In part 1 of this three-part post, Dr. Doriani looked at the experience and concepts of calling, and began to ask some questions about calling, which are explored further here in part 2. Part 3 will look at how we find a calling and live wisely within it. This material is adapted from chapter 5 of Dr. Doriani’s recent book Work: It’s Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation (P&R Publishing, 2019) and is used with the permission of the publisher. You can read Part One here.
God First Calls His People to Faith and Union with Christ
When Western Christians speak of their calling, they probably mean their work, but when Scripture speaks of God’s call, it normally describes God’s call to faith. Theologians label this the “general call” because it goes to everyone. Paul speaks of a call to faith, to holiness, and to conformity to Christ. Paul told the Romans they are “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” Indeed, “all those in Rome” are “loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:6–7). Further, those who love God are “called according to his purpose . . . to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (8:29). Similarly, Paul told the Corinthians that God “called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:9). The call goes both ways when we heed God’s voice. The church is “called to be his holy people, together with all . . . who call on the name of our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:2). Paul also commands, “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession” (1 Tim. 6:12). By this call, God graciously brings us to himself (Phil. 3:14). Believers must then confirm their call, by holding fast to their convictions (Heb. 3:14; 2 Pet. 1:10). But Paul uses “calling” in a different sense in 1 Corinthians 7.
God Calls His People to Places and Roles
According to Scripture, God calls believers to places and roles. This concept is difficult to appreciate if we suffer dissatisfaction at work or dislike our geographical location. It makes us wonder when it is time to change jobs or relocate. At worst, single adults long to be married and married adults long to be single. At worst, the college president yearns for the classroom and a cluster of professors ache to become president. Paul addressed this sense of mis-location when the Corinthian church asked him questions about marriage and slavery. It will be worthwhile to take a few paragraphs to follow his thought pattern.
Paul began with marriage. As a rule, the Corinthians grew up as pagans and therefore married pagans. When Paul preached Christ, many believed. Naturally, converts hoped their spouse would also believe, but when they did not, some wondered if they should divorce an unbelieving spouse.
Paul told the Corinthians to stay married and fulfill their duties, sin ce marriage is permanent. But they should take comfort, because God set apart a believer’s family. They should live together in purity and peace (7:3–5, 10–15). This doesn’t mean divorce is always wrong. Certain situations are beyond reconciliation.Paul mentions desertion: No one could force a spouse to stay in a marriage. If a husband left his wife for distant parts, it was impossible to track him. A believer must not desert a marriage, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so” (7:15). That is, if the unbeliever leaves, the believer must let him leave. The principle is simple: stay in the marriage, unless the unbeliever resolves to leave. In that case, “let them go” (NLT) or “agree to it” (CEV).
Paul gives a reason that applies to marriage and to other difficult situations: “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife” (7:16). This cuts two ways. It forbids despair; one never knows if a disinterested spouse may yet convert. Yet it also forbids unbound optimism: “If only I pray enough, love him enough, he will convert.” Paul asks, “How can you know that?” Paul’s question allows a believing spouse to let the unbeliever go. The Lord saves, humans do not. The section concludes: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (7:17). This principle is so essential that Paul restates it in 7:20 and 7:24, and applies it to marriage, ethnicity (7:18–19) and slavery (7:21–23).
The theme, “stay, unless, because” pervades 1 Corinthians 7. Paul repeatedly tells disciples in difficult circumstances: “Stay where you are, unless there is strong reason to change.” He keeps presenting the “stay, unless, because” principles and keeps adding reasons. Earlier, he said, “Stay single, unless your desires are unmanageable, because it is better to marry than to burn (7:8–9). Here he instructs people stay married, unless an unbelieving spouse resolves to leave, because no one knows if a pagan spouse will believe or not (7:12–16). Next, Paul addresses slavery. Each Corinthian “should remain in the condition in which he was called” (7:20). If a slave, “don’t be concerned about it.” That is, stay, “unless you can gain your freedom.” In that case, “do so” (7:21, NIV). The reasoning, the “because,” follows. When we belong to Christ, other questions of status become secondary. Specifically, slaves have freedom in the Lord, and the free are the Lord’s slaves (7:22). A Christian should never voluntarily become a slave (7:23), yet even an enslaved person is free to serve Christ. Therefore, in general, believers “should remain in [their] situation” (7:24, NIV).
Paul’s teaching applies to every life circumstance and the repetition hammers the point (7:17, 20, 24). There is no universal right to improve one’s lot by fleeing hard situations. A difficult marriage, job, family, or city is also God’s assignment. A change of circumstances may not solve a problem. We should not desert God’s assignment. We serve seek contentment there (Phil. 4:10–12).
The call to Christ comes to people in sundry social settings. That call reduces the power of one’s circumstance, so that no one is constrained to change their location or position. We can stay where we were when Christ called us.
Paul insists that we respect our God-given station, but he never quite labels our job or our life setting a calling. Gordon Fee asserts, “At most ‘calling’ refers to the circumstances in which the calling [to Christ] took place.” John Frame counters that 1 Corinthians says God providentially sends a “walk of life” in marriage, singleness, farming or carpentry, so that “it’s not wrong to find reference to vocation in one’s walk. Paul does state that Christians have a “situation the Lord has assigned” (7:17, ESV). Although the Bible never precisely identifies work as a “calling,” it is a reasonable way to label God’s assignment to a task.
That Paul never labels slavery a “calling” makes sense, since slavery is so corrosive. Slavery was a social status and a condition for work, but not a calling. Three times, Paul commands his people to stay where they are and fulfill their duties (7:17, 20, 24). If they have doubts about their ethnic heritage or family history, they should not regard them as accidents, but as the result of God’s sovereign direction (7:18–19). So, although enslavement is no calling, Paul tells slaves they have an assignment. They serve Christ there and “they should not be concerned about it”—that is, their enslaved condition (7:21). This is astonishing, since a slave had scant legal rights and no control of his or her body. Aristotle called a slave “a living possession,” a “talking tool,” and “property with a soul.” Slaves were liable to beatings and masters could use them as they willed. How could Paul tell slaves “Don’t let that bother you”? (7:21, CEV).
Paul didn’t endorse slavery, he transformed it, by teaching that everyone belongs to someone. So Paul was radical, but not revolutionary. He never called for a slave revolt, but he attacked slavery’s roots, by calling himself, Moses, and David slaves of God (Rom. 1:1, 2 Cor. 4:5; Rev. 15:3; Ps. 78:70, 89:3). He even teaches that Jesus took the form of a slave (Acts 3:13, 4:20, Phil 2:7).
Everyone lives in some form of bondage. Everyone lives under authority. The secretary belongs to the boss, the boss belongs to the CEO, and the CEO belongs to the stockholders and the board. At college, a student belongs to the professor, the professor belongs to the dean, the dean to the provost, and the provost to the president. A state university president answer to state boards, which answer to the governor, who answers to the citizens. In this way, the presidents and professors belong to the students, if they vote. Everyone serves someone, and many of us serve multitudes. In that sense, no one is free and everyone should serve wherever they are.
That said, Paul is no fatalist. He tells slaves, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (7:21). Again, the principle is stay, unless. In that culture, enslaved workers could obtain their freedom by using their earnings, since skilled slaves earned the same wages as free men. So it was best to gain freedom, but not essential, since slaves could still serve God (1 Cor. 7:22).
To Work in Our God-Given Place May Feel Right—or Wrong
Let’s apply this principle to the man or woman who thinks work should be more than a place of employment. They think they should find fulfillment, discover their gifts, and flourish at work. Douglas Schuurman remarks that his college students naively view work as “a realm for self-fulfillment” and “optimal self-actualization.” Through hard work, consultation with mentors, and the wise use of opportunities, they expect they will find a fulfilling career. But, Schuurman adds, this myth applies (at best) to those who have native intelligence, a network of supportive adults, a strong work ethic, and access to an elite education, by world standards. The lower classes rarely have such opportunities. “Self-actualization” is a chimera for the vast majority of humanity, and even upper-class adults exaggerate their options. In short, everyone needs to hear Paul.
That said, I affirm that we can take pleasure in our work. Romans 12:6–8 instructs believers to exercise their gifts freely and cheerfully, as we serve others. We should enjoy using our gifts. A professor once said, “I teach for free; they pay me to grade papers.” As a professor, I agree. I also speak at conferences for free; they pay me to provide lecture outlines, endure airplanes, and sleep in strange beds. Even if our best work is joyful, work is rarely the best place to find ourselves.
First Corinthians 7 teaches that work and relationships are not “domains freely chosen” as much as places the Lord assigned. Scholars call this “ascriptivism.” That is, a person’s major social relations are not primarily matters of “individual choice, but are assigned based largely on class, family history, and gender. One does not so much choose one’s callings as discover oneself”within them.In this view, to find our vocation is not to choose the right spouse, work, friends, and residence, it is to see our web of relationships “as divinely assigned places to serve God and neighbor.”
This is an aspect of Paul’s teaching that Lutherans and certain Catholics are apt to endorse, due to their tendency to accept existing social structures. Calvinists, with a high view of God’s sovereignty, agree that Paul wants people to find themselves where they are. But Calvinists add that both individual members of society and the “structures of our social world are fallen.” Therefore we must both accept our position and strive to reform it if we can. So we stay wherever we work, unless we can move to a better position in our social structure or improve the social structure itself, because God’s people are responsible for themselves and for the wider world.
Paul declares, “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 7:23). Therefore, free-born men are “Christ’s slaves” and slaves who belong to Christ are free. That means no one needs to flee from the bonds of illness, poverty, dull jobs, or flawed families. Everything feels like bondage at times, even the best job and family. Yet nothing truly enslaves God’s children.
Christians often miss this. A common Christian message goes like this: “When you seek God’s call, look for a match between the internal call, that is, what you want to do, and the external call, that is, what an employer is willing to hire you to do. When both come together, you have a call, otherwise you have an aspiration.” The standard secular message, which Christians often embrace, says, “Follow your passion.” If that fails, gain strategic, well-paid skills.
Given the current emphasis on self-development, we need to help restrain subjective impulses. That is vital, because many people feel a call that no one else detects—to be a musician perhaps, or to lead a business. But the “follow-your-passion” model is ego-centric and gives the initiative to each person’s self-appraisal. The follow-your-passion approach then lets public opinion control our self-evaluation. Therefore, if a man declares, “I want to become an actor,” but never lands a part, his counselors will suggest a support position, away from the camera, if he wants to stay in entertainment. That is, our aspirations do not entitle us to the position we desire. To announce, “I want to be an architect,” does not make one an architect, or even a student of architecture.
To summarize, first, the “follow-your-passion” approach to callings dominates the Western imagination. Second, the system has obvious ways to control people who think their passion must lead to a job. Third, even if we know how to temper “find-your-passion” enthusiasts, the mindset still has a problem: It places human aspirations at the center, it gives human correction a secondary role, and it pushes God to the side.
John Frame advances a God-centered approach. Incorporating the valid insights of the standard Christian message, he argues that a call comes in four ways.
- God gives gifts to humanity and to his people.
- The Spirit enables people to discern their gifts (fallibly) through self-examination and the confirmation of mentors, friends, and co-laborers.
- God provides opportunities to develop and exercise those gifts.
- God grants wisdom to use gifts to glorify him and love our neighbor.
By restoring God’s role, Frame corrects the tendency to see calling in subjective terms. There is more to calling than one party’s desires meeting another party’s personnel needs. Still, no one should deny that aspirations or passion have a role. Solomon observes that if a man can “rejoice in his toil” it “is a gift of God” (Eccl. 5:19). And Paul teaches that people should enjoy using their spiritual gifts. Leaders should lead “with zeal,” and the merciful should act “with cheerfulness” (Rom. 12:8).
 For space, I set aside the question of singles who consider marriage (1 Cor. 7:8–9, 25–38).
 Again, space forbids that we explore the situations where infidelity or violence might lead to separation or divorce.
 The Greek verb has the form of a command, not a wish.
 The term “enslaved person” may be superior to the term “slave” because it reminds that we speak of a person to whom something dreadful has happened.
 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 309.
 John Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 941–42.
 This use of “calling” resembles the word “Trinity.” Neither appears in the Bible, but both provide useful nomenclature.
 Aristotle, Politics,in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 1131–5 (Book 1, chapters 4–6).
 The Greek reads mhv soi melevtw. A literal rendering might be “Let it not be a concern to you.”
 See chapter 9 of my Work.
 Survivalists or subsistence farmers may claim to be free from authority. That can be disputed, but the person who wants to answer to no one is probably a slave to the concept of independence.
 Douglas Schuurman, Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 117–21.
 Schuurman, Vocation, 117; Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 17, 36.
 Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 16, 22–23.
 John Frame,The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 312–3.