When Christ is Lord, Nothing is Secular

When Christ is Lord, Nothing is Secular August 3, 2011

There’s a saying attributed to John Stott: “When Christ is Lord, nothing is secular.”  Or try a slightly different phrase from Madeleine L’Engle: “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

In other words: Everything matters.  Everything has spiritual significance when it is submitted to the Lordship of Christ.  God cares for our estate.  God cares so much that he became incarnate among us, shared in our condition, and made possible — or rather certain — our redemption.  Every little thing in your life is either given over to God, or it is not.  In either case, it matters.  There is no part of your life so minor or so unspiritual that it is truly secular or insignificant.

This comes to mind in light of yesterday’s post on the Budget Control Act.  I’m sometimes asked why I write on spiritual and theological matters on the one hand, and on social and political matters on the other.  Perhaps if I stopped writing on political matters, I could expand my religious audience; or if I stopped writing on religious matters I could expand my political audience.  I understand.  Sometimes I deeply enjoy a Christian blogger — until he writes on politics, and then I conclude that he’s bought into some bad ideas.  I get it.

But I really cannot separate the two.  The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  Kierkegaard called faith “resting transparently in the power that posits” you, and I believe in my bones that I live and move and have my being in Christ.  I apply my faith as best as I can understand it, and the principles and values that flow from my faith as best as I can understand them, to everything in my life.  My faith is not a couple beliefs and commitments I keep hidden in a corner.  It is the fundamental relationship in my life, and it shapes how I perceive and feel about and take action in relation to everything else.

This, by the way, is not to say that the scriptures – whose authority I honor – provide a blueprint to public policy issues.  The scriptures do not tell me the political party to which I should belong, much less the right policies or programs on particular issues.  But it is to say that my faith shapes everything, thoroughly, fundamentally and irrevocably.  That’s why I feel comfortable making a moral and theological case for certain principles that can guide our actions in the political sphere.  But when it comes to particular policies, where we are seeking to apply those principles to the facts on the ground, well, our application can be mistaken, and I will not claim biblical warrant for my possibly-mistaken application of a biblical principle.

I should say: I will never claim biblical warrant for a particular policy or program, unless the application seems perfectly clear.  I am willing to say that abortion is morally and theologically wrong, because it seems to me that this is a clear application of biblical principles on the sanctity of life.  People who think otherwise are, I believe, not thinking clearly about the implications of their faith.  I could be wrong.  But I think it is unChristian to support the extermination of unborn human life.  I am not willing to say that it is unChristian to support big government.  The line between biblical principle and the application of principle to our context is longer and fainter, in that case.  I believe I can make a stronger case than the opposition, but I don’t think they’re failing to be rational or failing to be Christian simply because they think otherwise.

What do you think?  Are there areas of life that are, simply, secular, and faith-based reasoning has no business there?  Is it wrong to think that any biblical principle is clear enough, or its application clear enough, that we can say “Christians should support X” (as, I claim, in the case of abortion)?  Or is it wrong to think that we cannot make claims of similar clarity with regard to other issues, such as economics?

With all of these things said, I do have a confession to make.  When I wrote the Letter to Harold Camping and watched it go viral, it showed me how much people are craving for compassion online.  The atmosphere of social and political discourse has grown so toxic, so antagonistic, that people are positively starving for compassion.  When they find it, they treasure it.  Some are reminded of the better angels of their nature.  Some are glad to find someone they can read without feeling their blood pressure rise.  I realized then: Boy, I guess I’m going to have to hold myself accountable now to write more compassionately when it comes to political subjects.  My confession is that I often fail at that.  I need to do better — and I’ll make every effort.

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29 responses to “When Christ is Lord, Nothing is Secular”

  1. Wow! As David Letterman used to say, you have crystallized my thoughts eloquently. Although I am very conservative politically, I am disgusted with so-called “ministries” which focus so much on politics that they create the illusion that Christianity and Republicanism are the same thing. Why have entire episodes of ministry radio shows devoted to, say, gun control? Or taxation?

    Like you, I regard abortion as wrong because it’s a moral issue, not a political one. And like you, I do not consider someone whose political perspective are to the left of mine to be any less Christian than me.

    The happy result of this personal revelation (besides the fact that I am more focused on Jesus rather than politics) is that I have made friends with a lot of liberals who have a genuine relationship with Jesus. Some of the write over at Burnside Writers, and they have even been kind enough to publish 3 of my articles. I’m facebook friends with just about all of them. This would not have been possible a decade ago, when I was unable to separate my theology from my politics.

  2. “I am not willing to say that it is unChristian to support big government… I believe I can make a stronger case than the opposition…”

    Can you outline that case as it proceeds from biblical principles or direct me to a post in which you do? I tend to lean toward supporting bigger government. But I respect you as a sound thinker and devoted disciple of Christ and am interested in your argument. Many thanks.

    • That’s a good suggestion, Doris. It may take me some time, but let me see what I can do. Thanks,

  3. A very Jewish question and concept, Tim. And it’s one of the biggest questions that the state/residents of Israel live with every day. Can we make political decisions without regard to spiritual convictions?

    Jewish rituals turn large and small acts into sacred acts prayers for when we witness a miracle and prayers for when we go to the bathroom, etc.)

    Surely God also wants us to infuse our political beliefs with our spiritual convictions — the key to this, though – which is what your Harold Camping article did – is disarming and convicting people with our love and compassion instead of our rants and convictions.

    It would be interesting to interview an American religious right politician and an Israeli religious right politician and see what lessons we can learn from both.

  4. Great subject. It’s good to see the secular/sacred split being bridged by prominent thinkers and the Lord’s sovereignty acknowledged.

  5. Nicely put Timothy. I would, however, note that the current environment, which may indeed be “toxic”, may not merely, be the result of personalities but rather the inevitable clash of incompatible ideas. In many instances this antipathy is a consequence of radically opposed worldviews, wholly incompatible values … each in this hour vying for control of the future.

    There are simply some conflicts which are inevitable. War, whether fought with words or guns, is always regrettable and sad … the human cost is almost always unavoidably high. If evil is more than an abstraction though, conflict is certain. Just as good finds expression through ideas and personalities … so too does evil. Our own freedoms, unique to Americans, was not the consequence of hotheaded exchanges which simply exploded out of control. It was the inevitable effects of two contesting ideas, each seeking to control the future. The exchanges became hotter because the views were so incompatible … that is not to suggest though that those, like Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were hot heads … just deeply committed to ideals certain to offer liberty. They spoke often and, over time, their declarations and denunciations became full-throated … there was little choice. To have offered muted protests or tamed pronouncements would have been not merely insufficient but would have assured defeat by those for whom bullying was a regular tactic. Today, those whose worldviews are informed by scripture and reason seek to influence the direction of our nation. We seek a fuller more complete and unimpeded liberty. In so doing we are thrust into conflict with those who seek to deny our place at a table we helped to build! The fury of evil, in such instances, must be met with an equal resolve to prevail. When push comes to shove … we love our neighbor … but we protect our neighborhood. My witness is comprised not only of my love for others but by my love and commitment to truth. I cannot afford to lag behind in either.

  6. Not sure the logic follows. How about slavery? Christians came up with a rationale for it but it was inherently immoral. I don’t think the taking of an unborn life is a subjective moral issue. It is wrong objectively and before God, based on Scripture to do so. Just as it is objectively wrong to own slaves or support slavery politically. Big or small government can be a moral issue. The biggest government is totalitarian. Was it wrong for Pope John Paul, Thatcher, Reagan etc. to oppose it morally? I believe federalized government programs and tax programs often keep people in cycles of poverty. I see it everyday in my neighborhood and in the school on my street. I actually believe that if we do not have biblical grounds to oppose or support something, as Christians, we should shut up. If it is a matter of subjective opinion, why should anyone care? Sojourners, Jim Wallis etc. are operating on this principle. I think they are dead wrong but they believe their political positions are biblical and they say so. “What would Jesus cut?” If you oppose their moral budgets, you are opposing Jesus!

    • Per scripture, slavery qua slavery is not objectively wrong. How it was practiced in America was wrong, clearly. Further, the tenets of slavery are incompatible with our Constitution.

      To your point, I think, I can make a strong Constitutional case that abortion simply shouldn’t be legal. Our country protects your right to live from those who wish for you not to live.

      That’s the beauty of the Constitution. It is a fundamentally ethical work, and one that does not conflict with scripture. We know slavery and abortion are morally wrong, by why not appeal to the laws of the land as opposed to scriptural tenets?

      That gives us the upper hand on the Jim Wallis types, who essentially use scripture as an empty appeal to authority. I believe it, therefore Jesus said it.

      • I can think of a number of decisions public officials are called to make that are secular: establishing load limits on bridges, occupancy numbers in rooms, speed limits on roads. Indeed I suspect that most activities of our government are quite mundane and we would be hard pressed to find a specifically Christian approach to them (apart for perhaps the most generic appeals that the work be done with integrity – but such appeals are not unique to Christianity).

        I can also think of clear biblical principles that we would never consider legislating. It is clearly unChristian to support the violation of the greatest commandment, but we wouldn’t advocate for prohibitions against idolatry. So if we do not have warrant to legislate against building shrines to false gods, how do we decide which moral injunctions in the bible should be legislated? I’m not aware of much guidance in the NT on which moral injunctions should be enforced on unbelievers (indeed Paul seems to suggest the answer is none). So the fact that the bible teaches that abortion is clearly immoral does not seem to provide warrant for its prohibition. There may be sound extra-biblical reasons for outlawing it, but if sufficient secular reason is necessary to prohibit an activity, then what do magistrates gain from biblical principles?

        • I agree. However, I also believe society will one day come to realize abortion was a moral outrage. Not so with a crisis of structural engineering. As such, as a Christian, shouldn’t my beliefs animate my secular pursuit of the prohibition of abortion.

          Further, then, isn’t it incumbent upon me to make my case to Christians in Christian terms?

          • Oops. I meant to reply to Timothy’s questions, [[What do you think? Are there areas of life that are, simply, secular, and faith-based reasoning has no business there? Is it wrong to think that any biblical principle is clear enough, or its application clear enough, that we can say “Christians should support X” (as, I claim, in the case of abortion)? ]] Sorry for the confusion.

            You raise an interesting question in your response though. I’m not so sure that your beliefs should animate your pursuit of legal change. I think idolatry is a good example. I believe very strongly that parents who raise their kids to worship a false god are acting immorally. I do not think my christian beliefs should animate my pursuit of outlawing buddhist temples.

            While I agree that abortion is a much more emotional issue than structural engineering standards for most people, I don’t see where my Christian beliefs fit in when I am working to pass a secular law. I know some try to get around this by appealing to Natural Law, but I’ve never found such arguments very convincing.

  7. Thanks for your humility and honesty in this essay Dr. Dalrymple. As a Canadian it’s easy to feel like some of the discussion around big/small governments were zero-sum arguments – and from a context where big government is as accepted as the sunrise, I appreciate your explanation of how complex some of these theological positions are. The pastor in me has a growing appreciation for the complexity life brings. Thanks again.

  8. And of course, someone like Jim Wallis would use the same reasoning to arrive at a political agenda that is opposite yours.

    I can’t necessarily say you (or John Stott), but I think I can safely say that this sort of conflation of religion and politics almost inevitably takes you down a road where you have “liberal” churches and “conservative” churches and there is serious danger of casting Jesus and God in our own graven, political images.

    Rather, as Jesus himself emphasized, I think it is important to recognize that the kingdom of God is inherently separate from the kingdoms of men. Or as Paul Ramsey said, “Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament​ meaning of heresy.”

    We limited government advocates rightfully bludgeon the Jim Wallis types with that quotation, but we’d better check the speck in our own eye and heed the warning ourselves.

    and by the way, your last paragraph is an insightful gem.

    • I’m sorry, second paragraph should start, “I can’t necessarily say you (or John Stott) are wrong, but I think I can safely say…”

    • Those kingdoms are separate as entities but they are, indeed, they must be bridged in our own experience. A theology divorced from practical application in every arena is an invitation to irrelevance. A biblical worldview can provide a moral framework for political and economic thought and action. In such instances, disciplined exegesis must be melded with a disciplined treatment of history and reason. Logical fallacies don’t endure scrutiny any better than illegitimate historical revisionism or tortured exegesis. Reasonable discussion which sorts error from fact and discovers best practices (while exposing failed ones) is possible while holding to a distinctly Christian worldview.

      • The problem is, you can use a “biblical worldview” to come to any number of political conclusions. The moment we privilege any one of those conclusions, we shut out the others to avoid cognitive dissonance. This is human nature. Then we put up walls, and congregate in echo chambers with those who have reached similar conclusions. Trying to put God’s stamp of approval on this process is, in my opinion, one of the worst things we can do to our own thinking about politics and, more particularly, to our own relationship to Jesus.

        I’ve prepared and delivered one sermon in my life, and it was on exactly this subject (text was 1corinth. 1:10-18), so it’s obviously something I feel strongly about. I value Tim D’s insight in both arenas (politics and faith), I just sense that trying to bridge the two is is a process with enormous potential pitfalls — pitfalls which, I might add, many Christians of all political persuasions have walked right into over the years.

        • There is a point, though, at which we need to take moral stands. People CAN use scripture to argue for any policy they like. That doesn’t mean their claims have any intellectual merit.

          Just because someone thinks the commandment to honor our parents somehow means we can’t privatize Social Security doesn’t mean I can’t persuasively and forcefully argue it is wrong for government to allow the taking of unborn life.

        • Dan,
          I’m not prepared to agree with that point of view. I would agree that such a possibility exists, but not as easily as you suggest … particularly among those who are objective. Pitfalls abound in almost any worthy pursuit … but they hardly qualify as insurmountable. Failure to face these challenges can lead to an anemic faith and a failing public square.

  9. Tim, thanks for the posts. I’m glad you express yourself on these subjects – ALL of them. I believe in limited, not bigger government, because I believe in a bigger, not limited, God. I hope that doesn’t sound trite to Doris or others who are in favor of bigger government. I just don’t believe government is the answer to anything beyond those very limited powers set forth in the Constitution. The problem is that we are so far beyond those parameters that I don’t know how we get back. Any thoughts on that?

  10. The L’Engle quote points out that the Incarnation is the reiteration of “It is very good” spoken at Creation, but the Stott quotation has, I think, other implications. Stott isn’t just talking about the Incarnation, or the fact that Jesus is divine–he is talking about the fact the Christ is *currently* reigning over all Creation. Christ’s lordship and rule isn’t a future reality, it is a present one. Therefore, it isn’t that things shouldn’t be secular, or that there is a divide between secular and non-secular; but that they simply *cannot* be, no such divide is possible. So if the Father has placed all things under the lordship of Christ, then everything, from our jobs to our government, from the policies we support to the things we spend our money on; all these things must be subjected to the truth of the Gospel and the Scriptures. It isn’t about finding Scriptures that will support what we want them to, but rather examining every policy, every issue, in light of the lordship of Christ. Suggesting that there are secular matters where faith is irrelevant is like a feudal peasant declaring that the large field may belong to the lord, but the vegetable garden by the house belongs to him. The peasant can claim the vegetable garden all he wants–it belongs to the lord nonetheless.

  11. Michael Gerson wrote a great piece today in the Washington Post that gets at similar sentiments:


    Both his piece and Tim’s are important, I think.

    I also think it’s helpful to remember that we are talking about small degrees when we talk about big government verses small government. Compared to Mao’s China, everything on every side of the aisle here is small. Compared to far less developed societies, both sides in of our current debate look like awfully big government. I imagine that when we all see Glory in its fullness, we’ll wonder why we spent so much time angry and fighting over 28% versus 35% tax rates and so little time visiting our lonely neighbors.

    Of course our whole lives are subject to the Word. Our politics are not secular. That goes without question in my mind. The more interesting question to me is whether our emotions are also subject to the Word. When we feel angry and fearful – and I hear no one, including myself, who does not sound angry and/or fearful when talking about those with differing politics – perhaps we need to deal with that before we write op-eds.

    • The battle is between 28% and 35% because of polarized ideologies. In truth, conservatives want a far lower rate, and liberals prefer a top tax rate close to 100%. The latter will drive us into depression as it did during the, well, depression. At least that’s what conservatives believe.

      That’s a pretty big deal, though I agree with your broader point.

    • Unfortunately, Gerson misquotes CASE, attributing something to CASE that was actually written by Jordan Sekulow. And he criticizes CASE for not recognizing that government has an important role to play. But, to quote from the CASE letter, “Government has an important role to play.”

  12. Until you can prove the existence of your “God” in an objective way, religion is a private matter and has no place in public policy discussions.