Wednesday, February 18, 2009

COMPS4: what does God call us to do?

In his study of “vocation” or “calling,” Douglas J. Schuurman concludes, “all of life’s relational spheres – paid work included – are religiously meaningful as places for service to God and neighbour” (47). Schuurman reaches this conclusion by analysing the two types of call presented in the scriptures, a call to: (1) become a member of the people of God, the “general” or “spiritual” calling, which is more prevalent that; (2) particular callings within church and society, the “external” or “particular” calling.

The call to become a member of the people of God is not in dispute (Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Cor 1:26-29). But, it is important for Christians to understand – we are primarily called to be God’s people and live out our lives, in all spheres, as God’s people would, essentially, but not simply by obeying the two great commandments. The calling to a particular role within a church isn’t in dispute either (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:14-20).

The existence of a particular in society call however comes under fire from respected writers like Jacques Ellul and Stanley Hauerwas who “argue that protestant vocation is unbiblical and that it wrongly confers religious meaning upon secular life. They say that the biblical idea of calling confers religious meaning on church-related roles and activities alone” (xii). Schuurman argues that secular callings do have religious significance, by arguing for, firstly, the extrapolation of the callings that Paul urges the Corinthians to stay in after they became Christians beyond uncircumcised or slave (1 Cor 7:17-24). Secondly, the nature of the Paul’s household codes meant faith affected one’s relationships outside of the church with spouses, children and slaves (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-25). An additional thought to Schuurman here, is that in the NT world, the “household” for many people was the dominant place of social and economic life, unlike today where the household can sometimes become secondary to the workplace etc. Thirdly, a theological understanding “in which God’s purpose includes the redemption of human life in its entirety, including institutions, and even the cosmos, encourages Christians to sense God’s purpose and call in all of life” (36).

Schuurman offers a helpful corrective to an idea that I commonly come across, that being that God has a rigid plan for your life in regard to spouse, career, and in North America, locale. Rather, there is a freedom living as a called child of God, we are free to make choices for ourselves that fall inline with our citizenship in God’s Kingdom.

Throughout the book, Schuurman identifies the modern challenges to vocation: exclusion of Christian values from society, alienation of work, technology replacing craftsmanship, profit over relationships, fragmentation of life, the opportunities of choice, and the desire for independence. The abuses of vocation are also discussed: inequality, power struggles, justifying idolatry of work, providing a cover for injustice, and limiting the scope of responsibility of neighbourly love. Helpfully, Schuurman discusses how a correct understanding of:

"Vocation ought to transform asymmetric relations in at least four ways: (a) it should ground the authority of the more powerful party upon God's calling and gifts, not upon race, class, or gender; (b) it should require that the goal of authority be service to others, not being served; (c) it should demand that authorities respect the status of the one served as created and potentially redeemed by God; and (d) it should view the imbalance of power as temporary and dynamic, moving toward symmetry and mutuality" (114).
For most people, the area of vocation that raises the most questions is that of ones “particular” calling to work. Many a Christian has left their secular work due to a lack of a sense of vocation, for work in the church. Schuurman indirectly offers a corrective to this low view of work in the world:

“If Christians are to become faithful participants in the purposes and processes of creation and redemption, it is essential that they hold together the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular,’ the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ aspects of experience, and that they do so in a way that affirms the importance and integrity of each” (52).
Turning the modern choice of: “living to work” or “working to live” on its head, Schurrman looks to Dorothy Sayers who argues “we do not work to live, but live to work". Schuurman says “work for Sayers is the medium by which people offer themselves to God” (134).

If work does have religious value as a calling and work does play a role in brining about God’s redemptive purposes, Christians need to think hard about the businesses they own and run and the people they manage as well as the influence they have over their sphere of influence in their role at work:

"For work to be a vocation, it must not be alienating, dehumanising work. Every job has its tedious, unpleasant, distasteful parts. Vocation invites us to do even these "for the Lord," and see them as holy. But it also challenges us to think creatively about job design and employee participation so that gifts are used as effectively as possible for the common good" (165).
Ultimately Schuurman thinks we need to see all of our callings, as children, parents, friends, neighbours, leaders, workers, bosses, pew sitters and clergy as being able to contribute towards the shalom that God intended creation to share in and will ultimately bring about in the new heavens and new earth (79-81). But this notion raises more issues for debate, including the question of our roles in helping usher in the kingdom of God both now and the lasting effects this may or may not have in the age to come.
This book provides another building block into my assignments argument on the importance of seeing God’s calling in all spheres of our lives, not just in churchy or evangelism related activities. The book also adds some helpful guiding points to the implications, for example: do we need to rethink the aim of pastoral ministry? Pastoral ministry perhaps should have a much larger role in helping people see how they can be effective agents of God’s kingdom work in all the spheres they are currently in, rather than adopting a church-centric outlook. The implications for transforming workplaces and the type of influence Christians can have in policy decisions are also evident, yet also highly debatable, as Christians have done some dreadful things under this charge in the history of the church.

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