Monday, October 24, 2016

Inbox: Description vs. Prescription

In response to the post Is and Ought, Tertius writes:

“Long time Bible readers will make such distinctions, but perhaps not know the way to explain to others why they must be made. You have put a well packaged set of rules for interpretation and application in their hands and so are helping teachers how to teach; a much needed service to the Church.

An example or two of the common mistake of using the descriptive in the narrative in Acts as though it was prescriptive would be a useful addition.”

I agree. I think we can probably find several.

The book of Acts is primarily a historical document. It describes what the early church did, whether it was for good, for ill or morally neutral. It does not contain much prescriptive teaching. “You shalls” and “you shall nots” are notably absent from Luke’s narrative.

A Hypothetical

Suppose you find yourself involved in a well-attended weekly Bible study meeting in a local basement. Several people from the neighbourhood have come to Christ and are growing in the faith. Others who have drifted from church to church for years say they are finding the studies tremendously beneficial. One night about a year in, somebody pipes up and says, “You know, this should really be a church”. A number of the regulars agree.

These are mostly evangelicals who have tried different denominational approaches and for various reasons have found them wanting. If they were looking for a standard church format, they’d already be Baptists or Pentecostals. You recognize quickly that there’s no future to be had in merely copying what is already being done by the denominations in your neighbourhood even if you wanted to go that route. So you decide to be a “New Testament church”, whatever that might end up meaning.

You are currently studying the book of Acts together. What sorts of things are you likely to find there about the local church, and to what degree might they be authoritative?

Where’s the Authority?

In Acts 2, we have the creation of the Church at Pentecost in Jerusalem. Subsequently we read this description of the way these early Christians occupied themselves:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Now, this is merely a description of what these new believers did. It is not framed as a command, and as such we would not normally consider it authoritative.

And yet it seems to have real authority behind it. Churches throughout the last two thousand years have operated primarily on this basis, with these four core mandates considered critical to their mission. Were they all wrong?

The Teaching of Christ

Of course not. But Acts 2:42 has commended itself to generations of believers as authoritative not because it is framed as a commandment (it isn’t), but because it conveniently distills into a single verse much that was taught both explicitly and implicitly in the gospels by Jesus Christ himself:
All the early church is really doing in Acts 2:42 is following the fundamental teachings of Christ.

The Teaching of the Epistles

If the teaching of Jesus Christ is insufficient reason (though I’m not sure how it could be), the four things with which the early church occupied itself in Acts 2:42 are also later taught prescriptively in the epistles:
The four fundamentals of New Testament church life are valid not simply because the early church did them and we feel like maybe we should copy them, but because any of us who wish to follow in the footsteps of the early church have been clearly told to do them too. They stand on the greatest of possible foundations. They are not matters of opinion or mere incidentals. If you are looking to turn your little home Bible study into a real, New Testament church, there’s a solid place to start.

History vs. Commandments

But how authoritative are the recorded habits and practices of early churches that find no clear basis in the teaching of Jesus Christ or his apostles?
  • Are we, for instance, to anticipate being able to heal beggars because God did so through Peter and others? Should healings be a regular feature of church life? I would suggest the absence of direct instruction from either the Lord Jesus or the apostles to us on that issue speaks for itself.
  • Or should we, as the early church did, contemplate selling off our land and houses to share the proceeds with our fellow believers in need? I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world, frankly, but I note that this is never commanded of us. We are encouraged to share with those in need, but it is left to the discretion of each individual believer how best to apply that principle in their own situation. Again, the key is that the absence of direct instruction from either the Lord Jesus or the apostles to us on this subject suggests a lighter, less legalistic touch.
  • Should we meet on the first day of the week to break bread, as they did at least once in Troas? There’s nothing wrong with doing so, certainly, but we must remember Luke is merely telling us what the church in Troas did, not what God commands.
If our little home church chooses to copy the Christians in Troas, we must be careful not to stand in judgment on other Christians who might choose a different day of the week on which to gather.

Where we have no direct command from the Lord or his apostles, it would seem we are free to build the local church as seems wise to us in our own generation. The history of the churches as established in the book of Acts or elsewhere may certainly be helpful or suggestive as we seek the will of God for our particular group of believers.

In the absence of direct prescriptive teaching, however, I do not believe history can truly be authoritative.

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