Sacred secular distinction

The Bible teaches the sacred/secular distinction

It’s very easy for us as Christians to compartmentalise our Christian lives. I’m sure lots of us feel the contradiction between what we are in church on Sundays and what we are at work on Mondays. It feels like we have the “spiritual” bit of life here and the “non-spiritual” bit of life over there. Things like going to church, reading the Bible, and prayer are “spiritual” activities, often associated with Sundays, but your Monday-Friday, 9-5 job, sports and entertainment are “non-spiritual”. We might even label those activities as “worldly”. This division between “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” things is also known as the sacred/secular distinction. This compartmentalisation of our lives can be really harmful. It can lead to a situation where Jesus is Lord of my “spiritual” side, but there are large areas of my life and of the world, where he becomes irrelevant. It can lead to a privatised Jesus, where his Lordship never plays out in public. 

As a result, some Christians want to abolish the sacred/secular distinction. They argue it has more to do with Greek philosophy than Scripture. Philosophers like Plato taught that physical things were bad and spiritual things were good (with a bit more sophistication than that!). These Christians rightly point out that thanks to Jesus Christ, “everything is clean” (Rom 14:20), “all things are lawful for me” (1 Cor 6:12), “all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). All of life is worship (Rom 12:1). There are lots of “earthly” things, like eating and drinking, that we can do to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). It can be a very liberating thing for a Christian to realise they can enjoy eating at a fine restaurant, or cheer on their favourite team without feeling guilty. After all, God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Likewise, books like “Thank God it’s Monday!” have opened Christians’ eyes to the ways in which they can serve Christ in the office or the depot. 

The only trouble is…  the Bible itself teaches the sacred/secular distinction! Here are some examples: 

– Aaron was to teach the people “to distinguish between the holy and the common” (Lev 10:10). i.e. don’t treat holy things at the temple in the same way you treat stuff outside the temple in your ordinary life. 

– Jehoshaphat reformed his kingdom with a sacred/secular distinction. He gave Amariah responsibility “in all matters of the LORD” and Zebadiah responsibility “in all the king’s matters” (2 Chr 19:11). 

– In case, you think this is just an Old Testament thing, Jesus famously teaches the difference between laying up “treasures on earth” and “treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:19-20). So, a Christian in the financial services industry shouldn’t treat their work in the same way as their worship. 

– In Rom 15:27, Paul distinguishes “spiritual blessings” from “material blessings” and in 1 Cor 9:11 “spiritual things” from “material things”. It would be a shame if we thought Paul had given it to Platonic thinking. 

– The apostle John reminds us “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides for ever” (1 John 2:17). That means, you won’t still be cheering for Man Utd in eternity, but you will still be singing the songs you sing on Sunday. 

The sacred/secular distinction in the Bible isn’t a distinction between physical (“secular”) things and non-physical (“sacred”) things. It doesn’t mean “inward” stuff is good, “outward” stuff is bad, or the “soul” is good, the “body” is bad. It’s really a distinction between time and eternity. It’s a distinction between this age and the age to come, between “the glory of the earthly” and “the glory of the heavenly” (1 Cor 15:40). 

What this means is that in our Christian lives, yes, Jesus is Lord of all (Matt 28:18), but he’s not Lord of all in the same way. He is Lord over his church in a way he is not Lord over the UK government (Eph 1:22; Rev 17:14); he is Lord over your Sundays (Rev 1:10) in a way he is not Lord over your Mondays-Saturdays. There are both sacred things and secular things that Jesus calls you to spend your time on, but the “sacred” is to have your priority (Matt 6:33; 10:48-50; Luke 10:41-42). The sacred is to shape and regulate the secular. If, in our zeal to live for Christ, we throw out this sacred/secular distinction, the irony is that we will become more secular than ever. (I’d suggest this song is a good example of that happening). The answer to a compartmentalised Christian life is not to erase the sacred/secular distinction, but to pay more careful attention to it. It is to relate our “secular” life back to the “sacred”.

Christian, do you want to be able to wake up and say: “Thank God it’s Monday!”? Well, start by aiming to wake up and say: “Thank God it’s Sunday!”. Get along to church. Cut out all the background noise, sit at Jesus’ feet and remember everything he did for you on the cross, is doing for you in heaven, and will do for you at his return.