Rejecting the Secular-Sacred Distinction

In an earlier post I discussed an idea that has captivated the church, namely that to really “get it done” for God one must be either a missionary or a pastor.  You can read that post here.  This view is often described as the “secular-sacred” distinction.  (I personally am not crazy about this use of the word “secular,” but I will not digress on that now.)

While this view has so infected the modern American church that it could be rightly called pandemic, it is not a new or modern problem.  In fact, it is just about as old as the church itself.  In just a few centuries, this view was so prevalent that it could find expression in the writings of Eusebius, the church’s first historian, as follows:

Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church.  The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, child-bearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone in its wealth of heavenly love!  And they who enter on this course, appear to die to the life of mortals, to bear with them nothing earthly but their body, and in mind and spirit to have passed to heaven.  Like some celestial beings they gaze upon human life, performing the duty of a priesthood to Almighty God for the whole race, not with sacrifices of bulls and blood, nor with libations and unguents, nor with smoke and consuming fire and destruction of bodily things, but with right principles of true holiness, and of a soul purified in disposition, and above all with virtuous deeds and words; with such they propitiate the Divinity, and celebrate their priestly rites for themselves and their race. Such then is the perfect form of the Christian life.  And the other more humble, more human, permits men to join in pure nuptials and to produce children, to undertake government, to give orders to soldiers fighting for right; it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and other more secular interests as well as for religion.  . . . And a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them.  (Demonstratio Evangelica, Bk. I, Ch. 8 )

This view of the “two ways of life,” the “secular” and the “sacred,” the one “above nature” and the other “more human,” the one “perfect” and the other “more humble,” came to absolutely dominate the thinking of the church for more than a millennia.  Os Guinness notes  that while “both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas praised the work of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants, [they] always elevated the contemplative life (vita contemplativa) over the active life (vita activa).  The active life was depicted as second class, a matter of necessity; the contemplative life as first class, a matter of freedom (The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, p. 33).”

Unfortunately, this view has more in common with Gnosticism and Greco-Roman philosophy than Biblical Christianity.  Gnosticism viewed matter as essentially evil, and therefore had a very low view of anything related to the physical or material world.  The only hope for a Gnostic was to escape the physical and material through “special knowledge.”  Sound familiar?

Similarly, Greco-Roman philosophy generally tended to disdain the trades, crafts, and manual labor.  The highest and best way of life for the Greco-Roman was more contemplative and/or leisure-filled.  Again, does this sound familiar?

In essentially adopting these views, the church transformed them just a bit by adding that the best life is actually the life of the priest, monk, or nun, or, in our own day, the missionary or pastor.  The secondary or common choice is to just work in some “secular” job.  It is against this view that we must struggle in order to find our callings in these times.  If we continue to hold this false view of how to please God with our lives, we will never know the joy of doing what God made us and called us to do for His glory.  We will always be beset by the false guilt that we, through either lack of courage or dedication to Christ, have chosen the path less pleasing.

Perhaps the Reformers can help us here.  They too were born into an age that had swallowed the secular-sacred distinction hook, line, and sinker.  As they did on so many other points, they were able to help Christ’s church recover the Bible’s teachings of this issue.  In tomorrow’s post we will begin to consider their response to the secular-sacred distinction and how it might help us in our day to resist this false teaching.