Anyone who has spent much time in the church is likely aware of its hierarchy of occupations. At the peak of the pyramid are full-time clergy and missionaries, followed closely by other paid workers in Christian ministry. Their jobs are seen as genuine callings, often validated by special ceremonies and rituals. Just below them in rank are the so-called helping professions—social workers, nurses, and the like—whose work aligns neatly with the church's ministry priorities. Moving further down the pyramid we find the vast majority of Christians—salespeople, postal workers, accountants, business owners, electricians, corporate executives, lawyers, and countless others who compose most of the body of Christ. Seldom are their jobs described as callings or celebrated by the church. [While researching this book,] we interviewed a high school teacher who astutely summed up the harm done by a cast system that devalues much good and necessary work:
I don't think many people understand how a sense of vocation applies to their work, especially if they are not in a ministerial or helping profession. It's clear to me, since I'm a teacher, but how do accountants know their work can be pleasing to or glorify God? How do attorneys hear the Holy Spirit in contentious cases? How can retail managers exhibit the love of Christ?
I was astonished recently to hear this hierarchy colorfully depicted in a sermon by a well-loved, retired minister. He declared that the church is like a circus that requires all kinds of workers—some to pitch the tent, some to take tickets, and even some to clean up after the elephants. At first he seemed to be working toward a rather strained metaphor for Romans 12:45 ("Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others"). But soon it was clear that his vision of the body of Christ was much more hierarchical than anything the apostle Paul ever imagined. He explained that the responsibility of everyone in the church, as in the circus, is to support the performers, chief among whom is the preacher in the pulpit. Granted, his imagery was a bit unusual, but the message that clergy are the stars of the show is quite common indeed. Consider these words of an earnest, freshly ordained seminary graduate preaching to a downtown Atlanta congregation with many businesspeople:
Generations of people in this country find their identity in their jobs. But that is an empty life, a life that leads you down a path of nothingness. But what might it mean if God says, "Now you are the one to go deliver the message." Your life must be interrupted if you are ready to be an instrument in meeting the world's needs. You must be ready to respond to the calling that God has on your life. Think about the untouchables in India. What if God said, "I want you to be the one to travel over there and give them the message?" What about the epidemic of AIDS in Africa? What if God is calling you to do something about it?
Must we really go to India or Africa to be instrumental in meeting the world's needs? Could it be that God also needs Christians to serve the world as factory workers, hairstylists, and bond traders?
These two ministers at opposite ends of their careers had the best of intentions, but I doubt if either had ever considered the disastrous consequences—for the church or for individual believers—of a theology that elevates an ecclesiastical elite while subtly devaluing the rest of the body. It is an attitude that betrays a distorted conception of Christian vocation and calling, one that sorts human activities into contrived categories of secular and sacred, suggesting that God is more concerned with church-sponsored work than with Christians being faithful in a thousand other daily contexts.