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"Calling" and the Military Profession: Part 1
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“Calling” and the Military Professional (part 1 of 3)

By Scott G. Frickenstein, Ph.D., Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force


Americans are vigorously seeking to understand their purpose in life—that is, to answer the question: “What on earth am I here for?” Theologians typically use the concept of calling (also known as vocation) to provide answers to this question, and senior military leaders frequently use the word “calling” to describe the profession of arms. This three-part series summarizes biblical teaching, historical foundations, and current research on the concept of calling and its relevance to the military professional of the 21st century. The first article distinguishes between several terms often substituted for “calling” and summarizes the historical and current understandings of this concept. A forthcoming article will discuss the process of discovering one’s calling and describe the uniqueness of the military calling. The final article will offer several personal and professional implications. Taken together, the series reveals that calling is much more than “being involved in something bigger than self”—it is an all-encompassing perspective that can have profound, enriching effects on all facets of a military professional’s life.


Before I made you in your mother’s womb, I chose you. Before you were born, I set you apart for a special work (Jeremiah 1:5, New Century Version)

At a recent ceremony in which an Air Force colonel was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, the presiding four-star general remarked: “This is not about more pay—it’s a calling—the chance to be involved in something bigger than oneself.” The flag officer guest speaker at a service’s birthday ball stated: “Of all the various professions, the military is most similar to the clergy, because it’s a calling—it’s not just a job.” The subtitle on the website beckons, “Your calling is calling.”1 The wife of the late astronaut Colonel Rick Husband entitled his biography, High Calling.2 But what exactly is a “calling?” More importantly, why should the concept of calling matter to today’s military professionals?
Military professionals and civilians share the human need for a sense of purpose—indeed, of calling—to understand that what they do with their life truly matters. The nation-wide success of Rick Warren’s best-selling
Purpose-Driven Life and the ensuing sweep of “40 Days of Purpose” campaigns across America testified to this need. Warren’s fall 2004 appearance at a massive Pentagon gathering, a camouflage version of Purpose-Driven Life, and “40 Days of Purpose” events at military chapels indicate that military professionals mirror society in this regard.
Christian theologians are attempting to meet the groundswell of interest in “purpose” by dusting off the doctrine of calling (also known as vocation). Numerous books and articles have been written on this subject in the past decade—many of which are referenced in this series—attempting to remove the veil of confusion that has surrounded and continues to surround this topic. Many military professionals and civilians alike, for example, feel that their “line of work” is second rate—that only members of the clergy or possibly physicians are “called.” Perhaps even more common is the “workaholism” that typifies those who attempt to satisfy their deepest longings by relentlessly pursuing the next rung on the ladder. In addition to these misconceptions of vocation, military professionals grapple with how periodic re-assignments—sometimes to billets outside their area of expertise—fit into a larger picture. This struggle intensifies when they face retirement or involuntary separation.
The purpose of this three-part series is to describe the concept of calling and its relevance to military professionals of the 21st century, fighting terrorism at home and abroad while
preparing for future conflicts. In particular, the series seeks to answer the question: “Why does calling matter to the vast majority of American officers who identify themselves as Christians?” The first article begins by defining various terms often used interchangeably with “calling.” It explains that calling is much more than the nebulous notion of “being involved with something larger than oneself”—there is a spiritual basis that must not be overlooked. The article also traces the biblical and historical foundations of the concept of calling, highlighting the impact of the Protestant Reformation. With a firm grasp of this background material, the second article will describe how one “discovers” his or her calling and will verify that the military profession is indeed a calling—in fact, a noble calling and one unlike any other. The final article will examine how viewing one’s military service from the standpoint of calling can have profound enriching effects—both personal and professional—especially for commanders and supervisors. The final article will conclude with a summary of its major themes from the series and will also suggest opportunities for further study.


Definitions and Historical Development

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10, New International Version)

To the “man on the street,” the word calling conveys a blend of the two notions found in typical dictionaries: on the one hand, “a profession or occupation;” on the other hand, “a spiritual summons or impulse to accomplish something.” This blend is often expressed as “being involved in something bigger than oneself.” Also, many frequently equate calling with “career” or “job,” but these words also do not fully capture the depth and breadth of calling. To clarify these and other common misconceptions, this section begins by defining key terms that will be used throughout the remainder of the series, thereby illustrating what calling is and is not. The section then summarizes the development and distortion of the concept of calling from biblical and classical times up to the present day, including discussions of the medieval and Reformation eras. 

Numerous terms are used interchangeably with calling in contemporary society, but only one is truly equivalent. Dr. R. Paul Stevens, professor of applied theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, explains that the word vocation is based on the Latin vocatio, meaning “calling.” “They are the same thing,” he says, “though this is not obvious to the people who use these words.”3 As such, the words calling and vocation will be used synonymously in this series. Dr. Gene Veith, author of God at Work and founder of the Cranach Institute, an organization devoted to the study of calling, notes that in today’s society, vocation has become synonymous with “job,” as in “vocational training.”4 Dr. Douglas Schuurman, professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, explains that calling is much more than work: “God not only calls people into a given form of paid work; family relations, friendships, extracurricular commitments—indeed, all significant social relations are places into which God calls us to serve God and neighbor.”5 Dr. Shirley Roels, co-author of Business Through the Eyes of Faith and an academic dean at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explains further that Vocation implies a relationship with the one who calls us. Biblically, that caller is the triune God.”6 Dr. Os Guinness, internationally renowned speaker and Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum, emphatically states: “There can be no calling without a Caller.”7 In his classic work The Call, Guinness defines the overarching concept of calling as “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service.”8
There are key differences between “calling” as defined above and other related terms. The
American Heritage Dictionary defines occupation as “an activity that serves as one’s regular source of livelihood.”9 Stevens explains how calling differs from career and job: “A career is an occupation for which people train and in which people expect to earn their living for most of their working years. A calling is the summons of God to live our whole lives for his glory; a career is part of that but not the whole. A job is work that is simple toil out of necessity.”10 As an example, he notes Joseph had a career as a shepherd, a job as Potiphar’s slave, and a calling to be used by God to save the nations of Israel and Egypt. Current researchers define profession as “a relatively ‘high status’ occupation whose members apply abstract knowledge in a particular field of endeavor.”11 As such, professions are identified by their expertise and the jurisdiction in which they apply that expertise.12

Calling in the Bible

Os Guinness describes what he calls “four essential strands” of calling in the Bible. First, he explains, calling has a straightforward meaning and a relational setting in the Old Testament, such as when “you ‘call’ someone on the phone, you catch someone’s ear for a season.”13 Second, “to call” in the Old Testament means “to name, and to name means to call into being;” as such, “calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.”14 Schuurman explains how these two strands are related: “In the Bible, one’s name frequently sums up the divinely given purpose or identity to which God calls that person.”15 Third, calling in the New Testament is virtually synonymous with salvation: “God’s calling people to Himself as followers of Christ.”16 Guinness notes that ecclesia, the Greek word for church, means “called-out ones.”17 Fourth, calling in the New Testament means to live under the lordship of Christ: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”18

The last two strands of the biblical meaning of calling, Guinness explains, are the basis for what theologians later referred to as the “primary” (or “general”) calling and “secondary” (or “specific”) callings. “First and foremost,” he says, “we are called to Someone (God);” then, we are called to “something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).”19 Based on a New Testament word study, Colonel Al Shine, U.S. Army, retired, concluded that the primary calling for all Christians is four-fold: to be like Jesus; to be with Him, now and for eternity; to obey Him; and, by the work of His Spirit, to challenge and change the world (i.e., to be “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20).20 In essence, then, one’s primary calling is to be God’s own; one’s secondary callings (note the plural) include everything a person does in response to his or her primary calling.

The remainder of this series will focus on secondary callings, though by no means intending to minimize the importance of the primary calling. Schuurman explains that the Bible refers to God’s general calling much more frequently than his specific callings.21 Nonetheless, the Bible contains many examples of God calling individuals to specific tasks. For example, God personally called someone to craft sacred items for the Hebrew Tabernacle: “I have called by name Bezalel…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs.”22 The ninth chapter of the New Testament book of Acts describes Saul’s primary calling and his secondary calling to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. Schuurman describes many other instances where God calls individuals to serve His people in specific ways.23 He then exegetes several passages to demonstrate that the Bible also validates secondary callings outside the context of Israel or the Church, concluding that legitimate “spheres of social life are … ‘callings’ assigned by the providence of God.”24

Calling in the Classical and Medieval Eras

While the biblical perspective emphasizes “being” (God’s own) as the basis for “doing” (everything for God’s glory), the Greek mindset lies in stark contrast. Nonetheless, calling was not completely ignored in the classical era. Gilbert Meilaender, Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, contends that since the word “vocation” is derived from Latin, the concept has “other important roots in Western culture.”25 In his article “Divine Summons,” for example, he argues that Vergil’s Aeneid is “among other things, a poem about vocation.” Aeneas, destined to found Rome, is “the man / Whom heaven calls.”26 But viewing one’s life work as a response to a divine summons was the exception, not the norm, in Vergil’s day and age. Adriano Tilgher notes that “to the Greeks, work was a curse and nothing else.”27 Dr. Lee Hardy, professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explains that work was simply a requirement for survival, part of the “endless cycle of activity forced upon us by embodied existence.”28 The Greeks carried this idea a step further, thereby initiating a duality that still informs contemporary thinking: a life of leisurely philosophizing was seen as the highest good for man, the “rational animal,” while practical, physical activities were seen as “impediments” to thinking.29

Greek dualism continued to wield its influence by dividing the world into vocational “haves” and “have nots.” In 312 A.D., Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, argued that there were two ways of life: the “perfect” and the “permitted.” The former was spiritual and contemplative and “reserved for priests, monks, and nuns;” the latter was secular and “open to such tasks as soldiering, governing, farming, trading, and raising families.”30 Later theologians, including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, also relegated the “active life (viva activa)” to second place behind the “contemplative life (viva contemplativa).”31 Having a calling during the Middle Ages, Veith explains, meant being a priest, monk, or nun; “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…. Even marriage and parenthood … were seen as encumbrances to the religious life.”32

The Impact of the Reformation on the Concept of Calling

The Reformers, led primarily by Martin Luther and John Calvin in 16th century Europe, debunked the monastic view of vocation (i.e., “the best and the rest”) and broadened the concept from the Catholic emphasis on spiritual activities. The Reformation arose because such men were convinced that the Church had slipped from its scriptural foundations. Luther vigorously opposed the prevailing ecclesiastical misunderstanding that “in order to serve God fully, a person should leave his or her previous way of life and become a member of the priesthood.”33

Reformers did not lessen the importance of clerics, but taught that the vocations of “lay people” also had their own holy “responsibilities, authority, and blessings.”34 Their teaching, Schuurman explains, “rejected the church/world dichotomy prevalent in their day; indeed, they saw an inherent dignity in everyday activities.”35 Veith elaborates on the Reformers’ extension of the ecclesiastical concept of calling: “Luther goes so far as to say that vocation is a mask of God. That is, God hides Himself in the workplace, the family, the Church, and the seemingly secular society. To speak of God being hidden is a way of describing His presence, as when a child hiding in the room is there, just not seen.”36 From this perspective, then, God provides healing through those in the medical field, teaching through pastors and educators, food through the fast-food worker, shelter through construction workers, protection through the military and police forces, pleasure through musicians and artists, and so on.37

Calling in Modern Times

In the centuries since the Reformation, the concept of calling gradually faded as the secularist worldview gained prominence. The word “career,” Roels elaborates, gradually transformed in meaning from its Latin origin of a “course for chariots” to the French for “giving the horse … an open field in which [it] could run freely” to, analogously, “self-chosen occupations for which people trained and progressed on their own initiative.”38 Veith laments, “One of the consequences of ‘modernity,’ that secularizing frame of mind that has been dominant in the culture from the Enlightenment to the last century, has been to drain any trace of God—even any trace of meaning—from the objective world.”39 Scientists during the Enlightenment may have understood how thunderheads form, exemplifies Veith, but “it is still God who makes it rain” by working through the means of the natural processes He created.40 In this period, God’s work “in the so-called secular world” through the means of vocation was largely forgotten; people “went about their worldly occupations but did not see them as being related to … their faith.”41 Another reason for the loss of a sense of vocation, Schuurman adds, is the prevailing market mentality: “the habit of perceiving everything in terms of economic advance and personal well-being has likewise displaced the religious centers of valuation and perception.”42

The concept of calling has largely faded over the last several centuries, but imperfect remnants remain. Guinness describes the “Catholic distortion” and the “Protestant distortion;” Stevens discusses “the secular misunderstanding,” a close relative of the latter. “Whereas the Catholic distortion is a spiritual form of dualism, elevating the spiritual at the expense of the secular, the Protestant distortion is a secular form of dualism, elevating the secular at the expense of the spiritual.”43 As such, those who tend to feel clerics are “called” while they themselves are not, have fallen prey to the Catholic distortion; those who idolize their work have fallen prey to the Protestant distortion. The secularist misunderstanding, Stevens explains, reduces a calling to “the occupation one chooses.”44 In light of society’s orientation toward the pursuit of self-fulfilling careers, he says “the recovery of biblical vocation is desperately needed.”45


This introductory article defined key terms that will be used in the series. It described components of the biblical concept of calling, and it offered examples of “call stories” from the Bible. Aeneas’ “call” was contrasted against the dualistic Greek view of work. The monastic notion of vocational “haves and have nots” was developed, followed by a description of the Reformers’ attempts to liberate the laity. The article concluded by describing the effect of secularization and two religious “distortions” concerning calling. The second part of this series will build on this foundation and describe how one “discovers” his or her calling.

Scott Frickenstein is currently serving as a branch chief in the J-8 directorate of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. He previously served as commander of the 15th Services Squadron, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and has deployed as a squadron commander in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Lieutenant Colonel Frickenstein has also held several academic and analytical leadership roles. He holds a Ph.D. in Operations Research from the Naval Postgraduate School and master's degrees from the National War College, Air Command and Staff College, and Florida State University, and he is a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.


1. (referenced 18 Jan 2010).

2. Evelyn Husband and Donna VanLiere, High Calling: The Courageous Life and Faith of Space Shuttle Columbia Commander Rick Husband (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003).

3. R. Paul Stevens, "Calling," in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, ed. Robert Banks, and Stevens, R. Paul (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1997), 97.

4. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 16. Veith’s treatment of this topic is based primarily on Luther’s theology; in his preface, he describes the book as a summary for lay people of what he learned from Luther and Swedish theologian Gustav Wingren’s Luther on Vocation.

5. Douglas J. Schuurman, Vocation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), xi. Schuurman’s treatment of this topic is much more academic than Veith’s; he also compares Luther’s teachings to Calvin’s, and comments on the diversity among contemporary Christian theologians on the topic.

6. Shirley J. Roels, "The Christian Calling to Business Life," Theology Today 60, no. 3 (2003), 358.

7. Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2003), ix. Guinness’s classic book on calling is written as an in-depth devotional (complete with study guide), and also serves as an excellent reference manual on the subject.

8. Ibid., 29.

9. Pamela B. DeVinne, et al, ed., American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 860.

10. Stevens, 104.

11. James Burk, "Expertise, Jurisdiction, and Legitimacy of the Military Profession," in The Future of the Army Profession, ed. Lloyd J. Matthews (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 21.

12. Don M. Snider and Watkins, Gayle L., "Introduction," in The Future of the Army Profession, ed. Lloyd J. Matthews (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 7.

13. Guinness, 29.

14. Ibid., 29-30.

15. Schuurman, 18.

16. Guinness, 30.

17. Ibid.

18. Colossians 3:23, NIV.

19. Guinness, 31.

20. Author’s correspondence with Al Shine.

21. Schuurman, 17.

22. Exodus 31: 2-4, RSV.

23. Schuurman, 31.

24. Ibid., 33-37. It is understood that no Christian could consider an activity that is by nature is unholy (e.g, crime, prostitution, etc.) to be a call of God

25. Gilbert Meilaender, "Divine Summons," Christian Century 117, no. 30 (2000), 1110.

26. Ibid.

27. Quoted in Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 7.

28. Ibid., 7.

29. Ibid., 11-16.

30. Guinness, 32.

31. Ibid., 33.

32. Veith, 18.

33. Stevens, 98.

34. Veith, 18.

35. Schuurman, 6.

36. Veith, 24. Luther’s concept of an active, “hidden” God should not to be confused with the deistic concept of a “hands off” God.

37. Ibid., 25.

38. Ibid., 363-364.

39. Veith, 26.

40. Ibid., 28.

41. Ibid., 28-30.

42. Schuurman, 9-10.

43. Guinness, 38.

44. Stevens, 97.

45. Ibid., 98.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 20 January 2011 10:24