I want to bring your attention to 3 verses. Notice verse 17–
1 Cor 7
17 Nevertheless, each one should RETAIN the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has CALLED him.
Then verse 20–
1 Cor 7
20 Each one should REMAIN in the situation which he was in when God CALLED him.
Then verse 24–
1 Cor 7
24 Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should REMAIN in the situation God CALLED him to.
The word that occurs in each of these 3 statements and nine times altogether in this chapter is the word “call.”
We often use the word “calling” to refer to our vocation: my calling is to be a homemaker; my calling is to be a salesman; my calling is to be a consultant. But that is not the way Paul is using the word “calling” in this chapter.
This calling speaks to the Holy Spirit’s activity to pull someone supernaturally into fellowship with Christ. Very simply the call of God is the power of God converting the soul through the gospel. Salvation.
This is all made clear in 1 Corinthians 1. In chapter 1, verse 9, Paul says
1 Cor 1
9 God, who has CALLED you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.
When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20, and 24 that we should remain and live with God in the state in which we were called, he means: Remain in the state you were in when you were converted, when you were drawn by God into believing, loving fellowship with his Son.
Paul’s first application of the principle is to circumcision and uncircumcision in v17. What does this mean?
He applies it like this: if you were converted as a Gentile, don’t try to become a Jew. If you were converted as a Jew, don’t try to become a Gentile. In other words, if you were saved as a Gentile, you don’t need to be circumcised. If you were saved as a Jew, you don’t need to pressure other non-Jews to be circumcised.
What kind of implications does this have on our notion of culture? Culture is such a big part of who we are. For many, it is the chief thing that defines their sense of self-identity. Culture can be a big deal. For the Jews, circumcision was a big deal, being Jewish was a big deal.
Verse 19 says literally – circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is everything. Paul is introducing a radically new concept here. There is a new biblical culture that trumps all human culture. That was about the most offensive thing Paul could say to a Jew: circumcision is nothing. Circumcision is unique because on the one hand, it is a cultural practice, but on the other hand, it is also religious. So Paul is talking about culture here, but broadly speaking, I believe this also applies to religious practices and traditions.
For example, some grew up in churches where they sang hymns. And you compare that with a congregation like ours that caters to the younger generation and we sing contemporary music. Or another example is how we dress for church. Some churches believe that we should wear our Sunday best when we come to worship service. That means suit and tie and formal wear for the women. Other churches, people come in shorts and t-shirts. Like if our church was in Hawaii, this would be totally acceptable.
In the end, according to Scripture, whichever camp you fall into regarding culture, regarding religious practices and traditions, it doesn’t matter. Whether traditional hymns or modern praise songs, whether suit and tie or casual wear, what matters is keeping God’s commands, putting God first. What matters is the priority of your heart.
I think at this point, we get it. Remain as you are. Your cultural preference, your upbringing in terms of church tradition, these things are not that significance compared to obeying the commandments of God.
But then, Apostle Paul applies this same principle to vocation. Remain in whatever situation or vocation you were in when you were called into fellowship with Christ. This means, your vocation or your career doesn’t matter. Does this offend you to hear that for the vast majority, your career doesn’t matter ultimately?
There are a number of graduating seniors and many others who are still preparing for the future. So this is an important concept to understand. But I also think that this issue of differentiating calling from vocation has something to say even for those who have been in the workforce for a long time.
Calling vs. vocation. Are they the same thing? Some would argue, to work in certain professions is a calling. Like working at a non-profit to fight poverty, it’s a job, but they would argue, it is also a calling. And they may be right. There are certainly some vocations where there is significant overlap with one’s calling. When the work you do directly impacts people in service or in fighting injustice or in reaching people for the gospel, the calling and vocation can overlap significantly. Being a pastor or missionary definitely falls into the category where the vocation is your calling. The two are one.
What if you work at the local Starbucks, or a bookstore down the street? Is that less of a calling and is that more of a vocation? Is a professorship or being a doctor more of a calling than a vocation? Does the determination of whether something should be classified as a calling or a vocation depend on how prestigious it is in the eyes of the world? Does God really care if we are a doctor or computer programmer or a janitor anyway?
What happens when you find yourself in a dead-end job? Or what happens when your job feels mundane, or routine, or boring, which is quite common for many who have been working for a while? Does that mean, perhaps, that you missed out on finding your calling and have you instead settled for a vocation? Just paying the bills. Nothing more.
How should we think about our vocation? Is it a calling or should we just say a job is a job? Like Paul, he was a tentmaker, but making tents was not his calling. His calling was to preach the gospel to Gentiles, to non-Jews. And his vocation was a means to support his calling. Should all of us have a specific calling like Paul did or is this kind of personalized calling only reserved for a select few?
I’ve been a college minister for many years and these topics come with the territory. By no means is this an exhaustive study on the relationship between calling and vocation. I just want to approach it from one angle.
Underlying some of these questions is an assumption that each of us thinks we are special. Isn’t that right? We assume that our lives should matter. That we ought to make our mark on this world. And if we are Christians, we assume that God’s eyes are especially zeroed in on us such that our job will be more than a job. We assume that we are like Abraham or Moses or King David or Apostle Paul and our lives for God should be full of impact, or at least interesting.
While that may be the case for some, we forget that for every Moses, there were thousands upon thousands of nameless Israelites kicking sand in the desert. We may not be on center stage, but that’s okay. If you are a Christian, you’re in the show. You might be working the backstage. Or you might be preparing for the next act. For example, unbeknown to you, you could planting a seed that won’t blossom until after your life is over. Your life is special because of Christ. Because he died on a cross to save you. Whether you get a lead role or you are part of the stage crew, that really is of little consequence because God is the star of the show, he’s in charge.