As we read through the scriptures, we are frequently challenged by the question of application. Specifically, “What is its meaning for today?” Jesus’ own words and instructions are hard enough. Throughout the Gospels in general and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, we see that the way of God’s Kingdom is more difficult to live by that we can imagine. And yet, Jesus tells his followers that his “yoke is easy and burden light.” Sometimes we overlook this discordance by minimizing the meaning of one side over the other. Other times, we apply one text over others depending on our specific situation at the time. Beyond the personal application is the meaning for the church at large.
For the past 20-ish years now, I’ve been a part of what’s called the Restoration Movement. With roots in the Second Great Awakening in the United States, the Restoration Movement’s desire was to return the church to the practices as described in the New Testament- the book of Acts and the various epistles in particular. As these texts are read and practices observed, the question to be asked is, “Are these practices descriptive, or prescriptive?”
A descriptive practice is merely something that was observed. In the book of Acts, we see many things that are descriptive in nature: sermons are given, prayers are prayed, actions are taken. It is possible (and most likely) that some, if not many, of the things that took place in the early church were not meant to be repeated. Others, however, were.
A prescriptive practice is something that was meant to be repeated. It’s a rule or method.
- A church needs leadership. What should this leadership look like? What are the character traits that are desirable among those leaders? How are those leaders chosen?
- Christians are to make disciples through the proclamation of the Word. How are we to proclaim the gospel? How might the way that we proclaim the gospel be different depending on who we are speaking with?
- People have differing roles within the church. How are those roles similar? How are they different? What happens when people fill roles they are not meant to fill?
The third word now becomes important. Sufficiency. Is scripture sufficient? Is it enough? Do we believe that scripture tells us what communion looks like? Can we rely on it alone to inform our methods for choosing leaders?
I’ll add a final word. Context. Context is king. What did the text mean to the writer? What did it mean to the initial reader? Why were the given words written? What did they mean in the original language? If we do not take the time to ask, answer, deal with and respond to these questions, we’ll find ourselves using descriptive observations to make prescriptive decisions. Or, we’ll take things that were meant as methods and/or practices to be continued, and view them only as historical things that happened once, and are open to modification or interpretations. Context, then, becomes a guardrail of sorts.
My point is this. Scripture is not always as clear and neat as we’d like for it to be. Many people love to talk about the difference between the Old and New Testaments. Conversations about shellfish, the stoning of homosexuals, a “kind and just God” abound. These issues demand answers. Christians should not flee these discussions.
Scripture must be wrestled with because of what it says, because of the claims about truth it makes It must be discerned, discussed and understood. And once understood, we must decide what we are to do with it. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about the book of Acts from a descriptive/prescriptive standpoint.
I’d love to hear and see your thoughts on these matters.