I Corinthians 12:4–12

This Scripture reveals an understanding of vocation as the gifts each person is given that are needed for common good. The audience of 1 Corinthians was quite diverse economically, socially, ethnically, educationally, theologically, and, therefore, culturally.[1] On numerous occasions in the letter, Paul addresses conflict in the Corinthian church by appealing to the metaphor of the body of Christ.[2] Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is clear: the church is the body of Christ, not like the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).[3] The church is one body with many members (1 Cor 12:12). Each member is needed and each needs the others.[4] C.K. Barrett highlights that the allotment of the gifts is done with great intention. According to Barrett, when Paul uses the Greek word diairesis in 1 Corinthians 12:4, “differences” or “varieties” are not as helpful a translation as “distribution.”

Paul thinks of the gifts as given. … The main point is … gifts are shared out among Christians; all do not receive the same gift, but all the gifts come from the Spirit, so that there is no room for rivalry, discontent, or a feeling of superiority. … Gifts are not occasions for boasting, but opportunities for service, to the community and through the community to the Lord.[5]

Presbyterian pastor, Gary Charles, reveals the possibilities of an interdependent community of faith, grounded in baptism and connected with vocational discernment of spiritual gifts. He thinks that 1 Corinthians 12:1–13 is a call to “all baptized who drink of the same Spirit”[6] to break down hierarchies and cultural norms of individualism and to create a community of diversity able to establish an enduring unity by believing that “each member is gifted and invaluable to the spiritual health of the community.” [7] Charles reaffirms vocations theological grounding in baptism and the discernment or calling forth spiritual gifts of each community member.

Reformed Theology of Vocation: Discerning God’s Call in Community

Vocation and the journey it implies are understood in a variety of ways. The word vocation is derived from the Latin vocare, meaning to call or to summon; it “suggests that vocation is a calling from someone to someone for some purpose.”[8] Taking seriously the distinctiveness of this term in contrast to language of careers, occupations, placements, or even jobs, we are invited “to reflect on the theological meaning of our chosen daily work by emphasizing how we serve and give … rather than on what we receive for our labors.”[9]

Humanists understand vocation as a question of identity or integrity. Hasidic Jews call this a search for the spark of the divine. Buddhists talk about exploring our original nature or big self. Quakers describe the journey of discovery of the self as seeking the inner light or inner teacher. Catholic theologian Thomas Merton encouraged students and readers to find their true selves.[10] Reformed theologians like John Calvin urge persons to search for their vocation;[11] the searching, the journeying, the seeking, the exploring and the discovering all constitute a process of discernment.

Discerning one's vocation is not merely an economic inquiry, nor is it fully addressed as an educational problem. Discerning vocation is a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Ideally, each member of the community travels with the others. God’s call begins as we are called into life as infants. In the Christian community, our first call is publicly recognized in baptism. Through the Presbyterian practice of infant baptism, the Christian community vows to nurture each child’s call, including her or his faith in Jesus Christ. God’s call is something lived out in solidarity. Christians live out their call in discipleship wherever they find themselves at work and at play, in word, in thought, and in deed. So where do we hear God’s call? God’s call is to be experienced through life and worship in the community of faith. Our call is by God through our community and into community.

In addition to affirming that God’s call is discovered in community, Presbyterians have also noted that it is a way to overcome barriers, including cultural ones. “The Confession of 1967,” one of the twelve confessions in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, confirms these theological and practical beliefs.

… The church is called to bring all [persons] to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. [12]

When Presbyterians fail to uphold one another in all relationships; when the community of faith fails to “bring, receive, and uphold” one another in our vocational process, we are refusing to practice what we say we believe about who God is and who God intends for us to be. When the church does not distinguish the gifts of marginalized peoples it is missing the mark and falling short of a summons by God.[13]

Illustration of a venn diagramA Presbyterian Ecclesiology: A Community of the Called

The Reformed Tradition has a communal ecclesiology. Throughout our history, this point has been reaffirmed. The sixteenth-century Reformers defined church as “an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints … .”[14] They assumed that church was a community of people who were called. Thus, our Reformed notion of church is interwoven with questions of vocation, what God calls or summons us to do and to be as individual members of a larger community.

H. Richard Niebuhr grappled with the relationship of ecclesiology to vocation. In The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, he defines church and what it means to be called by God. For Niebuhr, the Church is more of a community directed to God through Jesus Christ. The Church is local and universal, Protestant and catholic.[15] All seeking Christians find their call as they learn from the church to love God and neighbor. The individual Christian’s quest is linked to the church being able to fulfill one’s call.[16]

The New Testament vision of community is of koinonia, that is, a community of belonging, not a society of opposition and competition. A Reformed theological perspective of the church as a community of believers values each person’s individual gifts and helps each member of the community to express her or his gifts fully and freely to the betterment of the whole.

The 216th General Assembly (2004) commissioned a study on the relationship of baptism and ministry.[17] Specifically, the assembly approved an overture to “create a study document that would set forth [a] Reformed-Presbyterian understanding of the relationship between Baptism and the ministry of all church members both ordained and not ordained. …”[18] The rationale for the action states that

Vocation—our God-given calling—is not measured by the particular occupation we choose or by the so-called “productive years” of our lives. Our baptismal vocation encompasses our whole lives for our whole lives.

 The New Testament teaches us that gifts are given to each for the common good. Each of us is an important part of God’s mission in the world regardless of whether we are an ordained minister or a non-ordained minister. Every Christian is a minister by virtue of his or her baptism into Christ Jesus. A greater awareness of our baptismal vocation of being Christ’s ministers is deeply needed within our church. We need to again contemplate what it means to find our identity in our belonging—in body and soul, in life and in death—to the God revealed in Jesus Christ made known by the Holy Spirit. This would be greatly assisted by a biblically informed and theologically grounded understanding of our baptismal vocation as the basis of our common ministry as Christians. …[19]

For Reflection and Discussion:

Look at what our own Book of Order says about participation in Christ’s ministry and the ordered ministries of the church by reviewing and reading G-2.0101, G-2.0102, G-2.0103, and G-2.0104.

What does it mean to be called as a ruling elder or deacon in the body of Christ, the Church?

Identify a mentor who has served as a spiritual leader in your life. What are some qualities that they possess? How can you keep these qualities in mind as you go out to serve as a ruling elder or deacon, serving in the leadership of Christ’s Church?

[1] Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim, United by Faith: The Multicultural Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (Oxford: University Press, 2003), 30–31.

[2] Charles B. Cousar, The Letters of Paul (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1996), 142–43.

[3] George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 10: Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), 156.

[4] C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 283–84.

[5] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[6] Gary W. Charles, “I Corinthians 12:1–13,” Interpretation 44 (Ja 1990): 68.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Richard M. Webster, “Considering Your Call and Vocation: Study to Enrich Inquirers and Candidates” (Louisville: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A. ) SEIC Resource #101, 1992), accessed August 2, 2005, available from http://www.pcusa.org/prep4min/call.html; Internet, 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thomas Merton discusses this also as vocation. The “root meaning of spiritual direction … [is] … a continuous process of formation and guidance, in which a Christian is led and encourage in his special vocation, so that by faithful correspondence to the graces of the Holy Spirit he may attain to the particular end of his vocation and to union with God.” Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1960), 5.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia : The Westminster Press, 1960), 725.

[12] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “The Confession of 1967” in the Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 1996), 9.44, 294.

[13] Mary R. Sawyer, The Church on the Margins: Living Christian Community (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2003), 4–9.

[14] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “The Second Helvetic Confession” in the Book of Confessions, 5.125, 109.

[15] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1956), 17–27.

[16] Ibid., 64.

[17] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Minutes of the 216th General Assembly (2004) (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2004), Item #08-11, 618.

[18] Ibid, 618.

[19] Ibid. 619. Emphasis added.