A Theology of Primary Vocation

As of late, there is the notion that every Christian’s primary responsibility and obligation in life is to be obedient to the so-called “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:18-20), and is therefore to constantly be about the making of disciples of Jesus Christ, (see my previous post A Missional Manifesto Considered). It is true that the making of disciples is a mandate that Christ did certainly give to His Holy Christian Church. However, the assertion that every Christian’s primary and overarching responsibility in life is to be about disciple making, though certainly zealous, is, at least from a confessional Lutheran perspective, not altogether theologically accurate, and in varying ways, actually devaluing to the God-ordained ordering of everyday life.

Consider these words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians: Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17). Are these words specific to the Corinthians or to all Christians? If the Great Commission text is meant for the whole Church, is not also this one?

To be sure, the making of disciples is a prime directive of the Holy Christian Church, which is indeed made up of individual believing Christians. Yet, recognizing the above verse, confessional Lutherans have historically acknowledged that God has ordered His creation and His Church in such a way to ensure that both spiritual and physical care is given to His human creatures.

Children need to be cared for, food needs to be grown, clothes need to be made, people need to be protected, and society needs to be ordered. At the same time, sinners need forgiveness, the despairing need hope, the lost need a Savior, and dead bodies need resurrecting.

Thus, God has ordered society in such a way that the physical needs of people are met through the various vocations of people in life. Without them, earthly life could not be sustained. Likewise, God has ordered his Church in such a way to ensure that His gifts of grace—Word and Sacrament—are delivered so that saving faith can be obtained and disciples made (Augsburg Confession V). Without them, eternal life could not be sustained.

Thus, within the Holy Christian Church the Office of the Ministry (Office of Pastor) was established, ordered, and set apart by the Lord for the benefit of His people. However, to be clear, this ordering does not create a “two-level Church, with clergy above and laity below, or laity above (who hires and fires) and clergy below…There are no levels—only where our Lord has put himself there for us to give out his saving, enlivening gifts as he has ordained the Means of Grace to do, and put the Predigtamt, [Office of Ministry] there for the giving out of his gifts surely and locatedly in the Means of Grace” (Norman Nagel, “Luther and the Priesthood of All Believers” Lutheran Theological Quarterly, Oct. 1997, 286).

Consequently, confessional Lutherans recognize that the individual Christians who make up the Holy Christian Church also possess other God pleasing and God ordered daily responsibilities (vocations of life) that must be tended to for the good of others lest, among other things, chaos, disorder, starvation, and want abound.

But please note, by this I am by no means asserting that individual Christians should ignore any opportunity to share the faith. Rather, I am simply affirming that other vocations may in fact, out of God ordained necessity, be the primary responsibility for many Christians. In other words, their life may be ordered differently than that of solely being one who is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And such ordering, ordinary or mundane as it might be, is in fact good, right, and God pleasing as it serves our neighbor.

But again, to be clear, this does not mean individual Christians should not be intentional about sharing their faith within the specific vocations they are placed. Luther himself is clear on this. In His sermon on Psalm 110:4, Luther sets out the unique rights, privileges, and powers of the laity (or spiritual priesthood) within the Holy Christian Church:

After we have become Christians through this Priest [Christ] and His Priestly office, incorporated in Him by Baptism through faith, then each one, according to his calling and position, obtains the right and the power of teaching and confessing before others in this Word which we have obtained from Him. Even though not everybody has the public office and calling, every Christian has the right and the duty to teach, instruct, admonish, comfort, and rebuke his neighbor with the Word of God at every opportunity and whenever necessary. For example, father and mother should do this for their children and household, a brother, neighbor, citizen, or peasant for the other. (Psalm 110, 13:333).

Thus, by no means does the doctrine of vocation negate the ability of a Christian to witness to others. Rather, quite the opposite, it locates them in specific relationships and specific places so that they can give witness to others when the opportunity arises, while simultaneously also providing individual Christians the confidence to know that the works of service they are doing within their various vocations, no matter how mundane or ordinary, are also God pleasing and appropriate to do.

Vocational guru, Gene Veith, summarizes the value of the doctrine of vocation this way: “Recovering the doctrine of vocation can help Christians influence their culture once again as they carry their faith into the world, into its every nook and cranny, through the plenitude of vocations. The doctrine of vocation is a theology of the Christian life, having to do with sanctification and good works. It is also a theology of ordinary life. Christians do not have to be called to the mission field or the ministry or the work of evangelism to serve God, though many are; nor does the Christian life involve some kind of constant mystical experience. Rather, the Christian life is to be lived in vocation, in the seemingly ordinary walks of life that take up nearly all of the hours of our day. The Christian life is to be lived out in our family, our work, our community, and our church. Such things seem mundane, but this is because of our blindness. Actually, God is present in them—and in us—in a mighty, though hidden way.” (God at Work, p.156-7).

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.


Rev. Woodford


18 responses to “A Theology of Primary Vocation

  1. Pr Woodford when you say

    “It is true that the making of disciples is a mandate that Christ did certainly give to His Holy Christian Church.”


    Do you mean something like:

    “Matthew 28 was given to the disciples who are acting as representatives of the whole christian church and not merely pastors.”

    Am I reading too much into what you wrote? Or is that exactly what you are saying?

    • Yes. That is what I am saying as it was through the Apostles that the Holy Christian Church came to be. But I am very aware of the various arguments that hold that Jesus’ words were meant just for the Apostles and no other Christians, while others say they were meant for all Christians. Perhaps you are hoping I take a side. In the end, at a minimum, both sides must acknowledge that the words were spoken directly to the Apostles and that it was also directly through the Apostles that the Holy Christian Church came to be. Along with that, the history of the Church would also seem to testify to the nature of the Office of the Ministry as being the ordained way in which the Lord ordered his Church to ordinarily function. Not as a way of who gets to be “boss,” or as a way to limit what individual Christians can speak (in their vocations), but simply to ensure the way that the Means of Grace are ordinarily to be delivered, where believers are to be discipled, and who is responsible for making sure that such discipling gets done.

      • Perhaps you are hoping I take a side.

        Why would I care exactly whether you took a side or not? 🙂

        Would that give me more or less cause to ignore you or write you off or hold some other disdaining, non-gracious position?

        No. But, on the other hand, I do think that it is helpful to have clarity and the interpretation of Matthew 28 is a easy shibboleth to determine a person’s attitude on a number of things.

        I don’t have any problem in saying that God has given the church pastors who are the public proclaimers of the Gospel and the stewards of His gifts—I just think that lay people have quite the role to play within their vocation. I think Matt 28 addresses this (and also the reason why laity can baptize).

        You talk about whether being a missionary is the primary role of a lay person—I’ll tell ya this, I would be happy beyond belief if it were merely a 10% role of every Christian! That would be enough for me!

  2. According to the Small Catechism, Matthew 28 is the Institution of Holy Baptism. That seems to be the chief significance of that passage, and I think it is unfortunate when that drops from the top of the list to the bottom or even some times completely off the list. Secondly, it teaches that those called to the OHM are to preach/teach what Christ has commanded and not their own opinions. Thirdly, by implication it teaches that there is an Office ordained by God to carry out these activities of teaching and baptizing.

    The text that clearly teaches that as Christians we are called to share the Gospel with others are passages like Psalm 110 or 1 Peter 2.

  3. I would actually question whether Matthew 28 is truly the “prime directive”. Why do we not emphasize Luke 24: “preach repentance towards the forgiveness of sins”?

    Rather than going the “pick a Gospel and finding Jesus’ last words” approach, I would actually suggest taking the teleological approach when discussing the primary thing of the Church. If “making disciples” is the primary thing, the Church’s end is simply making more disciples. This makes the Church hardly any different than Amway. However, the fact of the matter is that there will come a time when the disciple making will stop, namely when Christ returns. Yet, the Church continues on. So we must admit that the Church’s primary objective cannot be that which is not going to continue into eternity. I would suggest that worship is that primary thing, as it is what continues into eternity.

    Why do we go about making disciples? That is how God carries out His eternal election so that all the elect will worship Him, that is to be one who receives God’s good gifts and speak back to Him the Word that He has given to us.

    • Rev. Lorfeld,

      Thanks for your great insights! I appreciate your careful analysis and redirect towards worship. Perhaps “a prime directive” was not the most helpful word choice. My aim here was to acknowledge and affirm the discipling task of the church, but not at the expense of vocation. Nonetheless, your point is well taken.

      FYI, a few previous posts of mine actually did discuss the nature of how Matthew 28 has been curiously elevated to the prime directive status of the church and, like you, discussed correctives for it.

      See “Great Commission or Great Omission” July 24 post
      See “The (Primary) Task of the Church” Aug. 19 post

      Sorry, the link function to these posts is not cooperating.

  4. Pastor Lorfeld,
    Ha! Amway is not about making disciples, it is about making money.

    Seriously though, I don’t think it is a question about finding Jesus’ last words in each Gospel (Mat 28:18-20, Mar 16:15-18, Luk 24:44-49, Joh 20:19-22, Act 1:8), it seems more like a theological question. We have been given an imperative to make disciples wherever we go. It is prescriptive, and it is because of what Jesus has done. [Note that Greek “oun” in Mat 28:18.] And this prescription dates way back (EG. Psalm 67, 96, Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 56, etc.).

    Using teleology to say that the prescription doesn’t make sense, uh, is actually what doesn’t make sense. Why must mission and worship be separated in our directive?

    When you look at Paul’s discussion of the “so what” in Romans 12 all the way through 15, there it is again, (ch 15:8ff) he goes about quoting the OT, talking about how the nations are who Yahweh wants to bring in. We see similar language in Ephesians 3.

    The Scriptures don’t seem to want to separate mission from worship at all. The dividing wall has been torn down.

    • Matthew Lorfeld

      Mark, I really don’t have much to disagree with you… other than you argued against points I didn’t make.

      Actually I think this is the problem of elevating certain commands over others. Why should Matthew 28 take precidence in our rhetoric over the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper? I like both.

      The distinction that I think is helpful is between that which is a means and that which is an end (telos: end, goal, purpose). The way many Missiolatrists have framed the discussion makes ‘mission’ in itself the end. IE the ultimate goal of the Church is missions (or discipling, or whatever phrase tickles your fancy). I am not arguing against missions/discipling, actually quite strongly for it, but that when we see its own purpose: namely through this means the saints of God are gathered around the Lamb who is slain ala Rev. 7. So even though I do argue that it would wrongly be characterized as the ultimate goal of the Church, it is still absolutely essential. In other words the error I point to is of categorization, not this strawman idea that there are some who think we are not to make disciples, not teaching and not baptizing (seriously who actually believes that?).

      Does that clear it up some? I apologize if the concept of teleology confused the point. I use it in much the way Alisdair MacIntyre lays the concept out in After Virtue (a book I highly recommend which has nothing to do with this discussion).

      • Pastor Lorfeld,
        I find your point that worship and not mission is the end game to be extremely helpful. In fact even in Romans, worship is the end as well not missions. St. Paul’s mission was to gather the Gentiles into the worshiping community along with the remnant of Israel.

      • Pastor Lorfeld,

        When you say: “I am not arguing against missions/discipling, actually quite strongly for it, but that when we see its own purpose: namely through this means the saints of God are gathered around the Lamb who is slain ala Rev. 7.” I am in complete agreement.

        I also agree that there is a category error in play. Saying that mission is the “ultimate goal” for the church is very different that saying it is the “prime directive.” Ultimate goal or end game are phrases that reflect a meaning of destination.

        If I’m in New York and my ultimate goal is Los Angeles, my prime directive is to “Go west!” It is not my ultimate goal.

        If we are sojourners on this earth and by virtue of Christ’s election before the foundations of the earth (Eph 1) and my subsequent Baptism I’m already seated with Him in the heavenly places (Eph 2) then my ultimate goal is to indeed be with Him, to worship Him, throughout eternity on the New Earth. Total and complete “Shalom,” that is, total and complete restoration. Any true restoration will be centered around worship, as you rightly point out.

        But our prime directive, in the mean time, is to Go West! That is, preach to all nations (Eph 3) in accordance with our vocation (Eph 4). <– I finally got back to topic! 🙂

        Ultimate goal: Shalom (True Restoration). Prime Directive: matheteusate (be discipling).

      • I will grant that distinction of “Prime Directive” as, you are right, it is the primary guiding principle… at least that is how it was originally used in the Star Trek series.

        But here’s the thing, even in the original post it wasn’t exactly used that way. As it stands the topic was originally looked at from a deontological perspective: ie. what are my duties, what is my primary duty?

        While a deontological perspective can be helpful with the first question, I don’t think it can answer what is my primary duty. In fact, I don’t think Scripture advances a particular imperative of Christ over another. I think “take, eat…” “drink of it all of you… ” is pretty important. Same thing with “Preach repentance towards the forgiveness of sins” and “Feed my lambs”. Each contains imperative commands that ultimately deliver the Gospel. And because I’m a rather cantankerous fellow, I’ll simply reject the proposition that Matthew 28 has priority over another imperative of Christ on the simple principle that Scripture never gives this priority.

        However, I would suggest that a teleological perspective can point us to where there ought be emphasis, which is why I suggested approaching it from that perspective. Thus worship is not even significant in eternity, but as we have been given eternal life in our baptism (hey, that’s part of discipling isn’t it?), worship is THE thing right now (again, I can’t emphasize enough that in speaking of worship I am speaking primarily of us receiving God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament and secondarily of the response of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving… reverse these two and you have pagan worship).

      • Pastor Lorfeld,

        Good stuff: “I’ll simply reject the proposition that Matthew 28 has priority over another imperative of Christ on the simple principle that Scripture never gives this priority.” You don’t have to be cantankerous to do this, because it is true! 🙂

        It’s just that, well, without the imperative to make disciples, the other imperatives (EG: Matthew 26:26-28) won’t have the same purpose, will they?

        Or, to put it another way: When I am receiving God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament and secondarily responding with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, one of the things I’m very very thankful for is the fact that someone (by the power of the Holy Spirit) discipled my Great Grandfather on my mom’s side. That person, by following one imperative (Matthew 28), was one of God’s instruments that He used to bring me to the present day where I can participate in another imperative (Matthew 26). One is not more important than the other, per se, but had Matthew 28 not happened to me, then to me Matthew 26 would not be Gospel, but Judgment.

        So, one disciple carries out his—this might be where I sound cantankerous—duty to be making disciples where ever he goes and he meets a fellow who is outside the kingdom. He has compassion on this fellow, develops a relationship with him, and brings him to his local church where another disciple (this one in the office of the ministry) baptizes the former outsider and teaches him everything Jesus had commanded (using imperatives!). Then, this former outsider began to receive all of God’s gifts.

        Might I suggest that this is not about elevating one imperative over another, it is rather to suggest that we don’t ignore any imperatives nor do we ignore the necessary sequence from one to another.

        Good discussion as it causes me to look deeply at very important topics for my own (Lord Willing) future vocation.

  5. “Might I suggest that this is not about elevating one imperative over another, it is rather to suggest that we don’t ignore any imperatives nor do we ignore the necessary sequence from one to another.”

    Psalm 133:1 (ESV)
    1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!

    Discussions like this and through this medium, though maybe having the stigma of being contentious, can be quite fruitful! Blessings on your future vocation (while you are there, get to know Dr. Feuerhahn, now retired. He and Dr. Nagel who now lives at Laclede Groves were highly influential in my formation).

  6. Does anyone know when the significance in Matthew 28 shifted from Institution of baptism to Great Commission in Lutheran circles?

    • Steve,

      In my forthcoming book “Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession? The Mission of the Holy Christian Church” (WIPF & STOCK) I track the history of the use of the Great Commission within the church and note that even to the church at large, its use as the “Great Commission” is a relatively recent phenomena that can be traced back to baptist William Carey first using it in a 1792 paper. It’s acquiescence into Lutheran circles resulted from the trickle down effect of the Church Growth Movement’s influence, where Lutherans began seeing regular appeal to it in the 1970’s, in a few Lutheran authored books in the mid 80’s, and more pointedly, by the Synod in convention in 2001.

  7. Does anyone know when the significance of Matthew 28 shifted from Institution of baptism to Great Commission in Lutheran circles?

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