At Work

When Will the Church Overcome the Sacred-Secular Divide?

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Almost every opportunity I have to speak to Christian college students starts by asking, “Think about what you did yesterday. What percentage was secular and what percentage was spiritual?”

No one has ever answered, “100 percent spiritual.” But here’s the thing. They should.

The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10:31:

Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

Everything we do should be seen as spiritual.

Why Do We Distinguish between the Spiritual and the Secular?

There is no word for “spiritual” in the Hebrew Old Testament. Were they not spiritual people? In the Hebrew worldview, everything was spiritual. There was no need to distinguish between spiritual and secular because no part of their existence was secular.

Our response as Christians to our Heavenly Father should be unlimited, all encompassing, and comprehensive. It should not be limited to church on Sundays and some personal devotions during the week. It should appear in every dimension of our lives.

The answer to this question gives us great insight into what 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.

We have been tricked into thinking there is secular, neutral ground in our lives that is neither for nor against God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Portland pastor John Mark Comer writes in Garden City:

The cosmic, gargantuan 24/7 Kingdom of God cannot be shrunk down to a few hundred people singing songs in a nice building for an hour every weekend.

Our response to God should reverberate into every facet of life: at home, at work, in our families, in our communities, and at our churches.

This divide has also perpetuated the lie that working in the church or some other spiritual calling is the only “full-time Christian service.” All of life is spiritual and sacred for followers of Christ. To paraphrase Abraham Kuyper, “There is no inch of creation where Christ does not rule and consequently no dimension of our lives in which he is not present.”

This is not a new Christian doctrine. 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.

By demolishing this dichotomy, we realize that God cares about everything we do. Our response to God’s power and glory can come from every thought, word, and action if we steward all we have to his glory and honor. In this we find purpose and fulfillment in even the most mundane things we do.

Overcoming the Spiritual/Secular Divide

On a practical level, how do we overcome the spiritual/secular divide in our everyday lives? We must understand this problem intellectually, then move this truth from our heads to our hearts. That is the hard part.

Here are three suggestions from someone who has been working on this for twenty years:

  • Understand that the real distinction in our lives is between righteousness and unrighteousness. Between living in union with Christ, conforming to God’s character and commands (righteousness) and not rebelling against God and his commands. This is not a struggle we will win on the strength of our own labor. We will only win it if we yield to the Holy Spirit working in each one of us. This requires much prayer.
  • Be reminded of what is required of those called to serve in God’s kingdom. The only way to do this is by being in God’s Word. Paul tells Timothy that the Word of God “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16)
  • Remind yourself throughout your day that what you are doing at that moment is spiritual. During this Christmas season, for example, let everything you see and hear (every Christmas decoration and every Christmas song) remind you that what you are doing at that instant is spiritual, and, in ways you might not completely understand, serves our great King whose birthday we are about to celebrate.

Now, tell me again about what you did yesterday…

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  • This theme seems to be an increasingly important one among evangelicals. Just this year I participated in a book reading group going through a work by Paul Rude related to this topic. I appreciate much of what he said and much of what is raised in the concern about the schism between the “sacred” and “secular.” However, I continue to disagree with the idea that the distinction itself is false or nonexistent.

    I notice that in the title to this article, the difference is between the sacred and secular, whereas in most of the article itself, the difference is between the spiritual and the secular. I think there is an important difference between these pairs, as “sacred” and “spiritual” are not, as I see things, synonymous terms. Indeed, I would basically agree that all of life is spiritual in the sense that we should think, speak, and act in everything with our relationship to God in view and with the relationship of this world to God in view. I believe that all we do should be done in love and with our best effort, as an act of worship. Moreover, I would agree that all the day-to-day decisions we make and activities we participate in can have eternal spiritual effects, and that it brings out the best in us when we remember that.

    Sacred refers to something set aside for religious use. Not everything is set aside or consecrated for this specific purpose. The fact that washing windows does spiritual good does not mean it is a sacred act. This is so because window washing is not set aside for a religious function the way that the church service is or Communion or Baptism are. Rather than trying to diminish or deny the reality of sacred and secular spheres of life, we ought rather to become more fervent in teaching not only what God does for us during sacred moments of corporate Sunday worship and by using sacred means of grace, but also the importance (including the importance to God) and lasting influence of our secular work and relationships! God uses both the sacred things and the secular things to accomplish his plans, to reach people with the gospel, to bless and strengthen his children, and to prepare sinners for an eternity with him. I would rather not fear the word “secular,” but instead come to a better understanding of the present and practical as well as eternal value of my secular work done in and for the Lord.

    By the way, in my understanding, then, being a janitor at a church is just as secular, and no more important inherently, than being a janitor at an office building. Likewise, teaching at a Christian school is no more sacred than teaching at a public school. However, being a full-time pastor is sacred work, but of no more value overall than a secular job.

  • Elizabeth Marie Forshee

    Thank you for this article. The succinctness is exactly what the broader Church needs to hear. Having recently left the mission field, this topic has been heavy on my heart as we see cross-cultural workers burn-out from living dual lives and the Church encouraging this behavior. Now stateside and trying to engage in the American church, we find this dichotomy further perpetuating. It is stealing the joy of faith and causing great turmoil in the hearts of believers. I hope you will continue to spread this message among young people and the Church. Would you mind if I shared the link to your article on my personal blog?

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