The Virus of the Sacred-Secular Divide

Dr. Christian Overman

American schools prior to the twentieth century were predominantly Christian. The common practice of teacher-led Bible reading and prayer and textbooks containing much Scripture attests to this fact.

Perhaps the most noteworthy evidence of Christian thought being mixed with learning in America before the twentieth century is Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). It is full of Scriptural references. Webster clearly understood the connections between language and the Bible.

However, in today’s state schools, it is no longer permitted to teach children that God’s Word has anything whatsoever to do with math, science, history, sports, or language. In today’s state schools, the Bible is irrelevant to education.

To teach students that the Bible is irrelevant to biology, physics, and language can be done effectively without telling them this directly. A teacher does not have to stand in front of a class and say, “the Bible has nothing to do with our discussion” to communicate the message that God’s Word is irrelevant. All they have to do is remain silent on this point. Sometimes it’s not what is said that’s the problem but what is not said.

Many Christian parents and their pastors feel things are okay if teachers don’t proclaim to a class, “The Bible is a fairy tale.” Yet when teachers don’t place a single academic subject into a biblical frame-of-reference context, you have created a secularized mind in action and the development of a mental problem known as the Sacred-Secular Divide.

My biggest concern about young people being indoctrinated into secularism through education is not that they will become atheists. My biggest concern is they will become dualists.

A dualist is one who reads the Bible, prays, goes to church on Sunday, and yet doesn’t make any significant connections between God’s Word and what goes on Monday through Saturday. A dualist thinks that the church and the home are “sacred” spaces, while the public realm is “secular.”

Dualists see the Bible as relevant to their personal lives and the church’s affairs but not relevant to what goes on in the workplace or the public square. Dualists don’t mix biblical worldview with driving a truck, painting a house, managing a bank, or running a city because they didn’t combine biblical worldview with geography, literature, math, or soccer in school.

Dualism is a learned mental condition. Today’s Americans have been well trained in dualism since kindergarten. Many consider building houses, selling vegetables, and practicing law as “secular” endeavors, while pastoring a church or doing mission work is a “sacred” task.

Yet, early Americans, such as the Puritan Pastor George Swinnock, would have challenged this unbiblical notion. As Swinnock declared, “The pious tradesman will know that his shop, as well as his chapel, is holy ground.”

The SSD Infection Many Christians today view life as having two bifurcated compartments, like this:

The Sacred-Secular Divide (SSD) views the “sacred” things of life as Sunday morning worship, Bible study, prayer, witnessing, and going on mission trips. These are the things perceived to have real significance because they truly matter to God. These things have to do with the “things above,” which we should be setting our minds upon. These are things related to the spiritual side of reality that lasts forever.

We think the “secular” things don’t have as much significance because they don’t last. They are not eternal. “Secular” things include mowing the lawn and earning money to pay the mortgage and electric bill. These things are necessary but are perceived to be not as important to God. They fall under the category of “the things of earth.” These are the things that are supposed to grow “strangely dim” as we focus on Christ.

But let me suggest a more biblical way of looking at things:

In this view of things, any sphere of human endeavor may be done in harmony with God or in conflict with Him, in alignment with God or in opposition to Him.1 We can live as God intended, with the overall well-being and wholeness that only comes from living in harmony with the Creator and His purposes (shalom), or we can live in opposition to His intentions. The real contrast is between light and darkness, good and evil, right and wrong, in any sphere of life.

Of course, not all things in a fallen world can be called “sacred.” Some things are profane, being far out of sync with the Creator and His intentions. But as the poet Wendell Berry put it, “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

Regardless of the world’s current condition and the state of things within it, Christ is Lord of all (Acts 10:36), and therefore His authority is boundless and borderless. As I wrote in Assumptions That Affect Our Lives: “Since there is nothing which stands outside of God’s authority, He is as relevant to what goes on in civil government as He is to the way business functions, to the way family members relate to one another . . . to the way a local church functions. In short, He is Lord of all, and no less relevant to one area of human endeavor than another.”2

After a 13 year dose of SSD administered through school, students become steadfast dualists who think the Bible is relevant to church life and personal piety but not relevant to business, law, or politics because it wasn’t relevant to history, algebra, or soccer. Christian teachers in state schools who hold a biblical worldview are required to remain silent about how the Bible fits into the big picture of reality, thus inadvertently reinforcing a dualistic mindset.

This is a huge problem. We are seeing the fruit of this kind of education today, and it is truly an awful thing to behold. As a culture, we are in deep trouble.

SSD isn’t just a problem in schools. It’s a problem in churches as well. It hinders the church from helping people make real connections between the so-called “secular” world (where most of us spend the majority of our time) and God’s intentions for the here-and-now. As Dorothy Sayers in her essay Why Work? expressed, “In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. . . . How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”