At its core, the question of vocation—if we are Christians—has everything to do with living one’s life as a disciple of Jesus, hearing his summons, embracing his call. And the life to which he calls us—if we have ears to hear—is a life of solidarity with those he called “the least of these”—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the marginalized, the oppressed, and those in prison.
In a word, Jesus calls us to become fully human—to see through the facades of power, fame, and success, to burst the artificial barriers that separate us from people less fortunate than ourselves, and to claim our common humanity. As William Stringfellow observed many years ago, this profoundly Christian vocation can be lived out through any number of professions or careers.
See “The Book that Made Me” series, hosted by Public Books.
When, as a first year graduate student, I arrived at Abilene Christian University in the fall of 1966, I understood none of this. Frankly, I had the cart before the horse. I had already made the decision to become a historian, but I had never considered how that decision related to Jesus’ summons to live as his disciple. In fact, I had never given much thought to Jesus’ summons at all. I had fixed my gaze instead on lesser things—questions about the one true church and whether it existed—and where it existed—over the long course of Christian history. Those were the questions that took me to Abilene Christian where I would pursue an M.A. in Christian history.
And then, by grace, a special book came into my life—a book that brought me face to face with Jesus’ call to live as his disciple. That book transformed my life, offered a sense of vocation that I found immensely compelling, and set me on a journey radically different from any journey I had ever envisioned for myself.
Some forty years later, in 2006, shortly after we moved from Pepperdine University to Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, a school with deep Anabaptist roots, my wife, Jan, reminded me of how radically this book had up-ended our lives. “I believe,” she said, “that we’ve been on a forty-year journey to Messiah College.”
Puzzled, I asked what she meant. “It all began,” she told me, “when your professor put that book in your hands some forty years ago.”
And then I knew. The professor was Everett Ferguson, the noted historian of early Christianity and the man who directed my M.A. thesis at ACU. One day he performed a simple but profoundly gracious act. He placed a book in my hands and told me to read. That was all—nothing more and nothing less. He could not have known how profoundly that simple act of grace would alter my thinking and change my life, for that book brought me face to face with Jesus’ summons to live as his disciple.
The book was Franklin H. Littell’s The Anabaptist View of the Church. Dr. Ferguson asked me to read that book since he knew of my struggles with the idea of restoration and the notion of the one true church. And so I took up the book and began to read.
The further I read, the more captivated I became, for this book told the story of a community of Christians very much like my own, committed—like us—to the ideals of the earliest Christians.
But there was a crucial difference between their vision and ours. In our concern to restore the ancient church, we typically focused on forms and structures. We sought to recover the true form of worship, the correct plan of salvation, the right form of baptism, and the proper organization of the church. We asked how often the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated—weekly, monthly, or yearly, for example—and some of us even asked if we should use one cup or many. To each of these questions, we believed we had found the answer in the biblical text.
Out of the entire Bible, our one special book was the book of Acts since Acts was the book that most fully revealed what we believed was the pattern for restoring the primitive church.
But now, as I read The Anabaptist View of the Church, I discovered a tradition that also called for the restoration of the most ancient Christian tradition, but that seldom focused on the book of Acts. Instead, these people focused on the Gospels. And they seldom asked the question, “What were the forms and structures of the ancient church that should now be restored?” Instead, they asked, “What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?”
As they sought to answer that question, several principles began to emerge. They lived their lives for the sake of others and shared their goods with those in greatest need. They extended love and compassion to all human beings, including their enemies who sought to destroy them. And they refused to take another’s life, even if that person had taken the sword against them. As a badge of their commitment to follow Jesus in all these ways, they embraced the baptism of confessing adult believers.
Soon the whole world turned against them. Catholics and Protestants, princes, priests and reformers—everyone called for their blood and sought to exterminate these gentle people from the face of the earth. When the bloodbath was over, the authorities had executed thousands upon thousands. They drowned them, burned them at the stake, and ran them through with the sword. Their crime? In their zeal to follow the simple but radical teachings of Jesus, they had broken from the state church to which every citizen belonged simply by virtue of being alive, and had erected instead congregations of people who pledged to follow the radical but peaceable Jesus.
I found the Anabaptist vision so extraordinarily biblical and compelling that I wrote my M.A. thesis on the topic, “A Critical Comparison of the Restitution Motifs of the Campbells (1809-1830) and the Anabaptists (1525-1560).” “The Campbells” were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, the earliest leaders of the Churches of Christ.
That thesis was far more than an academic exercise, for it forced me to ask serious questions about the restoration vision. What, after all, should be restored? And that question led to another—what sort of issues stood at the heart of the Christian religion? I had grown up in a world in which forms and structures were terribly important, but I had now discovered a world in which forms and structures played a minor role while allegiance to the radical teachings of Jesus on how we should treat other people—our enemies as well as our friends—moved front and center.
Slowly I began to see that how we treat others, especially the vulnerable and the dispossessed, was more important in the eyes of God than all the forms and structures in the world.
Time and again I have failed in my efforts to respond to Jesus’ call. But this I know—I am still a historian, but the vision of the upside-down kingdom that Jesus preached shapes what I read and why I read it. It shapes what I teach and how I teach it. And it shapes what I write and how I write it. In a word, the vocation of following Jesus has transformed my career.
For more of Richard Hughes’ autobiographical reflections, see his “The Grace of Troubling Questions” and “Finding Vocation in Suffering, Loss, and Death,” See also “Wrestling with White Supremacy” on his scholarly work.
Richard T. Hughes is professor emeritus at both Pepperdine University and Messiah College and teaches at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author, co-author, or editor of over a dozen books including Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois, 2018) and The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2005).