The False Divide

Written by Victor Stanley Jr.

In Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo the chapter titled “Populus Dei” the reader is taken into Augustine’s congregation. Even more than that, the reader is taken into the minds, attitudes, and lives of Augustine’s congregation and the culture that surrounds them. Interestingly enough, the problems present in late fourth century North Africa are very similar to the problems facing the Church, at least in the U.S., today. Augustine dealt with people who compartmentalized their Christianity, which, in a way is similar to the secular sacred divide prevalent in today’s society, and to add to this he also had to deal with what Brown calls “moral specialization.” These two issues seem to be a common thread throughout the history of the Church, and while, for the sake of brevity, I cannot present an in depth look into these issues, I will attempt to expound on them.

The compartmentalizing of one’s Christianity, and the idea of moral specialization go hand in hand as Brown presents them, and it would seem that they each fuel the other. Moral specialization is the idea that “one life was left for the ‘perfect’, another for the average Christian.”[1] This means that people believed that clergy, and those who committed themselves completely to the ministry were somehow holier than those who were outside of that group. They believed that for the average man attaining such a level of disciplined commitment to the faith was unattainable, and reserved for an elite class of people. Brown states:

“The tendency was to be content with a vicarious holiness by isolating and admiring a recognizable caste of ‘holy’ men and women, who lived a life, the demands of which were conceived as so superhuman as to be safely unrelated to one’s own life as a man of the world.”

This same mentality is alive and well in our modern church society. Pastors, theologians, Christian entertainers, and Christian leaders are viewed as being more righteous or more committed to their faith, and are many times held to a higher standard than average Joe down the street. It is often stated that these people have a ‘special’ calling on their lives from God, which in turn makes their vocations superior and more sacred than others. This is a misconception that places and undue burden on those in full time ‘ministry,’ and promotes the false idea that there is less accountability on those who are not.

This concept of moral specialization feeds right in to the issue of compartmentalization. Brown says of Augustine’s congregants that, “[they] were not exceptionally sinful. Rather, they were firmly rooted in long-established attitudes, in ways of life and ideas, to which Christianity was peripheral.” It becomes evident that people did not allow their faith to inform and dictate their lifestyle outside of the church; they placed their Christianity in one compartment, and the rest of their lives in another.

Because they separated their secular lives from their sacred lives, a lack of moral duty emerged; “They showed no inclination to submit themselves again to the high demands of the Christian life.” Indeed they saw two separate worlds, the people of Augustine’s day viewed God as completely transcendent and unreachable for the average man, so they resorted to mysticism in order to operate in the earthly world. The average man felt he did not have to concern himself with living a truly Christian lifestyle.

Many modern-day Christians have fallen into the same pattern of thought, which is often expressed in the belief that there is a secular sacred divide. This belief places a person’s vocation and day-to-day life in the secular/public square, while their faith, morals, and values are to be kept private, and practiced out of view. This is actually a reversal of what Augustine dealt with, his congregants would practice their faith in public, and abandon it at home; Brown puts it like so, and even quotes Augustine on the matter:

“What a man did in his own home, however, was considered his own business. He would despise prostitutes; he would avoid adultery; but he would think nothing of taking a concubine: ‘“Surely I can do what I like in my own house?” I tell you, No: you cannot.’”

Despite this reversal, the result is the same. You wind up with people who separate their spiritual life from their public life, and work to make sure the two never intersect. There are several passages of scripture that reveal the error in this way of thinking:

[17] And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17 ESV).

[31] So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV).

Both of these scriptures show that there is no compartmentalization of the secular and sacred, for everything we do is to be done to the glory of God, whether at home or in public, whether we are in full time ministry or any other vocation. There is also Colossians 3:23-24, which states: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ,” (ESV). This verse is Paul speaking to bondservants, or slaves in some translations, telling them that even in that predicament they are to work as unto the Lord. For modern-day Christians this means that even in ‘secular’ vocations we are to remember that in all we do we are serving Christ.

It is not so shocking that Augustine and his congregants struggled with many of the same things we still face today. As the old adages go, “there is nothing new under the Sun,” and, “history tends to repeat itself.” However, we should make it a point to learn from the past, and particularly from some of the sermons St. Augustine preached where he addressed these issues.

[1] All quotes, unless noted, are taken from: Brown, Peter, Augustine Of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 243-246.

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