The New Testament Scriptures – Descriptive or Prescriptive?
Do the New Testament Scriptures command us to gather and worship God according to the Conventional Church “Worship Service”?
I would like to give my answer – or answers – and then explain why I have arrived at these answers: The answer is NO – the New Testament scriptures do not command us to gather and worship God in this way – or in any other prescribed way. The New Testament scriptures may encourage us as to why we should gather; but do not command us where, when, or how to gather. Therefore, we are not commanded to gather and worship God in what has become the conventional or customary “worship service”, nor in a way which resembles the synagogue service gathering.
The New Testament scriptures describe where, when, and how the early Christians gathered, but do not prescribe where, when, and how we are to gather. And, just before we discuss the words “descriptive” and “prescriptive”, I would like to state the end of the matter: Not only concerning gatherings – but in all things – both the Holy Spirit, and the New Testament authors whom He inspired, intended to both describe and prescribe Jesus Christ – and that is, not according to the letter, but according to the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:21) – the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:2)
Descriptive or Prescriptive?
When we read of the activities of the first century church in the Book of Acts, which may also be referred to in the various Epistles, are we to take what we read as Prescriptive or Descriptive? This is discussed at length in A New & Living Way series: Elementary Principles of the World: Conventional Worship Praxes.
But suffice to say here:
- “Descriptive” simply means “What did happen”. Generally speaking, the Book of Acts is – It is an historical account of what did happen.
- “Prescriptive” simply means “What should” Generally speaking, the Epistles are prescriptive. – They give instructions on what to do and what not to do.
- Descriptive passages tell us what did happen, but not what should happen. What happened in the first century church may be instructive and may be (or may not be) beneficial to imitate (unless directly led by the Spirit to do so), but may not necessarily be something that we are commanded to imitate. The fact that something did happen is not an edict of what must happen. Descriptive is not Prescriptive.
- Beyond this, we need to exercise a fundamental principle of hermeneutics by asking: What is the author’s intent in the passage – to prescribe or to describe? What we are looking for is not what we intend to do with the scripture passage, but what did the author intended to communicate through the scripture passage. The insistent demand of our pragmatic culture to always “make practical life applications” of scripture, may often actually encourage a specious use of scripture. In any case, not everything is “about us”, and there is plenty of scripture which reveals God that is not necessarily directly applicable to our current material lives. In their book, “How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth”, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart say: “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narratives or described does not function in a normative way.” (p. 124. Cf. pp. 126-130 for “6 Hermeneutical Principles for Interpreting Acts”)
Although some see the Book of Acts as normative, being an historical record, it should rather be understood as being generally descriptive. Some arguments specifically against the Book of Acts being generally prescriptive are:
- All the way up to his arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21), Paul continued to practice in public Jewish customs based on the Mosaic Law. This is descriptive. Paul himself, later prescribed not to do this.
- Because something is mentioned once in an historical record (the Book of Acts), it is likely no more than an assumption to conclude that it was practiced by all the churches in all the places all the time, and thus, assumed to be normative. While the concept of “restoration” is not erroneous in essence, it has been misappropriated by some contingents of the Body of Christ in an effort to restore “the New Testament Pattern”.
- The prescriptive seems to contradict the nature of the New Covenant in essence – namely, it should be a ministry “according to the Spirit, not according to the letter”. (2 Corinthians 3:6) The principle (or law) of the New Covenant is: “I have given You as a covenant…” (Isaiah 42:6) – that is, “The Law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2)
- – namely, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”. (Romans 8:2)
- The New Testament scriptures are not a “law”, but are rather descriptive of Christ.
- When looking at a passage in the Book of Acts – or the Epistles – we need to ask: “Did Jesus command His disciples to do this?” A custom, which may have good aspects, is not necessarily a command. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus commanded perfection (completeness – that is, in every possible situation). What we see in the New Testament scriptures are helpful as examples (descriptions) and principles, but as prescriptions, they fall short of the perfection of Christ – specifically, they do not take in every possible situation – they are not complete.
Some Non-prescriptive Descriptions in the New Testament
As I said, I have dealt with these things in the article Elementary Principles of the World: Conventional Worship Praxes. There I specifically discussed these activities of the early church in the Book of Acts:
- Gathering together on the first day of the week
- The Collection
- The Lord’s Supper
While many consider these activities found in the Book of Acts to be prescriptive and have become custom in the conventional “worship service” and also in Organic Church meetings, they are, in fact, descriptive (See Elementary Principles of the World: Conventional Worship Praxes).
Also, a favorite activity of Organic Church adherents –
- the “Body ministry” which is found in the epistle, 1 Corinthians 14:26 – that is, each person at a gathering “has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation of a tongue”.
While I believe this format for a gathering can be spiritually beneficial – more so with disciples established in the spiritual disciplines, who know the Lord, and know how to receive life from the Head and share it with the members of the Body, I propose that to say this particular format was normative for the first century church and is therefore prescriptive for the church today is merely an assumption. Nowhere in the scriptures did Paul instruct the Corinthians – or any other church – to carry on this specific activity when gathering. There is no indication in scripture that other churches in other locations carried on this specific activity when gathering. They may have; but it is not recorded in scripture. To say it was normative is an assumption. He was merely describing the Corinthians’ customary gatherings. And Paul’s intention in the passage was to prescribe that “all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (1 Corinthians 14:40; Cf. v.26-39)
I must say that the “descriptive” / “prescriptive” paradigm is not satisfying to me, as I see the whole idea of prescriptions of certain activities as being at the very core of “the elementary principles of the world.” (Galatians 4:3, 9; Colossians 2:8, 20) It is not the activities themselves which are problematic, it is the prescribing of those activities which I perceive as “of the letter” and therefore violating the essence of the New Covenant by promoting a ministry “of the letter” rather than “of the Spirit” – “the Law of Christ”, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”. I am more of the persuasion to say, in a manner of speaking: Whatever we see in the New Testament scriptures that is descriptive of Christ is prescriptive. I believe it was the intention of the Holy Spirit and the authors He inspired to both describe and prescribe CHRIST through the New Testament scriptures.
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