Does the Bible make a distinction between the secular and the sacred?Question: "Does the Bible make a distinction between the secular and the sacred?"
Answer: We tend to categorize things, and two categories often spoken of are “secular” and “sacred.” By “sacred” we usually mean “Christian-themed” or “suitable for church use,” and by “secular” we usually mean “worldly” or “not having a Christian theme.” We speak of “secular” music versus “sacred” music, for example. “Sacred” music has overt Christian themes, and “secular” music is everything else.
Does the Bible distinguish between secular and sacred realms? In a sense, yes. The Bible does speak of those who are “set apart” (“sanctified”) for special use. The very word for “church” in the New Testament, ekklesia, means “a called-out assembly.” The people who comprise the church are “sacred”; that is, they are called out of the world and set apart for God. They are “called to be saints” (Romans 1:7, ESV). They are salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13–16).
But, in another sense, no, the Bible does not distinguish between secular and sacred. All creation is God’s, and one day all creation will be restored (Romans 8:22). We know that “God placed all things under [Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22). He did this “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). In other words, all peoples, cultures, and authorities will one day be brought completely under the lordship of Jesus Christ (see Philippians 2:10–11 and Isaiah 2:2). Christians engaging the culture should do so with a view to that end.
For the Christian in the workplace, it should not matter whether or not he is in vocational Christian ministry. Even a secular job can be a sacred ministry for the Lord. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23–24). Everything we do, from work, to relationships, to hobbies, to eating and drinking, is to be done for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
When we compartmentalize our lives into secular and sacred categories, we risk relegating “church stuff” to Sundays and thinking the rest of the week belongs to us, to live as we please. But this is not biblical. We are to love the Lord with a whole heart. We are to serve the Lord with all our strength, not just what’s left over after we take care of the “secular” activities. This means that, even as we move through our daily routines, we can honor the Lord and perform our mundane tasks for His sake. The “secular” can be infused with the “sacred.”
A word of wisdom here. Some categorization is good and necessary in life. We must not confuse the purposes of the various institutions in society. God has tasked the church, for example, with spreading the gospel, discipling believers, and blessing the culture it is immersed in. The church has the sacred purpose of gracefully, lovingly, and patiently pointing society to Christ. God has tasked the state, on the other hand, with restraining evil, punishing wrongdoers, and rewarding the righteous through the execution of justice (Romans 13:1–5). The state, too, has a sacred purpose, since “the one in authority is God’s servant” (Romans 13:4). Church and state operate in different spheres, by God’s design. But, if both entities do their jobs well, each benefits from the other.
We do not want the church setting tax code and judging criminals; nor do we want the state determining the church’s missionary budget or choosing its pastors. These two entities are to be separate, biblically, but this necessary separation can lead to a dangerous secular/sacred rift in our thinking. To consign all “secular” matters to the state and cloister anything “sacred” inside the church is to create a false dichotomy in society. The church can and should be involved in society at large, and the state can and should be concerned with morality and other “sacred” or “religious” matters. Where questions of ethics and morality are concerned, the church must have the state’s ear and the ability to articulate the biblical viewpoint on any given moral issue. When the state is hostile to the church (or vice versa), both are at a disadvantage and society suffers.
The common designations of “secular” and “sacred” are overused. A Christian artist will create art to the glory of God: there is nothing overtly “sacred” about a still-life of a bowl of pears, but there’s nothing “secular” about it, either. A Christian musician will create music to the glory of God. A Christian homemaker will bake cookies to the glory of God. A Christian mechanic will fix cars to the glory of God. The possibilities are endless; as we walk in the Spirit, the line between secular and sacred becomes increasingly blurred.
Recommended Resources: Who am I?: Identity in Christ by Jerry Bridges
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Questions about the Christian Life
Does the Bible make a distinction between the secular and the sacred?