Dr. Otto J. Helweg, P.E.
Dean Emeritus, College of Engineering and Architecture, NDSU
U.S. address: 33 Crystal Lane, Maumelle, AR 72113
Over Seas address: PO Box 2343, Kigali, Rwand

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The Secular and Sacred;
Friends or Foes?
Dr. Otto J. Helweg

Since the beginning of the Church, Christians have been struggling with the problem of how to be in the world but not of the world. On the one hand are those who segregate the secular from the sacred and live in two worlds. On the other hand are those who attempt to integrate the two by allowing one to dominate the other. How does one handle the competing demands of one's faith and ones profession? Are these demands competing? This paper addresses these questions and suggests that since the Fall, mankind has been forced to live in tension between serving the sacred Kingdom of God and working in the secular world ruled by Satan. Though a proper understanding of the theology of work from the creation account and a commitment to take the great commission seriously assist one to manage this tension, it is only the lordship of Jesus Christ in one's life that can bring a fundamental harmony between these two areas.


There are only twenty-four hours in a day and one of the greatest problems for a Christian {1} is how to divide this resource between his {2} secular profession and his religious activities. Already, we have implied a dichotomy between the secular and sacred which may not be correct. {3} But, even if there can be some theological argument in favor of eliminating the distinction between these two areas, in practice, time allocation between them is a problem with all Christian professionals. What then, are the alternative responses to allocating time and resources between the world and the Lord?

In order to analyze this problem of resource allocation, we will divide the many possible responses into four groups. The first group sees the sacred and secular as disjoint sets and lives in two separate worlds. While these people would hopefully live by Christian ethics in the secular world, they "leave their faith at church." The second group sees the sacred and secular as interconnected, but the secular dominates. That is, engaging in their profession is their service to the Lord. Church is to support their work in the world, not in an evangelistic sense, but in the secular professional sense. The third group is like the second, but the sacred dominates. The secular work is a necessary evil and merely a way to obtain the necessities of life so they can spread the Gospel, usually in their place of work. Their work is considered as "tent making;" a way to support their evangelistic, or other, ministry. The fourth group, the one embraced by the author, feels neither should dominate and that there can be a balance between the two. Moreover, the secular and sacred are not disjoint sets, but have considerable overlap.

The answer we arrive at will depend on the answer to a more basic theological question, "What is the Christian's relationship to the world?" If the world is evil and under the rule of Satan, one might conclude that secular work cannot bring glory to God. Such a theology would favor response 1 (separate the two) or response 3 (the sacred dominates). If, on the other hand, "this is my Father's world," our work may be blessed and considered sacred in and of itself. Such a theology would favor response 2 (the secular dominates, though the secular would not be see as such) when the secular is as good as "church activities." Is our work a service to God like evangelisma or some other sacred activity?


Richard Neibhur in his book, Christ and Culture, (1951) sought to categorize the various approaches to the problem of the Christian's relationship to the world; these were:

1. Christ against culture (radical)
This group rejects cultural claims and establishes the monastery. The world is fallen and completely corrupt, the Christian should consider it the enemy and strive for holiness apart from it. The problem is, obviously, that we take our sinful natures into the monastery and cannot escape the fallenness of our environment because we are part of it. These Christians would support evangelism and, perhaps, social action, but only during brief forays into the world, returning into the monastery when finished.

2. Christ above culture (synthesist)
Culture is upheld by God. Though sin is radical and universal, the heart of culture is still God's, so the Christian affirms both.

3. Christ and culture in paradox (dualists)
These see the issue between God and man not Christ and culture. Man must work in culture, but it is a necessary evil.

4. Christ, transformer of culture (conversionist)
The Christian is called to carry on cultural work and have a more positive attitude toward culture. Culture is perverted good and not intrinsically evil; therefore culture needs to be converted, not replaced. The conversionist tends to support the holiness movements.

5. Christ of culture (liberal)
The liberal feels that the Christian will bring culture into perfection. Education, philosophy, reform, all these things can eventually restore culture. Christ is fitted into culture. Man's conflict is with nature, not God. The obvious problem with this view is the failure to take sin seriously. A fallen world cannot be redeemed by man's work. The liberal theologians attempt to recreate God in their own image.

I feel the three middle categories in Neibhur's taxonomy are forced and unnecessary. Consequently, I propose to combine them into one category, "Christ and Culture in tension." Since the two extreme categories are clearly not Biblical (especially "Christ of Culture"), the main thrust of this study will be to show in what way and how the "golden mean" is correct and can be implemented in the life of a Christian.

In order to evaluate these categories and select the one that most closely fits the Biblical norm, we will first examine the Biblical definition of "culture," especially as it relates to secular work. Some assume that work is part of the curse and that were we in an un-fallen world, there would be no work. This is clearly not the case as an exegesis of Gen. 1:26-28 and Gen. 2:15 shows (McGee, 1981).

The first task for man (man and woman) was to rule or have dominion over the earth. The Hebrew word for "rule," , radah, has the root meaning to tread down, subjugate, prevail against. The second word, used in verse 28 is "subdue," , kabash, which is probably meant as a synonym for "rule" in keeping with Hebrew poetic parallelism. Both of these words connotate active work.

In Gen. 2:15, two more key words are used, "till," , abad, and "keep,", shamar. , has the root meaning to "work," "serve." It is usually used, however, of agricultural work, eg. farming, tilling the soil, etc. has root meanings of "hedge about," "guard," "protect," "preserve," and "attend." Again, the pre-fall condition of man included these responsibilities. One can only conclude that work is part of our humanness and was intended to be part of God's creation, thereby bringing Him glory.

There are many post-fall references to work. It is presupposed that hard work is a virtue (Prov. 6:6-11; 27:23-27). Ecclesiastes 2:24 even declares that "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil." Admitting that some declarations of Ecclesiastes may require special interpretation, the New Testament teaching is clear. Colossians 2:23 commands, "What ever your task, work hardly as serving the Lord and not man." (cf. Eph. 4:28, I Thes. 4:11-12, and Titus 3:1).

In seeming contrast to these is the New Testament view of the world, kosmo". Though kosmo" can mean the inanimate universe, it most frequently refers to humanity and can be understood as "culture." Appendix A gives fuller treatment of these words. The New Testament meaning is that "The world is the epitome of unredeemed creation. It has become the enemy of God. It is the great obstacle to the Christian life." (TWNT, 1967). If doing good work benefits the kosmo" and the kosmo" is evil, how can working in the kosmo" be God's will or bring glory to God? The answer is, of course, that it plays a part in God's reconciling the kosmo" (II Cor. 5:19). Just how, may not be clear, but doing a good job in one's secular profession apparently enhances the Christians "saltiness" and "light" in the world.

Having concluded that, for a Christian, working in the secular world is allowed, if not required, what is the Biblical teaching about the "sacred?" Those who maintain that "full time Christian service" is the most spiritual calling, have a number of Biblical passages to quote. Certainly the Apostle Paul seemed to have this attitude when he said.

"Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me." Col. 1:28-29

Taking up one's cross and following Christ (Matt. 16:24) or "friendship with the world is enmity with God." (Jas. 4:4) are other clear commands to Christians. Kierkagaard's great sermon, "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing," exegetes Jas. 4:4-10 and powerfully shows that a Christian should ONLY will to please Christ.

Part of the solution to these seemingly contradictory commands is found in analyzing what the "fall" did to the original task of working. Our work was cursed (Gen. 3:17-19). This curse had two aspects, one was that it would no longer be "easy" in that "nature" would work against us. Secondly, the unity of man's task was broken. Before the fall there were no complicating commitments. "Tilling the garden" had no competition. After the fall this became a secular task and spiritual work was added to man's responsibility. The Spiritual work consisted of fulfilling the great commission. That is, evangelism and building up the Body of Christ. The frustration caused by having two competing tasks is, I believe, part of the curse.

For this reason, we need to distinguish between gifts, carisamata", kharismata, spiritual gifts, and talents. The problem with the latest writings on the subject is that they confuse carisamata" with talents. Nowhere in the New Testament does God send a special anointing on people for secular tasks. Talents are given to all, Christians and non-Christians alike; like the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Spiritual gifts are ONLY given to the Christians for the building up of the Body of Christ. They are supernaturally given and though we can seek them (I Cor. 14:1) we cannot manufacture them. There is no way to remove this dichotomy from the Bible or the Christian's life. We are called to live in tension.

For this reason, I find it useful to distinguish between "calling" and "leading." I believe one's calling is in conjunction with one's spiritual gifts. If one has the gift of being a apostle, one might emulate the Apostle Paul. If, however, one had spiritual gifts of teaching or pastoring, one might emulate Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3). In contrast, as we analyze our talents, we can ask for God's leading into the profession or job that seems to best suit us. But, to say "I am called to be a professor," seems to elevate academe beyond its fallenness, a type of idolatry. Of course, there is a connection between our talents and spiritual gifts and one's job to use his talents should also enhance the opportunities to use his spiritual gifts, but they are different and thus, the tension.

There is no question that we are to work as "unto the Lord." But the problem is how good is good and when is enough? Most professionals are in positions which are like black holes. Their work will adsorb as much time as they allow it to take. Though one may define how much time and how good individual projects should be in order to please God (though this is far from an easy question); what does a Christian do when there is no end to potential projects? We are in a zero-sum game. That means we cannot add a minute to our secular work without taking a minute from our sacred calling. How do we allocate these minutes?

I have found that being in "full time Christian work," does not solve the problem. There is still the tension between the ministry and the family, between study and evangelism, between "less spiritual" and "more spiritual" work. The drive toward greater sacrifice, longer hours, etc. has ruined families and workers alike. The need to divide time between competing tasks will never go away. Even the celibate monk does not escape this dilemma.

Because of the fall, Christians must live in tension. They are to continue to carry out their original mandate to rule, subdue, and till the earth but in addition to this, they are to carry out the "great commission." Not only did the fall force Christians to live in this tension (ie. having to divide ones attention and resources between two different goals), it corrupted the original mandate so that the work in the world is inherently frustrating. How many hours a day do I spend at the University? How do I witness on campus? How much time do I spend in church, using my spiritual gifts to build up the Body of Christ? If there is no potential tension or no frustration, it may be that we are neglecting one of our two roles rather than that we have reached perfection.

The practical outworking of this predicament will be different for every person; however, the more a person becomes a single minded follower of Christ, the less the tension and frustration of the dual roles becomes. As Eric Liddle {4} said, "When I run I feel God's pleasure." So should we be able to say, "When I teach and research, I feel God's pleasure." It is only in Christ that we find unity to life. The Holy Spirit can order our day, guide us to a balanced schedule, and steer us toward God-honoring goals. In Christ we find unity in a dichotomy.


E. Caillet, The Christian Approach to Culture, Abingdon Press: Nashville; 1053
Caillet is an excellent writer and theologian. He has some good insights into the problem.

G. Kittle, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, tr., F. W. Bromiley, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids; 1967 (called "TWNT)
This is the standard in word studies and a valuable resources in anyones theological library.

R. L. McGee, "The Meaning and Implications of Radah and Kabas in Genesis 1:26,28," A Thesis presented at Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981

This is a good study of these two words, "rule" and "subdue." The author relates them to the problem of the environment as well as a theology of work.

Richard Neibhur, Christ and Culture, Harper Torchbooks: NY; 1951

This is considered a near classic work. Neibhur has five classes of relationships; Christ against culture (radical), Christ above culture (synthesist), Christ and culture in paradox (dualist), Christ transformer of culture (conversionist), and Christ of culture (liberal). The book is technical and scholarly, but I feel his taxonomy of the three middle categories is forced.

D. Sherman and W. Hendricks, You Work Matters to God, Navpress: Colorado Springs; 1987
This is a very poor book both exegetically and theologically.

A. N Triton, Whose World, IVP: 1970

This is a good book by an evangelical (though "Triton" is a pseudonym). It is practical and Biblical.

E. Troeltcsh, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 2 vols. George Allen & Unwin: London; 1931

This is typical German scholarship by a liberal theologian. Neibhur references it, but I found it only marginally helpful. He talks of Christ of the Church, Christ of the sect, and Christ of mysticism. You can skip vol. 1 and just read the conclusions of vol. 2 with little loss


Word study on kosmo" : Kosmos originally meant "order" but in contemporary secular Greek, it was used for the world or universe. About half of its occurrences in the new Testament are in the Johannine writings (78 times). It is used 46 times by Paul, 15 times in the synoptics, 5 times each in Hebrews and James, 7 times by Peter and once in Acts. Though it is used to designate the inanimate world or universe (Acts. 17:24, John 21:25), it more frequently means "human culture" or "mankind." (cf. James 3:6, Matt. 5:14, II Peter 2:5, I Cor., 2:12, 1:20, II Cor, 5:19, Eph. 2:2).

The word, kosmos, is never used to refer to the world Christ will rule, but the kosmos is ruled by Satan. When the kosmos is redeemed it becomes the kingdom of God. In the New Testament, kosmos, "...is the epitome of unredeemed creation, It has become the enemy of God, It is the great obstacle to the Christian life." (TWNT, 1967)


Verses that deal with the secular and sacred as they relate to the tension in a Christian's life.

Gen. 2:15 Adam was to till and keep the garden

Gen. 3:17-19 "...cursed is the ground... in toil you shall eat of it... In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread..."

Prov. 6:6-11 "Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise..."

Prov. 18:9 one who is slack in his work is a brother to one who destroys.

Prov. 27:23-27 "...give attention to your herds..."

Eccl. 2:24 "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil."

Matt. 10:38 (Mk. 8:34 & Lk. 9:23) "...he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."

Matt. 16:24 (Lk. 14:27) "...take up his cross and follow me [Christ]."

Jn. 4:4 Friendship with the world is enmity with God

Lk 6:29 This is the work of God that you believe in Jesus

I Cor. 3:13 "each man's work will become manifest..."

Col. 3:23 "What ever your task, work hardly as serving the Lord and not man."

Eph. 4:12 [gifts] for the work of the ministry

Eph. 4:28 "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor..."

I Thes. 4:11-12 "... aspire ... to work with your hands,... so that you may command the respect of outsiders..."

II Thes. 3:6-12 Keep away from idle brother, follow our [Paul's] example of work.

Titus 3:1 Be ready for any honest work.

{1} In this paper, we will define the Christian in the traditional Biblical/evangelical sense.
{2} The masculine pronoun is used in the following pages in its traditional sense of including both male and female.
{3} We will define the secular as anything not directly related to the Church, such as ones profession, hobbies, etc. The sacred includes all Church activities as well as work for the Church in the world such as community service in the name of the church, evangelism, teaching Sunday school, etc. Since traditional evangelical Christian theology accepts the world within which we live as fallen, the unorthodox position which sees the world as part of the sacred will not be considered.
{4} In the movie, Chariots of Fire. He was explaining to his sister why he was competing in the olympics rather than engaging in "Christian work."

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