Many Christians have the impression that church workers — especially evangelists, missionaries, pastors, priests, ministers and the like — have a higher calling than other workers. While there is little in the Bible to support this impression, by the Middle Ages, “religious” life — as a monk or nun — was widely considered holier than ordinary life. Regrettably, this distortion remains influential in churches of all traditions, even though the doctrine of virtually every church today affirms the equal value of the work of lay people. In the Bible, God calls individuals both to church-related and non-church-related work. For example:
Calls to Church Work
Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests — Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Acts 13:2, 5
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” ….When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them.
Calls to Non-Church Work
The LORD said to Moses, “Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him.”
(Moses and Joshua were both primarily military/political leaders, not cultic/religious leaders. They were both exceptionally close to God, but that doesn’t make them religious leaders. Rather it shows that God calls people in all walks of life.)
1 Samuel 16:12-13
He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Given the Biblical evidence, it would be inaccurate to think that God calls church workers but not other types of workers.
Some confusion arises because many churches require that their individuals be “called” to be ordained or to serve as pastors, priests or other ministers. Often the word “call” is used to describe the process of selecting a minister or the decision to enter church work full-time. However, as in the Bible itself, these situations are rarely direct, unmistakable, personal calls from God. Rather, they may describe a strong sense of guidance by God. As we have seen, God’s guidance can occur just as strongly in non-church-related jobs and professions. Since the Theology of Work Project does not take church work as one of its subjects, we will not attempt to evaluate whether “callings” to church work are more intense, more direct, more evident or more necessary than callings to non-church work. We will affirm that church work is not in general a higher calling than non-church work, and that the term “call” applies just as much to non-church work as to church work.
We also affirm that non-church work is as much “full-time Christian service” as church work.
All Christians are called (that is, commanded) to conduct everything they do, round the clock, as full-time service to Christ:
Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.
Before concluding our discussion on this point, we should note that one stream of thought views 1 Timothy 5:17-18 as contradicting the view we have just laid out. According to this perspective, being a church elder (roughly equivalent to a pastor or priest in modern church usage) is in fact a higher calling.
1 Timothy 5:17-18
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”
Under this view, being a pastor is a “double honor” compared to other professions. But most Bible commentaries reject this interpretation (I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 610ff.). A more accurate reading is that elders who do their work well are worthy of a double honor (or honorarium) compared to elders who do their work merely adequately. Alternately, the contrast may be between elders who volunteer in their spare time and elders who work full time for the church. (William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 46, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 309.) The Old Testament quotations about pay further reinforce the sense that this passage is about rewarding high-performing or full-time elders, not about comparing church work to other work. It means that elders who work full-time for the church, and who do it well, deserve to be paid well by the church. The passage’s true comparison is among pastors, not between pastors and lay people.
The only jobs that do not have equal status in God’s eyes are those that require work forbidden by the Bible or are incompatible with its values. For example, jobs requiring murder, adultery, stealing, false witness or greed (Exodus 20:13-17), usury (Leviticus 25:26), damage to health (Matthew 10:8), or harm to the environment (Genesis 2:15) are illegitimate in God’s sight. This is not to say that people who do these jobs have lesser status in God’s eyes. People whose circumstances lead them to illegitimate work are not necessarily bad people. Deuteronomy 22:21 condemns prostituting yourself, for example, yet Christ’s response to prostitutes was not condemnation, but deliverance (Luke 7:47-50; Matthew 21:31-32). Jobs of this sort might be the lesser of two evils in certain situations, but they could never be God’s desired work for someone.
A call to ministry or church work is no more sacred than a call to other types of work. What matters most is not one’s job title or place of work, but obedience to God, the one who calls us.
Note: This article originally appeared here on the Theology of Work site.
- What the Bible Says About Work - March 27, 2017
- Is Church Work a Higher Calling? - February 2, 2017