Ending the Descriptive-Prescriptive Battle Once and For All


Bible with crossNothing infuriates me more than trying to use the Book of Acts to teach people how to live, only to run into some footsoldier of the descriptive-prescriptive battle. These folks love to put the kibosh on one mention after another of how the early Church functioned, particularly when someone asks why today’s Church isn’t functioning that way.

Their mantra goes like this: “Yes, the early Church did ___________, but the Book of Acts is descriptive, not prescriptive. Just because we see ___________ described in Acts doesn’t mean we have to make it a practice for us today.”


I tend to hear from those same people how God is not the author of confusion, but honestly, their position on this battle is one of the most confusing, illogical, anti-intellectual streams of thought that exists in contemporary theology and Bible exegesis.

Consider this:

1. The unconverted did not do ___________.

2. The Holy Spirit comes into the lives of the unconverted and converts them.

3. The converted now do ___________.

I don’t know about you, but if someone goes from NOT doing something to doing it after the Holy Spirit has changed him or her, it would seem to me that ___________ is near and dear to the heart of God.

How, then, is it irrational to think that we should be doing ___________ today? Yet that is what the descriptive-prescriptive battler wants to make into an issue.

Here are two classic examples of descriptive actions in Acts that these folks can’t abide for us to emulate:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
—Acts 2:44-45

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts…
—Acts 2:46

Christians who wage war on the descriptions above do so because they can’t stand to consider the implications of meeting together daily in each other’s homes for meals and fellowship, while also giving up their hard-earned stuff so that a brother or sister can have a need met. Where I come from, there is a description for that: hardheartedness.

Doesn’t it seem obvious that a group of people who once did neither of those things suddenly started doing them once they were touched by the Spirit of God? Doesn’t that have any implications for us?

John Piper recently lamented how some Christians seem more pumped up about the latest film in theaters than they do about Jesus. Given the circles I run in, you can substitute electronic gadget for film in theaters, but you get the point. Jesus doesn’t seem to excite people as much as the inconsequential does, even when those people are Christians.

I would contend that the unholy mindset that seeks to diminish the implications of the descriptive portions of the New Testament is partially responsible for the situation Piper decries. Wielded as a club, that mentality beats down the very heart of what Acts is saying to us about what is good, pure, noble, and true. Acts depicts what is normative in the Christian life, and the reason it is so (and should be) is because the Holy Spirit of God is at the heart of the changes we see in the lives of people who once didn’t give a damn about the guy next door, then suddenly they’re meeting in that guy’s house and sharing Jesus together daily. And when they’re doing so, the world’s junk seems far less attractive and Jesus a whole lot more.

Instead, most of us sit passively in church for at most 90 minutes one day a week, listening to a select few people telling us how we’re doing life wrong, and here are some Bible verse pills to make it all better, and you better down them right now or else.  But folks, that dead way of living is the fruit of taking the vitality of Acts and wringing the life out of it because we’ve listened far too long to the voices that tell us, “Well, ___________ is descriptive and not prescriptive.”

It’s the sour grapes we now eat and explains why we love Jack and Jill more than Jesus.

(If you truly want to be grieved by this descriptive-prescriptive fruit, see “God-Connections in Church Are Rare, Study Says.”)

13 thoughts on “Ending the Descriptive-Prescriptive Battle Once and For All

  1. Bob Aarhus

    “Christians who wage war on the descriptions above do so because they can’t stand to consider the implications of meeting together daily in each other’s homes for meals and fellowship, while also giving up their hard-earned stuff so that a brother or sister can have a need met.”

    That, in a nutshell, is the issue. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, and our respective levels of blessing are a result of our obedience to God; if you’re not blessed, well, maybe you’re doing something wrong, and I really don’t want to associate with you any more than I have to. And, in order to get more of what’s mine, I’m Just Too Busy.

    Now, to be fair, we don’t live in the same hovel for most if not all of our lifetimes, we frequently travel far from our homesteads/birthplaces, and we don’t know our neighbors nearly as well as we could or should. It’s a challenge in this day and age. But if these difficulties have evolved, so have our distractions (movies, gadgets, etc.) that fill up our ‘free’ time and give us excuses not to meet.

    I’ve recently started tracking all of my activities through a nifty little iPhone app, and have found that I indeed spend an inordinate amount of time on entertainment, the Internet, responding to Blog posts…er…uh…anyways, would some of this time be better spent in fellowship? You bet. But we’ve eased out of that mode, and the excuses continue to mount.

  2. I wrote about something similar today. I don’t believe we can necessarily recreate the first century church, I do believe we are called to the same attitude. They were first devoted to Christ, then to each other. It was this devotion that caused them to do what they did, to lay down their lives for each other. That is what we are to be willing to do. It may result in the same actions, but it will also result in other things that the early Christians knew nothing about. The love and devotion is definitely prescriptive, while the actual actions may be considered descriptive.

  3. alan

    Right on, Dan. Too many 21st century believers in the US with seemingly terminal cases of affluenza. For those people, anything approximating the early church dilutes the status and appearance of their accumulated wealth.

  4. Descriptive-Prescriptive battles over the book of Acts, eh?

    Hey, that’s nothing compared to what’s happened to John 14:12.

    Let’s be honest. Five-nines of xtians simply do not believe this verse, and will come up with the most squirrelly devices to explain it away. We would be more honest if we simply tooks some scissors and cut it out of our Bibles.

    • alan

      Good point for certain, but not the subject of Dan’s post. Please stay on topic. One of the major pitfalls of web forums is hijacked topics. John 14:12 deserves much attention. But John 14:12 is not the subject of Dan’s post. Please open your own forum if that verse is your life mission.

      • Alan: …if that verse is your life mission.

        Huh? My life mission? Are you kidding me?

        But my point—admittedly very tersely stated and liable to be misunderstood—is that the church has been bogged down for a long time in concocting complex theological systems for explaining away its lack of any kind of power: in other words, our experience often dictates our theology, in that our lack of experience leads to complex systems explaining why we never have the experience. Now the specific “prescriptive-descriptive” battle regarding the book of Acts, mentioned by Dan, is just one example of concocted intellectual devices for explaining away things. Formal cessationism and hyper-dispensationalism are other examples that I can think of. The verse I mentioned above is involved in just one more example of the same tendency to construct systems, only this time it happens to involve another book in the New Testament. But the underlying tendency is universal. In my opinion, much of it has to do with being very comfortable with what we have, along with institutional partisanism, added to which is the strong desire to prevent anyone else from daring to suggest that maybe there is really more to the story.

        But this is just a silly comment box, and it’s not my life’s mission to write out a big long dissertations in comment boxes. Anyhow, Dan knows who I am, and I think he understands my point, and besides he is perfectly capable of policing his own comment boxes.

        • It did occur to me later…or maybe it was revealed to me, who knows? But it occured to me later that what was said in John 14:12 is actually very relevant after all: much of what happens in Acts is illustrative what the Lord meant in John 14:12. Acts demonstrates the truth of John 14:12.

          That our comtemporary experience falls way short of what we find in the book of Acts simply illustrates the current state of our hardened unbelief…although we like to pat ourselves on the back and think instead that it somehow proves the cleverness of our theology.

          So I plead “not guilty” to the charge of being off topic and attempting to hijack Dan’s web forum.

      • Alan,

        While I appreciate the effort, I can police my own blog. And I don’t think what Oengus posted is in any way off-topic. In fact, I find it extremely on-topic. Tangential, perhaps, but thinking about what he says leads to connecting the dots.

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