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.