Under the Eye of God: The Puritan Doctrine of Vocation for Today (Part 2)

September 24, 2014

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two part series. Click here to read Part I.

In our previous post, we considered the history, definition and discernment of the Puritan doctrine of vocation. The Puritan doctrine of vocation can teach the modern evangelical church much about living under the eye of God, particularly in the family, marketplace, government and the church. The family is the foundational unit of a godly society, according to the Puritans.[1] “Marriage was made…by God himself, to be the fountain…of all other sorts and kinds of life in the commonwealth and in the church.”[2] The Puritans high view of family naturally meant they viewed family as a vocation[3] and, its end, the glory of God.[4]

The Puritans accepted the headship of the husband and father as a biblical command which was meant for the good of the family and the glory of God.[5] The man, as husband, is called to love his wife as Christ loves the church[6], particularly exhibited in love and wisdom.[7] The man, as father, is called of God to lead, guide and care for his children in making physical provision, moral instruction and discipline.[8] A father had to provide for his children because they were unable to provide for themselves.[9] Also, every father, according to the law at the time, had to see that his children were instructed “in some honest lawful calling, labor or imployment, either in husbandry or some other trade profitable for themselves and the Commonwealth if they will not or cannot train them up in learning to fit them for higher imployments.”[10] Benjamin Wadsworth advised parents, “If you’re careful to bring them up diligently in proper business, you take a good method for their comfortable subsistence in this World (and for their being serviceable to their Generation) you do better for them then if you should bring them up idly, and yet leave them great Estates.”[11]

In the family, women were called to be wives and mothers. The Puritans taught the counterpart of the husband’s headship is the wife’s submission.[12] As one Puritan minister put it, the wife is “to guide the house and not guide the husband.”[13] The wife is “to keep at home, educating…her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of [her husband].”[14] William Gouge rooted submission in the command of God: “Though there seem to be never so little disparity, yet God having so expressly appointed subjection, it ought to be acknowledged.”[15]

Submission, however, did not mean, for the Puritans, that wives were of lesser dignity than their husbands.[16] Rather, such hierarchy in the family is “a matter of function and not of worth, a style of managing the family, not an assessment of personal value.”[17]“God, the first Institutor of marriage, gave the wife unto the husband, to bee, not his servant, but his helper, counselor and comforter.”[18] The husband and wife are spiritually equal with different vocations ordained by God in the context of the family.[19]

The vocation of both man and woman in the family, should God grant offspring, is to be father and mother. Parental responsibility was of utmost importance in Puritan thought. Cotton Mather said parents must “give an account of the souls that belong unto their families.”[20] As to work, parents should not expose the immortal souls of their children to apparent hazards in anticipation of possible monetary gain.[21] Rather, “let the children spend time in places where God is reverently worshipped and their day spent dwelling on spiritual matters, where the weak and impulsive nature of their children is properly restrained, and where they will be taught how to live from an eternal perspective.”[22] Parenting in Puritan thought was a vocation of stewardship, endeavoring that “their children may be more God’s children than theirs.”[23]

The more common use of the term “vocation,” at least in the modern sense, relates to one’s career or job. This was, of course, a common usage by the Puritans, too. “That everyone who is capable of working should be employed in some way is a truth so evident that little needs to be said to support it. Indeed, no one has been created to always be idle or merely busy now and then as humor or fancy inclines him. We should be occupied with the business to which we are called, not busy concerning ourselves with the business of others. The wise Governor of the universe has called everyone to a certain occupation, and will rebuke rather than reward those who are busy with other activity.”[24]

One effect of the Puritan concept of vocation is to make the worker a steward who serves God.[25] Rather than agonize over whether the content of the work was holy – though that was a consideration – the Puritan concern was that the worker perform the work he is called to as to God. Richard Baxter wrote, “Choose that employment or calling in which you may be most serviceable to God. Choose not that in which you may be most rich or honorable in the world; but that in which you may do most good, and best escape sinning.”[26]

In the present job market situation, more folks than ever are not participating in the labor force. Millenials are perpetually out of work and living at home with parents. Perhaps a reformation of vocational understanding would motivate individuals to pursue employment as a means to exercise the gifts and talents given by God in His providence. Further, exercising such gifts is a duty from God to best serve your fellow man. These two motivations would change the job market in the United States.

Some have accused the Puritans over narrowing the idea of calling to only a type of paid work,[27] but we have shown here that the Puritans viewed other legitimate stations in life as God’s vocation for that person – familial callings, in particular. Another area of the public marketplace that consumed much focus of Puritan vocational writing is government. In the “reformation of the Reformation,” John Milton’s Puritan teaching of vocation shaping legal and political theory.[28] In fact, much of the discussion of “the character of the good ruler” drew upon the doctrine of vocation.[29] The Puritan writers treated the calling of a magistrate, or government official, in a special category, that of “public calling.”[30] “God granted rulers greater, more important responsibilities than he did to the wheelwrights, joiners, and masons.”[31]

Any “good ruler” is to be an active ruler, acting decisively and timely for the good of his people. There was no room in Puritan teaching for idle or lazy rulers who did not bear the sword responsibly and justly.[32] As in all callings, the “good ruler” should exercise his vocational calling with diligence and wisdom. Much can be learned from the Puritans for government officials in modern society. All work, even government work, is to be done as unto the Lord.

Another “public calling” in Puritan thought is that of the ministry. The Puritans had a special category for the public calling of church work, but as discussed, did not treat ministerial vocations with any more noble direction than secular callings. All vocations are godly if lawful and called by God. But, the Puritan movement was led by “divers Godly and learned,” men, particularly ministers, which stood for and desired the Reformation of the church and society in accord with the Word of God.[33] Therefore, the Puritans had much to say about the vocation of minister.

For instance, Richard Baxter devoted a whole book to the discussion of a “Reformed Pastor.”[34] Even more, the minister was to lead the congregation – church polity notwithstanding – in simplifying worship from that of the Church of England, holding a regulative principle of worship.[35] The Puritan minister was to encourage and equip the laymen of the congregation to serve the congregation in the service, too.[36]

Today, ministers would do well to heed the advice of the Puritans. To minister to the flock of God is to be under-shepherd of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pastoral ministry is a call to wage war against the wolves who seek to destroy the sheep, primarily through the preaching of the Word, biblical counseling and administration of the sacraments. It is no small calling or thoughtless vocation to serve as a minister in Christ’s church.


The Puritan doctrine of vocation is a life-giving, life-affirming, life-changing doctrine. The doctrine was rescued from a minimalist understanding during the Reformation, but fully expounded by the Puritan divines. And, while being regularly focused on career, the Puritans showed that vocation is a calling by God in every station of life. The Puritans taught that God’s providence in one’s life, understood biblically, is a comfort and encouragement to pursue your vocation with joy and vigor. Further, to rest in God’s kind providence in your vocation is to trust in God’s sovereign goodness over all creation. The Puritan doctrine of vocation says, “Oh, let every Christian walk with God when he works at his calling, act in his occupation with an eye to God, act as under the eye of God.[37]Serve God in thy calling and do it with cheerfulness, and faithfulness, and an heavenly mind.[38]”


[1] Ryken, 74.

[2] Perkins, William. The Works of William Perkins (Sutton Cortenay Press, 1970).

[3] Black, J. William and Jennifer Trafton. “Called to be a Family.” Christian History & Biography 89, (2006), 37.

[4] Ryken, 73.

[5] Ryken, 75.

[6] Holy Bible, Ephesians.

[7] Ryken, 76.

[8] Ryken, 79-80.

[9] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 66.

[10] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 66; Massachusetts Laws of 1648.

[11] Wadsworth, Benjamin. The Well-Ordered Family (Cambridge, 2007), 50.

[12] Ryken, 76.

[13] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 43.

[14] Cotton, John. A Meet Help (London, 1699), 21.

[15] Gouge, William. Of Domestical Duties (Lulu.com, 2006).

[16] Ryken, 77.

[17] Ryken, 76.

[18] Downame, John. The Plea of the Poor (London, 1616), 119.

[19] Ryken, 77.

[20] Mather, Cotton. Small Offers Toward the Service of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness(Boston, 1689).

[21] Steele, 27.

[22] Steele, 27.

[23] Black, 37.

[24] Steele, 14.

[25] Ryken, 27.

[26] Ryken, 27.

[27] Marshall, Paul. “Work and Vocation: Some Historical Reflections.” The Reformed Journal, (Sept. 1980), 14.

[28] Hall, David W. and Marvin Padgett, eds. Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (The Calvin 500 Series) (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2010), 36-37.

[29] Breen, T.H. The Character of the Good Ruler: Puritan Political Ideas in New England 1630-1730 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 6.

[30] Breen, 7.

[31] Breen, 7.

[32] Breen, 25.

[33] Ryken, 111-134.

[34] Baxter, Richard. The Reformed Pastor (London: Banner of Truth, 1974).

[35] Ryken, 100.

[36] Ryken, 101.

[37]Packer, J.I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 436-451.

[38] Packer, 436-451.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24