The family comprises many different vocations. A particular person may have, at the same time, the vocation of being the husband to his wife, a father to his children, and a son to his own parents as long as they are living. Each of these family vocations has a specific-and limited-number of neighbors who are to be loved and served according to the proper responsibilities of each calling.
The vocation of marriage entails just one neighbor. The husband is to love and serve his wife. The wife is to love and serve her husband.
Too often, Christians distort what the Bible teaches about the various vocations by reducing everything to power and authority: who has to obey whom? But, as Jesus teaches, that is the mindset of nonbelievers: "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant" (Mark 10:42-43).
How does each member of the marriage couple serve each other?
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Eph. 5:23-25)
Notice how Christ is hidden in marriage. Wives love and serve their husbands by submitting to him, as to Christ. But this does not mean husbands should "lord it over" their wives. Christ does not relate to his bride the church as a tyrant or dictator. Rather, Christ "gave himself up." Husbands are to love and serve their wives by giving themselves up for their wives. Both the husband and the wife exercise their royal priesthood by sacrificing their own needs for the other. But in that mutual self-denial, both of their needs are met.
In the vocation of parenthood, the father and mother love and serve their neighbors, namely, their children. And children are to love and serve their parents. In this vocation, too, God is hidden, as the Father and Son are the origins of human fatherhood and human childhood.
For all of our pretensions of independence, it is clear that God did not create us to be alone. Few people have to kill their own meat, grow their own grain, build their own houses, weave their own clothing, and protect themselves against predators, all alone. Rather, people are interdependent. Human beings always exist in cultures, and this is by God's design.
That we were born in a particular place and time is part of God's assignment for each of us. We have a vocation as citizen. Some have a further calling as rulers. Some are subjects. In a democratic republic such as ours, the rulers are themselves subject to the people who elect them, who are therefore simultaneously subjects and rulers.
Romans 13 spells out in explicit detail how God works through the agency of vocation:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:1-4)
All authority belongs to God. He, in turn, institutes human authorities and works through them to restrain and to punish the most flagrant external outbreaks of sin, to make societies possible.
Thus, holding governmental offices and positions in the legal system-such as judges, police officers, jailers, and even (according to Luther) executioners-are legitimate vocations for Christians to hold. So too (according to Luther), are the military vocations, those who "bear the sword" in a lawful chain of command.
But rulers are to exercise their God-lent authority in love and service to their neighbors. God calls no one to be a tyrant, the sort who punishes good conduct and rewards wrongdoers. Romans 13 must not be used as a pretext for political quietism. But it leaves no doubt that God himself is present in earthly governments and that he works through human institutions.
"And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30). And these he has placed into the church.
Christ is hidden in his church, present in his Word and Sacraments, so that the church is described as the body of Christ. And it consists of individuals who are utterly different from each other, and yet, like the discrete persons of the Trinity, constitute a profound unity.
If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:19-27)
The members are called to love and serve each other. The people who perform all of the seemingly mundane tasks in a local church-the musicians, the ushers, the committee members, those who prepare the fellowship dinners-are helping each other, in tangible ways, to worship God.
Callings from God are also mediated. Congregations call pastors. They are to love and serve their congregations by preaching God's Word-not their own-distributing Christ's sacraments and giving spiritual care to Christ's flock. Faithful pastors are channels of God's work. Christ baptizes and distributes his body and blood through the hands of the pastor, whom he has called to this work.
The typical local church may not seem to be so significant. The members squabble with each other and with their pastor, who, in turn is exasperated with his people. The sermon may be dull, the music poor, and the worship seemingly perfunctory. But behind these insignificant-seeming appearances, where God's Word is proclaimed faithfully, Christ animates his body.