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Calling, Vocation, and Business

Tom and James are long-time friends who are in their late 20's. They went to college together and settled in the same city after graduation. They have both been working in the same part of the city for the past few years. Their wives are good friends and they get together as couples periodically. Tom works for one of the major international accounting firms, in their consulting division, helping companies set up and maintain internal financial control systems. He is on a partnership track and his work has been well received by the office's partners. He enjoys his work generally, finds it challenging and stimulating, though the long hours do get to him sometimes. He often wonders how he will handle the hours now that he and his wife have a young family. He sometimes thinks about starting his own business, thinking that might give him more flexibility with his hours. He gets pretty excited about that prospect and likes the idea of being his own boss. He knows some former colleagues who have gone out on their own, and he senses that he has the right mix of people skills, drive, and creativity to launch a successful business.

James has been working in business too, but he is in the midst of a major life change. He has been in the software industry since college and for some time he has worked as a sales representative for a large software company in the area. Recently, he began to attend seminary classes part time. He jokingly calls it being on the “eight year plan” to finish his seminary degree since he can only take a few classes at a time. He and his wife have been volunteering in his church's college ministry for the past few years. He has been leading a small-group bible study for some guys, like his wife has been doing with a group of girls. The college pastor gave him several opportunities to speak to the whole college group during their main weekly meeting. He can't remember when he was so nervous or had worked so hard to prepare. This was much more demanding than any sales presentation, but he found the speaking times very satisfying. He also received positive feedback from many in the group. The college pastor has been encouraging him to consider leaving his business to devote himself to local church ministry full time. The church where he is involved would like him on their staff eventually. He is planning on continuing working in sales to pay the bills until he can transition to full time status with this church or another one in the area.

As they talk about their careers, it becomes clear that they are wrestling with what God is calling them to do with their respective occupations. We could reduce their issues to this one fundamental one: Does God call people to business in the same way He calls people into the pastorate or to the mission field? Some time ago a well known Christian speaker came to the Biola University campus where I teach and asked the undergraduate students this provocative question: “those of you who are business majors, why don't you get out of the 'ticky-tack' world and do some missionary work?” The point he was making was that the real impact for God was to be made on the mission field, not in the “ticky-tack” world of business, namely accounting or finance. How would you respond to our speaker?

I teach in a seminary, training people for pastoral types of work. Many of our students are older and have come out of a business background. It is not uncommon for them to tell me that they are “leaving their business in order to serve the Lord full time.” What they mean by that is not that they haven't been serving God while in their business, but that they are going devote full time to their “ministry,” which they see as distinct from their business. Some will even say that they are leaving their business to serve the Lord, suggesting a big difference between business and ministry. What would you say to my students who have left their businesses to come to seminary about how they see business and ministry?

In many of our churches today there seems to be a dichotomy between business and “ministry.” Even the way we talk about this illustrates this difference. We say that people are “entering the ministry,” when they decide to become pastors or missionaries. We refer to church work and missionary service as “ministry” and refer to those who do this as their occupation as in “full-time ministry,” as opposed to those who work in the church or mission field part time. When someone steps down from a pastoral position or comes home from the mission field (except for a furlough) and goes into business, we commonly say that they have “left the ministry.”

This distinction between business and “ministry” is at the heart of what I believe is a widespread notion in our churches, that if you want to maximize your impact for God's Kingdom, you need to be in “full-time ministry.” To put it another way, the people who are really making a mark for God are the ones who are “doing ministry” full time. The people who are really making it happen for God are the ones who are out on the front lines sharing the gospel, teaching the Bible, and heading for the mission field. The person in business is left with the nagging notion that he is in a support position for those who are “in the ministry” and though he plays an important role, he is not really where the action is for God's Kingdom.

Imagine that Tom and James are discussing their career directions over lunch. As they talk, James feels that he wants to spend his life maximizing his impact for God and leaves Tom with the impression that staying in business is not the way to do that. He acknowledges that business has value to God in terms of being responsible and supporting a family. But he makes it pretty clear that the front lines in serving God is in his church not his business.

Of course, Tom could have responded to James by arguing that the church needs

business people because

“ministry” takes money. Business has value in God's economy in terms of what it could accomplish for “ministry.” Or he could have said to James that if he leaves his business, he loses his strategic platform to share his faith. He could remind James that most of the people he works with will rarely, if ever, come to church. Those people think that most pastors, though they may be good at what they do, they are not all that relevant to them since they don't live in their world. Tom's response to James would illustrate what we call “instrumental” reasons that God calls people to business. That is, business has instrumental value, in that it is a means to accomplish another, deeper goal, which would be to support “ministry” or take advantage of business relationships to share one's faith. Most people accept that God calls people to business for instrumental reasons. The more difficult, and more interesting question, concerns the intrinsic value of work, particularly business. That is, does God call people to business because business has intrinsic value? Does the work of business have value in and of itself, or only as a means to accomplish something deeper?

The point of this article is to suggest that all legitimate work in the world has intrinsic value and God calls men and women to be faithful in working in various arenas as their service to Him. Of course, there are some limits to this, since it would difficult to see how God could call someone to produce pornography or engage in the illegal drug trade. But excluding those exceptions, God calls people to work in business not only because of what it accomplishes, but because it has value in and of itself to God. Business is the work of God in the world in the same way that being a pastor is the work of God in the church and in the same way that missionary service is the work of God on the mission field. All have value to God because of the value of the work done, and that work is an intrinsically good thing that has value as it's done with excellence. The accountant, the manager, the blue collar worker, the gardener, the janitor and the McDonald's cook all can be called by God to their work in the same way as the pastor is called to his and the missionary is called to hers. All of them are doing the work of God in their workplace, both by virtue of the work they do and the way in which they represent Christ in the way they do it. To take it a step further, God, in his providence, works through our occupations to accomplish his work in the world.

Work has intrinsic value because it was ordained by God prior to the entrance of sin into the world. If you look at the Genesis account of creation closely, you'll see that God commanded Adam and Eve to work the garden before sin entered the picture (Gen. 2:15). God did not condemn human beings to work as a consequence Adam and Eve's sin. Work is not a punishment on human beings for their sin. To be sure, work was affected by the Fall, making it more arduous and stressful and less productive, but that was not the original design (Gen. 3:17—19). God's original idea for work was that human beings would spend their lives in productive activity, with regular breaks for leisure, rest, and celebration of God's blessing (Ex. 20:8—11). Even in the pre-Fall paradise, God put Adam and Eve to work. Work was a part of God's original design for human beings from the beginning, and because of that it has intrinsic value to God. Work will also be a part of the world after the Lord's return. The prophet Isaiah envisions the world after Christ's return as one in which nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). The obvious point of the passage is to show that universal peace will characterize the Kingdom when it is fulfilled. But what often goes unnoticed is that weapons of war will be transformed into implements of productive work (plowshares and pruning hooks). That is, there will still be productive work as part of the program when Christ returns to bring His Kingdom in its fullness. So work has intrinsic value because it was ordained before the Fall and will be a part of life when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. In the paradise settings at the beginning and end of human history, work is ordained by God.

What makes work so valuable to God is its connection to another mandate from creation, the command to exercise dominion over the creation. That is, work is one of the primary ways that God had in mind for human beings to do what He commanded them to in the world. Work is intricately bound up with the dominion mandate over creation. God ordained work so that human beings could fulfill one of their primary roles for which they were created. Work is not something that we do just to get by, or to finance our lifestyles. It is not a necessary evil that will be done away with at some point. Work is not what we do just so that we can enjoy our leisure. Work has inherent dignity because it is the way God arranged for human beings to fulfill a part of their destiny on earth, that of exercising responsible dominion over creation. That mandate is still in effect today and God is still empowering human beings to be effective trustees of His world. Thus work has intrinsic value because of its connection to the dominion mandate. Adam and Eve were doing God's work in the world by tending the garden and doing their part to be responsible trustees over creation. We do God's work in the world in our jobs because they are connected with the task assigned to all human beings to exercise dominion over the world. We are junior partners with God in the advance of His dominion over the creation, which after the Fall also involves alleviating the effects of the entrance of sin.

So work has intrinsic value because it was created before the entrance of sin and is the means by which we partner with God in the exercise of dominion over the world. But there's a more foundational reason why work has value to God. That's because God is a worker and human beings are workers by virtue of being made in God's image. In other words, we work because that's who God is and who we are in His image. Of course, God is much more than a worker and so are we. But God mandates work because that's a part of who He is and part of who He made us to be in His image.

Look carefully at the way God is portrayed when it comes to work. One of the first portraits of God in Genesis is as a worker, fashioning the world in His wisdom. God is portrayed as a creative God in Genesis 1—2, with initiative, ingenuity, passion for creation, and innovation all a part of His work in creation. God is portrayed with what we might call “entrepreneurial” traits in Genesis 1—2. From the beginning of the Biblical account, God is presented as engaged in productive activity in fashioning and sustaining the world. At the end of the creation account, Genesis 1:31 gives the Sabbath model as a day for God to rest “from all His work.” God blessed the Sabbath because “He rested from all the work of creating that He had done.” The pattern for the Sabbath was to rest because God rested (Exodus 20:11), and conversely, to work because God worked in creation (Exodus 20:9). The pattern for creation became the pattern for human beings. They worked six days as God did, and rested one day as God did. We work because it is part of what it means to be made in God's image and to be like Him.

This is why Ecclesiastes can proclaim the goodness of work in this way:

“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Eccl. 2:24—25).