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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 184–192 

Work and Christian Calling

Donald J. Isaac

My father was born in Alexanderpol, Russia, in 1906, the sixth of thirteen children. His father, Kornelius Isaak—farmer and associate pastor, owner of a four hundred-acre farm with orchards and hired help—chose to emigrate to America in 1913 following a dream in which he saw dark clouds coming toward their village. When the family arrived in Reedley, California, on October 23, 1913, my father recalls the children in Washington Grammar School watching these strangely dressed people walking down the street, each child carrying a bag. Later that night at M. B. Fast’s home, they flushed the toilets over and over again, fascinated at this new device.

We all too easily assume that “call” is reserved only for those with a ministry of preaching.

My father, like his father, became a farmer. He never finished elementary school. Education beyond some basics of reading and writing was unnecessary for working the land. Grandfather Isaak would never regain the position of wealth and status he had in Russia. The one who purchased his land in Alexanderpol defaulted, and the impending political events in Russia doomed any prospect of returning to reclaim it.

Working the small farm in Reedley with so many children and so little capital to expand surely sent signals to the children that farming held only marginal opportunities for them. In a radical move, my father {185} left Reedley at age twenty to move with his older brother to Los Angeles to attend an automotive trade school. While attending the Mennonite church in Los Angeles, my father met my mother who, like dad, had left the security of farm life to work at an alterations shop in Hollywood. They were married in 1929 in the Shafter Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church and, after a few years in auto repair shops, dad began farm work for his father-in-law, eventually renting and owning land.

Each of us, by looking back, can identify points at which certain decisions turned us in directions that led to or modified our professional future. Do we identify these points as those where the hand of God intervened? For some the sense of God’s hand in this history is strong and clear. Some students come to college knowing precisely what they want to do in life; others are quite uncertain. Is our choice of a profession rational, emotional, based on skills or luck? This question of whether, when, and how we receive a “calling” from God into a particular profession deserves our attention.


Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee one day, saw Simon Peter and his brother Andrew fishing, and called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to catch people” (Matt. 4:19 TNIV, passim). They immediately dropped their net and followed him, as did brothers James and John a little later. No questions, no cost-benefit analysis, no concern about location or difficulty of the tasks ahead—nothing. They just stopped what they were doing and began a new profession. One wonders what Zebedee, father of James and John, might have thought when his sons suddenly left the boat and family profession. “Mother,” he might have said later, “you’ll never guess what happened to James and John this morning.”

While we may wonder what caused these brothers to drop their work and follow a stranger named Jesus, there is no doubt that it was God calling them to a new life and vocation. It is less clear today that God calls us into a particular vocation. As a youth in the Shafter MB Church I remember hearing our pastor or visiting missionaries speak of hearing God call them into ministry. I did not hear anyone else talk of being called into the work of a farmer or plumber or retailer or homemaker. Does the Matthew 4 passage imply that God specifically calls some into ministry while the rest of us find our own way into different vocations? Is the vocation of ministry different from other work and hence merits the high status of being called by God? {186}


It seems clear that work is important in the kingdom. Consider the many parables of stewardship, obedient servants, and business activities. How else would the kingdom of justice and peace come about without human effort? If the sick are to be healed and the hungry fed, does this not imply work on our part? Calvin Redekop and Urie Bender suggest that human work, however necessary, is not an ultimate goal; only God’s work and purpose has that distinction. 1 But in the kingdom to come, our work is fundamentally important to achieve his purpose. It is part of the creation story. It is both end and means. Cotton farming as I experienced it produced an income to support our family and the church, and was tightly woven into the fabric of our lives. Dad was a father, husband, deacon, and farmer. Each carried meaning, loyalty, and a long-term perspective, each blending into the other easily. In each role one worked in the present and the future.

John A. Bernbaum and Simon M. Steer, in a useful book intended for college students, suggest five biblical principles about work:

  1. Work is God ordained, part of God’s original intent for humanity and not a result of the fall.
  2. As a result of the fall, work is no longer the pure joy God intended it to be. Painful childbirth and the “sweat of our brow” are now part of work, as are the opportunity for the exploitation of others and work as an all-consuming idol.
  3. But because of Jesus and the redemption brought about by his death and resurrection, work as a blessing prevails over work as a curse. We learn of Jesus the carpenter, Paul the tentmaker, the fishermen turned disciples.
  4. Work is always a service to Christ, requiring attention to our choices in vocation.
  5. Work brings glory to God but improves our lives and our communities as well. We really do not have a choice not to work. 2

Work is important, Bernbaum and Steer suggest, precisely because it is stewardship and thus sacred. These words, used generally in church settings, need to be at home in our everyday work.


Barbara Ward suggests that the history of civilizations which have {187} achieved prominence and wealth is structured around four primary ideas. 3 The first of these is the equality of humanity and of nations, based on the traditions of the Greek view of law and the Judeo-Christian vision of souls all equal in the sight of God. Initially it excluded women and slaves, but citizens began to achieve equality before the law and the threat of tyranny. Ward here is talking about the beginnings of what we call our constitution and bill of rights. Equality before the law gave the citizen a final sense of integrity against the tyranny of a single leader or the tyranny of an arbitrary majority.

Here we find the seeds of the modern “human rights” movement. What emerged to dominant positions in Western civilizations especially were people and groups who had never achieved such breakthroughs in other civilizations. Democratic ownership and power is inextricably linked to law and equality.

Ward’s second great idea is what she calls “this-worldliness,” an immense interest in this world and how it can be set to work to improve life. The Greek understanding of law and science derives confidence in a material universe, orderly and predictable. That the whole of God’s creation is to not only be respected and cared for as a stewardship but to be explored is the Judeo-Christian inheritance. While other Eastern cultures accepted the world as fleeting and unchangeable, the Christian sees in creation opportunity and hope, best expressed in the Messiah’s mission as deliverance and salvation. Such ideas, says Ward, “over the centuries became transmuted into this-worldly terms—of being able to see hope ahead and of working for a better future, not hereafter, but here and now.” 4 Early Western societies thus identified work as God’s work and a way to build the kingdom now. But they were frugal too. Material progress always requires savings.

Medicine and public health, the third of Ward’s great ideas, is an outgrowth of the first two. Better health and longer lifespan produced a boost to economic growth in expanding countries. The final idea behind the growth of Western societies is the application of savings and capital to produce a better life in the future. The eighteenth century produced an enormous expansion in our understanding of science, of inventions, and in applying tools and techniques to increase the efficiency of labor.


Ward’s review of how Western nations became wealthy is useful not so much as grand formula (there are many exceptions and abuses) but for its roots in creation and the Creator. Howard Loewen provides a {188} useful way of moderating Ward’s optimistic this-worldliness. 5 The problem with progress and growth, says Loewen, is the assumption that more and more is always better. As actors in the garden of creation, should we not be concerned about preservation as well as production? Economic growth and the lifestyle choices we make must always be done with recognition that we are caretakers, that all goods belong to God.

While Ward acknowledges that theology has been secularized into materialism, Loewen asks whether religion can work in business:

Has there not been a tragic separation of the sacred and the secular in our business world so that the business person becomes schizophrenic, alternating between the realism of the business world and the idealism of Christian faith? Has the Protestant/Mennonite work ethic become “secularized?” Do we still have a strong sense of vocation, or calling, or meaning in our work? 6

Though not addressing directly the question of how we identify a calling, Loewen emphasizes the biblical approach to integrated living:

    1. A theology of creation requires stewardship which does not separate the secular from the sacred.
    2. When we do separate them, we lose meaning in our daily work, and our set of values and ethics becomes divided. Work as our calling is where we exercise faith and godliness.
    3. Work as well as our possessions are a gift from God to be held in stewardship. 7

This holistic approach to life then becomes one standard by which to distinguish genuine from false concepts of calling.


It is in integrated wholeness that we offer our lives to the work of the kingdom. But what is kingdom work? Is it different from my current job? And if all work is God’s work, what difference does it make which one I am “called into?” We are, first of all, called into salvation, a holy, virtuous life of selflessness. This macro call of a Jesus-follower must limit our professional choices. We are not called into success or comfort or happiness.

In the letter to the church at Colossians Paul writes, “Whatever you {189} do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24). Working with all one’s heart is at least implicit in most job descriptions. It is good motivation, good personal psychology, good advice. It is what I learned as a child on the farm. It is advice respected by the farmer, the soldier, the bartender, the fashion model: use the abilities you have to do the best job you can. But the modifying phrases in Colossians change everything: not all work is God’s work. 8

Grandfather Isaak was probably called to the position of associate pastor of the Alexanderpol MB church by casting the lot. In his service with the church, he made at least two trips to visit and minister to young Mennonite men drafted by the military but working in civilian service conservation camps. 9 His farm work handled by the older sons and hired workers allowed him this form of service. But as an educated person he also knew the scriptural teachings well. He would have felt then, as perhaps pastors do today, that one should not enter Christian service in the absence of God’s call.


The Old Testament prophets and priests were called, the disciples and apostles were called—but these were offices very different from that of the local preacher. We generally assume that the Ephesians 4:11 passage (“he who gave . . . pastors and teachers to equip God’s people”) provides the basis for a divine call to ministry. Certainly God does send some to preach (Rom. 10:15), but we all too easily assume that “call” is reserved only for those in that kind of ministry.

Bernbaum and Steer suggest that an improper division of the sacred and secular leads us to “(1) mystify the call to Christian service so that it is encased with awe and exempted from rational decision making; and (2) assign all other careers to a noncall, nonspiritual status.” 10 While the career outcomes may be different, both require prayer, self-examination, a thorough study of alternatives, and a careful and honest assessment of God-given abilities and talents. God’s leading, insist Bernbaum and Steer, is rarely sudden or spectacular. It is rather a slow process of leading, teaching, learning, understanding our experiences, and consistent, faithful living.


Let me suggest that our modern focus on work and career as the outcome of individual decisions is flawed. When asked, my {190} eight-year old grandson already knows that he wants to become a zookeeper, or better yet, a herpetologist. Playing with snakes sounds fun, after all. He may well become such an expert and, if so, I hope he is guided along this path by his family, church, and friends. The Christian should make career decisions differently than the non-Christian does.

In preparation for the inevitable question, “What do you do?” students on all campuses ask, “What is the job market going to be like when I graduate?”; “Which jobs pay the most?”; or “Which jobs will be the most enjoyable?” They choose courses and majors to get the “key” to enter such jobs, having heard but not yet accepting that they will change jobs and careers many times. The questions and implicit goals behind them are those of self-satisfaction, of an individualistic culture. What questions should the Christian be asking? I hope we have provided some of those questions—and some answers—that differ from those most prevalent in society today.

The issue of process remains: In what context should young people make vocational decisions? Let me end with three suggestions, all characterized by long-term processes.

The Family

Parents model the life of work and career and are the initial and perhaps most important influence, not only in choice of profession but in how to make choices. I watched my parents work, worked in the field with them, and observed countless hours of conversation between my parents and other family members over the noon table, often about work. Children receive their first understandings of work at home. The family is a significant place to talk openly and often about vocation.

Often a child will follow the occupation of a parent. More importantly than a specific profession, however, is that the family is where we both model and talk about how work is part of the wholeness of the Christian in the world. It is the place where we model service—that work is not about climbing a ladder, not about making vice president in five years, not about when to make the first million. God speaks through the family to call the child into work which is service to others.

The Church

The church emphasizes the collective over the individual. Mennonites in particular place spiritual emphasis on community, that sense of yielding to the will of the collective in service, worship, sharing, and values. What the church has not done well is to preach and teach that the spiritual nature of work has an integral position in wholeness. {191} Youth groups can and should ask the question, “Where can you best serve God?”

It is in church where young people encounter lay people in service. While formal ministry has been professionalized, the church volunteer demonstrates integration. Further, the church can sponsor trips and events which take young people out of their comfort zones into service opportunities, modeling early on how work and service are one. God speaks through the church to call the young person into the service of God’s people.

The Community

Peer groups are a primary influence source for significant value solidification. We often make decisions based on what we believe are norms acceptable to others. Though strongest in adolescence and the college years, young people often make decisions about where to live, church affiliation, and lifestyle patterns based on peer groups. The community can be a powerful agency to shape one’s destiny.

I recall an incident in the church we attended in Fresno where a young couple, both professionals with a small family of two children, called together a group of friends to help them think through the decision of whether to have a third child. They wanted to listen to the voice of God speaking to them through the community. The community may be a few friends, a Sunday school class, dorm mates in college, one’s professors. In community we search for commonalities, core values, truths about ourselves, and God’s truth. God speaks through the community to call people into service for the kingdom.


  1. Calvin Redekop and Urie A. Bender, Who Am I? What Am I? Searching for Meaning in Your Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie, 1988), 245-46.
  2. John A. Bernbaum and Simon M. Steer, Why Work? Careers and Employment in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986).
  3. Barbara Ward, The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations (New York: Norton, 1962).
  4. Ibid., 21-22.
  5. Howard Loewen, “Biblical Faith and the Business World,” Direction 11 (January 1982): 9-18.
  6. Ibid., 12. {192}
  7. Ibid., 13.
  8. While Luther helped us understand that divisions between secular and sacred work were artificial, Calvin reminded us that because of sin not all jobs contribute equally to the kingdom of love, service, justice, and community.
  9. Zionsbote, 18 February 1903, and 6 April 1904.
  10. Bernbaum and Steer, 41.
Donald J. Isaac is Professor of Business Administration at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, where he has taught since 1980. He received his masters degree in Economics from Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, and his Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Leadership from the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

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