Cultural Relevance and the Doctrine of Vocation

The Shoe Maker

A brand new Christian ran up to Martin Luther with excitement and asked him what he should now do with his redeemed life. He anticipated an answer that would send him on a path involving monk robes or distributing wine to communicants.
Luther asked him, “What is your work now?”
“I’m a shoemaker.”
Luther replied, “Then make a good shoe, and sell it at a fair price.”

This is a famous story that explains the wonderful reformed doctrine of vocation. See, prior to the protestant reformation, clergy not only had a place of honor before men, but were thought to also have a spiritual advantage before God. If righteousness was a ladder, being a priest was a rung near the top, and a lowly shoemaker was probably still standing on the ground.

When the beauty of the gospel shown forth in the 16th century, having a fair career in the world was recognized as no less pleasing to the Lord than being a pastor. You could do taxes, or clean toilets, or make shoes and be perfectly justified before God through faith in Christ. Whatever station the Lord has placed you in should be used to honor him and serve your neighbor.

The shoemaker didn’t have to only make sandals like Jesus wore. He didn’t have to stamp a cross on the side of each pair to sanctify them. He didn’t even have to write John 3:16 inside the tongue so the wearers were secretly carrying the word of God. He was called to live his life, work hard and honestly, and do it to the glory of God.

“You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” -1 Cor 7:24

The “R” Word

Luther instructed the shoemaker to do the job in a way that pleased God and served his neighbor. Make the best product you can and sell it in an honest way. This would include staying in touch with new shoe technologies and shoe-making techniques. The Christian man was responsible to be present in the market he was serving. If he paid no attention to shoe trends, as slowly as they may have evolved in those days, his business would suffer, and he would fail to follow Luther’s instructions. In modern times, we might say the shoemaker is, in part, being told to stay “relevant” to his industry.

Yep. I used that despicable word, and that low wet rumble you heard was the sound of 10,000 discernment bloggers simultaneously rolling their eyes. After all, this is a reformed theology blog, and the word “relevant” is shameful in our little world. Why? Because it’s been misused.

There is an Evangelical Christianese use of the word relevant that means something akin to stretching the message and practice of Christianity to look and feel like the culture around us. Since the gospel is true and meaningful regardless of time and place, the thinking goes, it can look and feel right at home in the night club or in the urban streets.

This is true, only in part. The gospel is true and meaningful to all walks of life, but only so far as the gospel is being communicated for what it is. Does this culture indulge in sin and need redemption and teaching in holiness? Perfect, we’ve got just the thing. The gospel is objective, and doesn’t stretch and evolve to its surroundings. The gospel is universal because sin and human value are universal, and the gospel is the only solution. The only sense in which Christianity is “culturally relevant” is that the unchangeable word of God is always and only the instrument that brings salvation regardless of cultural boundaries.

We are not called to make Christianity relevant through human invention. We leave Christianity as it was delivered to us, as perfectly sufficient to convict and save sinners, then teach them to live holy lives.

So, the gospel doesn’t change. But the culture does. The world in which our vocation takes place is always evolving, which calls for us to pay attention to it. In this sense, being relevant to the world is good and necessary. Not religiously relevant, but vocationally relevant, while carrying the pure gospel with us.

For example, I’m a graphic designer, and I also work in the film industry. In order to be successful in my industry, I must follow trends. Probably more than the shoemaker did, I need to see what’s being done currently in the design world, what’s happening in the film industry, what trends are being used in visual effects, etc. As a husband and father, given certain talents and passions, I’m responsible to work hard and actively hone my skills. If I don’t, I will become irrelevant to my industry, make less money, and maybe lose my job altogether.

Obviously discernment must be used, and biblical standards must be applied to our life in the social sphere. We’re Christians after all, and we should most certainly be known by our unique, godly lifestyles.

You Stay Relevant, Church Scattered

Staying culturally relevant is actually a very important part of this beautiful Biblical freedom we have to be salt and light to the world. Not by making the gospel relevant, but by living out the doctrine of vocation well. Doing a good job, honestly. Loving and serving your neighbor while honoring God. It is poor stewardship of the vocation God has called you to, to fall into obscurity in the realm of that vocation.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” -Romans 12:2a

Understanding and interacting with the world is not something to be ashamed of, so long as you are not engaging in sin or celebrating that which God hates. The call to a Christian is truly to live in the world, while not being conformed to the world.

Teaching that being culturally relevant is somehow ungodly is anti-reformed, as it undermines the doctrine of vocation entirely. This is an overreaction to those who’ve wanted to conform Christianity to the culture. In essence, the flat rejection of “relevance” communicates that unless you live every moment of your life studying Scripture, listening to and preparing sermons, or serving the church, you are not pleasing God. Studying culture is bad. Finding out how to market your product is bad. Understanding trends is bad. This is a subtle return to that priestly ladder system.

It’s very easy to say the church is good and the world is bad. It’s more difficult, and requires thinking and careful distinctions, to know how we are to be in the world but not of it.

The shoemaker is culturally relevant, and God is pleased with him.

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