Beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide: A Call to Wholistic Life and Ministry (Kingdom Lifestyle Bible Studies) . By Scott D. Allen. Seattle, Washington: YWAM Publishing, 2011.
Scott Allen clearly states what he believes: God is Lord of all and Christians should join the Creator in his big agenda to redeem creation. This for Allen, president of Disciple Nations Alliance, includes mercy ministries such as caring for the poor. "Unless ministry to people's physical needs accompanies evangelism and discipleship, our message will be empty, weak, and irrelevant" (p. 60). In this thin volume, Allen makes solid arguments for believers to live wholistically rather than compartmentalizing their lives into sacred and secular. Yet even he cannot resist using "secular" at least once (p. 107).
He argues that God's big agenda or vision is for the redemption of all things, which comes about through social transformation (pp. 59, 62, 73, 107). "The task of the church is to join God in his big agenda of restoring all things" (p. 62). When we do not integrate mercy ministries into our evangelism and discipleship, according to Allen, we reduce Christ's grand vision to save souls which holds out little hope in this life (p. 87).
Beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide has many commendable features. I like that he quoted significant people such as M. Luther, A. Kuyper, N. Pearcey, F. Schaeffer, D. Wells, W. Carey, J. Stott, J. Boice, D. Willard, and others. For Allen, the gospel seems more than just something to tack on to mercy ministries. He warns about misguided wholism adding evangelism to what it often perceives as its more important tasks (p. 75).
The author genuinely seems to love Jesus and care for people. He takes the Bible seriously, and while I disagree with many of his conclusions, Allen makes his conclusions based on what he thinks Scripture says. His book gets across his emphasis on wholism and is aimed at being practical, something to learn and then to live. His sections on key verses, discovery questions, and personal application are helpful. He ends with a useful section on Gnosticism.
Allen's trinitarian remarks are something often neglected by Christian authors (pp. 13, 21). Speaking of heavy yet often-neglected doctrinal topics, he discusses sin, evil, rebellion, and repentance (pp. 61, 79). At several points he mentions the blood of Jesus, his atoning death, and the cross (pp. 62, 105).
He cautions against errors in Eastern and Western cultures-extremes either focusing too much on the whole or too much on the parts (p. 33). He stresses joy and not duty as Christians live out their faith. Allen admits that wholism is not always easy to live out, and that we can do even mercy ministries with wrong motivations, like without love as 1 Corinthians 13:3 warns (pp. 45, 91).
At the risk of over simplifying his work, five verses seem key to Allen's arguments:
- Psalm 24:1 "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it...."
- Matthew 4:23 "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people."
- Matthew 6:10 "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
- Luke 2:52 "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."
- Luke 9:2 "...and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick."
It is primarily here, with Allen's application of these and other passages, that I take issue with him. Generally, he hangs too heavy a theological coat on too weak a biblical peg.
For the sake of space, I will deal with Matthew 4:23, Luke 2:52, and 9:2. (See pp. 13, 44, 90, and Allen's back cover for Ps 24:1 and pp. 58, 60, 87, 94 for Matthew 6:10.) Allen believes that Matthew 4:23 concisely describes the ministry of Jesus in one sentence. He treats it as though it were Jesus's philosophy of ministry-preaching, teaching, and healing. Yet it is not clear to me how we are supposed to know this is our guiding verse for our ministry. Essentially preaching, teaching, and healing serve as "...the vision that Christ had and modeled for us on earth... It is the vision that should set the agenda for our ministry as well" (p. 62).
If we accept his three-pronged paradigm, which is a difficult case to make, would not the third category be "miracles" and not merely healing or ministry to the poor? Aside from that, did Jesus and his apostles live and teach in such a way that highlighted the first and second prong above the third? If any of Jesus's followers are guilty of seeing the third element less important because it is temporal it was the Apostle Paul. See 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. Also, what Jesus said in Matthew 10:28 and 16:24 shows that the Savior cared about the physical-temporal, but he cared more for the long-term eternal. Jesus's authority over all flesh directly relates to his giving eternal life (John 17:2, 9) not fixing someone's social situation.
Similar to Matthew 4:23, Allen thinks Luke 9:2 is also paradigmatic. Jesus's preaching and healing go together. Allen coins another person's phrase when he says preaching and healing are "functionally separate but relationally inseparable." Leaning too much to one side means "...ministries are limited and ineffective in bringing about true, lasting transformation" (p. 65). Allen says this unbiblical dichotomy "...places God's interest in saving human souls ahead of his interest in redeeming the rest of creation. Evangelism is central to biblical ministry, but it is only the starting point of the process. The end goal is making disciples of all nations" (pp. 105; 71). So for Allen discipleship means at least in part transformational ministries.
Allen finds Luke 2:52 as especially helpful for today (pp. 85, 88-89, 120). It is a wisdom-stature-favor model. But against Allen's view, what makes this verse key for understanding Jesus or our ministry? How do we know these three, or four, areas are equally critical for development (pp. 88, 120)? Of all of the key verses Allen uses to support his view, this one strikes me as the most odd. Not everything true of Jesus's life needs to be true of ours. (I am still not good at walking on water.)
If healing were to be wedded with preaching and teaching, as Allen insists, then it seems that Jesus would have made it clear in the ordinances. Do the Lord's Supper and baptism primarily reflect social justice or salvation issues? Even viewing the ordinances with a wholistic approach does not give social issues the same weightiness as salvific concerns. And as important as baptism is, the Apostle Paul said he was sent not to baptize but to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:17).
Aside from the way Allen handles these more pivotal verses, so goes his use of Scripture throughout the book. He groups 2 Timothy 4:1-2 and 1 John 3:18 and indicates that one should not be understood without the other (p. 72), although it is curious that Paul or John did not couple them. While we affirm the truth of these passages it is far from making mercy ministries an equal partner with the church glorifying God through evangelism and discipleship. It is also important to point out that 1 John 3:18 is referring to the brethren, Christians helping other believers in the church.
Along the same lines, Allen applies Matthew 25:31-40 to "people's needs" rather than "brothers of mine" as verse 40 does (p. 92). Too often he neglects the "household of faith" and "brethren" emphasis the New Testament places on good works-Romans 15:26, Galatians 6:10, 1 Timothy 5:8, James 2:15.
Regarding 1 Corinthians 12:12, 24-28, Allen asks the question how is the body designed to function? Allen wants us to see that all the parts of a body make up a whole body (pp. 19, 115). No problem with that. But it does not get us all the implications of Allen's wholism. For instance, all body parts are equally valid but not equally important. My small toe is a valued part of my body but it is not equivalent or as important as other parts. To make it clearer, the godly man who washes dishes for a living and does his job for God's glory need not be ashamed of his work nor devalue it, but his work does not contribute to the great commission in quite the same way as does the godly church planter, unless the dish washer is verbally sharing the gospel. Whether we label the dish washer's job sacred or secular is not as important as seeing the eternal difference and the local church's role in the task of washing dishes and planting churches.
Allen also makes several biblically unsupportable statements, one of which is, "Evangelism was never meant to be separated from discipleship, care for the needy, and social transformation" (p. 73). The first part about keeping evangelism and discipleship together seems easy enough to backup in Scripture, but not the last part of the sentence. In the mind of those promoting the social justice movement (or mercy ministries movement, or compassion movement, or kingdom building movement, or wholism movement, or whatever we are to call the position Allen argues for), his statement coheres, but it does not mesh so easily with Scripture if we are talking about the mission (purpose, goal, task) of the local church. In fact we have already witnessed the Apostle Paul speak of preaching to the exclusion of mercy ministries in 2 Timothy 4:1-2.
Another questionable statement is, "The gospel brings healing and transformation to every domain of culture" (p. 94). While I am tempted to agree with this statement to some extent, does the Bible really teach this? We are safer to stick with a clear passage like Romans 1:16 which says, "...the gospel...is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (ESV).
We certainly should not neglect showing compassion, especially to those within the family of faith, and even those outside the church, yet the church could easily lose focus of glorifying God through making disciples. As DeYoung and Gilbert point out in What is the Mission of the Church?, the church has limited time and resources (pp. 225, 235, 241, 266) and saying "both/and" is not merely good enough; we must keep the main thing central-"to make disciples of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father" (DeYoung and Gilbert, p. 265; see also pp. 26, 62, 231, 241, 247). Allen would have us to see social transformation as a partner with evangelism and discipleship, but why assume that shaping cultural elements is how we disciple (pp. 106-107)?
Allen says, "The gospel of Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed in every nation on earth. It is also to bring healing and transformation to the nations it impacts" (p. 89). While I agree with this first sentence, I cannot go along with all that Allen implies by the second one. The gospel has healing aspects (Isaiah 53:5), but to what degree does the gospel heal? It might cause a massacre if a few villagers in Africa trust Christ. Conversion of a girl might provoke an Asian father to reject his daughter. Sometimes Allen's view does not take into account the tougher, more unpleasant reality in Scripture. What about hard passages like Luke 12:49-53 or Matthew 10:34? Surely there will be conflict, persecution, and sword that come about as a result of Jesus saving sinners. Biblical transformation of a neighborhood does not always take place in the way we envision. While God has won the war against Satan and is winning the battle, the evil one has remarkable rule over this current world and world order: Job 1:7, Matthew 4:3, 13:19, John 8:44, 12:31, 14:30, 16:11, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 11:14, Ephesians 2:2, 1 Peter 5:8, and Revelation 2:13, 12:9-10. To Allen's credit, however, he does say that this healing will be partial until Jesus returns, nonetheless it should be substantial now (pp. 58, 62, 108). Yet Allen does not deal adequately with this reality of our fallen world as he presents his transformational model.
Unfortunately, Allen never mentions hell in this work. While it is not a book on hell, he discusses so many other important doctrines, it is odd that with his talk of sin, evil, man's need for repentance, and creation's need for redemption, that he leaves the reader guessing about his view of hell. Any book that speaks so much about redemption ought to speak, at least a little, about what happens to the unredeemed. His book is all the weaker for this absence. (Allen assures me in personal correspondence that he believes in the reality of hell and that W. Grudem and J. I. Packer's teachings have influenced his view of hell.)
"The gospel is not only good news for after we die; it is good news here and now" (p. 62)! I agree with this statement but for different reasons. Allen wants us to conclude, therefore, that we should blend mercy ministries with our evangelism and discipleship. But he sells short the gospel and what it means to be transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (Colossians 1:13-14). No matter our lot in life we can enjoy the good news right now, whether it alleviates our suffering or increases it (Romans 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians 2:10; 12:10; Ephesians 3:16-19; Philippians 3:8-11; 4:10-13; Colossians 1:23-24, 27-29; 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 Peter 1:3, 6).
Just as Allen rightly distinguishes between mankind's primary relationship with God and mankind's secondary relationship to others and the creation (pp. 62, 89, 118), so I think we can rightly distinguish between our primary (central) task of the local church (preaching the gospel as well as making disciples) and secondary (consequential) accomplishments (good deeds and benevolent acts) along the way. Each Christian life through good works will show that Christ lives within, but that will not necessarily mean a local church should transform its neighborhood or else have no right to share the gospel in verbal form.
Although Allen's book has many strengths, it has significant weaknesses. On a less serious note, this book suffers for lack of indexes on subjects, authors, and Bible references. Hopefully a revision will correct this minor flaw.
From what I glean of Scott Allen's heart in this book, I like him. He loves God's Word and wants to obey it. I applaud his efforts to help Christians live a more balanced life. I am glad he cares about the least of these, for God surely does too. So should we. His emphasis on wholism, however, does not get us all the conclusions and implications for compassion ministries that he assumes. Squeezing an orange may give us orange juice but certainly not a juice restaurant. He assumes a collection of "do" verses (Colossians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 10:31) equal a full-blown culture-transforming ministry (pp. 43-46, 117).
Contrary to Allen's view, if the big agenda is glorifying God and enjoying him forever, this can be done on earth, in a mansion, on the gallows, at the grave side, in a dump, or in heaven. This is a better option than Allen gives which plays out as glorifying God by assisting the Creator with creation's redemption. It is no small oversight that when Allen uses Colossians 1:19-20 he seems to miss the significance of it being God not us who reconciles (pp. 10, 14, 61).
The primary strength of this book is not that it introduces the reader to wholism but that it does so with joy and a passion for God's Word, but still Allen needs a more careful reading and application of the Bible. We can affirm his emphasis on biblical wholism and Christ's lordship of all areas (Psalm 24:1) without agreeing to his application regarding social transformation. I am not arguing against a faith that demonstrates its authenticity in actions nor am I arguing against compassion. As a follower of Jesus my life will show good works. I will show compassion to the poor. But the question really is the how and why of these good works and the implications for the local church.
Allen makes many contributions, nonetheless, we must always seek to distinguish between what the gospel is and the implications for the gospel to Christians (See Mark Dever's sermon, "Improving the Gospel"). This distinction is not Gnosticism or an unbiblical dualism. It is biblical wisdom keeping the main thing front and center.
We must not confuse the local church's role (mission, purpose) with what some Christians might do as they live out their faith. All believers will do good works as a result of faith in Christ and his Spirit within them, but that is a far cry from the need to transform their neighborhoods with mercy ministries. Allen has many unproven presumptions about the need to transform, impact, and shape cultures. The gospel has transforming power and is good news in itself. While we should not resist compassion, we should resist any approach that reduces the gospel to just another piece of the puzzle concerning man's plight. Although Scott Allen wishes to guard against this, I am not so sure he has the right paradigm to prevent this reduction.
[CredoMag originally published this review.]