Is there truly any such thing as “the secular,” a realm apart from God, a sphere belonging exclusively to man?
We think not.
Because God really is God, He has absolute claim over every area of life, and when man attempts to claim those things for himself, he commits sacrilege. Sacrilege is robbing God, a theft or violation of what belongs to God.1 For example, Malachi 3:7-12 refers to withholding tithes and offerings — theft that brought judgment. Such presumptuousness was long seen as an invitation to judgment, and viewed with horror.
We often sin against other people and frequently harm ourselves directly. But every sin is against God. If we fail to give God His due, we rob Him and are guilty of sacrilege. And we can — and do — rob God of more than these; we commit sacrilege when we deny Him anything that is His by right. We rob God of His creation when we deny Him as the Creator. We cheat God of His sovereignty when we deny Him His Lordship, or even when we limit its realm to what we define as sacred.
The easiest way to limit God and His realm is to create false realms of the spiritual and the secular. The natural world, the affairs of men — the secular — then become neutral. Man can decide what, if anything, God has to say affecting this “neutral” realm of the secular. The myth of the secular presupposes that man has a realm that is his by right, one free from the claims of God.
This is merely an example of man’s desire “to be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Putting man in God’s place assumes there is a part of God’s world that belongs to man and his ingenuity that is ready to be discovered and developed by man alone. To claim any area of life or thought as secular is to commit sacrilege; it is an attempt to steal that part of God’s world from Him. To whatever extent man claims a right to a secular sphere, he challenges God and His claim of lordship. Man’s claim of autonomy is never in a vacuum; it is an attempted usurpation of what belongs to God.
We have legitimate spheres of authority, but our authority in these spheres is never autonomous; it is always derivative. God commanded Adam to work and exercise dominion, but under God’s authority and law, not independently of it. Claiming the secular as a realm of man’s autonomy is not only presumption but blasphemy, too.
The world would limit the sacred — God and the church — to the spiritual. The secular is all else, and is the realm of man’s reason, law, and authority.
Man seeks to justify himself in sin, to claim legitimacy for his life of rebellion. Neat little definitions and artificial distinctions are the easiest way to do this. Just define a limited area as God’s and leave all the rest for us by default. Now God is confined and our autonomy secured.
Limiting Christ’s Lordship
God laughs at such arrogance. His Word is authoritative for all of life and thought. Submitting to Christ as Lord is not enough if we limit that Lordship to a narrow sacred realm of the world’s delineation. Christ is now Lord over heaven and earth. This is the picture John gives us of the Lamb of God at the end of Revelation. This is the picture of the Lord whose gospel we proclaim.
Today our humanistic culture does not fear sacrilege because it does not fear God. It is, in fact, offended by God’s claims. Unfortunately, many in the church also share this view. God is seen as a resource from which we mine salvation, comfort, joy, and blessings; He is there to make us feel better about ourselves, but not to dictate our lives. It is an economic relationship: God is the producer and man is the consumer. This was also the confidence of the ancient Hebrews, who felt God’s salvation was guaranteed. Too often, they believed in God’s faithfulness but neglected their own.
To avoid sacrilege we must first admit that it is real, and that God is real. We must begin by acknowledging God as the sovereign Creator of all things. It is no coincidence that God began His words to Moses with the history of creation. It established His absolute ownership, His title to all men and things. Because God owns all, He controls everything in life. We can only avoid sacrilege if we properly understand God’s sovereignty and lordship.
Our dominion mandate is to proclaim and spread the claims of this Lord in terms of His law-word. God’s Word gives us the big picture of who God is, where we are headed, and a law telling us how to obey until He comes in judgment.
In terms of God’s Word, in our present culture, we are to reclaim powers from government and return them to their proper spheres. We are to see government first as the self-government of the Christian, and the role of the state as the administrator of justice and defense so that power is denied to evildoers and decentralized even among the godly. This means that the ultimate government reform is the limitation of state power and the privatization of education, welfare, and many other areas.
Reclaiming the Secular
Reclaiming the secular means reclaiming education from its modern degradation at the hands of the state. Reclaiming the secular means rejecting the economics of theft, inflation, and debt as violations of God’s law. The Christian artist and patron must restore standards of beauty and skill to the arts. Medicine must once again be made a calling dedicated to mercy and the sanctity of life rather than a means of playing God.
We can say much to fault the medieval church and its theology, but at least it committed to shaping the culture in terms of Christian virtues and dominion work. It built hospitals, universities, and libraries. It established safehouses for travelers and protected those who fled to it for justice. It drained swamps and built dikes to reclaim land from the sea.
In the 21st century, reconstructing a godly society will look different than 1,500 years ago, but progress is certain because modern humanism is failing, and God has promised that His Kingdom will continually advance.
Let us reject the narrow confines of a mythological secular realm and embrace all of God’s Kingdom. Let us reclaim the secular as sacred and press forward the claims of God and His Christ in every area of life and thought.
1 For a treatment of sacrilege, see R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. II, Law and Society (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1982), 28ff.