Secularism in the Church

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Secularism has always been hard to define. Though often pronounced with algebraic lucidity, its topsy-turvy logic is often as unintelligible as the dog-Latin of monkish hexameters. In practice, it is an odd attempt to forge a cultural consensus on the fact that there really can be no cultural consensus. It is the unspoken assumption that a happy and harmonious society can be maintained only so long as the only common belief is that there are no substantial common beliefs. It is the reluctant affirmation that the only moral absolute is that there must not be any moral absolutes. It is the brash affirmation that meaning and purpose in life may best be found in meaninglessness and purposelessness.

Philosophers and historians might argue that secularism is the inevitable fruit of Enlightenment materialism, skepticism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism. But social theorists point to the smothering influence of partisan ideology, which is now everywhere evident. Wresting control of every academic discipline, of every cultural trend, of every intellectual impulse, even of every religious revival in our time, ideology has become the organizing construct of the secular society. From Nazism and Stalin-ism to Pluralism and Multiculturalism, from Liberalism and Conservatism to Monopolism and Socialism, ours has been an epoch of movements beguiled by the temporal seductions of ideological politics. Virtually all social historians agree that this is indeed one of the most distinctive aspects of our age: the subsuming of all other concerns to the rise of political mass movements based upon comprehensive, secular, closed-universe, and millenarian intellectual systems. We live in what many have called an “Age of Ideology,” where ideological politics drives everything.

Nearly every question, every issue, every social dilemma has been and continues to be translated into legal, economic, or political terms and supplied with bureaucratic, mathematical, or systemic solutions. If there is something wrong with the business climate, family values, health care, or education, government must rectify the situation. Whatever the problem, it seems that politics is the solution. That is why every election is portrayed in the starkest of apocalyptic terms—both with-in the church and without.

The name of the secularist’s ideological game is power. With cool detachment every other consideration is relegated to a piratical humbug. G.K. Chesterton observed,

There is, as a ruling element in mod-ern life, a blind and asinine appetite for mere power. There is a spirit abroad among the nations of the earth which drives men incessantly on to destroy what they cannot understand, and to capture what they cannot enjoy.

This is the worldview of secularism—and it gives shape to nearly everything we think and do. As Herb Schlossberg has argued in Idols for Destruction, it is merely an updated, Americanized form of idolatry. It is a worldview as thorough and as dominating in our time as was the faith during the epoch of Christendom.

And, lest we think Christians are somehow exempt from the smothering dominance of such secularism, just think back to the fierce ideological rhetoric that swirled about on our blogs, Facebook posts, memes, and tweets during America’s most recent presidential election. It became very apparent where many of our brothers and sisters have placed their immediate hope in life, if not in death.

As a pastor, I know firsthand the allure of secularism’s siren song—to hermetically seal off theological concerns from the “everyday operations side” of managing ministry. In the church, this often takes the form of shaping ministry according to “what works.” The temptation of pursuing plans, programs, and policies on the basis of pragmatism; the assumption that success can best be measured in numbers, in dollars, in worldly patterns of influence—these are all snares that all too easily entangle. We quickly become mere pragmatists, not people of principle, finding power in the quantifiable and not in God’s means of grace. We shape our ministry by the latest sociological data, business innovations, and marketing methods, not the whole counsel of God.

If we are like fish swimming in a secular sea, how do we order our worship, our discipleship, our ministry to the world with out resorting to a secular default mode? Merle d’Aubigne gives us the answer:

The Word of God is the only power that can subdue the rebellion of our heart. There is a power in our fallen nature which revolts against divine truth, and which nothing human can overcome. No teaching of man will do it, not even that of your father or mother. The teaching of the church and of the most beloved pastors will not do it, nor time-worn tradition, which is the teaching of the ages. All this is as powerless as the slen-derest thread to lift the weight which presses us down. To make the King-dom of God enter our hearts we need a battering-ram that can overthrow the strongest walls, and that ram is the Word of God.

In these smotheringly secular days in which we live, our best recourse for combating secularism in the church is to sing, pray, read, and teach the Word of God. As Thomas Chalmers has written, “The Bible is the Magna Carta of our liberty; when it is neglected, it is not merely its morality that is jeopardized; it is not merely its virtue that is undermined; indeed, all the good it has wrought is thereby despised.” Therefore, as he exhorted, “Let us be quick to be in the way of grace.”

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