Purely Secular Subjects?

Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in “Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Et Al.” This case involves religious school employment and the matter of a ministerial exception, who is covered by it, and so on. While the decision issued by the Court will potentially have implications for Christian schools, the case itself is not what I am interested in writing about today. Rather, I am interested in some of the discussion during the oral arguments.

In the process of questioning one of the attorneys, Chief Justice John Roberts asked a question that began this way: “Well, let’s say it’s a teacher who teaches only purely secular subjects….” Now, I am not going to criticize the Chief Justice. My understanding is that he is a devout Catholic, and I suspect that on a personal level he may agree with me when I say that my contention is that there is no such thing as a “purely secular subject.” Mr. Roberts was involved in the process of parsing intricate legal arguments in an effort to determine whether or not someone who is a minister is or is not entitled to certain protections or statuses under the law when his or her primary job responsibilities to do not involve matters of a specifically-ministerial nature. And as I said, that issue is beyond the scope of what I am interested in for the purposes of this discussion (and, I suspect, beyond the scope of what you are interested in reading about!)

What does interest me is this idea of “purely secular subjects.” It is a position held by many, whether professing Atheists, professing Christians, or professing adherents of any number of religions. Unfortunately, it is a position held by many churches and Christian schools, too. There are far too many “Christian” schools that start the day (or even each class) with prayer, include a chapel service for students and probably a Bible class, but go about the rest of their academic instruction and curriculum development as if English, math, history, science, physical education, art and music are “purely secular subjects.” There are some Christian textbook publishers who seem to hold to this position, as well. Their books contain no recognizable difference from those written by secular publishers and used by public schools or, at most, have an occasional Bible verse printed along the bottom of a workbook page.

The reality is, there is no such thing as a secular subject. The dictionary (dictionary.com) defines secular as “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal.” The definition even includes a specific reference to schools and education and says that secular means “concerned with nonreligious subjects.” Someone who is a follower of Christ, someone with a biblical worldview, will reject the argument that there can be any subject that is purely temporal and unconnected to God. The fact that a specific area of study may be pertaining to “worldly things,” by which the definition means things that are of this world and in this world, does not mean that said subject is completely disconnected from things that are not temporal or “of this world.”

Colossians 2:8 says “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (ESV). If we allow ourselves to be sucked into the argument that there are subject areas that are “purely secular” we are throwing open the door to the influences of empty deceit and worldly philosophy in accordance with human tradition. When we do that we are allowing ourselves to be pressed into the mold of the world. Paul, however, instructs believers this way: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV). We can only transform our minds by approaching every subject from a scriptural position, interpreting all subject matter and academic instruction through the lens of God’s truth. Whether we’re talking about reading a piece of literature, evaluating a painting, or studying the events of history, there simply is no such thing as a purely secular subject. You either recognize God’s presence and involvement or you deny it. Either way, though, it’s “religious.”

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