Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The continuing conversation

Alan Knox is piggybacking on the topic from Guy Muse regarding the book of Acts and whether it is descriptive or prescriptive. Alan broadens the discussion by looking at the examples provided to us in Scripture and how we should treat them: For I have given you an example. I like where Alan went with his thinking, to John 13: 1-15 where Jesus washes the feet of His disciples and says that the example He has given us is what we also ought to be doing. Alan reprinted his comment to Guy and concluded with:

Are the narrative passages of Scripture prescriptive (normative) for followers of Christ today? It depends on what you mean by prescriptive. Should we do exactly what those early believers (or Jesus) did? Probably not. Should we learn from their example and live accordingly (you could call this by principle, if you choose)? Yes, I think so.

That is true but it is also where the issue gets tricky. I made the following comment on Alan’s blog:

This conversation, speaking globally not just about the conversation here, is so important but it also makes my eye twitch. It is so easy to dismiss many of the narrative passages (not to mention the passages that are more clearly prescriptive) as merely cultural while not facing up to the reality that perhaps they are still normative today. It is very easy to lose the principle while setting aside the practice and some principles are very difficult replicate in a different practice. My instinct is to apply Scripture, whether a passage is generally regarded as descriptive or prescriptive, as literally as possible. That doesn’t mean I am doing so perfectly nor does it mean that my motivations are completely proper in each case but I think we are better off obeying as a sign of our love for Christ than making Scripture justify itself.

Wow this is important stuff (not my comment, the whole topic)! The potential danger I see in these conversations (and I am not saying Alan or any of the commenter’s are doing this) is that we start to carve out more and more of Scripture and dismiss the practice we see as cultural because it seems so odd or primitive to us. Most church groups don’t wash one another’s feet because we don’t wear sandals. OK but what do we do in place of that? What is a culturally equivalent action? Just thinking nice thoughts about service and uttering pious sounds in favor of humility and sacrifice doesn’t count and there are far too many places in Scripture where the church has slowly abandoned the practice but in doing so we have also abandoned the principle. Foot washing is an act of submission and humility. What is the equivalent today? Is there anything like it today that expresses the same humility, intimacy and servanthood? If not are we ignoring the words of Christ Himself? What about raising our hands in prayer? Greeting one another with a holy kiss? Women covering their heads when praying or prophesying?

Of course there can be empty observance and that is the flip side of the issue. You can wash someone’s feet without truly having a servant’s heart. A woman can cover her head and not be Biblically submissive. My wife and I talk about that all the time. You can not forsake assembling together by sitting mutely in your pew once a week like clockwork. Just rigidly doing something because you read it in the Bible may not be the right way to go. Of course there are some things that we do that we may not understand but we do them anyway, just because that is what we are told to do.

We need balance here as we do everywhere. Our default must be to embrace and apply the commands we have received as well as the examples we have been provided. We should be studying both principle and practice throughout the Scriptures. I don’t believe that there is a wasted or irrelevant narrative anywhere in Scripture. Every event, every command, every exhortation, every example is recorded for our benefit. Our challenge is to be faithful to Scripture in both principle and practice.


Tim A said...

Very well said.

For me, everything that is essential is well documented prescriptively. The description parts are just added frosting. I don't meet in small, mutual driven fellowship in a home because of the description in Acts. I do it because the alternative is grossly rebellious to clear instructions. Just Heb. 10:24,25 by itself should be obvious enough to repent and be transformed.

Alan Knox said...


That is a great observation. Here's a conversation that I've had many, many times:

Me: "The Bible says we should do X as followers of Jesus Christ."
Other person: "We can't do X because of the way (place, time, format) we meet together as the church."
Me: "Then perhaps you should change the way you meet so you can obey God in X."
Other person: "But, Scripture doesn't tell us exactly how to meet, so we have freedom in how we meet."