Secular When It Should Be Sacred

A significant part of the process of recovering and applying classical Reformed theology to our contemporary situation (sometimes called ressourcement, a French word which refers to getting back to original sources) is recovering the distinctions that we lost in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are a number of these, e.g., the archetypal/ectypal distinction, which, in Recovering the Reformed Confession, I called the categorical distinction; the distinction between law and gospel, which, in the classical period of Reformed theology (i.e., the 16th and 17th), was received as basic. Another lost distinction is that between the sacred and the secular. This is a distinction that our classical writers employed regularly but one that is regarded with suspicion today. In this discussion, sacred refers to that which is specially devoted to God. Think of the way Leviticus speaks of that which is dedicated to God or holy. Secular, in this context, refers to that which is common to Christians and pagans alike, which is not dedicated to God or holy in that sense. It does not mean “unclean” or defiled but simply not specially set apart. Think of the difference between the loaf of bread in your kitchen and the bread that has been consecrated for use in the Lord’s Supper. We often say during the administration of the Supper, “this sacred meal.” That there are secular meals is necessarily implied. Your family dinner is such a meal but it is not dirty or corrupt.

Recovering The Distinction Between Sacred And Secular

The traditional Christian (and Reformed) distinction is regarded with suspicion by some because it is unfamiliar. It is also, as a recent correspondent wrote to me, regarded by some as a Roman Catholic distinction. Some have been taught that the sacred belongs to God and the secular belongs to the Devil. That would be Manichaeism (i.e., the theology behind the Star Wars films). Others have been taught (directly or indirectly) by the followers of Abraham Kuyper that any distinction between the sacred and the secular somehow removes the sovereignty of God.

Neither of these was true in the classical period of Reformed theology and they are not true now. The Protestants saw the secular and the sacred as two distinct spheres over which and through which God exercises his sovereign providence.

Calvin used “secular” as a category without prejudice regularly. E.g. in Institutes 1.8.2, he contrasted the different styles between the human authors of sacred Scripture and “secular” writers. We see the same usage in 1.8.6. Calvin regularly wrote of secular judges, secular philosophers, secular work. E.g. in 4.7.22 he contrasted the properly sacred work of ministry with Gregory I’s complaint that he was forced to be too occupied with “secular affairs.” This way of thinking, speaking, and writing was universal among the magisterial Protestant Reformers and the Protestant orthodox.

We should not confuse the category secular with the use of “secular humanism” and “secularism” as pejoratives. Just as there is a difference between science and scientism so there is a proper distinction between things that are secular and a philosophy of secularism.

One way to think about the distinction between the sacred and the secular is to consider the restriction that the Apostle Paul placed on us in 1 Corinthians 10:14–21. The problem facing the Corinthian church was what to do about sharing meals with pagans. Paul’s rule was that so long as the meal was a secular meal there was no problem, even though, in the kitchen the meal had been dedicated to the gods. The moment, however, the pagan host announced that the meal had been dedicated to the gods, then it was now a sacred or a religious meal. Christians may not share in that meal. We have a sacred feast. It is called the Lord’s Supper and pagans are forbidden from it.

It would be extraordinarily helpful for us to recover this distinction. It would prevent us from painting ourselves into intellectual and rhetorical corners such as when Christians talk about “Christian plumbing” or “Christian softball.” Had we not lost the category of secular, which is a corollary for another traditional Reformed category, nature, we would not have made such mistakes. We would have known that neither plumbing nor softball need to be “redeemed.” God never lost them and he did not need to buy them back. He was sovereign over them all the time and he ordained them in his general providence. Softballs do what they do because, in the providence of God, he has ordained the laws of physics. There is a Christian interpretation of the significance of softball but there is only one way to play softball: according to the rules. Christians have no unique insight into softball or plumbing.

Changing Church Names

Church names are an interesting instance of confusion of the sacred and the secular. Five years ago I complained about trendy church names. I want to amend that complaint.

It is not that I was wrong. Evangelicals have adopted a lot of tacky, trendy church The church names. Some of them are so trendy that they have have changed since I last wrote about it.

The problem, however, is deeper than I realized in 2017. What I realize now is that what is happening with church names a confusion of the sacred and the secular.

For several decades now, partly under the influence of Pietism and partly under the influence of neo-Kuyperianism, evangelicals have been been on a quest for a distinctly Christian “worldview,” or Weltanaschauung (a nineteenth-century term from German philosophy). Professors at Christian colleges are required to explain to their supervisors how they will “integrate” their faith with their academic discipline. The underlying assumption, which is not always stated, is that there is a distinctly Christian way to do history or biology, etc. This assumption is easier to claim than it is demonstrate.

One outcome of this quest for integration has been to deny the distinction between the sacred and the secular. Typically, under this regime, everything the Christian does is supposed to be “redeemed” and “put under” Christ’s Lordship. In traditional terms, everything is now supposed to be, to the Christian, sacred.

Under the traditional Reformed understanding, plumbing would be secular and a church name would be sacred, symbolized by some traditional Christian or biblical allusion. Churches were named after biblical figures (e.g., our Lord himself, the Apostles), or some historic Christian figure. Sometimes churches would be given geographic designations (e.g., Westminster, Great Minster, Eastminster etc). Later churches chose denominational names (e.g., First Methodist).

In recent years, however, the trend among evangelicals has been to choose ambiguous place names that might, to insiders, have a double sense. E.g., “City Light” “Radiant,” “Cross the Line,” “Northern Lighthouse,” “Connecting Pointe” “Crossroads Church,” “Mercy City,” “Elevate,” “Room 211,” “Two Pillars Church” are just some examples from Lincoln, Nebraska. To be sure, the overwhelming majority of the churches in Lincoln still have traditional names but it is worth noting the trend.

There is nothing sacred or distinctly Christian about “City Light.” “Radiant” might be a cosmetic company. “Cross the Line,” about which I complained in 2017 sounds like a dare more than a church. I think of Room 211 as a potential medical appointment. “Elevate” might be a gym and anything adding an e to point is just annoying. “Elevate” could be a self-help seminar.

The names are meant to be clever but the use of intentionally secular terms to name the pre-eminently sacred institution, the embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven, the church, the gathering of the Christ-confessing covenant community seems perverse.

Surely the major motive here is to make the church seem accessible to the lost or to the unchurched. I do not know that people are consciously choosing secular terms to denominate Christian churches but I am struck by the growing frequency of variants of “Bridge” in church names. It would be one thing were a church located near a notable bridge but mostly the word is used metaphorically. It is an extension of the seeker-oriented model of church.

Recovering the distinction between sacred and secular will not solve all our problems but, like its analogue, the nature/grace distinction (not dualism), the sacred/secular distinction is an important tool as we continue to learn how to navigate a post-Christian culture.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. These churches with the quirky names seem to be definitely seeker-sensitive churches. If you come from any older established denominational background, it is very difficult to determine what any of their theological distinctives are. I don’t think a formalized theology really matters much to them or to the people they are trying to attract. Most of their websites have a “What we believe” tab. Their statements of faith are usually about as specific as “We believe in the Bible and Jesus Christ”. Most appear to be baptistic or charismatic with an emphasis on contemporary music, small-group ministries, and a pastor who wears jeans. It’s amusing that so many of these churches which are trying to be “different” are so remarkably similar.

  2. While I agree with the sacred/secular distinction (e.g., no such thing as Christian softball), I don’t think that means our faith has no impact on how we conduct ourselves in secular spheres (cf. Col 3:23) or on how we view the secular.

    For example, the development of modern technology is a secular endeavor that Christians need not shy away from; but just as in any secular endeavor, it should be engaged from a Christian point of view, right?

    Can we not think “Christianly” about the use of technology (the Christian university I attended had a course called “Theological Reflections on Technology” and it was eye-opening to the many unintended consequences the development of certain technologies have on us, often for the worse)?

    • Brandon,

      I agree but we Christians need to be more modest about our unique insights. Most of the “media ecology” stuff I’ve read from Christians is derivative of non-Christian writers.

      As I keep saying, there is a Christian interpretation of the significance of God’s world and, in the Reformed church, we’ve always taught that we should seek to apply our faith to every aspect of our life.

      What I am trying to do here is to get Christian to do that in light of the distinction between nature and grace, the sacred and the secular.

      I am emphasizing the existence of the category “secular,“ (or nature) because this is the missing category for many modern reformed and evangelical Christians.

  3. Prof. Clark,
    A few years ago, when searching with a group for a name for an attempted Reformed church plant in our area, the most common suggestion was “Town Name Presbyterian”. That is certainly a valid way to name a church. However, it seems something of a carryover from earlier centuries when most people in those early years, in the USA anyway, would ‘identify’ as Christians and most had some idea of denominational/church gov’t distinctives. Adding the town name seems like we’re telling people something they already know – if they don’t, they may need more help than we can offer. I suggested a different approach, not using locale or form of church gov’t in the name, but rather a description such as ‘Pilgrims Hope Christian Fellowship’ with a smaller subtitle referring to denominational affiliation, such as ‘a congregation of the OPC, URC, PCA, ARP’ etc.
    What do you think of this propensity to use locale and form of church government as the primary part of church names for new churches these days?

    • Warren H.: Locale and church denominational affiliation in the name at least gives me some concrete information I can understand. When I see something like “Pilgrim’s Hope Christian Fellowship”, it communicates to me “trendy”. Having a subtitle with the denominational affiliation makes me think that this church is trying to put some distance between itself and its denominational affiliation. No matter if there is a subtitle with some Reformed affiliation, I would be suspicious that this church with a trendy name is just another cookie cutter contemporary evangelical church where Reformed distinctives will be downplayed.

  4. In 1986 or so I was a member of a Baptist church that was moving across town and thus had to change its name (one downside of being named for the street). They asked members to suggest a new name, and later they called a meeting to discuss the suggestions.

    The meeting has stuck with me all these years because of the oddity of the way it was conducted. Something along this line: “We counted up all the words in the names suggested and looked to see which words were used most often. ‘Church’ was first, and ‘Baptist’ was second.” This seemed to me obvious to the point of silliness. They then went on to tell what other words were popular.

    And then, ta da, they announced the decision to go with one of the popular phrases, but to drop the two most “common” words, “Baptist” and “church,” and to go with “gospel center” as somehow being more appealing to unbelievers. They explained that denominations could be a turnoff and the word “church” rather formal or stiff or old-fashioned, I forget exactly what.

    Fortunately the members insisted that we were a church, and in fact a Baptist church, and were not all that interested in hiding the fact. So those two words stayed in the name. (I left about that time, along with many others, as the church pursued trendiness to a disconcerting degree. Decades later I learned that it only lasted four or five more years.)

    FWIW, more out of curiosity than anything, I once took a “test” to tell me how Christian my worldview was. I got only one question “wrong”: I said that there was a distinction between sacred and secular. How that said I should lose points on a Christian worldview, I have no idea.

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