Arts & Culture

The Importance of ‘Cultural Sanctification’ in the Modern Church

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The church in the West currently finds itself in an increasingly turbulent culture, and many church leaders are wondering how to remain within the culture while also remaining faithful to the teachings of God’s Word. In his book, Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church, Dr. Stephen Presley seeks to provide a way forward for Christians grappling with our cultural chaos. Dr. Presley serves as a senior fellow for religion and public life at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and he is also an associate professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Dr. Presley uses the early church’s cultural context as a comparable example to the cultural situation of the contemporary church. The book opens with a relatively lengthy introduction that lays the foundation for the rest of the book, and the central thesis of the book centers on a cultural engagement approach entitled cultural sanctification. Dr. Presley writes, “In essence, early Christian cultural engagement was defined not by an isolation or confrontation but by what we might call a ‘cultural sanctification.’”

Dr. Presley is juxtaposing the idea of cultural sanctification against the approaches of isolation and confrontation. Christians who isolate from the world try to remove themselves from culture to avoid being tempted by it. In a confrontational approach, Christians might seek to influence culture by publicly campaigning against its unbiblical practices. Dr. Presley offers a third way, and it is that of cultural sanctification, and he suggests this is the approach most closely aligned to that of the early church.

What are the characteristics of cultural sanctification? Dr. Presley writes,

Cultural sanctification recognizes that Christians are necessarily embedded within their culture and must seek sanctification (both personal and corporate) in a way that draws upon the forms and features of their environment to transform them by pursuing virtue.

Notice that by this description, cultural sanctification does not involve isolating oneself or the church from the world, nor does it look to human institutions for salvific purposes. Its approach encourages Christians to recognize they live in a specific culture and country, but they are ultimately pilgrims in that place.

Furthermore, Christians should seek to influence society with the good of the Gospel in every social arena, including government, but this approach does not look to worldly institutions as the answer because ultimately this fallen world is not our home. In cultural sanctification, the church exists in the dichotomy of both indigenization and pilgrimage. 

This book could be especially helpful for pastors and leaders who are equipping Christians to remain faithful and effective in our current cultural setting. Dr. Presley’s book can serve as an encouragement because if the early church thrived in somewhat similar circumstances, we can too. We serve the same resurrected Christ as early Christians, and he is still building his church.

Despite what we see on the news, the Kingdom of God is advancing, and Dr. Presley’s book is a reminder that the church can thrive even during difficult times.

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