Church History professor Stephen Presley sat down with Jonathan Pennington at the Bookstore at Southern to discuss his recent book Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church. In a secularizing age when Christians are divided on how to respond to a post-Christian culture, Presley believes looking to the example of the Early Church can help offer a way forward.

“Two streams come together in this book,” Presley said. “I grew up Southern Baptist and became enamored with the Church Fathers. But I am a churchman, I have a family, and I live in this world, so there was a natural gravitational pull to the present day. I started to see similarities between the present church and today. The book became the fruit of that interaction.”

The Pre-Constantine Church Fathers provide three ways for Christians to engage the culture that are still valuable today.

Cultivate a Christian Identity

The church’s earliest context resembles the modern West in many ways. How did Christians in the first three centuries view their task of engaging a non-Christian culture? This is the primary question Presley tackles. The Early Church prioritized communal and personal sanctification to fortify Christian identity that was not confused with the pagan culture.

“When you live in a world devoid of Christian moral values, it is important to be formed in your spiritual and moral convictions,” Presley said. “Catechesis and discipleship proved essential for the church to hold their theological and moral convictions to live lives of virtue.”

According to Presley, The Epistle to Diognetus sets up a paradigm of living in the world but not of the world that the Early Church tried to embrace.

Cultivate a Culturally Discerning Spiritual Life

Drawing from the catechesis and discipleship, the Early Church demonstrated the importance of developing discernment.

“Discernment has active and passive responses,” Presley said. “It helps Christians navigate within the culture, not just through intellectual ideas, but the way those ideas take form.”

Pennington likewise believes that Christians should not be surprised to be on the outside of the cultural power because this is the expected experience of Christians inhabiting the world.

“I often tell my congregation we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in conflict with the culture,” Pennington said. “The real question is how to navigate it.”

Navigating requires discipleship and a spiritually informed discernment.

Cultivate the Virtue of Hope

Hope influenced the earliest Christians to do good in the world because the gospel message was about the restoration of the world, not the erasure of the world.

“We live in an anxious age where we need to rest in the hope of the gospel and resurrection,” Presley said. “Resurrection and beatitude were essential to everything in the early church,” Presley said. “I had often read the Fathers thinking about hope as something in the future, but every action was an attempt to help the people live in hope.”

Pennington noted the similarities between faith and hope in the New Testament and believes living with a living hope like the Early Church is the answer for the anxious modern day.

“Cultural sanctification is really a missiological idea,” Pennington said. “The church lives Christianly embedded in the world—not retreating and not living that a takeover of political authorities is the way forward for the church. Rather, Christians are called to be a local non-anxious presence.”

View the full discussion.