Theology 101

It’s Time to End the Sacred-Secular Divide

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“Even for many Christians, work is often only a means to an end…. They have also been misled by the sacred/secular distinction, which teaches that working in the church is the only ‘real’ full-time Christian service,” Hugh Whelchel writes in his book How Then Should We Work?

This sacred/secular distinction, also known as the sacred-secular divide, impacts how we live and work. Art Lindsley writes,

The church’s emphasis has, for far too long, been only on personal salvation. Personal salvation is important, but we have wrongly neglected the larger implications of the gospel. If we are to radically influence our culture and make a positive difference in our communities, our cities, our country, and our world for the glory of God and his kingdom, we need to recover a broader vision of what the gospel means for all of life.

The deeming of sacred work (evangelizing, pastoral and ministry-focused activities) over and above those everyday activities considered to be “secular” has resulted in the failure to apply the gospel to every part of life.

Other writers, thinkers, and practitioners have written about the sacred/secular distinction and its effects on how Christians integrate faith and work. Here is a sampling of what’s been written:

Martin Luther, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility:

It is pure invention [fiction] that pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the “temporal estate.” This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason: all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is no difference among them except that of office. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 that we are all one body, yet every member has its own work by which it serves the others. This is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people.

Read more.

Gene Veith, PhD, provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College

The Reformation notion of “the priesthood of all believers” by no means denigrated the pastoral office….Rather, it taught that the pastoral office is a vocation, a calling from God with its own responsibilities, authority, and blessings. But it also taught that laypeople as well have vocations, callings of their own that entail holy responsibilities, authorities, and blessings of their own.

Read more.

Marcus Goodyear, editor, The High Calling:

Work is not merely a means to evangelism. If we elevate evangelism above work, we recreate the sacred secular divide. Some Christian activities become a higher calling than others. Apart from a healthy view of work and the cultural mandate, the great commission becomes a message we deliver. We elevate the message of the gospel above and beyond the actions of the gospel. The message of the gospel is important! Yes! We want to help people understand and meet Jesus. But the message we deliver is not more important than what work do. And what we do does not merely add credibility to what we say…. If we recognize God in our words but not in our work, we are only seeing part of God’s nature. If we evangelize others without a sense of the intrinsic value of work, we may be sharing an incomplete gospel.

Read more.

Joseph Sunde, Acton Institute:

Indeed, there is an unfortunate tendency in evangelicalism to prioritize short-term evangelism over long-term cultural engagement, whether in business, the arts, or even the family. Yet in addition to the negative impacts such an approach is bound to have on both our cultural impact and our evangelism, it all begins with a fundamental distortion of how we view our daily work in and of itself.

Read more.

Michael Baer, Third Path Initiative:

Here is the biblical reality. Each one of us is called. And that calling or vocation being the will of God is perfect and cannot be improved upon; in other words, we are all equal in our calling. None higher. None lower. What I have seen as people begin to grasp that God has called them to business and that His calling is both high and holy with none greater or lesser is a tremendous freedom, an abandon, and a confidence to throw themselves into glorifying and worshiping God in and through their call. The Church becomes stronger. The Kingdom expands. The participants in God’s work IN ALL THE SPHERES increase in number and impact.

Read more.

The editors of the Theology of Work Project:

The connection between the temple and the wall is significant for the theology of work. The temple might seem to be a religious institution, while the walls are a secular one. But God led Nehemiah to work on the walls, no less than he led Ezra to work on the temple. Both the sacred and the secular were necessary to fulfill God’s plan to restore the nation of Israel. If the walls were unfinished, the temple was unfinished too. The work was of a single piece.

Read more.

Have you read other writers, thinkers, and practitioners talking about the sacred/secular distinction? Share their thoughts with us—and your own, too!

Editor’s note: Read more about the sacred/secular divide in How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Jan. 12, 2015.

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