Breaking Down the Sacred-Secular Divide
by Mike Baer
Adapted from material first published on the Third Path Blog, as part of a series, reposted with kind permission.
What is the Sacred-Secular Divide?
You don’t have to go very far today to hear some reference to the ‘sacred-secular divide’ or the ‘sacred-secular dichotomy.’ It’s in all the books, blogs, conferences – and occasionally in a sermon. And it’s always in a negative connotation.
So what exactly is the sacred-secular divide? In one sense, it’s impossible to define. It’s a kind of culture, a nuance, an entirely too subtle way of looking at life, vocation and ministry. It’s a shadow that covers many other aspects of our lives. It seems innocuous, but it’s not. The divide is a false dichotomy, a false worldview, an infection in the minds of Jesus’ followers that has done incalculable damage to the cause of the Church.
However, we can at least approximate the meaning of the divide in this way. It is a view of life built on a separation or distinction between those things, people and places someone believes to be sacred (holy and of God) and those believed to be secular (worldly and not of God). Certain callings are holy (missionary, pastor) and others are secular, i.e. of the world and therefore unholy (business, medicine, construction, etc). Certain places are sacred as well—church buildings, graveyards, seminaries while others are secular—my house, your house, schools, and athletic stadiums. I know you might like the sentiment, but a candle lit in a church building is no more holy or special to God than a candle on my 2 year old grandson’s birthday cake. Caution: if that statement offends you, then you are living in the divide. In short, it is all about distinctions and separations and classes and castes.
Oh, you don’t think this way? Just listen to how many times you and those around you refer to “my Christian life” as if there were another kind that you have. Or to Christian vs. secular music? Spiritual vs. secular books. Or to “Christian” movies. Or “Christian” coffee houses. Or to the church building as the Church or God’s House. Yeah. It’s everywhere.
Now someone will no doubt say, “But what about sin and holiness?” What about it? That’s an entirely different axis. Check out this diagram.
As you can see, part of our problem is that we are measuring the wrong things. There is a distinction—one with eternal consequences—between righteousness (conformity to God’s character and commands) and unrighteousness (rebellion against God and His commands). But the artificial distinction between jobs, places, objects and foods as either sacred or secular is just plain bogus.
Who is ‘Called’?
One of the most insidious and common ways the “Sacred-Secular Divide” manifests itself is concepts and discussions about calling or vocation. Specifically this emerges when we think in terms of who is called and degrees of calling.
I am thankful to hear more and more people in business, medicine, government and other vocations referring to themselves as called to a particular sphere or role. Just this weekend, a young college student told me he was called by God to business. A revolutionary concept, but not a new one. Luther wrote prodigiously on the doctrine of vocation as did John Calvin.
Unfortunately, the writings of Luther and Calvin on this subject are unknown to the majority of Christians, pastors, and seminary professors. We rarely hear young people say what the young college student told me. Instead, church invitations, parachurch encouragements, and pastoral challenges are to those who hear “the call” to ministry, to staff, or to missions. When was the last time you heard an invitation to come forward and “surrender to the call to engineering” or when your church held a “commissioning service” for an entrepreneur who was launching a new company? The result of this terrible incompleteness in the doctrine of calling has led to the implication, if not the explicit teaching, that there are “called” and “uncalled” within the Body of Christ.
In contrast, read Romans 1:1-7 and note home many times the word “call” appears. Or 1 Corinthians 1:9. Or Ephesians 4:1. The truth is that if you and I are not called then we are not saved. All believers are called. Some to one thing. Some to another. All to Christ.
Lip service to the above points gives way to the second gross misunderstanding of calling: the belief that there are degrees or a hierarchy of calls. In other words, we may admit that we are all called, but some calls are more important and pleasing to God than others.
How do we reconcile such a concept, a hierarchy within the Body of Christ, with Scripture? Hardly. 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.
Breaking the Divide
So what is the answer to the sacred-secular dichotomy? How do we tear down this longstanding wall? In our thinking. That’s right! The divide is an illusion, a delusion, a deception. It doesn’t actually exist except in the minds of those who believe in it. It is, without making light of the terrible consequences of it, nothing but a superstition akin to not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. Therefore, the answer lies in changing the way we think and bringing our thoughts and paradigms into alignment with the truth of God’s Word.
So what do we do?
1. Recognize False Concepts For What They Are
Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries says, “It’s from the pit and it smells like smoke.” He’s right. The sacred-secular divide is false, an invention of the Evil One. Regardless of who may be teaching it or perpetuating it, the idea stands contrary to Scripture. Calling a lie a lie is the first step in overcoming it.
2. Be Clear in Biblical vs. Unbiblical Distinctions
There is no such thing as sacred or secular. However, there clearly is right and wrong, moral and immoral, obedience and disobedience, righteousness and sin. We are by no means libertines; instead we long to see Jesus honored and served in all places by all people in all spheres of life.
3. Focus on the Holy ONE Instead of Holy PLACES
Even when the temple stood during the days of the Old Testament and into the early years of the New Testament era God made it clear that it was not His “home”; His true home was and is above and below and in and outside of all things. As Solomon put it, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27 ESV) Today, we must stop thinking of a church building as the Church, the House of God or a place anymore special to God than a school, a mall or a baseball park.
4. Recover and Teach the Priesthood of All Believers
There is no priesthood that is above or separate from other believers. There is only the priesthood of the brothers and sisters. “…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV) To be sure there are different callings and giftings and offices, but these are in function not standing, purpose not status. Let us honor the true egalitarian nature of the Gospel and respect the place each member of the Body holds.
5. Celebrate the Lordship of Christ In and Over All Things
The Great Commission begins with these powerful words: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” (Matthew 28:18 ESV) Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote makes the point powerfully. “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
We don’t beat the false by fighting the falsifier. We do not deal with error by teaching unbalanced error on the other side. We deal with lies, false teaching, wrong thinking with truth—pure, unfiltered, Scriptural truth. As we allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and that by the Word of God, we will increasingly see that all of life is under the authority and Kingship of Jesus and meant to be lived for Him. In that realization is a freedom and abandonment almost beyond imagination!
Mike Baer was one of the early leaders in the modern Business as Mission movement. He started his career as a pastor and church planter. After 15 years in the pastorate Mike was led into business where he gradually began to discover the potential for believers in business to bless their communities, evangelize the lost and spread the Kingdom of God, especially among the unreached. Today, Mike is the Chief People Officer of EmployBridge, a $3.2 billion employment company based in the US. He has written 3 books on BAM: Business as Mission, Kingdom Worker, and Gospel Entrepreneur. Mike is a regular contributor to the Third Path Blog. Today Mike and his wife reside in the mountains of North Carolina where they enjoy their 5 grandchildren.
This article was first published April 2015.