One Vocation, Multiple Shapes
by Michael Bennethum
See also Michael Bennethum's
Upholding Gottesdienst: Preaching Vocation in Luther's Day and Ours
As the quotations from Luther's sermons in "Upholding Gottesdienst" demonstrate, love for one's neighbor, the center of Lutheran ethical teaching, was not an abstract concept for Luther. He was very clear in pointing out that Christians respond to their neighbors' needs in concrete ways that grow out of the particularities of their daily places. Luther referred to these daily places as a person's stations (from the German stand or the Latin status. Some English editions of Luther's works translate these terms "estate").
Today we might speak of various roles that people play. Every person has multiple roles because God's world is comprised of several arenas or spheres — what Luther termed the "orders of creation" — and people live simultaneously in all of these spheres. Most of the time, Luther identified three orders of creation: household, government, and the church. In his lectures on Genesis, Luther wrote: "This life is profitably divided into three orders: (1) life in the home; (2) life in the state; (3) life in the church. To whatever order you belong — whether you are a husband, an officer of the state, or a teacher of the church — look about you, and see whether you have done full justice to your calling" (LW 3:217).
The household, for Luther, included daily work — in the sixteenth century the home and work lives of most people overlapped far more so than they do today (whether one was a household servant, farmer, shopkeeper living above the store, prince in the castle, or pastor in the rectory). Since such an overlap is more rare in our world, Lutheran theologians typically add a fourth order of creation — economic life.
The vocation of Christians to be Christ's presence to their neighbors can take many shapes, depending on their peculiar places within these orders. At home, I am a husband and a father. In the civic realm, I am a citizen and a member of my local town council. My participation in the church's life takes place in two of the orders: I am a member of a congregation, which gives me a certain set of relationships and opportunities to serve my neighbor, and my daily work on a synod staff presents me with other relationships and opportunities.
In his "Sermon on Keeping Children in School," Luther noted that the role of preachers is to instruct "the various estates on how they are to conduct themselves outwardly in their several offices and estates so that they may do what is right in the sight of God" (LW 46:226). He also made it clear that no role or station is inherently better than any other. "All estates and works of God are to be praised as highly as they can be and none despised in favor of another" (LW 46:246). Luther's many references in his sermons to the ways in which individual believers can live out their calling given their specific roles — mothers comforting their children, farmers bringing in the harvest, students applying themselves to their studies, artisans making quality products, rulers governing wisely — illustrates his deep commitment to this principle.
This article appeared in the September / October 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 5).