In evangelical circles Christians sometimes seem to believe that ordained or otherwise specially assigned Christians (for example, pastors, Bible scholars or missionaries) are more honorable or deeply Christian than those living and serving the Lord in the secular world. Some might not even be aware they entertain such thoughts.
Personally, here is how I understand the matter. By the grace of God, I am an ordained minister. In my youth I responded to what I believe was a call from God. The church affirmed that call, trained and ordained me, thus “setting me apart” to carry out special tasks like preaching and teaching the Scriptures, proclaiming the Gospel, and giving order and leadership to a congregation.
However, I have three children who do not feel called in this special way. A daughter, until her recent retirement, taught in the public school system; a son is a publisher in the secular marketplace of ideas; and another son is a laryngologist.
From high school days forward our daughter was set on becoming a teacher. Our publisher son while in college listened for a divine call but did not hear it; he felt he didn’t have the temperament or gifts for such a life. My doctor son’s response to the question was essentially the same. Yet none of them resisted the possibility.
A divine call to full time ministry is known by a persistent inner sense of calling, mediated to the person’s consciousness directly or indirectly. It may come through Scripture or the godly counsel of other believers. The church recognizes and certifies the call, and the Lord in some measure blesses it when it is exercised.
So, I live with the sense that I am called while none of my three children profess such a calling. Even so, they are earnest Christians who believe they are living out professions to which they were providently led. They are content that their assignment is to serve the Lord and shine for him in the secular world.
All three (and their spouses) give significant service to the Lord’s work, whether in the church or through some other Christian enterprise. I’m inclined to say I have a calling; theirs is a career lived out as Christians.
I believe a calling to full-time Christian ministry has in it this central element of divine summons, whether given forcefully or gently, whether at a particular moment or over time. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). His call on the Damascus Road was forceful and precisely given in a brief span of time (Acts 9:1-9).
A career, by contrast, can appear to be self-chosen, even when chosen prayerfully. Or it can even be pursued with a similar degree of certainty as that of pastors and others living under a call. Christians who are motor mechanics, optometrists, farmers, or who pursue any of 100 other livelihoods, can work with a similar degree of conviction.
I call it a career because it does not ordinarily have the sense of summons or the same binding continuity that a call to full-time Christian ministry should have.
During the middle ages monks and priests were elevated and considered more spiritual than the lowly laity. But Reformers like Luther and Calvin introduced into the understanding of the church that, while the ordained have a special assignment which is critical to the soundness and effectiveness of the church, all believers should treat their occupation as a calling – a vocation – and seek to exercise it as such.
It’s true the Scriptures give special attention to the work and importance of “set apart” Christian workers (Hebrews 13:7,17,24; Acts 13:1-3). This work has in it that sense of divine summons (Mark 3:13-15; 1 Timothy 2:7; 4:11-13).
So, respect for these “called” workers is commended, and the congregation that looks up to its faithful leader is blessed.
Even so, lay persons are not thereby rendered second rate. Nor is the work they do in the secular realm less significant. Whether laboring in a bicycle factory or an insurance office, they labor as in the sight of the Lord and that makes their work a vocation. They might rightly consider their career as divinely appointed (Romans 14:12).
It was to all believers, lay persons and the ordained together, that the Apostle Paul addressed the words, “And, whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
So, secular work may in several respects be different from work to which one is divinely called, but for Christians self-chosen secular work can be sacred too. In either role God is to be glorified and glorifying God is what we’re all in the world to do.