Challenging the sacred-secular divide



One of my favourite films is Amazing Grace, the film which documents William Wilberforce’s efforts and eventual success in abolishing the slave trade in Britain. One of my favourite scenes from this film – which struck me the first time I saw it almost ten years ago – is the one where Wilberforce, faced with the decision with what to do with his life, torn between devoting his life to God in the study of theology or pursuing what is already a promising political career, is challenged by his new friends in the London Abolition Committee: “We understand you’re having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist. We humbly suggest that you can do both.”

But why are these words so striking? Surely pursuing justice with the abolition of the slave trade is as much a part of the work of God as becoming a church minister or overseas missionary? Maybe it was the inclusion of the phrase ‘political activist’, with all of the negative connotations that usually come with politics – indeed at this point I don’t think it had even occurred to me that being a Christian had anything to do with politics! But maybe it was also revealing a more pervasive assumption that I had already picked up at an early age – that ‘doing God’s work’ must mean doing something overtly Christian or ‘churchy’.

This phenomenon, often known as the sacred-secular divide, is one that can be found both inside and outside the Church. We can be overawed by the ‘super-Christians’ who preach sermons or lead worship or move abroad to become missionaries,  and assume that we ourselves are doing far less for God in our ordinary, more mundane lives. Likewise, those outside the Church can be very wary whenever anyone tries to bring matters of faith into ‘secular’ society – just this week we have seen an advert banned in some cinemas for encouraging people to pray.

But if we look to the Bible, we can see that this view of the world is fundamentally flawed. In Psalm 24, the Psalmist tells us that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”, and in Colossians 1 we read that Christ has reconciled all things to Himself. As far as God is concerned, the world does not divide up neatly into the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’: all areas of life are of concern to Him, and all areas of life can be used by Him.

We as Christians should therefore not confine ‘God’s work’ to the religious sphere of life, but instead recognise that we can be used by God in whatever sphere of society He has placed us in. For those of us who feel called to the sphere of politics and government, we should likewise recognise that this is as much of a holy calling as working for a church. Just like it was for William Wilberforce, the work of God can be the same as the work of a political activist. We may not achieve anything as significant as the abolition of the slave trade, but we can know that God is still at work through us in whatever we hope to achieve in our political involvement.