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"Ordinary" Labor and Christian Calling: A Gift of the Reformation

By Roger Schultz - August 23rd, 2017

Roger Schultz discusses the Protestant and Biblical concept of labor and calling.

The 16th Century Protestant Reformation transformed the concept of “calling” and work, paving the way for professions, market entrepreneurship and modern capitalism. We usually think of the Reformation’s impact on the Church and Christian theology – which was its primary focus, however, the Reformation also had a broad influence on politics, social institutions, and economic activity.

Medieval society prior to the Reformation had been highly stratified and hierarchical. Those in religious life, such as priests, monks and nuns, possessed a real “calling,” as they directly served God. All others, in the secular world, who performed common and ordinary work, didn’t have a genuine “vocation.” Their labor might be necessary, but it mattered little in a permanent or eternal sense.

Medieval culture was at best ambivalent about ordinary labor. Members of the First Estate (the clergy) didn’t work because they were busy praying and serving God. Members of the Second Estate (the nobility) wouldn’t work because their function was to fight and rule. It was left to the Third Estate (the common people of all economic classes) to engage in earthly toil and the drudgery of labor.

Priesthood of the Believers and Ordinary Labor

Martin Luther’s emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” changed everything. Based on scripture I Peter 2:9, Romans 12:1, Revelation 5:10, Luther taught that all Christians were priests, with immediate access to God. From the earliest days of the Reformation, in the great revolutionary tracts of 1520, Luther challenged the Roman Catholic hierarchy, emphasized the dignity of individual believers, and affirmed the value of their labor. In contrast to the monastic call into isolation and retreat, Reformers preached that Christians were called into service in the world. A new sense of “calling” sprang from the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

Reformers also stressed the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28. At the creation of the world, God gave specific tasks to Adam and Eve. They were to be fruitful, to subdue the earth, and to take dominion over all creation. This was a positive commission, given by the Creator to His image-bearers, wherein God affirmed the value of earthly labors.

The emphasis on calling was particularly strong in the Reformed wing of the Reformation.1 As Alister McGrath notes, “The idea of a calling or vocation is first and foremost about being called by God, to serve Him within his world.”2 John Calvin especially believed that Scripture emphasized the “nobility of work,” which was a “high calling” and “a God-oriented activity.”3 From this Reformation foundation sprang a great commercial revolution.

Biblical texts were the inspiration for the Reformation teaching on work. Writing to a church distracted by theological speculations, the Apostle Paul emphasized productive labor (2 Thess. 3:8-9). He said that anyone who would not work should not eat (3:10). He condemned those who refused to work (3:11). He exhorted believers, by the Lord, to “eat their own bread” (3:12, KJV).

Ephesians 6 provides a comprehensive view of labor relations and duties. It emphasizes one’s providential setting and a person’s calling, the Reformers taught, was determined by providential circumstances. Masters were to treat laborers with kindness and respect (3:9). Servants must be obedient and work hard, as unto the Lord, knowing that their ultimate reward came from God (3:5-8).

The most remarkable passage on work is Titus 2. Paul directly addresses slaves, the involuntary laborers on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. Slaves were to be obedient, well-pleasing, responsive and faithful (2:9). Their motivation: “that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” There is something humbling and overwhelming about this teaching — that humble slaves could adorn the gospel with their faithful earthly service!

(Protestant) Work as Service Unto God

Years ago, while in college, I worked a restaurant job with my friend Mike. A nominal Christian, Mike was very smart but very lazy. I tried to persuade him to work harder, citing Ephesians 6 and Titus 2. Since he had voluntarily accepted employment, I argued, he was obligated to work even harder than the slaves in the New Testament passages. But it was to no avail. Mike’s constant response was “minimum wages, minimum work!” All I got from the experience was a maxim for life: “Don’t be a Minimum Mike.”

A commitment to “calling” can transform the lowest drudgery. As the mother of nine children, my wife had to deal with constant diapers. The job was no fun. Her attitude changed, however, when she realized that being a mother was a noble calling — and her blessed calling from God. Once she determined to “change diapers for the glory of God,” it liberated her and paved the way for joyful service.

In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber provided a scholarly introduction to calling. A sense of “Calling” (“one’s task given by God”) was ubiquitous among Protestants, but largely unknown in Catholic circles4. When people were motivated by a sense of divine calling, they worked hard and were highly productive. This productivity, linked to a Protestant asceticism (or frugality) led to enormous capital accumulation. Protestants poured themselves into their work, finding their success and blessing a confirmation of God’s favor. Calling was a defining feature in Protestant and, particularly, in Reformed societies.

Ben Franklin was an excellent example of the Protestant ethic. Though he lost the faith of his forbearers, he retained the Puritan focus on calling, service, frugality and diligence. His Poor Richard’s Almanac, spectacularly successful and published annually from 1733 to 1758, was filled with pithy proverbs and aphorisms. Its wisdom sprang from scriptural teaching. In his classic Autobiography, Franklin recalled how growing up, for instance, he heard his godly father quote from Proverbs 22:29 — “’Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.’ Later in the Autobiography, Franklin recalled “I thence considered industry as a means of obtaining wealth and distinction, which encouraged me, though I did not think that I should ever literally stand before kings, which, however, has since happened; for I have stood before five, and even had the honor of sitting down with one the King of Denmark to dinner.”5

Giving the Gift of “Calling” to Students

James 4 is an excellent text regarding Christian calling. It includes a warning about poor vocational motivations, such as making money (v.13), and boasting about the future (v.16). People had bragged about the future – about their location, occupation, duration and outcomes. James reminds readers of their limitations, of human impotence, mortality and ignorance of the future (v14). It is okay to make plans, James adds, but always with a confession of the sovereignty of God and the qualifier, “If the Lord wills” (v15). Finally, James exhorts his listeners to do the right thing.

How can a student, planning for a vocation, determine the “right thing”? I ask students a series of seven questions as I help them to search for the answer to this question:

1. What are your interests? God gives us a sense of calling in our burdens, interests and passions.

2. What are your skills? God gives gifts and abilities to be used. He will not call someone to a work for which no gifts are given.

3. What are your affirmations? Trusted friends and counselors can see special gifts and recommend areas of potential service.

4. What are your opportunities? God providentially opens doors of service. Sad is the situation where someone turns down a God-given opportunity to wait for a firmly closed door to open.

5. How can you meet your obligations? Student may have obligations that must be met before pursuing other opportunities.

6. How can you help others? We remind students to look outside themselves to see how God will use them.

7. How can I advance the cause of Jesus Christ? The chief end of man, the Shorter Catechism taught, was to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Ultimately we are placed on this earth to bring glory to God — even in our work and our calling!

As we consider our charge to translate this gift of the reformation for our students today, I am reminded of what Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr. used to say to his faculty as they were engaged in shaping students. In his exhortation, he emphasized a two-fold salt and light ministry. The “salt ministry” was necessary to preserve and transform culture. Falwell repeatedly stressed “calling” – urging students to find areas of service and work. The calling could be a conventional, religious one as minister or missionary. The “light ministry” involved sharing the gospel and bringing people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. But Christians could, should, and will also be called of God to education, medicine, law, engineering, etc. As Champions of Christ in every sphere of human activity, graduates could transform the world for the cause of Christ’s Kingdom, and thus re-gift this Reformational commitment to the biblical principle of calling.


  1.  Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 74.
  2.  Alister McGrath, “Calvin and the Christian Calling,” First Things, June 1, 1999, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www. article/1999/06/calvin-and-the-christian-calling.
  3.  David Hall and Matthew Burton, Calvin and Commerce: e Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 22.
  4.  Max Weber, e Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 99.

   5.   Benjamin Franklin, e Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, accessed May 1, 2017, /college/history/archive/ resources/documents/ch03_04.htm.

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