A Pastoral Letter to a Concerned Parishioner on the Sacred-Secular Distinction

Zac HicksPersonal Stories & Testimonies, Worship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment

(true name/identity concealed)

Thanks, Kevin,

I appreciate your response and dialogue.  So many times, people keep their struggles to themselves, or (worse) complain without a good “theological dialogue” with a pastor or leader.  I appreciate that you feel the freedom to bring thoughts to me, and I take them well, because I trust you, your heart, and your thoughts.  God bless you!

If I have to sum up some of the difference between your position and mine (and at this point, I think we are sharing our thoughts and not necessarily the church’s as a whole or the Session’s in particular), it sounds like you and I fall on different parts of the spectrum (I believe it’s a spectrum) on the issue of how sharp the line should be drawn in the sacred-secular distinction.  I see more continuity and gray; you see more discontinuity and black/white.  People who hold to a sharp sacred-secular distinction believe more strongly that the things “of the world” should not comingle with the things of worship.  They tend to hold that it is not only the “substance” (the propositional content-core [e.g. the Gospel, the trinity, God’s transcendence and immanence, God’s holiness, our un-holiness, etc.]) which should be distinct but many parts of the “accidents” (the particulars of how that content is expressed).  This is why you see people with a sharp sacred/secular distinction advocating traditional worship and traditional music…it is a style “not of this world,” so they say (though even that’s not entirely accurate).

While I respect this position (I have to, in some sense, because I interact with that worldview regularly at our church), I don’t land there.  Several things convince me of this.

(1) The Gospel grants us freedom in the “accidents.”  Part of what I see in John 4 is Jesus communicating that, because the substance of worship essentially happens “in spirit and truth,” certain prized rituals now become what many worship scholars call “adiaphora” (a Greek word meaning “things indifferent”).  Because the Gospel is a message about world redemption, I am inclined to believe that God is in the business of reclaiming and redeeming the broken world, rather than tossing it in the trash can and beginning again ex nihilo.  The eschatological vision of Revelation (in other words, what is to happen when that redemption is complete) is summarized in this phrase (made famous by Handel): “The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever” (Rev 11:15).  The world is being renewed and transformed into God’s Kingdom, restoring the garden of Genesis 1, and actually making it even better!  This tells me that our sovereign God works within culture, instead of in opposition to culture, to redeem it.  In short, culture is not necessarily evil, bad, and unholy.  What makes it corrupt is our own corruption—the mixture of our sin as we go about the business of culture-making.  This leads me to believe that, though total depravity tells us that there is not one part of culture left untouched by sin and brokenness, culture is not un-redeemable.  This is the difference between “total depravity” and “utter depravity.”  That is why I think it’s a beautiful thing that Christians take musical genres that have been sometimes used for broken ends (metal and hip-hop, for example, though really any genre could be listed) and redeem them, wedding them with texts and expressions that are filled with the Spirit and the Word.  This, to me, is a small picture of the way God redeems—not by trashing and coming up with something totally different, but by reclaiming and redeeming what, in providence’s view, is rightfully His (“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” says Psalm 24:1).  The end result of the Gospel will be no sacred-secular distinction (Rev 11:15), as one day, everything will be holy unto God!  This leads me to have a more positive view of culture than those who hold to a sharp sacred-secular distinction. 

(2) God Himself has blurred those lines, even in the Old Testament.  I’ll give you an example.  It’s a powerful one.  People who believe in a sharp sacred-secular distinction often point to the Old Testament temple as a case-in-point.  “Look at how specific and detailed God was!” they say.  “God wanted something very specific, very distinct from the world.”  The irony here is that archaeological evidence indicates that the temple’s architecture, design, and dimensions were not all that distinct from their contemporary pagan counterparts.  The shape, the concept of rooms within rooms, and even some of the temple’s accessories, were all variations on previous pagan temples and worship expressions.  Don’t get me wrong.  There were some distinct elements about the temple, but the overall feel would have told the Israelites that “this is what my culture understands as a place of worship, and it is here that we will worship Yahweh.”  In one of God’s most masterful, “sacred” works of art, the “secular” has a heavy hand.  Shocking…and yet all also telling of God’s own “view” of the sacred-secular distinction, especially as it applies to worship and worship space.  Another example is in Israel’s own hymnody—the Psalms.  Check out my blog post on comparisons of some psalms and their antecedent pagan counter parts.  In one instance, we have a psalm that was basically a pagan worship song with the pagan god’s name replaced with “Yahweh.”  The line between sacred and secular is awfully blurred there.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that worship and the sacred are meant to be redemptive of the things in culture, as opposed to in stark opposition to culture.  Banners on our buildings of worship should be analyzed through a biblical grid, but when I analyze it, it falls into the “adiaphora” territory.  I don’t believe it offends God.  I don’t believe it poisons our sense of the sacred.  I understand that you do believe that, but my explanation above is an attempt to help you understand the theological foundation for why I think the way I do.  And maybe it’s persuasive!  But maybe it’s not.

I at least hope that you can trust that decisions we make in and around worship are not careless, but done with prayer and biblical reflection…and very much in community.

Again, I really appreciate the dialogue.

For Christ and His Church,

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