This past Sunday at Renovation Church, we started a new teaching series through the Book of Acts. We will continue preaching verse-by-verse through this fascinating narrative on the early church, take a short break for a Christmas series, and then return to the book in early January.
One of the major things we must comprehend to faithfully read and apply the Book of Acts is the difference between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” when it comes to Biblical narrative. Unfortunately, time did not permit me to explain this concept on Sunday morning so I decided to write a short post to help you understand this in a way that is (hopefully) relevant and less scholarly.
First, let’s talk definitions. A “descriptive” event is, as the name implies, simply a description of something that happened without the intent of setting a new principle or practice. For example, when we see an event such as the early church choosing a new apostle through the casting of lots, it is not advocating that we should always and forever select church leaders by rolling a dice. Instead, the text is simply showing us how it was done in that particular situation.
A “prescriptive” event is a reality or principle that should remain true regardless of the circumstances. An example of a prescriptive event in the Book of Acts is the message found in Acts 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.” The “name” being spoken about is the name of Jesus. This is not simply a description of a sermon in the early church; this is the reality of the Gospel. Failure to believe this claim means you are not an orthodox Christian.
Simply stuff right?
It gets difficult when we try to teach on the gift of tongues, baptism in the Spirit, leadership roles for women in the church, etc. – These are all topics that good and Bible-believing Christians disagree on – often due to a misunderstanding of “prescriptive” and “descriptive” texts.
Truthfully, there is not a fool-proof way to discern whether a text is descriptive or prescriptive. One helpful thing we must keep in mind when we approach the Biblical text is the genre of the writing. Acts is a history (Yes, I understand it is different than a modern history text) and the primary purpose is to provide the history and story-line of the early church. For this reason, the bulk of the text is going to be descriptive and we must prayerfully discern the principles and underlying realities the Holy Spirit wants us to understand and apply from the text. Many of the Epistles (such as Romans), on the other hand, are prescriptive. There are clear commands to do and not to do certain activities. These moral and doctrinal commands are clearly rooted in the character of God and do not change with the circumstances surrounding them.
I write all of this with the primary purpose of getting you to begin asking these kinds of questions as we study the Book of Acts. I will try to make it clear in my teaching when I am touching on topics that good Christians disagree on and why I take a certain stand on the text. Nevertheless, there is room for loving disagreement. As a church, I want to encourage us to strive for this ancient ideal: “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
I pray and hope each of you are off to a good week. As always, if there is something I can be praying about or if you’d just like to talk, reach out to me. If you do not have my number you can send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org – Have a great week!