Resisting the Sacred vs. Secular Divide

As Christians, we affirm Christ’s lordship over all of life—or at least we know we’re supposed to. Should our lives be separated into distinct spheres, with our secular interests and pursuits—what many think of as the ordinary humdrum of day-to-day life—belonging in a lower, spiritually less significant sphere, and the overtly “spiritual” parts of our lives—things like volunteering at church, personal evangelism, and Bible study—belonging in a higher, sacred sphere? Such thinking implies that God cares little (or at least less) about our secular lives, being primarily concerned with our sacred lives.

When presented in such blatant terms, I doubt any Christian would say that our lives are properly divided into sacred versus secular spheres. The trouble, however, is that many Christians have, to some greater or lesser extent, simply absorbed such thinking into their worldview.

When thinking, for example, about how their faith relates to their vocation, Christians often view their “secular” Monday-Friday jobs as mission fields where they’re surrounded by co-workers who need to hear the Gospel. Now, I don’t disagree—we should look for opportunities to tell others about the salvation available in Christ. Evangelism is, of course, not optional for Christians. But if we think “being a Christian at work” just means treating our job as nothing more than a place where we share the Gospel, then we have tacitly accepted the idea that what matters (in this case, evangelism) is sacred, while our work is only really valuable when the sacred invades it from time to time; the work itself is merely secular.

The point is thrown into sharp relief when we notice that, in such thinking, one must cease working in order to engage in evangelism. Again: this is not at all to diminish the significance of evangelism, but rather to highlight one example of the way in which many Christians tacitly accept the sacred-secular divide. By now, I hope it’s clear that, as we’re using it, the term “secular” is not synonymous with “sinful.” All Christians recognize that sinfulness has no proper place in our lives. What I’m trying to highlight, rather, is the way in which many Christians incorrectly valuate different parts of their lives.

During the fourth century, the churchman Augustine of Hippo sought to refute the charge that the decline of the Roman Empire was due to its Christianization. In his refutation, Augustine distinguished between what he called the “city of man” and the “city of God.” These are not, of course, literal cities, nor is Augustine talking about competing political entities. The two “cities,” rather, symbolize different manners in which people orient their lives. Augustine recognized that people act in accordance with their loves, and so we may say that the two cities “have issued from two kinds of love. [The city of man] has flowered from a selfish love which dared to despise God, whereas [the city of God] is rooted in a love of God that is ready to trample on self.”[1] In other words, the “city of man” denotes a life consumed by love of self and domination of others—in a word, idolatry; the “city of God,” however, denotes a communal life of ordered harmony before the Lord, united in the love of God.

This is worth noting, I think, because Augustine’s two cities are not meant to correlate to distinct “sacred” and “secular” spheres of life. Far from it, in fact: according to Augustine, our lives are to be lived in the city of God—that is, we are to love the proper things in proper ways. Once we have properly ordered loves (which is possible only through Christ), we will find the proper value in all aspects of our lives.

Far from prescribing a compartmentalized view of life, the very metanarrative of Scripture—from creation through the Fall and into Redemption and beyond—with each stroke, paints a portrait of how life is meant to be lived: holistically, before God. In Genesis 1:28, man is instructed to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it”—what is often termed our “cultural mandate.” God’s intention for our lives, since before the Fall, is that, having been created in God’s image, we are to cultivate both the world of nature and a social world: fulfilling this mandate as God intends is to live a life that is worshipful (or “sacred”). As Nancy Pearcey puts it in her book Total Truth:

The biblical message is not just about some isolated part of life labeled “religion” or “church life.” Creation, Fall, and Redemption are cosmic in scope, describing the great events that shape the nature of all created reality. We don’t need to accept an inner fragmentation between our faith and the rest of life. … The promise of Christianity is the joy and power of an integrated life, transformed on every level by the Holy Spirit, so that our whole being participates in the great drama of God’s plan of redemption.[2]

Or, as pastor Jimmy Draper likes to put it, “Christianity is not a way of doing certain things; it is a certain way of doing all things.”

In writing to the Colossian Christians, Paul offers simple exhortation that “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Colossians 3:17). Paul says Christians are to have a view of life such that all aspects of life, even the seemingly mundane—wiring receptacles, repairing motors, delivering newspapers: the parts of life typically regarded as “secular”—are to be equally done in the name of Christ (that is, they are to be recognized as “sacred”).

As Paul says a few verses later, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (3:23-24). No part of our lives is spiritually insignificant.

A similar point is made in Ephesians 2:10—“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Here, Paul has just been crystal clear that salvation is never the result of our works; it’s not due to any self-achievement (2:8-9), but he is equally clear that, because we—believers—are a new creation in Christ, we are to perform the “good works” set before us. As one commentator puts it, “We are created in Christ Jesus for works that are morally and beneficially good for us, for those around us, and for God.”[3]

Well what, specifically, are those “good works”? It’s not as though, upon conversion, we are handed a list of (specific) tasks that we are responsible to complete before the Lord’s return. Rather, notice the end of Ephesians 2:10—“… that we would walk in them.” The idea is that our way of life, our view of life in its entirety, is to reflect Christ in us—and this is not restricted to our times of formal worship (i.e., church stuff). In fact, Paul intends quite the opposite: walking in good works is not restricted to what people tend to designate the “sacred” parts of life; it is not a role that we play during the “spiritual” parts of our lives.

But for all that, the fact remains that Christians frequently do unreflectively embody the sacred-secular divide. Why? I have found John Stott’s essay titled “Guidance, Vocation and Ministry” helpful on this score.[4] Scripture teaches that God’s general will for all Christians is that they grow in Christlikeness. Additionally, Stott explains, God has a particular will for each Christian, which is your “vocation”—but not vocation merely in the “what job do you happen to perform” sense. In the biblical usage of “vocation,” Stott observes, the “emphasis is not on the human (what we do) but on the divine (what God has called us to do). For ‘vocation’ is a Latin word, whose Anglo-Saxon equivalent is ‘calling.’”[5]

In light of this, the question for each of us is, “What is my calling?” In other words, “What is my vocation?” That question demands thoughtful consideration. What we must notice is that our individual callings—our vocations—are whatever God would have each of us do toward fulfilling the cultural mandate and the Great Commission. This realization is what prompted the Reformer Martin Luther to insist that “tailors, cobblers, stonemasons, carpenters, cooks, innkeepers, farmers and all the temporal craftsmen” have been “consecrated” to “the work and office of his trade” just as the priest—or pastor—has been to his office.  Luther recognized that when we use the word “calling” correctly, there is no room left for thinking that only certain jobs are sacred whereas others are secular. After all, God called Nehemiah to work on the walls no less than he called Ezra to work in the temple.

Let us, then, practice seeing the entirety of our lives as God sees it. Let us regain God’s vision of our Monday-Friday lives, and let us encourage one another away from dividing life into secular versus sacred spheres.



[1]Augustine, City of God, trans. and ed. by Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Oxford, 1958), 14.28.
[2]Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 95
[3]Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 348.
[4]John Stott, “Guidance, Vocation and Ministry,” in The Contemporary Christian (Grand Rapids: IVP, 1992), chapter eight.
[5]Ibid., 132.
[6]Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility,” in Luther: Selected Political Writings, quoted in Stott, 136-137.