Dissolving the Sacred/Secular Myth

Does the Bible divide life into the sacred (i.e. other worldly) and the secular (i.e. pertaining to this world only)? Do you believe that Sunday is more important than Monday through Saturday? Do you think the only work worth doing happens in a church building or some ministry setting? Do you see a sharp divide in your life between the things you do for God and the things you do everywhere else? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have bought into the sacred/secular myth.

The sacred-secular divide draws a sharp distinction between the spiritual parts of our lives. On the sacred side of the divide, there’s church, "full-time" Christian service, prayer meetings, social action, world missions, etc. We believe these things are important to God, and they are. But other human activities are secular: work, school, college, sports, the arts and entertainment, and everything else that pertains to life that doesn't fit into the box labeled "sacred/spiritual".

But the sacred-secular divide is unbiblical primarily because it leads to compartmentalization of life. We don’t connect faith with our work, money or everyday lives. We pull it out on Sunday, and put it away the other days of the week. It also leads to guilt. If you don’t work in a church or ministry setting, you are tempted to believe that somehow God is less pleased with you.

Hugh Welchel asserts that this division could be "called the besetting sin of the church in the 21st century." We have become double-minded, seeing a false divide between what would be called spiritual and secular.  This divide is responsible for the popular misconception that our relationship with God can be reduced to church-related events and activities.

There is no word for “spiritual” in the Hebrew Old Testament. Why? Is it because they were not a spiritual people? The reason is because in the Hebrew worldview, everything was spiritual. There was no need to distinguish between spiritual/sacred and the secular because no part of their existence was secular.

This harmful distinction begin to be introduced into the church as early as the 3rdcentury by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius was a prolific writer and early church historian who argued that there are “two ways of life.” One was called the “perfect life” and the other the “permitted life.”The perfect life was connected to only to "church-related service" and the permitted life was everything else outside of the "church" ministry.

This has been amplified through the centuries so that today we find that truth has been separated into two categories, one we call facts and the other we call beliefs. From the time of the Enlightenment, science is said to be the domain of facts. Religion, on the other hand, is a matter of values and beliefs.

Gary DeMar states, "Many Christians claim a form of factual neutrality where some subjects (e.g., science, medicine, technology, geography, politics, mathematics) can be taught without any regard to religious presuppositions since “facts speak for themselves.” This is most evident in education where aself-conscious sacred-secular divideis maintained and supported by Christians. Ninety percent of Christian parents send their children to government schools. Since these parents believe that math is math and history is history, the religious stuff can be made up at church. But one hour of Sunday school and an hour at Youth Meeting each week and maybe a mission trip in the summer can’t make up for five days a week, six hours each day, 10 months of the year, 12+ years of a government-developed curriculum that is humanistic to the core."

Although I am sure he would deny dividing life into the sacred/secular compartments, yet by his believing that we have no biblical mandate or calling to impact and transform culture, good men, like John MacArthur, argues for a narrowly focused gospel agenda: He declares, “We are interested in people becoming saved. That is our only agenda…. It is the only thing that we are in the world to do.”

Dispensational prophecy writer and blogger, Jan Markell, assures us that "The church is not in the business of taking anything away from Satan but the souls of men. The world is a sinking Titanic ripe for judgment, not Garden of Eden perfection. Jesus will take dominion of the cleansed earth. For men to speak of doing that before the judgment of this earth is spiritually arrogant. I encourage you to flee such false teachers."

For decades before the rise of Hitler, Christians were subjected to arguments from the sacred/secular divide like the following from pastors and theologians:

  • “The Gospel has absolutely nothing to do with outward existence but only with eternal life, not with external orders and institutions which could come in conflict with the secular orders but only with the heart and its relationship with God.” (Christian Ernst Luthard (1867). Quoted by Pierard from Karl H. Hertz, Two Kingdoms and One World: A Sourcebook in Christian Ethics (Minneapolis: Augusburg, 1976), 83.)
  • “The Gospel frees us from this world, frees us from all questions of this world, frees us inwardly, also from the questions of public life, also from the social question. Christianity has no answer to these questions.” (Quoted in Hertz, Two Kingdoms and One World: A Sourcebook in Christian Ethics, 87.)

Chris Wright clears the misunderstanding from the life and times of Jesus as he writes, "The assumption that Jesus (or any other religious figure of his-day) operated in a sacred/spiritual/religious sphere that was quite distinct from the world of political power and action would simply not have made sense to any­body at that time. The whole of life was lived before God, and God was as much involved in affairs of state as affairs of the heart. Political activity (whether Jewish or Roman) was suffused with religious meaning and significance at every level. And religious activity had (sometimes life or death) political implications. The God or gods you worshiped did not inhabit some vacuum-sealed spiritual domain.

If you were a Jew, the God you worshiped was supposed to be King over all the earth. So if you had commented to any of Jesus contemporaries, who had just listened to him preaching and teaching about the reign of God, that "Jesus doesn't get involved in politics, does he?" you would probably have met a blank stare of incompre­hension. The question itself presupposes a radical disjunction of a supposed world of spiritual reality from the empirical world of political reality. That di­chotomy is the product of the Enlightenment and not part of the worldview of the Bible.

The allegation that Jesus did not get involved in politics may imply that because Jesus did not lead a political revo­lution against the injustices of Roman rule, including if necessary violent resis­tance, he therefore had no political agenda. But a radical political stance is not the same thing as violent politics. Indeed in some situations, proposing nonvi­olence may be the more radical political agenda. So to say (rightly) that Jesus was neither politically violent nor revolutionary (in the contemporary sense) is not at all the same thing as to say that his claims, teaching and actions were "nonpolitical."

To understand just how radically political Jesus actually was, we only have to ask why he was crucified. Clearly he was seen as such a major threat to the political powers who governed his land (both the Romans and the ruling Jewish establishment) that they saw only one way to deal with the challenge he pre­sented - to remove that challenge by removing him through political execution. The charge against Jesus was manifestly political. He was accused of claiming he would destroy the temple (thereby threatening its monopoly concentration of Jewish power) and claiming to be king of the Jews (thereby threatening Ro­man power).

It simply will not do at this point to say that the Romans and Jewish leaders misunderstood Jesus. We should not imagine that, somehow, Jesus actually meant it all only in a spiritual sense, as if he were actually talking only about a religious kingdom that had no connection with (and was no threat to) the "real world" of earthly politics. That's all Jesus meant, we might say, but they made the ghastly mistake of taking him far too literally. They should not have felt threatened at all because the message of Jesus was only about God and personal faith, about good behavior and loving everybody and going to heaven in the end."

The great preacher Charles Spurgeon said in a sermon in 1874: "To a man who lives unto God nothing is secular, everything is sacred. He puts on his workday garment and it is a vestment to him. He sits down to his meal and it is a sacrament. He goes forth to his labor, and therein exercises the office of the priesthood. His breath is incense and his life a sacrifice. He sleeps on the bosom of God, and lives and moves in the divine presence.  To draw a hard and fast line and say, “This is sacred and this is secular,” is, to my mind, diametrically opposed to the teaching of Christ and the spirit of the gospel."

In her excellent book, “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity,” Nancy Pearcey states:

“In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.’The first phrase, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, ‘subdue the earth,’ means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations-nothing less.”

Peacey continues…“The lesson of the Cultural Mandate is that our sense of fulfillment depends on engaging in creative, constructive work. The ideal human existence is not eternal leisure or an endless vacation - or even a monastic retreat into prayer and meditation - but creative effort expended for the glory of God and the benefit of others. Our calling is not just to ‘go to heaven’ but also to cultivate the earth, not just to ‘save souls’ but also to serve God through our work. For God himself is engaged not only in the work of salvation but also in the work of preserving and developing His creation. When we obey the Cultural Mandate, we participate in the work of God himself, as agents of His common grace.”

We must broaden our definition of "full-time" Christian service from those who do church work, like youth, singing, preaching and teaching, to every discipline of life -- homemakers, farmers, lawyers, doctors and nurses, artist, economists, educators, statesman, etc.

We must reject the sacred/secular myth.