Bridging the Divide: A Brief History of Sacred Versus Secular

by Kevin White

Rather than barricading ourselves within the confines of the church, Christians must view their business as a calling and an opportunity to bring to light of God into all spheres – business, government, art, music, science, and education – for the benefit of humanity and for the glory of God. This is the cultural mandate of the church in society and the calling of Business and Mission.

As dual citizens of the kingdom of God and of the world He has created, we are called to serve and be a witness and influence every sphere and profession for the glory of God.

However, today’s secularism has resulted in the cultural expectation of faith being altogether separated from public affairs. Lord Melbourne, who opposed Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery in throughout the British Empire, lamented: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.”1 Religion, regardless of its contribution the morals of society are treated as off-limits in the public arena. This has led to a mentality of separating faith from work in every sphere.

This is detrimental to culture. By excluding faith from public spheres such as government or business, such spheres are deprived the benefit of the guiding values of the Biblical faith – values such as personal responsibility, hard work, abiding by the law, and caring for others. The result of the removal of such moral parameters, informed by religious faith, can lead to greed and crony capitalism – as witnessed throughout the former Soviet Union.

As Dostoyevsky warned: “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.”2 Dostoyevsky understood that if there is no God, then ultimately there can be no basis for morality and law, or for human rights.

Where Have We Come From?

Throughout church history, we observe the ongoing tension regarding the fine line between the sacred and the secular. In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III’s decree Sicut universitatis conditor, characterized the wed relationship of church and state in Europe: “Just as the moon derives her light from the sun, and is inferior to the sun in terms of its size and its quality, so the power of the king derives from the authority of the pope.”3

Today we live in a completely different era, where the church has been largely marginalized in Western culture. Matters of faith are routinely censored from the public arena. We are taught to keep our faith private and separate from our public lives.

Historically it was Augustine, who in his classic work City of God, articulated that all professions and spheres of influence are subject to the influence of either those allegiant to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of this fallen world – the City of God or the City of Man. As the New Testament taught, Augustine emphasized that Christians advanced the kingdom of God in public arenas through the witness of their words and lives. Indeed Jesus affirmed to his disciples, “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21, NKJV). As Christians, we are Christ’s body, His ambassadors on Earth to serve as a light and witness to Him in all spheres and professions.

There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ who is sovereign does not cry out ‘Mine! – Kuyper

Some scholars have suggested that it was Thomas Aquinas who opened the door to separating faith from worldly affairs – the sacred from the secular. In his writings, Aquinas distinguished between two realms: the higher realm of grace which dealt with spiritual matters; and natural theology which dealt with matters of the created physical world. Francis Schaffer described Aquinas’ separation of theology from philosophy as opening the door to a “secular” interpretation of scholarship, philosophy, politics, economics and other worldly matters.4

 In 1486 Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola presented his Manifesto of the Renaissance. This proclamation which characterized the Italian Renaissance emphasized the limitless capabilities of humanity and called for the return to the sources of Greek and Roman thought – ad fontes (back to the sources) – for its inspiration. Alister McGrath described this Christian humanist vision, which emphasized the cultural mandate of Christianity: “Humanity was mandated by God to change the social and physical world. This new vision of humanity as God’s agent for changing the world empowered many who felt called to transform society.”5 This blend of Christian humanism would fuel freedom of thought and later pave the way for the reformers.

The Reformation, Vocation and Society

In 1517 Martin Luther posted his revolutionary Ninety-five Theses, which formally called into question the papal authority prevalent throughout Christendom. Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of the believer and affirmation of the spiritual nobility of every Christian advocated that everyone had the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, apart from the authority of the church. These ideas stressed a privatized and personal faith, independent from the institutional church.

The entire world is full of service to God, not only the churches but also the home, the kitchen, the cellar, the workshop, and the field of the townsfolk and farmers. – Luther

Luther, as well as other reformers, stressed the individual responsibility of every Christian as stewards of God’s creation to effect and impact all spheres of human affairs. John Calvin sought to demonstrate that the Bible provided the ideal template not only for church polity, but also for secular government polity. Calvinist theology would influence the rise of the Puritan movement in England and the Glorious Revolution.

In The Babylonian Captivity, Luther emphasized the dignity and sacredness of all work, as being in the sight of God, as important as the work of a priest. Luther writes: “The entire world is full of service to God, not only the churches but also the home, the kitchen, the cellar, the workshop, and the field of the townsfolk and farmers.”6

In his article “German Austerity’s Lutheran Core,” Steven Ozment writes: “In classic Lutheran teaching, the salvation of the believer ‘by faith alone’ does not curtail the need for constant charitable good works, as ill-informed critics allege. Faith, rather, empowers the believer to act in the world.”7

Protestant ideas would serve to empower people and their creative capacities, resulting in the profound development of Europe. The ideas of the Reformation provided an important check to Catholic authority, which resulted in the Counter-Reformation. Both movements would serve to significantly shape European assumptions of individual rights and rule of law. These ideas ultimately served to empower independent thinking and significantly pave the way for the values of liberal democracy espoused by European governments today.

The Reformation represented a break from Roman ecclesiastical and political dominance. The unfortunate result was the Thirty Years’ War, which devastated Europe and left many disillusioned altogether with the credibility of religion. These tragic events set the stage for the French Revolution and the European Enlightenment. McGrath describes: “People had had enough. A yearning for peace led to a new emphasis on toleration and growing impatience with religious disputes. The scene was set for the Enlightenment insistence that religion was to be a matter of private belief, rather than state policy.”8 The formal departure from Christendom and birth of a secular Europe was set in motion.

Bridging the Divide

In his speech accepting the Templeton Prize for Religion, Charles Colson described the benefits the Christian faith offered to culture:

This muscular faith has motivated excellence in art and discovery in science. It has undergirded an ethic of work and an ethic of service. It has tempered freedom with internal restraint, so our laws could be permissive while our society was not. Christian conviction inspires public virtue, the moral impulse to do good. It has sent legions into battle against disease, oppression, and bigotry. It ended the slave trade, built hospitals and orphanages, and tamed the brutality of mental wards and prisons.9

Christians must be courageous to bring the Biblical values into the marketplace. To exclude the faith from culture is to deprive the marketplace from the virtues which ultimately serve to protect rights and property.

Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute, writes: “The time has come for religious institutions and leaders to treat entrepreneurship as a worthy vocation, indeed, as a sacred calling… Every person created in the image of God has been given certain natural abilities that God desires to be cultivated and treated as good gifts.”10

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) believed in bringing his faith into the public arena. This Dutch reformed pastor and theologian also served as Prime Minister of The Netherlands and founded the Amsterdam Free University. In his inaugural speech, Kuyper stated: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ who is sovereign does not cry out ‘Mine!”11

The church must never impose itself upon society. This was the mistake of Christendom. Rather Christians are called to be salt, light and witnesses in all professions and spheres of influence. The virtues of the Judeo-Christian faith provide the moral basis for rule of law and human rights. These protections are the prerequisites to economic development and provide the atmosphere where people can employ their gifts and talents, be leaders, dream, create economy and provide for the social needs of others in need.

Kevin White is a Research Fellow and Country Director for the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. He has resided in Almaty, Kazakhstan since 1999.



1 Colson, Charles. God and Government. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2007), 112.

2 As quoted in Colson and Pearcey, 452.

3 McGrath, Alistair. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 18.

4 Hoffecker, Andrew. Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 157.

5 McGrath, 30.

6 Luther as quoted in Colson, Charles and Pearcey, Nancy. How Now Shall We Live? (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1999), 388.

7 Steven Ozment, “German Austerity’s Lutheran Core,” in New York Times, August 11, 2012.

8 McGrath, 143-144.

9 Charles Colson. “The Enduring Revolution.” The Templeton Address, University of Chicago, 1993. In Chuck Colson Speaks. (Ulrichsville, OH: Promise Press, 2000), 15.

10 Robert. A. Sirico The Entrepreneurial Vocation. (Grand Rapids: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 2001), 8.

11 As quoted in Kent A. Van Til, “Abraham Kuyper and Michael Walzer: The Justice of the Spheres.” Calvin Theological Journal 40 (2005): 267-289.