Over the last century it has become widely held among Bible-believing Christians that we ought not recognize a distinction between the sacred and the secular. A Google search for “sacred secular distinction” brings up plenty of examples of such a rejection. The most frequent complaint against any sacred/secular distinction is that it downplays or denies the Lordship of Christ. This complaint, of course, assumes what it must prove: that Christ has not ordained the distinction. To be sure, Christian nominalism, i.e., calling one’s self a Christian but thinking and living like a pagan, is a concern for all faithful Christians. It is far from evident, however, that fidelity to the Christian faith requires us to think that everything is sacred any more than it requires us to say that everything is secular. If everything is sacred, then nothing is sacred. This essay argues that the Apostle Paul taught a distinction between that which is secular (i.e., outwardly common to believers and unbelievers) and that which is sacred (set apart for religious purposes).1
The Corinthian church lived in a predominantly pagan culture in which the emperor was regarded as a deity and in which it was considered not only impolite but an assault against the emperor and the realm to reject the pantheon and the emperor as gods. In Graeco-Roman culture culture was religion and religion was culture. To attempt to distinguish the two was considered an act of hate and even treasonous. This reality lies in the background of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The declaration “We have no king but Caesar” was not a purely political or secular statement. It was a religious statement.
We might say then that the first-century Christians were have been among the first proponents of what today is known as “hate speech.” Certainly the pagan critics of the Christians regarded them as haters of humanity because they asked for civil liberty not to be required to participate in the civil religion of emperor worship. In the first three centuries of Christian history they were a religious minority frequently misunderstood, often maligned, and sometimes martyred for their refusal to recognize Caesar as anything other than a man, a minister appointed by God (Rom 13:4) to execute civil justice. For that refusal they were sometimes tortured and murdered. Some, who were tortured, “lapsed,” i.e., said the required words and poured out a drink offering to the gods. The civil authorities said or implied that it was not expected that the Christians would agree with the words nor believe them but only say them. The thing Rome wanted more than anything else was conformity. They refused to distinguish between the sacred (that which is regarded as religious) and the secular (that which is regarded as common to believers and unbelievers).
In this context the Apostle Paul had to try to help the Corinthian church see how to live cheek by jowl with pagans, without confusing the sacred with the secular. We see him doing just this in his instruction on how to distinguish between common, ordinary (secular) meals and sacred meals. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses the problem of food offered to idols. Now, he says, we know that the gods represented by the idols do not really exist (vv 4–5). People talk about gods in heaven and on earth but, in reality, there is only “one God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (v. 6). We can see echoes here of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4, the fundamental Israelite confession: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” As David sang (1 Chronicles 16:26), “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.” We have no God but the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians recognize no other deities but we do recognize that pagans worship idols nor did we ask the civil magistrate to restrict the ability of pagans to worship those idols. We only asked the magistrate not to kill or punish us for worshiping the God of Scripture and for refusing to worship Caesar and other idols.
Some of the Christians, who had been converted to Christian faith from paganism, struggled with this problem. Not long before some of them had attended pagan religious feasts. They knew that the food in the market had already been offered to idols. They thought that, in light of those facts, Christians should not eat such food lest they be implicated in paganism and false worship (v.7). Paul, however, said “food does not commend us to God” (v. 8). Eating food offered to idols (who do not actually exist) is a matter of Christian liberty (v.8). Paul’s principle concern was not whether the meat in the marketplace had been offered to idols (it had) but whether our exercise of Christian liberty might cause another Christian to stumble and to fall back into paganism (vv. 10–12). Where the exercise of Christian liberty may cause a weaker brother to stumble, we should restrict the exercise of our liberties for the sake of the weaker brother.
In chapter 9 he goes on to defend the existence of Christian liberty. He gives a very personal example where he himself did not exercise his rights. He had a right to demand financial support from the Corinthian congregation. He did not exercise that right because they were not mature enough (9:15–22).
In chapter 10 he returns to the matter of meals common and sacred. He begins with a striking analogy between the Israelites in the wilderness and New Testament Christians. They, as we, were baptized (10:1-2). They had a sort of Lord’s Supper (vv.3–4). We, as they, were tempted to idolatry (v.5). Paul wants us to learn from their example (v.6). It is possible to be initiated into the visible covenant community. It is possible to profess faith and come to the Lord’s Table. It is also possible for some in the visible covenant community to become idolaters (vv.7–13). We are those upon whom the end of the ages has already come (v.11). We, who believe, have been bought with a price (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).
Because of who we are now, in Christ, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) we must keep ourselves both from idolatry and sexual immorality (v. 14). When we come to the Lord’s Table, the cup of blessing is a participation (a fellowship; κοινωνία) in the blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). We are married to Christ. We are called to fideliety and to monogamy. Such participation with Christ, in the Supper, is in the nature of sacred feasts (v. 18). All who participate in them are united in them to one another and to Christ. When the Israelites at the sacrifices offered by the Israelite priests, the participated in the sacrifices. They were united to them. So it is in pagan religious feasts. In itself, the food offered to idols is nothing. In themselves the idols are nothing. They do not exist (v.19). When, however, belief in idols is combined with a meal, in a religious context, everything changes for us. Paul was explicit: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (v. 20; ESV). It is one thing to eat food offered to idols. It is another thing to eat food that is consciously being eaten as a religious meal in devotion to idols and demons.
For Paul, food, even that offered to idols by the butcher, remains secular and common. All things being equal (e.g., there are no weaker Christians who might be led back to paganism) we are quite free to eat it. Paul makes this explicit in vv. 23 and following. His rule is this: “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful” (v. 23). We are to love our neighbor (our weaker brother) as ourselves (v. 24). We are free to eat whatever is sold in the market without being unduly scrupulous (v. 25). The earth belongs to the Lord (v. 26). Context, however, changes everything!
If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (1 Cor 10:27–30; ESV; emphasis added).
Why are Christians free to sit down at table with pagans and to eat food offered to idols? Because it is a common or a secular meal. It is not a religious meal. It is not being presented as a sacred meal. When the condition (εἴ) changes, however, the nature of the meal changes. The pagans are still pagans. The food is essentially unchanged but when one’s pagan hosts invoke the pagan deities over the meal—the phrase “this has been offered in sacrifice almost certainly implies more than a mere recognition that the butcher offered it to the gods. The Christian already knows this fact—then it is no longer a common meal. At that point the Christian must declare his religious loyalties. We are participants in Christ. We are united to Christ. We may no union with demons or idols. Christ instituted one sacred meal: the Lord’s Supper and we may participate in no other sacred meal.
Paul implicitly distinguishes between the sacred and the secular. Without this distinction, his moral instruction to the Corinthians makes no sense. After all, he has already declared that we are free to eat food offered to idols and that the idols are nothing and the pagan gods are nothing. What matters is the nature of the meal. Is it a secular meal or a sacred meal?
This, of course, is why, during the administration of holy communion, Reformed ministers pray a prayer of consecration wherein the elements of the Lord’s Table are set aside (consecrated) from common (secular) use for sacred use. In chapter 11, the Apostle Paul excoriated the Corinthian congregation for failing to make this distinction. Where, in chapters 8–10, the problem had been the potential of not recognizing the sacred for what it is, now the problem was that they turned a sacred meal into a common meal.
When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not (1 Cor 11:20–22; ESV).
Consider his words. The Corinthians thought that they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper (just as the pagans think that their gods are real) but, in reality, they had so abused the Supper that they had disqualified their meal as the Lord’s Table. What had they done? How had they corrupted it? We know that some had come to the table in unbelief and had become ill as a consequence (v. 30). Paul was explicit about the second problem: each one goes ahead with his own meal. That might be fine in a common, secular meal but not in this sacramental meal, which is sacred to the Lord. This is precisely why Paul says, “have you not have homes in which to eat and drink?” There is nothing wrong with eating and drinking but the sort of eating and drinking in which the Corinthian congregation was engaged was not proper to the visible covenant community, gathered at the foot of Zion (Heb 12:22). It belonged at home, not in the covenant assembly. They had made a sacred meal into a secular meal.
The sacred/secular distinction has fallen out of fashion. We should sympathize with the concerns that sometime motivate the rejection of the distinction, particularly the concern over Christian nominalism. Christ is Lord over all things but he administers his sovereign rule distinctly over both the secular and the sacred. Our older theologians knew this distinction. Calvin and other of our writers used it without embarrassment. It never occurred to them that to distinguish these two spheres of live was infidelity. They used it because they saw it in the Apostle Paul, who built his distinction between ordinary meals and religious meals upon this distinction.
1. The English word secular is derived from the Latin noun saeculum, which occurs in the Vulgate for “this age” (e.g., Matt 12:32) for “ἐν τούτῳ τῷ αἰῶνι…”. Generally, it translates the Greek noun αἰών, used to refer to an age, an epoch, a generation, or even eternity. This is why Christians sing “world without end, amen…”. It is a rough translation of the Greek and Latin words for “world” or “age.” In English usage secular has a number of senses. It can refer to things that are not ecclesiastical. In ecclesiastical usage a “secular ministry” refers to a ministry conducted by priest or minister who is not a monk. It can refer to something that is diametrically opposed to that which is religious or sacred but in contemporary usage one typically sees secularist rather than secular in that context. In traditional Christian usage, as reflected in this essay, that which is secular is common, not set apart specifically to the service of the Lord and shared by believers and unbelievers alike.
The English word sacred is also derived from Latin sacer (holy). In Latin usage that which is sacer is devoted to religious usage, to the service of the gods or, in Christian usage, to the service of God specially. It occurs in the Vulgate in 2 Timothy 3:15, where Paul speak of “sacred writings” (sacras litteras), which translates ἱερὰ γράμματα. It also occurs in Exodus 39:29, in reference to the “holy crown.” It occurs several times in the inter-testamental (apocryphal) writings, 1 Macc 1:68; 2 Macc 4:48; and 16 times in 1 Esdras, in reference to holy vessels and holy songs. The sense is clear. Something that is sacred is set apart from common, daily use and specially designated to the service of the Lord.