Sacred and Secular Work
I am grateful for my church heritage that prioritized disciple-making around the world. Introducing men and women to the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ and cultivating them to become mature, reproducing leaders have been the privilege of my personal and vocational life.
But the church’s penchant for lionizing missionaries and pastors – like myself – because of our status as “full-time ministers” has created a collective myopia in our ranks. This poor lens hinders us from seeing the broader landscape that is richly populated by Christian believers with enormous potential to advance the Kingdom as mechanics, marketers, mothers, and medical technicians.
The Roots of a Faulty Perception
What are the roots of this faulty perception?
This mindset certainly doesn’t reflect the New Testament emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers.” How did the idea that missionaries and pastors have a higher calling than the vast remainder of Christ-followers come to dominate churches like the one of my upbringing? A look back in time can explain how we got here.
According to the Scriptures, God created all things with no separation between the sacred and secular. God’s evaluation of His creation was that everything was good. Then God breathed life into Adam and Eve with the intention that they would worship their Maker with their whole beings in everything they do. However, around the fifth century BCE, a formidable teaching arose around the Mediterranean world that challenged these tenets of the historic biblical faith. Greek dualism roughly asserted that there is another world, a perfect world of ideas, that is separate from the imperfect physical world we know through our sense organs. Essentially this philosophy separated reality into the “sacred” and “secular.” According to this view, the world of the sacred is perfect while the world of the physical is corrupted. Eventually this perception of reality influenced the church to elevate sacred work and demote secular work. Gradually the church developed a reverential disposition toward those who attended to the sacred (priests) while most people who labored as butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers were devalued in their secular roles.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther and his colleagues sought to correct this errant view of reality. They liberated the laity from Greek dualism that expressed itself through those responsible for spiritual work (the clergy) who oppressed and controlled those who did secular work (the peasants). Not only did the reformers declare at the risk of their lives that salvation comes only through faith in Christ (sola fide) and that the Bible is the believer’s only authority (sola Scriptura), but they also insisted that God made us as whole beings – spirit, soul, and body. He does not regard our lives as separated between the “sacred” and the “secular.” Rather, all of life is an act of worship to Him. This profound truth once again placed a sacred priority on everyone’s work.
A Perfect Storm
Unfortunately, a trifecta of historical phenomena contributed to the development of our current notion that missionaries and pastors have a high calling while the vast remainder of Christ’s church doesn’t.
The Industrial Age
Until the 18th century, the world’s economy was driven primarily by agriculture. In this world, the family typically lived life together; work, worship, and family were seamlessly interwoven. But when factories were introduced first in Europe and then in America, people – mostly men – packed their lunch pales and went off to spend the majority of their waking hours in the workplace away from the family. For the first time, work was separated from family and worship. The church struggled to understand – much less to address – how the factory worker’s labor is related to faith and worship. Since this shift, the church’s major effort has been to ignore the worker’s work and to emphasize principles of being a good spouse and parent, an effective witness, and a faithful church member. With the exception of those in ministry, work is typically regarded as a necessary evil; the only redeeming strategy is to use the workplace as a platform for evangelism and a place to make money to support ministry efforts.
The Holiness Movement
Higher criticism is a branch of theology that has for its object of study the history, contents, origins, authorship, and purposes of the various books of the Bible. On its face, this science of biblical criticism is valuable in that it is intended to provide an auxiliary in the interpretation of the Word of God.
But higher criticism is tricky business. Canon Dyson Hague, Rector of the Memorial Church in London, wrote, “No study perhaps requires so devout a spirit and so exalted a faith in the supernatural as the pursuit of the Higher Criticism. It demands at once the ability of the scholar, and the simplicity of the believing child of God. For without faith no one can explain the Holy Scriptures, and without scholarship no one can investigate historical origins.”
The higher critical approach to biblical theology arose in German academic circles, then spread across Europe in the mid-1800s. Tragically, the academic leaders who gave name and force to higher criticism based their theories largely upon their own subjective conclusions. Most of the powerful voices for this approach to Scripture observed no limits to their conjecture, hypothesis-weaving, and speculation. Moreover, the dominant actors in this movement had a strong bias against the supernatural. As a result this higher critical approach to the Scriptures found its way into the church and seriously eroded confidence in the Word of God. This erosion of confidence was exported to America and deeply impacted the mainstream church.
A significant part of the church both in Europe and America reacted to the dominance of higher criticism church by isolating themselves into a alternative “Holiness Movement” that emphasized personal evangelism, discipleship, and holy living. This expression of Christian faith declared, “We’ll focus on getting people saved and sanctified, and leave the ‘social gospel’ to the liberals.”
This reaction caused the “fundamentalist” expression of the church to withdraw itself (separatism) from society’s significant institutions – colleges and universities, entertainment, and the workplace. Today these emphases continue to impact evangelical priorities, thus elevating the importance of missionaries and ministers while devaluing the work of everyone else.
Around the same time as the rise of the Holiness Movement and fundamentalism, John Darby introduced the theology of Dispensationalism to the church. This approach to systematic theology posited that the seven biblical “dispensations” conclude with Jesus’ return to establish his reign on earth for a thousand years. This theological persuasion suggests that the world will grow continually worse until Jesus’ return. An implication of this theological view is that efforts to make society a better place, be it through social efforts, developmental initiatives, or redemptive work, are viewed as practically futile. Moreover, the dispensational system holds that this current age will conclude when Jesus returns to rapture believers before the coming tribulation. Unbelievers will endure the tribulation where all manner of evil and devastation will fall upon the human race that has been left behind. During my time in Bible College, a popular film depicted the horrors of the tribulation in graphic detail. With such a theological perspective, the work of ministry (getting people saved) is regarded as a high calling whereas attempts to improve the current conditions of daily life are not a high calling.
With a foundation in Greek dualism, it is not surprising that the Industrial Age, the Holiness Movement, and Dispensationalism conflated to create a perfect storm that has deeply impacted the church’s current view of sacred and secular work.
Several weeks ago, I was invited along with a number of others to speak at the 80th anniversary celebration of the church where I grew up. As I looked down the lineup of speakers scheduled to make presentations at this gala event, every individual was either a past or current missionary or pastor. Many members of this church through the decades have made significant contributions in their respective fields of work. Yet none were recognized; only the vocational ministers were recognized and celebrated.
We did not get to where we are quickly. So changing this mentality that has been deeply-embedded by formational historical factors will take time and patience. The transformation of our thinking will need to begin with re-visiting the gospel story itself.