Theme: When the Church Becomes Like the World
In this week’s lessons, we see how the church can fall into becoming like the world, and so lose sight of thinking and acting the way God has laid out in Scripture.
Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:1-5
In thinking about this idea of the secular church, we need to consider a view that has cropped up in relatively recent history. It concerns the twin ideas of the sacred and the secular. This view maintains that they both operate in the same field, which, so far as Christianity is concerned, entails that Christianity should in a sense be secular. In other words, here you have not a contrast between the church and the world, but rather a view that says that the church should be the world, or at least should be actively engaged in and be characterized by the things that mark the world.
The significant thing about this view is that it’s maintained not by secular thinkers, but by so-called Christian theologians. From our perspective, Harvey Cox is the best example, and for two reasons. First, you have the title of his book, which is The Secular City. For Cox, the secular city is something to be considered positively. Christians, according to Cox, shouldn’t be otherworldly. They should be this-worldly and they should embrace everything that’s secular.
The second reason why Cox is a particularly good example is not only his idea that Christians should be secular, but that this viewpoint is presented and developed in the biblical tradition. In other words, according to Cox, it’s precisely the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, and the Old Testament, in particular, which leads us to the secular.
Cox says that there are three things in the Old Testament, also carried forward in the New, which lead us to be secular men and women as Christians. The first is creation, which he describes as the disenchantment of nature. What Cox means by this is that primitive man had a view of nature in which everything he saw—such as rocks, trees, glens, groves, sunsets, storms, drought and rain—were infused with either friendly or hostile demons. The world was a magical place, and all of these magic powers had to be propitiated or appeased or managed somehow.
When you come to the account of creation in Genesis, it teaches us that nature is not magical. Nature is not infused with demons, rude or otherwise. Nature is made by God and, therefore, this frees biblical man to consider nature naturally, to consider it in a matter-of-fact way. It’s there to be used.
Now secondly, he turns to the Exodus and he calls this the de-sacralization of politics. What he means by this is that in primitive ages, before the biblical period and the impact of the biblical worldview, politics was infused with the aura of the gods. Anybody who ruled did so by virtue of divine right. In the case of the king of Egypt, he ruled as a god. He was the incarnation of the sun god Ra.
When the Hebrew God, Jehovah, led the people out of Egypt into a new land, thereby instigating what was essentially a rebellion or, as Cox says, a civil disobedience movement, what the Hebrew God was saying is that politics is not sacred. Anybody can be overthrown if they don’t promote the good and well-being of the masses.
Then thirdly, he turns to the Sinai tradition and the giving of the covenant and the law. He says, and from our point of view perhaps this is the hardest thing to understand, this is the de-consecration of values. Values were supposed to be absolute. Now, with Sinai we learn that they are no longer absolute.
We ask how that can be. We thought that if Sinai meant anything, it meant the giving of the law, and this was the law of God, and therefore it was absolute and it was binding upon Israel and is binding upon us today. “No,” Cox would say. “If you approach it that way, you misunderstand it. The first of all the laws is the law against idolatry. Only God is to be worshiped as God. Everything else is relative. Therefore, values are relative and the modern man is free to do what he or she thinks best.”
Rather than seeing a contrast between the secular and the sacred, what relationship between the two is being suggested by some today?
Give examples of relative values in the world today. In other words, in what areas does the secular culture claim that people are free to do whatever they think is best, apart from the absolute truth of God’s Word?
Reflection: What causes people functioning as Christian professors to say things about the Bible that are so obviously contrary to what it truly teaches?
For Further Study: Download for free and listen to Donald Barnhouse’s message, “The Church at Laodicea.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)