The Sacred Secular Divide

Sacred-Secular SplitI used to consider some activities as spiritual (sacred) and others as worldly (secular).

Spiritual. I thought that carrying out 1:1 Bible studies on the UIC campus was the single greatest Christian activity under heaven, and that it gave God ecstatic chills, goose bumps and enthusiastic high-fives among the Three Divine Persons of the Godhead! So for over two decades I averaged ten 1:1 Bible studies a week, while working full time and never missing any UBF evening meetings, which was usually 4-5 every week.

Worldly. Conversely, I thought that going home to visit my aged mother in Malaysia was selfish and family-centered, and that it displeased and grieved God. By visiting mom for even a week, I would not be on campus to focus on the most important task of making disciples among college students (Mt 28:19), which was unthinkable for me.

Breaking my mother’s heart. As a result, I did not go home and visit my parents for over a decade, even though I had promised my mother that I would visit her every year when I left for Chicago in 1980. This broke her heart and brought her to tears on many occasions. She once said to me, “Because of you, I would never become a Christian.” At that time, I chalked it up as a badge of honor, for I was being persecuted as a faithful and committed Christian (2 Tim 3:12; Mt 5:10-12).

Does visiting my mom displease God? A decade ago I began asking myself some questions: “Am I displeasing God by visiting my mom, and not being on the UIC campus feeding sheep every week? Do I become a different person and a less godly person by staying with my mom? Do I love Jesus less, fear God less, and entertain more sinful thoughts in Malaysia, since I am not carrying out 1:1 Bible studies in Chicago? Will the work of God be hindered by my absence at UIC?” For the first two decades of my Christian life I thought it was.

My mom began going to church at age 96. So over the past decade I have visited my mom every year. Earlier this year I had already visited her. But I plan to visit her again in November to attend her 97th birthday. Recently, she told me that she began to attend a Methodist church, which was quite an unexpected pleasant surprise to me.

Unhealthy compartmentalization of what we do. From my experience and based on my reading, it is not helpful, nor prudent, or even biblical to create a sacred-secular divide. Some examples which I have practiced and witnessed:

  • Attending a UBF worship service is good, but attending other Christian church services is not good.
  • Never miss a Sun service to attend any other “worldly” activity such as family gatherings, or the graduation of a family member or friend.
  • Having Bible studies each week is spiritual and better than working full time at your secular job, which is primarily for the purpose of supporting your church and ministry.
  • Serving in church is spiritual while serving in non-Christian institutions is not.
  • Spending time in the church is more spiritual than hanging out in your home.
  • Bible study and discipleship is better than justice and mercy ministry, which is social work and not spiritual.

Though I once practiced such dichotomies, I find them quite disconcerting today. This list can sadly go on and on. But such artificial dichotomies and expressions of our Christianity is pretty ghastly and even unbiblical. Why?

Monotheism. The Shema, which faithful Jews recite every day is Dt 6:4 which proclaims in essence that there is only one God whom we worship with the entirely of our being (Dt 6:5). Jesus regards this as the greatest commandment (Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30). A meaning of monotheism is that the one God is the same God wherever we are and whatever we do. It is the same God whether we are in church, or at home, or at work. It is the same God whether we are with Christians, or with family, or with colleagues at work. It is the same God whether we are at a UBF worship service or some other Christian worship service, or whether I am in Chicago or Malaysia.

Polytheism. If we communicate that doing particular activities is spiritual and others are not, we are in a sense practicing polytheism. In the past, the ancients worshiped a god of agriculture, a god of fertility, a god of health, a god of fortune, etc.

Do you experience or encounter any sacred secular divide in church? If so, are you able to address it and discuss it?


  1. forestsfailyou

    It’s a pretty regular thing here. It is quite frustrating to hear it and impossible to argue against. A scenario a missionary told me, as well as a student from Korea told me, and I suspect is common- is that someone books a plane ticket far in advance for some event (seeing family, vacation, funeral, wedding, etc) and then for whatever reason there is a bible conference or major UBF event. The person is told that they must change the flight schedule (at their own expense!). If asked why he or she should do that an answer like “It is for your spiritual growth.” or “It is more pleasing to God.” is provided.

    Another point I want to mention is frequently the secular/sacred argument leads to people not reading anything but Christian books. Just check out this quote from a recent Christian book

    “We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.”

    Nope just kidding, that is written by Epicurus, whose followers Paul reasons with, and who is responsible for the Problem of Evil argument. God’s wisdom isn’t limited to Christians, his salvation is, but not his wisdom.

  2. This divide is, in my observation, at the heart of the divisions in Christendom. We cannot agree on what or who is sacred. The reality is that all human life is sacred, and all the creation is sacred.

    Some argue that if everything is sacred, then nothing is sacred. But I find those arguments weak, unconvincing and contradictory to the sacred texts such as the bible.

    I love the way Danaher speaks of such things:

    “Unfortunately, many cling to the sacredness of their own concepts rather than the sacredness of the biblical text, and such people see no need for the Spirit to renew their conceptual understanding. For them, the text does little more than confirm their prejudicial perspective. Fortunately, such a belief is no longer as easily maintained as in the past. Today, even if we believe that we are equipped with some innate hardware that allows us to form predetermined concepts, that same hardware also appears to allow us the liberty to modify or alter our concepts. In other words, even if our “wiring” is God-given, our thought process is free to form unique concepts.” –Eyes That See, Ears That Hear: Perceiving Jesus in a Postmodern Context (James P Danaher), Loc. 194-96

    And here:

    “One of the primary reasons for the premodern, flexible interpretation of truth is that for many centuries Christians argued that Scripture—the root of all truth—did not have a single, univocal meaning. They interpreted the quest for truth as a process of unfolding the infinite, sometimes hidden, meaning of sacred Scripture. Saint Augustine (354–430 CE), for example, would have thought that mathematics and the science of modernity, with their certain and precise meanings, were poor models for understanding the truth of Scripture. Speaking of the creation account in the Book of Genesis, Augustine says: Although I hear people say “Moses meant this” or “Moses meant that,” I think it more truly religious to say “Why should he not have had both meanings in mind, if both are true? And if others see in the same words a third, or a fourth, or any number of true meanings, why should we not believe that Moses saw them all? There is only one God, who caused Moses to write the Holy Scripture in the way best suited to the minds of great numbers of men who would all see truths in them, though not the same truths in each case.” –Eyes That See, Ears That Hear: Perceiving Jesus in a Postmodern Context (James P Danaher), Loc. 451-54

    The post-modern or post-post-modern mindset is an epic correction to the past 500 years or so, returning us to the ancient tenants with an increased understanding.