The concept of vocation is multifaceted and complex. In contemporary discourse, it is an idea that is perhaps most often connected with work of some kind, usually (but not always) work that involves remuneration. In the educational realm, vocational schooling is associated with skilled trades or manual labor. What a person does for a paycheck is typically described as one’s vocation, while what a person does for other reasons—whether personal interest, amusement, or fulfillment of other duties—is understood as one’s avocation.

There remains today a subset of discourse concerning vocation that tends to locate it within a religious context, specifically the calling to the priesthood. Thus a person can be described as in the process of discerning a vocation—that is, discerning whether one is or is not called by God to pursue ordination. Especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has made noteworthy development in its teaching concerning vocations understood in other senses, including reference to the work of the laity and the calling to marriage. So the concept has not been completely secularized, but the dominant usages of it today are either highly secularized, even economized, or narrowly ecclesiastical. Vocation is too often either worldly or religious—not both.

Two Kingdoms

This modern situation is intriguing in part because it represents an unmaking of or a reversion from the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the religiosity of worldly vocations. The narrowly ecclesiastical understanding of vocation was perhaps at its apex at the turn of the sixteenth century, and an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther became increasingly critical of the entire structure of theology and society that divided the world up into that which was holy (and the source of special, saving grace) and that which was worldly (an arena that was to be grudgingly admitted as necessary but certainly not praiseworthy). Thus, as the twentieth-century German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer would characterize it, “Luther’s path out of the monastery back to the world meant the sharpest attack that had been launched on the world since early Christianity.” Luther retained the special sense of Christian calling that applied to the life of a monk, but applied it not merely within the walls of the monastery or the doors of a cathedral, but to every square inch of the created world. “Following Jesus now had to be lived out in the midst of the world,” writes Bonhoeffer. “What had been practiced in the special, easier circumstances of monastic life as a special accomplishment now had become what was necessary and commanded for every Christian in the world.”

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Today’s secularization of vocation, as either narrowly worldly or narrowly ecclesiastical, can be seen as complementary to the premodern association of vocation with a special religious identity, a “higher” calling. Where the medieval church placed specifically religious vocations at the top of the moral hierarchy, our contemporary world leaves room for such special vocations but largely identifies vocation with worldly endeavors. These worldly endeavors, however, are secularized not only in that they are separated from religious institutions but also and more fundamentally in that they are separated from theology, from God. To speak of vocation nowadays leaves out the question of the divine who—the one calling a person to do something and to be someone. In place of God is the self, the state, the dollar, or some combination thereof.

The modern secularization of vocation might well be seen as a consequence of the Reformation, and many have made that connection. If so, it would correspond to an understanding of vocation that accords with an extreme version of a two-kingdoms doctrine, which distinguishes (and in some cases radically separates) the kingdom of God and the kingdom of humanity. Some versions, whether of a Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, or other two-kingdom perspective, tend to restrict legitimate vocations to those in the ecclesial or religious sphere. Anything outside the church or the Christian community is profane. Other, worldly versions might reject the validity of religious pursuits in favor of a mundane view of vocation. These visions differ in their relative valuations of the sphere but do not differ on the basic structure, sharply distinguishing between the “church” and the “world.”

Three Estates

A better way of understanding the connection between the Reformation and vocation, however, is to see Luther’s efforts as beginning the process of bringing the concept of vocation out of a specifically ecclesiastical sphere and into the entirety of human existence. Vocation should thus be understood not primarily in relation to the two kingdoms but in terms of Luther’s understanding of the three estates. Luther, picking up on classical and medieval models of social thought, discussed the family, church, and state as “estates,” institutions of society within which human beings live and flourish.

For Luther, all Christians are called to follow God; there are not two distinct classes of callings, one for the more spiritually focused and the other for profane, worldly pursuits. Instead Christians live and work in family, church, and government. Thus Luther writes in “On the Councils and the Church” (1539):

The first government is that of the home, from which the people come; the second is that of the city, meaning the country, the people, princes and lords, which we call the secular government. These embrace everything—children, property, money, animals, etc. The home must produce, whereas the city must guard, protect, and defend. Then follows the third, God’s own home and city, that is, the church, which must obtain people from the home and protection and defense from the city. (LW 41:177)

The Christian calling encompasses these three institutions, which are united in “the common order of Christian love” (LW:365).

There is some irony, perhaps instructive, that the arena in which vocation is often identified today, the economic, is formally absent from Luther’s structure of the estates. The classical notion of economy (Greek, oikonomia; Latin, oeconomia) had been associated with the family, and oikonomia was literally the “law” or “rule” of the household.

It was for later thinkers to develop and apply this idea to the arena of social organization of families within society, first as political economy and later as economics as distinct from politics. Debates at the origins of neo-classical economics struggled to differentiate between activities that counted as “economic” in the newer sense as being done outside of the family, and those that were beyond the realm of economics, that is, within the household. The famed sociologist Max Weber would later develop an understanding of the relationship between Protestant moral teachings and vocation that would increasingly understand the latter in economistic terms. As Weber put it, “The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.” A secularized understanding of vocation places the person in an “iron cage” of ever more profit-making, which is far different from the “light cloak” and the easy yoke of those who, out of love, seek new and better ways of serving others and thereby serving God.

On this half-millennium anniversary of the posting and publication of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, the event that is popularly understood to have started the Protestant Reformation, it is worth reconsidering the thought of Martin Luther, particularly with an eye toward recovering his understanding of vocation and its broader implications for society, both then and now. Doing so will show us just how much our contemporary highly secularized and economized understandings of vocation have departed from these early-modern biblical and theological foundations.

Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute and a postdoctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, as well as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research. This essay is adapted from a forthcoming review essay in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “The Reformation of Vocation.”