Called First to Christ

AROUND THE TURN OF THE FIFTH CENTURY, Augustine wrote a compelling account of his life, the Confessions, which remains one of the most influential Christian books ever written. Beginning in infancy through the time of his appointment as bishop of Hippo, Augustine’s narrative interpreted every aspect of his life as evidence of God’s relentless pursuit of him. 

Augustine prayed to a God who sought him even when he was most rebellious, and he realized that God’s first calling to him was a call to be converted. He told his story as one in which his love of self was overcome by God’s love for him. “I was drawn to you by your beauty,” Augustine prayed to God, “but swiftly dragged away from you by my own weight.”

In the early church, the question of vocation was not—as it often is in the twenty-first century—about what sort of occupation a Christian should have. The church fathers didn’t sit around agonizing over whether they should be plumbers or doctors or teachers or farmers. Their agony, instead, was about submission to Christ. No one doubted that the results of answering that call would be dramatic. 

When Augustine gave himself to faith, he assumed that everything would have to change. Afraid of such dramatic change, Augustine reports that he hung back from the faith. 

He knew what it would demand, recalling, “What I now longed for was not greater certainty about you [God], but a more steadfast abiding in you. In my daily life everything seemed to be teetering, and my heart needed to be cleansed of the old leaven. I was attracted to the Way, which is our Savior himself, but the narrowness of the path daunted me and I still could not walk in it.”

Changed by God’s love

Once he answered that primary call, Augustine saw God demanding other vocational decisions of him. He left behind his work as a teacher and rhetorician. He also rejected the marriage his mother had arranged for him. His calling to Christ took over every other aspect of his life—his work, his household, and his marital status. Once he surrendered to Christ, Augustine recounted being “irked” by the “secular business” that had been his career before his conversion. He linked this discontent with the fact that God had changed his heart at the deepest level. 

To God in his Confessions he wrote that he was “no longer . . . fired by ambition, and prepared on that account to endure such heavy servitude in the hope of reputation and wealth, as had formerly been the case. Those prospects held no charm for me now that I was in love with your tender kindness and the beauty of your house.” Augustine did not demean all secular work, nor marriage, but he made the judgment that—in his own case—conversion meant leaving those things behind. Looking back, he saw his career as a way of having sold himself to the highest bidder and cited God’s redemption of him as the reason that he need “no more to offer” himself “for sale.” In keeping with his theology of grace, Augustine wanted his readers to know that he didn’t manage this dramatic change by his own effort or strength of will. His new life was only possible because the Lord set him “free from a craving for sexual gratification which fettered me like a tight-drawn chain, and from my enslavement to worldly affairs.”

Called to give up everything

Augustine’s story comes to us from the end of the early church period. While much in that story was peculiar to him, it also epitomized the early church in several important ways. Though Augustine was the bishop of an imperial church—a church with the blessing and sometimes, to its detriment, the power of the Roman Empire behind it—he stood in the legacy of a persecuted church, the church of the first three centuries, which thought about vocation from the standpoint of a persecuted minority. 

Calling, in this context, was not just the special calling of some to serve in offices of the church. Calling belonged to all Christians. It was the call to faithfulness, to share the good news regardless of the cost, and to give up everything to follow Christ.

Tertullian (c. 160–225) in the late second century spoke from this tradition as he responded to critics’ “outcry” that Christians were everywhere and that Christians included people from every walk of life—“both sexes, every age and condition, even high rank, are passing over to the profession of the Christian faith.” The only place you wouldn’t find Christians, according to Tertullian, was in the temples of the false gods. 

Tertullian described a church united in worshiping the true God, but he also described that church as diverse, a diversity including Christians in a variety of occupations. And through those many occupations at all levels of society, Christians were infiltrating the world at large in a most alarming fashion, leading to ever more conversions. Consequently Christians were an ever-increasing threat to a state that would not tolerate their anti-idolatry stance.

If the early church knew what it meant to be “in” the world, it was also familiar with the tension involved in discerning what it meant to be in that world but not “of” it. In the third century, some Christians dealt with that tension by retreating from the city to the desert. Desert hermits—at a physical distance from the worldly pressures of the city—dedicated their lives to prayer and to the practice of asceticism, following physical disciplines such as fasting and solitude as a means of training the soul. 

Monastic communities also grew up as places where Christians could dedicate their whole lives to prayer. In the best of the Christian tradition, neither the desert nor the monastery was conceived as a rejection of the world—and more worldly occupations. Instead, Christians who saw their special vocation as prayer also saw those prayers as going up for the world.

Some expressed that prayerful vocation in powerful ways while staying “in” the world. Writing about his sister Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330–395) provided a reflection on Christian vocation as encompassing the most mundane aspects of life. He recounted his sister’s routine, including “when she rose from bed, or engaged in household duties or rested”—as a routine bathed in prayer. This vocation not only included the daily rhythms of life, but also had, in Gregory’s account, a strong impulse toward the radical equality of all people before God. Macrina and her mother chose to live “on a footing of equality with the staff of maids, so as to share with them the same food and the same kind of bed, and in all the necessaries of life, without any regard to differences of rank.” Gregory also told of his sister’s “resolve” to “remain single.” Singleness, especially for some ancient Christian women, seemed to have provided an unusually fruitful avenue for dedicating life to God.


Come fire, come cross

Ignatius (c. 35–107), one of Christianity’s earliest authors, saw his calling as one to martyrdom. “It is not that I want merely to be called a Christian, but actually to be one,” he writes. And Ignatius was unflinching in his vision. He described the many things “seen or unseen” that he did not want to obstruct his vocation as a Christian. “Come fire,” he writes, “cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my entire body, cruel tortures of the devil—only let me get to Jesus Christ.” 

If to answer the call to conversion was to open oneself up to martyrdom in the arena, then it made sense that the early church saw conversion itself—and not so much questions about occupation—as the central category for vocation.

In linking vocation to marriage, singleness, and teaching about sexual ethics, the early church also recognized the stark contrasts between Christian teaching on sex and procreation and the teachings of the pagans. Christianity was born in a world in which, in the words of historian Kyle Harper, “the sex industry was integral to the moral economy.” In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there was no getting around the buying and selling of sex. Slavery flourished, and with slavery came sexual abuse of the enslaved. Divorce was everywhere as well, even though many rulers tried to suppress it; wealthy Romans (including the very emperors speaking against the practice) sought out new partners frequently for both political and personal reasons.

Early Christians saw sexual ethics as closely bound up with the calling to bear witness to Christ, standing in stark contrast to this sex industry. For the early church, sex and marriage had everything to do with vocation, and they wrestled with Paul’s advice in 1 Cor. 7. 

When Paul counseled the unmarried to remain as they were, he specifically linked this to vocational considerations. Unlike the married with divided interests (7:34), single people were free to serve and please the Lord. Vocational considerations, as Paul addressed them here, were full of eschatological urgency. The end was near, and there was kingdom work to be done.

Christians from Augustine’s day to our own have looked back to those first three Christian centuries as a model for worship, prayer, theological reflection, and depth of community. As we wrestle with questions of vocation and kingdom work today, in the midst of the twenty-first century’s own idolatries, these Christians remind us that the question of calling is foremost one of responding to Christ and submitting to him. No one doubts that answering that call will be dramatic. CH

By Beth Felker Jones

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #110 in 2014]

Beth Felker Jones is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College.
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