For years I served as a teaching pastor at my church, but then left the pastoral team to pursue a calling outside the institutional church. For the first time since graduating from seminary, I found myself in the pews more often than in the pulpit. It changed my perspective. Working as a writer and editor, traveling more often, and juggling a young family left very little discretionary time in my schedule. There was simply no way I could participate in everything the church was asking me to do while also fulfilling the calling God had given me to pursue outside the church.
Within a few months, I understood how most of the people in my congregation felt. And I realized how insensitive and guilt-inducing many of my past sermons had been. In sermon after sermon I had called them to give more time, more money, more energy to the work of the church. Little did I understand or affirm their callings in the world.
I had inadvertently created a secular/sacred divide in which the "sacred" calling of the church was pitted against their "secular" callings in the world. I never said this explicitly, of course, but it was implied.
Later I was invited to preach again. This time my message included an apology for my failure to understand the value of their work outside the church. The sermon was met with shouts of "Amen!"—not a common occurence in our predominantly Anglo surburban congregation. Why did it take me so long to see my error, and why did I have to leave pastoral ministry to recognize it? Part of the problem is history.
Centuries ago the word vocation, meaning literally "a calling," applied only to bishops, priests, and monks—those occupying offices within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was believed that the clergy had been called by God. They alone had a vocation while everyone else merely worked.
Why the Divide?
The idea dates back to Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century. He wrote that Christ had established two ways of life, the "perfect life" and the "permitted life." The perfect life was the one God called the clergy to—a life of prayer, worship, and service to Christ through the church. Other occupations, while necessary, carried less dignity. The labor of farmers, artists, merchants, and homemakers was not evil, but neither was it blessed, nor were these roles callings from God. After all, they were concerned with the things of earth, while the clergy were occupied with the things of heaven.
This hierarchy of labor went largely unchallenged for until the Protestant Reformation. Leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin called Christians back to the authority of Scripture, and there they found no justification for the exaltation of the clergy or the abasement of other labor. They read in the New Testament that everyone should work and do "something with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need" (Eph. 4:28). This was more than a rebuke of laziness; it was an affirmation of work, including physical labor, as a way of blessing others and manifesting Christian love. The Reformers also recognized that worship of God was not limited to one's time in a cathedral. God received glory in the ordinary activities of life, including work.