Abolishing the Secular

One of the practical ramifications of “the greatest commandment”—loving God with all of who we are—is the breakdown between the sacred and the secular. There are no longer some activities that are worshipful and spiritual, and others that are mundane and secular. As Paul says with as wide a sweep as any statement in Scripture, “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). However, acknowledging the breakdown is easy; the harder part is working out the practical implications.

 

As Christians we need to consider what it means to abolish the boundaries between secular and sacred practically. Though I’m sure we all recognize that the line has been erased because all has become sacred, in practice we often act as though all has become secular—which is good enough, we think, because somehow that makes it sacred. I think we need to be careful here. Looking at Paul’s leatherworking trade may help shed some light on this admittedly difficult subject.

 

Paul gives us a window into his leatherworking shop in his first letter to Thessalonica: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you” (2:8-9). The clear expression of restless love aside, note that Paul’s love for the Thessalonians led him to work hard—night and day, so that he could support himself—“while we preached the gospel of God to you.” That is a remarkable phrase. Reading through the Thessalonian correspondence carefully, you would note that nowhere does Paul indicate that he preached in the synagogue (though Acts assures us he did); that, coupled with the fact that his converts “turned to God from idols” (1:9), which he would not say of Jews, suggests that the majority of his converts were pagan gentiles. How did these gentiles hear the good news and come to Christ? Wanamaker argues,

the workshop formed one locus of missionary activity outside the synagogue. The workshop of an artisan was commonly a place for intellectual discourse, and in fact Hock. . .shows that at the time of Paul it was so used by Cynic philosophers. As Paul and his colleagues largely supported themselves in their missionary work at Thessalonica (1 Thes. 2:9; 2 Thes. 3:8), it is reasonable to assume that much of Paul’s time was spent in a small shop where people interested in his message could come and talk to him while he worked at his trade.[1]

Anthony Thiselton argues similarly for Paul’s ministry in Corinth, where he likewise supported himself.[2]

 

Other than having some fascinating tidbits to impress others at dinner parties, of what use is this portrait of Paul at work? I fear that by abolishing the distinction between the secular and the sacred carelessly, we have drawn an even sharper distinction between them than before. To suggest that ministry should happen in the local church, while work should happen in the workplace, not only ignores the apostolic approach, but also assumes that work should be done for work’s sake, and as such is glorifying to God. I cannot see this as being scriptural. Paul did not work at his trade simply because it had intrinsic value; he worked at it so that he could glorify God by making disciples in his name. Work was a tool for kingdom expansion.[3]

 

This is the point of a final passage worth considering, the parable of the talents—whence comes our treasured accolade, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I won’t comment much, as the parable is pretty self-explanatory. As in Colossians 3:22-25 and Ephesians 6:5-8, Matthew commends faithful service to the master (25:14-30). Of course, in contrast to the other passages, this is a parable. The master is unquestionably Christ, who is coming again at some unknown, imminent date. In the light of his coming, we must work diligently—using the resources and gifts he has given us in his service. (This and the surrounding parables commend our preparedness for Christ’s coming.) As the Greek word talent now covers a variety of “secular” skills in the English language, we might be tempted to read this as glorifying work for work’s sake again. If your talent is building bridges, then build bridges to the glory of God. This is not quite the point. After all, the parable has a literary context. It begins abruptly with the word “Again,” suggesting an indissoluble link with the preceding parable. That parable begins, “At that time the kingdom of heaven…” (v 1). These are kingdom parables; the king who is coming is Christ. We use the talents he gives us to expand that kingdom to glorify the King.

 

Does this mean everyone should enter vocational ministry, as the only profession that matters? Surely not. That would contradict the clear teaching of Scripture. We can and should usher those who are called to the business world into that world. But to teach them that it is enough to be merely excellent in that arena—and not to use their talents within it to build the kingdom (as Paul did as a leatherworker)—would seem to be beneath the standard of Scripture.

 

Whatever we do, we do for his glory—in the marketplace as much as in the sanctuary. The breakdown between the secular and the sacred is absolute. But that means we must pursue our trade as a sacred act of worship and ministry, not that we can pursue it as our unbelieving colleagues do, only to call it good enough as though it has become magically sacred by virtue of our being Christian.



[1] C.A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990): 8. The emphasis is mine.

[2] The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000): 23.

[3] Only parenthetically, I will add that it is a mite interesting that nowhere in Scripture do we hear of the quality of Paul’s work as an artisan, nor of Christ’s work as a carpenter. An argument from silence, to be sure, but an interesting lacuna nonetheless.

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