April 14, 2011
Skye Jethani: Redefining Radical (Part 2)
What ever happened to a theology of calling and vocation?
Consider who is celebrated in most churches. Typically it is the person who is engaged in “full time Christian work”--the pastor or missionary, or people who pursue social causes that result in a big and measurable impact. (Who isn’t talking about William Wilberforce these days?) Similarly, those who behave like pastors or missionaries periodically in their workplace, neighborhood, or perhaps on a short-term trip overseas are praised for these actions. But a church will rarely, if ever, celebrate a person’s “ordinary” life and work.
For example, Andy Crouch tells about a pastor he met in Boston. The pastor recounted the story of a woman in his congregation who was a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency. She played a vital role in the clean up of Boston Harbor--one of the most polluted waterways in the country. But the pastor said, “The only time we have ever recognized her in church was for her role in teaching second grade Sunday school. And of course we absolutely should celebrate Sunday school teachers, but why did we never celebrate her incredible contribution to our whole city as a Christian, taking care of God's creation?”
Here’s the problem--when we call people to radical Christian activism, we tend to define what qualifies as “radical” very narrowly. Radical is moving overseas to rescue orphans. Radical is not being an attorney for the EPA. Radical is leaving your medical practice to vaccinate refugees in Sudan. Radical is not taking care of young children at home in the suburbs. Radical is planting a church in Detroit. Radical is not working on an assembly line.
What we communicate, either explicitly or implicitly, by this call to radical activism is that experiencing the fullness of the Christian life depends upon one’s circumstances and actions. Sure, the man working on an assembly line for 50 years can be a faithful Christian, but he’s not going to experience the same sense of fulfillment and significance as the one who does something extreme--who cashes in his 401k and relocates to Madagascar to rescue slaves.
What I had neglected for too long, and what I feel is absent in many parts of the church today, is Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. The believers in Corinth wanted to know what kind of life most honored God; what conditions and circumstances made a Christian life significant. Was it best to be married or unmarried? Circumcised or uncircumcised? Paul’s answer, which he calls his “rule in all the churches” and repeats three times, is for everyone to remain where they are “with God” (1 Cor. 7:24). That’s a message we don’t hear often at missions (or missional) conferences.
Paul wanted to draw the Corinthians’ attention away from their circumstances and emphasize that the full Christian life could be lived anywhere by anyone if lived in deep communion with God. Do we really believe that? Really? Os Guinness reminds us that, “First and foremost we are called to Someone, not to something or to somewhere.” We should remember that the word radical is from Latin meaning “root.” If our lives are rooted in a continual communion with God, then every person’s life, no matter how mundane, is elevated to sacred heights--including a suburban mom’s, the office worker’s, and the EPA attorney’s. And it’s not just radical when they behave like a missionary or social activist in their free time. Even working the assembly line becomes a holy activity when done “with God.”
Of course Paul was not against changing one’s circumstances, strictly speaking, if called by God to do so. That was his experience, after all. But this takes us into another neglected teaching--the cherished Reformation theology of calling and vocation. If a person is living in deep communion with God as Paul encouraged, then he or she was expected to respond to the Holy Spirit’s calling--the literal meaning of the word vocation.
In ages past this meant the butcher’s calling was respected as a work given, ordained, and blessed by God for the benefit of others and fluorishing of the whole community. And, if God called the butcher to hang up his cleaver to be a pastor or missionary, he would obey. But one vocation was no more radical or holy than another. This was a significant corrective to the Roman Catholic hierarchy at the time that exalted clergy and demeaned the laity. But in some ways we have returned to a hierarchical view by labeling certain activities and circumstances “radical” and others “ordinary.” (This is no doubt the result of a very narrow eschatology that believes nothing in this world will endure, and therefore only rescuing souls off this sinking ship really matters. But that’s a discussion for another day.)
A byproduct of this return to vocational hierarchy has been that some people may be attracted to ministry roles for reasons other than God's calling. They may be unknowingly searching for significance, applause, or affirmation. On the flip side, those not participating in celebrated vocations, like the suburban mom I mentioned in Part 1, feel that their life and work ultimately carries no significance and value unless they can somehow squeeze more missionally-meaningful activities into their spare time. This explains the exhaustion she felt.
But perhaps even more disturbing than our implicit ranking of vocations is how we have pushed the Holy Spirit out of the picture and instead taken it upon ourselves to tell people what they should be doing for God, or at the very least what they ought to do if they want their lives to really matter. Have you ever wondered why Paul did not universalize his apostolic calling? Or how he could have instructed the Thessalonians to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands”? (1 Thess 4:11). Is it possible that he didn’t take upon himself the work of calling that belonged rightly to the Holy Spirit?
Paul, like the later leaders of the Reformation, did not measure maturity or commitment to Christ based on how “radical” a life appeared on the outside, or the visible impact a person made either missionally or socially. These activities are good and important, don’t misunderstand me, but they are not the center of the Christian life. Rather maturity was seen by the depth of a person’s union with Christ. The truly radical life is the one intimately rooted in communion with God, through Christ, in the Spirit, and that responds obediently to his call--whatever it may be.
So I’ve come to embrace the reality that my place as a church leader is not to get people to do more for God. Rather, I believe my responsibility is to give others a ravishing vision, rooted in Scripture and modeled by my own example, of a life lived it communion with God. And there, as they abide in him, calling will happen. The Lord of the harvest will call and send workers. And he will call others to live quietly and work with their hands. Some may be butchers, and others lawyers, and some he will even call to be suburban moms. And all of their work will be holy, good, and, if rooted in communion with God, truly radical.