Of the many legacies of the Protestant Reformation, few have had greater and wider-reaching impact than the rediscovery of the biblical understanding of vocation. Before the Reformation, the only people with a vocation or calling were those who were engaged in full-time church work—monks, nuns, or priests. As Gene Veith writes in God at Work:
The ordinary occupations of life—being a peasant farmer or kitchen maid, making tools or clothing, being a soldier or even king—were acknowledged as necessary but worldly. Such people could be saved, but they were mired in the world. To serve God fully, to live a life that is truly spiritual, required a full-time commitment.
As the Reformers looked past uninspired traditions in their return to the authority and sufficiency of God's Word, they found that full-time ministry was a vocation, but it was by no means the only vocation. They saw that each of us has a vocation and that each vocation has dignity and value in the eyes of the Lord. We can all honor God in the work we do.
Yet that old tradition is never far off, and if we do not constantly return to God's Word and allow it to correct us, we will soon drift back. It is encouraging that today we find many Christian pastors and authors exploring what it means to be ordinary Christians doing ordinary work as part of their ordinary lives. It is encouraging to see these leaders affirming the worth of all vocations. The questions every Christian faces at one time or another are these: Are Christian plumbers, cooks, doctors, and businessmen lesser Christians because they are not in "full-time" ministry? And what of Christian mothers and homemakers? Can they honor God even through very ordinary lives? Can we honor God through ordinary lives without tacitly promoting a dangerous kind of spiritual complacency? What does it mean to avoid being conformed to this world and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2) in this area of vocation?
As we would expect, God's Word addresses these questions. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul responds to questions he had received from the people of the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, one of the questions they asked the Apostle was something like this: How can we live lives that are pleasing to God (see 4:1-12)? They had been told of God's creation mandate, that God created us and placed us on this earth so we could exercise dominion over it as His representatives. They had been told of Christ's Great Commission, that His people are to take the gospel to the farthest corners of the earth, and as more and more people come out of darkness and into light, to train them in the things of the Lord.
This church knew those big-picture commands, but they found themselves looking to Paul for specific guidance. What does it look like for ordinary people in ordinary places and ordinary times to live out the creation mandate and the Great Commission? Does it require full-time ministry? Does it require moving to the far side of the globe? What is the life that is pleasing to God?
Paul's response is fascinating and perfectly consistent with the doctrine of vocation. His response addresses three issues: sexual morality, the local church, and work.
LIFE UNDER CONTROL
The first thing Paul tells this church is that if they want to live lives that are pleasing to God, they need to avoid sexual immorality and instead pursue sexual purity: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor" (1 Thess. 4:3). The Thessalonians needed to reject the worldly counterfeits of sex and relationships to instead pursue godliness in those areas.
LIFE IN COMMUNITY
The second thing Paul tells this church is that if they are to live lives that are pleasing to God, they need to commit to loving the people in their local churches: "You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.... But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more" (vv. 9-10). While Christians are to extend love to all men without discrimination, they are to focus their love especially on the brothers and sisters in their local church.
LIFE AT WORK
Paul's third point is especially important to ordinary Christian work. He tells these Christians to "aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one" (vv. 11-12). If the Bible was going to tell believers that full-time ministry was a better or higher calling, if it was going to tell us that the best Christians are the ones who sell all they own and move to the other side of the planet, this is exactly where we would expect to find it. But we do not. We find something altogether different.
In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul gives very simple instructions that transcend time, geography, and culture. He tells the Thessalonians to live quietly, to mind their own business, and to work with their hands. When he tells them to live quietly, he means for them to be content to be unknown and unnoticed. There is a paradox here: they are to work hard to be still, or to make it their ambition to be free from worldly ambition. They are to be content with their lot and to know that this contentment is how they can best honor God. When Paul tells them to mind their own business, he means for them to focus on their own work and to avoid being busybodies, who are busy with everything but what matters most. And when he tells them to work with their own hands, he means for them to carry on the work in which they are engaged, even (or especially) if that work involves manual labor. He could call them to all of this because their work had intrinsic value simply because it was their calling—their God-given vocation.
As far as we know, Paul was not writing to a group of brand-new Christians here. He was not giving them the basic instructions that would carry them through their early years, before they eventually graduated to better and more difficult things. This church appears to be strong and spiritually mature, and still Paul's word to them is very simple: you bring honor and glory to God through your very ordinary lives.
LIFE ON MISSION
In case the instruction was not sufficient, and before he moves on to other matters, Paul explains the importance and the effect of doing these very simple things. He wants them to do this "so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one" (4:12). Here Paul shows that Christians live out God's desires for them through their ordinary work and their ordinary lives. This quiet life, this life of minding one's own business and working hard, allows them to carry out the Great Commission. After all, if they do these things—if they pursue sexual purity, if they love one another, and if they work hard—Paul assures them they will be walking properly before outsiders. Not only that, but they will be displaying love for their Christian brothers and sisters.
Let's be clear: this is not a call to complacency or a call to a bare minimum. It is a call to be faithful right where we are and to know that God is pleased with His people when they live out their ordinary lives. There will be some who are called to full-time church ministry as their vocation. There will be some who will put aside manual labor in order to be trained and tasked as full-time pastors, dependent on the support of others.
There will be some who will stop working with their hands to go into the mission field. This is good, and it honors God. But it is not a higher call or a better call or a surer path to pleasing God. We please God—we thrill God—when we live as ordinary people in ordinary lives who use our ordinary circumstances to proclaim and live out an extraordinary gospel.