons the larger theology of vocation has been lost.

WAX: Why and when do you think the doctrine of vocation became lost?

VEITH: I suspect part of the reason is that it became “hardened.”  I believe the Puritans started using the term more or less exclusively for “employment.”  The notion that a person has one and only one calling in that sense, so that one must not leave one’s job or improve one’s social status may have the same derivation.

Luther sometimes talks about being satisfied in one’s calling, however lowly in the eyes of the world, but that is not the same thing.  In Luther’s time, in the late Middle Ages, social position was very static.  But that would soon change, largely due to the Reformation and the doctrine of vocation, as Max Weber argues, leading to the unprecedented social mobility of the Reformation countries.

That vocation is not static and that vocations (in the sense of “callings,” which is what the word means – we could just as easily retire the term “vocation” and retain “calling”) is proven in the most fundamental of the vocations:  the family.  A person comes into a family with the vocation of a child.   She then grows up and is led into the new vocation of marriage.  She may then be called into motherhood. And eventually grandmotherhood.

The same thing happens in the workplace  (Luther’s father was a peasant farmer, who then became a miner, who then purchased smelting machines and had a small business), including the ministry (Luther was a law student; then he became a monk; then he became a priest; then he became a professor; etc.).

WAX: But Dr. Witherington, you mean something else by “vocation.” Can you elaborate?

WITHERINGTON: Yes.  Being a child is not vocation, not least because it does not involve a choice. It’s simply a phase or condition in life.

Is marriage a vocation?   Well no, it’s a charisma as Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 7.  It’s something one must have the grace gift to do, but it’s not a vocation.  I would say the Greek term charisma (literally grace gift), which Paul then applies to the gift of being single or the gift of being married in the Lord, connotes something quite different from vocation. It has more to do with whether one has the capacity for marriage or singleness, not whether one has the calling to be married or sees marriage as a vocation.

WAX: So how do you distinguish between “calling” and “vocation”?

WITHERINGTON: When the term “calling” comes up in the New Testament, it is applied to becoming a disciple of Jesus, not taking on a particular role or task in the family or in society.

I think I understand why Luther goes the way he does with the language of vocation. Precisely because of his two kingdom theology, he nonetheless wanted to avoid not only the idea that God was only involved in one realm, but he also wanted to avoid the notion that what happened in the other realm was merely secular in character, hence this theological notion that even mundane tasks or even normal familial roles which have nothing necessarily to do with being Christian, are seen as vocations in a rather specifically Christian sense of the term.

If there is one thing that is clear to me about Paul’s use of the term charisma, he applies it only to Christians – to himself and to his converts.   I don’t think non-Christians having a calling or vocation in the Christian sense, at least according to the New Testament.  They simply have roles and jobs etc.    

VEITH: But what about Paul writing this:

“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17).

This is a key text for the doctrine of vocation, which, again, simply means “calling.”  This comes in the midst of Paul’s discussion of marriage and singleness, slaves and masters, circumcised and uncircumcised – thus, the “assignments” and “callings” of family, economic activity, and ethnicity.

So you are defining vocation solely in terms of what we have a choice to do? You don’t think our family background or our citizenship are part of our calling?  It sounds like you are limiting “calling” to “vocation,” in the sense of economic employment, but you have been arguing against that!

We are certainly getting somewhere, though, in isolating where we disagree. “Vocation” in the Lutheran sense includes “phase and condition of life.”  It also is related to the gifts that God gives us.  In fact, our different vocations are gifts of God. And the gifts God gives us, in the sense of talents, etc., are part of God’s equipping us for our particular avenues of service (as evident with Bezalel in Exodus 35:30-36:2).   These gifts are not to be confused with the spiritual gifts given to Christians, as you discuss, but God gives many different kinds of gifts.

WAX: The main difference between your approaches is that Dr. Veith’s book God at Work applies Luther’s doctrine of vocation, while Dr. Witherington’s book takes on the issue as an Arminian.  Of course, there are going to be differences.

VEITH: But I’m not sure we disagree as much as it first appears.  Arminianism does have more space for human agency than Lutheranism, Augustinianism, and Calvinism. But there are important differences between Luther, Augustine, and Calvin. We Lutherans affirm the secular world more than Augustinians do.  (In Augustine, the City of God and the City of Man are opposed to each other; in Luther, the Two Kingdoms are both under God’s rule and are both inhabited by Him.)  And we are not nearly as deterministic as Calvinists.  Lutherans do believe in human agency.

As it applies to vocation and to work, when we follow God’s commands and use our work to love and serve our neighbors, we are co-operating with God’s work and His creativity.   We often, though, sin in our vocations, working only for our selves and sometimes harming and misusing our neighbors.  Nevertheless, God can use even the work of sinners to care for His creation, though some sin against neighbors is so extreme that nothing is left of God’s will.

God never calls anyone to sin.  Not all economic activity is a calling from God because not all economic employment involves loving and serving one’s neighbor; rather, it may involve hating and hurting and corrupting one’s neighbor.  Being a pimp or a pornographer or an abortionist or a Nazi guard are not callings from God.

(Ben, you would add being a soldier, since you are a pacifist.  I would disagree, but I would agree that casino workers do not love and serve their neighbors, but rather take money from their neighbors that should be going to their families, and so that is not a true calling from God. )

Sometimes the issues are not clear–can I love and serve my neighbor by being a telemarketer? a bonds trader?–but these are the moral issues that Christians must struggle with, and, as you say, put God’s commandments uppermost.

WAX: We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow and talk specifically about “cooperating with God in our work”.

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10 thoughts on “Work and the Church: A Conversation with Gene Veith & Ben Witherington (Part 1)”

  1. Kevin Bushnell says:

    Trevin –

    Great questions! This is a topic that seldom sees the light of day, and you’ve got two great thinkers here. It would be quite interesting to see you also interview Miroslav Volf on his perspective and his book “Work in the Spirit”

  2. Great conversation. Looking forward to the rest in this series.

  3. Chris Donato says:

    Enjoyed this. But I do think Dr. Witherington misinterprets 2kingdoms theology, and thus his view of vocation, I think, may end up muddling or confusing the kingdoms. Lord knows we’ve had enough of that in this country.

  4. Captain Thin says:

    A fascinating topic with two brilliant minds charting a course. Looking forward to reading the rest of it.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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