Humanism in the church


Humanism, specifically secular humanism, is prevalent in our culture. Inevitably, the dominant culture will impact the church, for better or for worse. Since much of secular humanism is contrary to biblical teaching we ought to be critical (or at least aware) of how a culture of humanism has affected church practice.

Every church is different. Different churches, and different individual Christians, are affected in different ways. I am not intending to be critical of the Church, or even of the American Church. I am simply attempting to show how humanism can, and sometimes does, impact church practice and values.

Devaluation of church participation: Humanism is fundamentally individualistic and value is placed on church activities and participation to the extent that they benefit the individual. Church participation, then, is seen only as one way to satisfy felt needs or, stated more pietistically, “to grow in your relationship with God.” So you go to church to learn, to feel like you’re part of a community, to be entertained, or to get a feeling of worship. If your church doesn’t sufficiently fill these needs, or it does but getting up on Sunday morning is just too much of a cost for the benefit, then you either drop out or fall into the ever prevalent pattern of a “church hopper.” This is the culture of the consumer church and, much like consumerism, comes out of a culture of humanism that places a high value on self-gratification.

Devaluing of spiritual disciplines: The spiritual disciplines – prayer, Bible reading, fasting, Christian fellowship, confession, etc. – all, to some degree or another, carry with them the theme of self-denial. Humanism, however, is all about self-gratification. Maslow puts food at the bottom of his hierarchy of needs as our most basic need (and therefore as a prerequisite for happiness). In this system fasting just doesn’t make sense and, indeed, becomes a hindrance to growth. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of self-denial, then, have the power to teach us that our physical needs, and gratification of our physical desires, comes second to “seeking first the kingdom of God.” I have been convicted of this recently. If this little research project has taught be anything, it’s that I need to start fasting.

Fear of, or capitulation to, our culture’s sexual ethic: Few things are more unpopular in the world today than the (historic) Christian vision of marriage and sexuality. Why? Christianity views sexuality in relation to obedience to God and giving of one’s self sacrificially to the other. Both these concepts are foreign to humanism. Obedience to God’s law, which is of utmost importance to the believer, is completely absent from Maslow’s pyramid. This tension has caused some segments of the Christian church to capitulate to the humanist model of sexuality which essentially views sexuality as just another means of self-fulfillment.

Devaluing of obedience as discipleship: Speaking of obedience, some churches prefer to view discipleship exclusively as a “relationship.” Certainly, discipleship is dependent upon a relationship with God, but that relationship also entails an expectation of increased obedience to God’s law. So what does this have to do with humanism? Well, one of the “needs” in Maslow’s pyramid is the need for relationship. So, having a “relationship with God” and “loving God” is seen as a way to fulfill their need for relationship. While this is not an invalid way to speak about discipleship and reconciliation with God really does fulfill one of our most basic real and felt needs a problem arises when it’s our only model for discipleship. As said before, while the concept of obedience is absent from the humanist model, it’s an essential biblical theme.

Church as (primarily) a means of satisfying needs: Think for a moment from the perspective of pastor or church leader. What would you steer your church to do? Many churches see their mission as primarily a way to satisfy the felt needs of those who attend or, if they are concerned about the neighborhood, to satisfy the needs of those in the community. So, churches will seek to meet the physical needs (benevolent giving), social needs (potlucks), esteem needs (uplifting sermons), and self-actualization needs (providing a way to develop talents). None of these are illegitimate, but these aren’t the primary or unique mission of the church; to make disciples for the glory of God. When “meeting needs” becomes the primary focus for churches, they are in danger of simply becoming one more service organization that fails to point people to God.

Speaking of sin exclusively in terms of sickness: Jesus himself uses the language of sickness when he says “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” In our church, we are fond of saying that we are a hospital where everyone is sick and in need of healing. So, I do not mean to say that it is incorrect to speak of sin as spiritual sickness. The problem arises when you don’t speak of sin in other terms, like rebellion, or idolatry. Especially in today’s usage, speaking of sin exclusively as sickness implies that we are simply victims and are not responsible agents. We don’t blame someone for getting physically sick (usually) so why would we blame someone for being spiritually sick? This kind of language produces a one-sided view of sin that ignores our responsibility before God. We do need to be spiritually healed – from our own willful rebellion.

What do you think? How else have you seen church life affected by secular humanism?