Vocation and Honour: Understanding My Responsibility as an Employee
Two biblical concepts are helpful when thinking about the believer’s responsibility as an employee: vocation and honor.
Paul writes that believers are new creatures with a ministry of reconciliation, for whom “all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:15-20). The creational calling (which was part of what God decreed “very good”) was for Adam and Eve to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Adam was created in God’s image — distinct from every other creature (Gen. 1:26) — and the task given to him was to reflect a Creator-God who does not idly observe His creation from a distance but is actively engaged in the world through His works of creation, providence, and redemption.
The fall profoundly impacted Adam’s vocation. The ground was cursed. Thorns and thistles grew and the bread that would come from the fields required sweat and toil (Gen. 3:18-19). But it did not negate his Edenic calling, nor was it a sentence of hopeless misery. The promised Messiah would crush Satan’s head and, as the familiar words of Isaac Watts remind us in that Christmas hymn:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
The redemption earned by Jesus Christ is a complete redemption, not only covering the guilt of sin but also its effects. True, the process of sanctification is not instantaneous. Believers are called to live in both the now and the not yet, but we live (and work) with the confidence that the groans of creation, which longs for its complete redemption, will be answered (Rom. 8:21-25). In the new earth, we will still work, but we won’t pull weeds.
These are not just theological truths worthy of reflection in devotional settings; they are life-changing truths which impact our approach to our everyday occupation. Had Adam not fallen, we still would work; it is part of our creational calling. So we approach our work with a delight because when we work well, we reflect the image of the God who made us and whom we are called to love and serve. Our everyday work is a place where we are able to read an “elegant book” which should “lead us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely His eternal power and divinity which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse” (Belgic Confession, Article 2). This might be realized in those wonderful “aha” moments when we stand amazed at the advance of a technology which the Creator God has embedded in His good creation and we are privileged to discover or utilize. It also occurs in the faithfulness of our work routines, which are patterned after a God of order who in His own pattern modeled a rhythm between work and rest. We cannot fully worship God on the days set aside for rest when we neglect to follow His example during our six days of labor. And if we worship a God who tells us that He delights in a working scale (Prov. 11:1), should not the use of the artifacts of creation, which are the tools and objects of so much of our daily work, be an inspiration to worship? In order to understand the Christian’s calling as an employee, we need to build on the foundation of our vocation as human beings. We are image-bearers of a God who works.
But vocation is not simply a general principle regarding general human purpose. It is a personally applied principle: each of us has our own specific calling. Most will be familiar with the biblical metaphor of the body (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12) that teaches us that we are not all the same but have unique personal gifts and callings. Discovering our calling requires an assessment of our own gifts, passions, and temperament, as well as God’s providential leadings in our lives in which doors are opened and closed. And while stewardship of our gifts is a key component to discovering our calling, we should resist the individualistic temptation to think about our employment circumstances simply in terms of “what’s best for me and my family.” Surely, asking how we might be used in service of the kingdom of God and its expansion is a necessary and relevant consideration.
In a society where social status is so linked to our employment, it is helpful to remind ourselves that, biblically speaking, following our vocation rather than achieving a position is what is pleasing to God. Calvin said that “no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendor and value in the eyes of God” (Institutes, 3.10.6). Hugh Latimer reminds us of how finding dignity in our work directs us to think rightly of Christ: “This is a wonderful thing, that the Savior of the world, and the king above all kings, was not ashamed to labor; yea, and to use so simple an occupation. Here he did sanctify all manner of occupations.”1
If vocation is one under-appreciated theme in contemporary society, the biblical concept of honor is another. Human autonomy and rights are the hallmarks of our egalitarian age. The world is viewed through the lens of “me.” A biblical lens runs very counter-culturally. “What is your only comfort in life and death?” the Heidelberger famously asks. “That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ” is the believers’ answer. I belong to another I am a slave for Christ. And in all of life, including as an employee, I serve Him.
These teachings have been abused through history and many articles could be written exploring why this is a license neither for totalitarian employers to misuse their economic power and privilege nor for irresponsible employees to abdicate responsibility or perform work as mindless duty. Holy principles, when misused as secular tools, can have devastating consequences. We cannot escape the reality that an employer-employee relationship, as well as the inter-employee relationships in a workplace (or a supplier-customer relationship for that matter), involves power differentials. Transactions are enacted and economic exchanges take place, and there is usually not equal power on either side of the transaction. In a world where the curse of sin is real, this becomes a setting in which opportunities to take advantage of others are plentiful and easy to rationalize. The hurt and sin that occurs in workplaces can leave many feeling helpless. These are sins that need to be recognized and repented of. The Westminster Catechism describes the scope of the fifth commandment as “the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors, superiors, or equals” (QA 126). At its heart, honor can be understood as seeing others as God sees them. To honor someone requires an assessment of their worth.
While the term “employee” directs us to the specifics of the employer-employee relationship, it may be helpful to broaden the application to all of the relationships we encounter in the workplace. While the extent varies depending on our specific circumstance, work is by its nature a social activity that is rarely completed in isolation of others. The successful completion of our work requires relationships with many others. And while the command to love our neighbor and to be honest in our dealings applies here as everywhere else, there are workplace-specific dimensions of these relationships to which we also need to pay attention.
So what are the criteria that frame how we live within those relationships? It is easy to point out mistaken secular standards which, although relatively easy to identify, are harder to avoid influencing our own behavior. “What’s in it for me?” “Who’s got power?” “How might I get ahead?” “Who do I like to work with?” Few of us can claim pure thoughts when it comes to our workplace relationships.
But there is a particular “Christian” challenge to thinking about workplace relationships that we need to be careful to avoid. While there is an appropriate assessment of all of our relationships as to whether the person we are dealing with is a believer or unbeliever, care needs to be taken that we do not frame our workplace relationships with that as a defining criterion. Showing preference to a fellow believer in the workplace (and in the process doing an injustice to a more-deserving unbeliever and devaluing his/her God-given skills and gifts) is one such example. If our calling is to honor others by respecting God’s gifts in them and utilizing our relationship with them in carrying out our vocations, we need to use appropriate and relevant criteria in our workplace relationships. Calvin warns not to neglect or despise the many gifts left in human nature lest “in despising the gifts, we insult the Giver” (Institutes, 1.1.15).
Vocation and honor are two underappreciated biblical themes relevant to the Christian’s calling in the workplace. Vocation directs us to understand our calling as human beings in service of God and His kingdom, and the individual and specific way we ought to carry it out. Honor directs us to interact with the many who are part of our workplace neighborhoods in a way that sees them as God sees them, acknowledging the gifts and responsibilities that they have been given. As we work in this way, we glorify our God who works, even as He provides us with the means to earn our daily bread.