A popular pastoral position among evangelicals today seems to be to teach that there should be no dividing line between the secular and the sacred. The idea is that God is not merely God on Sunday and in churches.
He is, in fact, God of all our moments and in all places. We should, then, stop thinking of church as special or different. It is a place where we gather, but God is with us in the car wash or the grocery store or at the beach or in the theater.
All this makes sense to me. In fact, it’s consistent with what I learned as a teacher in a Christian school. The great emphasis in my school was integration: God’s word was to be an integral part of everything we taught—not an add-on class.
Here’s a pertinent paragraph from a paper on the philosophy of Christian education which speaks to this point:
Truth cannot be divided. “All truth is God’s truth” accurately delineates the nature of truth, whether in the spiritual or in the natural realm. Real teaching, then, is the process of making known God’s truth. Real knowledge, congruously, is seeing the world as God sees it. Then truth and knowledge, unified by God’s Word, mirror reality. Thus, God’s Word needs to be an integral part of the curriculum of every subject. Courses should not be taught with course material and the Bible. Rather course material must be studied in light of the Bible since God’s Word is the source of absolute truth.
And yet . . .
Scripture seems to teach a standard of holiness that makes a distinction between what is sacred and what is impious, or, to use Old Testament terminology, what is clean and what is unclean. In fact, one of the things God had the prophet Ezekiel proclaim to the exiles in Babylon was that the priests—along with the prophets, princes, and the people themselves—bore responsibility for the punishment God brought on His people. And this was what Ezekiel, on God’s behalf, called the priests out for:
Her priests have done violence to My law and have profaned My holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the profane, and they have not taught the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they hide their eyes from My sabbaths, and I am profaned among them (Ezekiel 22:26; emphasis mine)
In truth, the whole Levitic law was all about separation: God’s people separated from the godless nations; the priests separated from the people; the high priest separated from all other Levites and Israelites.
Primarily what was to separate the nation was their worship of God and their obedience to His laws. They were to be holy because God is holy.
And according to Peter, we Christians are also to be holy for the same reason (1 Peter 1:16).
But what precisely does it mean to be holy? Is this where we pull out a list of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots? Some Christians would have us think that’s the way to go while others want to throw off any semblance of following dictates handed down thousands of years ago.
In truth, Jesus showed us what following those dictates actually means: do not commit murder actually means, don’t hate someone else; do not commit adultery actually means, don’t look at another person with lust; love your enemies replaces love your neighbors and hate your enemies. He summed it all up by saying, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
All right, Jesus, I’ll get right on that. I’m not meaning to be disrespectful, but really? We imperfect humans are supposed to be perfect like God who is without spot or blemish? Not possible.
Which was precisely Jesus’s point.
So we can throw away the lists, right?
We can throw them away so far as we look at those lists as a means to acceptance with God. This is the key difference that separates Christians from others who believe in a monotheistic religion. We recognize that we are incapable of the kind of perfection that marks God, the kind of perfection God demands.
The only one who measures up to God’s standard of holiness is Jesus. But when we confess our sins, when we believe Jesus sacrificed Himself to pay for our sins, we have a new birth. We become new creatures. Not perfect creatures, mind you. We don’t suddenly have a no-more-sin gene implanted in us.
Rather, we are saved by faith and we are saved for good works. Meaning that, because of our new standing with God, our hearts are changed. We don’t want to serve only ourselves. Instead, we want to serve God and the people He puts in our path—at least we know we should want to do that and most of the time we do want to do that.
But it’s a war. A spiritual war. One we’re equipped for. One we don’t fight alone. Nevertheless, we battle, not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces.
So what does this have to do with the divide between the secular and the sacred?
I think the divide is in our heart, not out there in the world. What we cling to as ours is profane. What we yield to God is sacred.
Jesus explained it this way when a Pharisee challenged His disciples with one of the Thou Shalts that they had ignored:
But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matt 15:18-20)
In other words, if my heart is filled with evil thoughts and hatred and lust and lies and covetousness, it doesn’t really matter if I keep a list of all the right things to do and all the wrong things to avoid. I’m profane because my heart is filled with things that defile me.
In short, the pastors are right as far as they go, and Ezekiel is right (well, he was speaking what God told him to, so I guess that’s a no brainer). But the idea that all is sacred isn’t quite right—all is not sacred if our hearts are defiled.
And the last time I checked, that spiritual war I mentioned earlier is still going on.