Although a fact of life that sometimes leads to humourous outcomes, misunderstanding usually leads to undesirable results.
Misunderstanding occurs when we fail to recognize the context and the intent with which something is communicated.
When we study the Bible, we refer to this as authorial intent.
When a person says something, we filter their words through our own presuppositions, assumptions, and experiences to decide what we think they meant. But what they intended to communicate may be different than our interpretations.
Studying Scripture can be difficult because we don’t always understand what the authors intended to communicate.
As we think about the church and how it functions, we need to discern what the Bible does or does not say about it. Specifically, we need to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is prescriptive in Scripture.
Before coming to any conclusions on the biblicality of church membership, I want to examine these two concepts.
Church Membership Series:
1. It Is Time to Rethink Church Membership
2. The Evolution of Church Membership
3. Did the First-Century Church Have Members?
4. Does the Bible Actually Support Church Membership?
5. Biblical Arguments Against Church Membership
6. Why We Misunderstand Church Membership (this article)
Descriptive passages recount events, customs, or practices as they occurred without necessarily prescribing specific actions or beliefs. They provide historical or cultural context, offering insights into the lives of people, societies, and events in the biblical narrative.
These passages may include narratives, historical accounts, genealogies, cultural practices, geographical descriptions, and personal anecdotes. These portions of Scripture are useful for providing context that we otherwise may not have, but they also teach us about who God is and how he works in and through his creation.
Rather than telling us how to live, descriptive passages often tell us how other people lived and give us helpful principles to consider as we live.
For example, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John contain descriptive passages that detail the life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus Christ.
We are not commanded to walk on water or heal people like Jesus did, but we see how those things point to Christ’s deity. We are not commanded to wake up early to pray like Jesus did, but we see that there is value in preparing for each day the way Jesus did.
Prescriptive passages provide explicit instructions, commands, or teachings that are intended to guide behavior, beliefs, or practices. These principles are meant to be followed by believers.
Like descriptive passages, prescriptive passages often convey God’s will, moral standards, ethical principles, and guidelines for righteous living they go a step further, however, by telling us what we need to do.
The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 are prescriptive passages that provide specific commands from God regarding moral and ethical behavior. God describes who he is in that passage, but he also expects man to respond to that knowledge of him with a number of specific actions and behaviors.
Interpreting Descriptive Passages
- Historical and Cultural Context: Understand the historical and cultural context in which the passage was written, including the social, political, and religious environment of the time. Examine the cultural customs, practices, and norms of the people described in the passage, being mindful of differences between ancient and modern cultures.
- Literary Genre: Recognize the literary genre of the passage (e.g., historical narrative, poetry, prophecy) and interpret it accordingly, considering the use of literary devices and figurative language. This is especially important with Old Testament Scripture.
Interpreting Prescriptive Passages
- Clarity of Command: Pay attention to the clarity and specificity of the command or instruction given in the passage, understanding its intended application.
- Harmonizing Scripture: Interpret prescriptive passages in light of the broader biblical context, ensuring that interpretations align with the overall message and principles of Scripture.
- Universal vs. Contextual Application: Determine whether the command or instruction is intended to apply universally across all contexts or is specific to a particular historical or cultural setting. Then consider how the principles and teachings can be applied to contemporary life, discerning their relevance and implications for believers today.
Differentiating Descriptive and Prescriptive Passages
We need to avoid confusing descriptive passages for prescriptive passages and vice versa.
Not all behaviors or practices described in the Bible are meant to be emulated, so we should refrain from imposing prescriptive meanings or applications onto descriptive passages where none exist.
Nevertheless, we often take these descriptive passages and treat them like God’s commands for us. For example, it would be wrong to say that churches are supposed to meet in homes because of the descriptive account that we read in Acts 2:46.
It is also wrong to say that churches are supposed to meet in a church building since the early church worshiped God in the temple in Acts 2:46. This is a description of what happened, not a command for us.
Colossians 3:16, on the other hand, is an example of a prescriptive passage for the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
The church is supposed to function with everyone contributing to the growth of one another. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, and some churches focus more on doing things that aren’t in Scripture rather than practicing clear commands like this one!
By distinguishing between descriptive and prescriptive passages and applying appropriate principles of interpretation, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the biblical text and its significance for faith and practice…and the church.
None of us should claim that anything is biblical or not until we have applied proper study methods to the topic.
Much of the discussion about church membership requires a proper delineation between descriptive and prescriptive passages in the New Testament. I hope to treat these passages fairly when providing my own perspective on church membership.
Do you think the Bible describes or prescribes church membership?