“Descriptive, not Prescriptive,” part 4: Options and Patterns

Before I begin this entry, I need to make something clear to you, dear reader.  Some of the examples I use here are indeed topics of discussion and continuing growth in my church, and I am using them because they are very much on my heart of late.  But I am not picking on my church.  As my church has been prodded toward obedience on these things, it has responded very well.  So as I talk about evangelical resistance to growth in certain areas, that is not a passive-aggressive way of calling out recalcitrant people in my own circle.  There aren’t any.  I mean just what I say — I see this resistance in the broader evangelical church, and I am seeking to address it as best I can.

Options and Obedience

Many believers will simply fail to notice a biblical requirement — say, the one to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  They may have read those passages many times, but it simply doesn’t occur to them that they should do something in response.  The first time this dawns on them, it is because someone is pushing for a particular type of obedience — say, “We need to sing the Sons of Korah version of Psalm 148 in the service this Sunday.”   Upon being challenged as to why this is necessary, the speaker will respond with Ephesians 5:19.

The response at this point is pretty predictable.  “There’s nothing there that says we have to sing that particular song this particular morning.”

This is of course true.  The church could be in complete obedience to the biblical requirement and never sing any song by that particular band, ever. Unfortunately, too often what happens next is…nothing.

Because we need not sing that particular arrangement of that particular psalm this week, we don’t.  Also we don’t sing any other arrangement of that psalm.  Or any other psalm.  And in this way the fact that God gives us freedom in how we obey becomes the occasion for not obeying at all.

Patterns

This is where biblical patterns of obedience are so helpful to us.  The Bible not only gives us requirements to obey, it gives us patterns of obedience to emulate.  A particular example may not be the only way of obeying, but it is a way of obeying.  We don’t have to start from scratch.

The first problem evangelicals have with these patterns is failing to even notice them.  We notice that the early church successfully resolved an important theological disagreement in Acts 15, for example — but we pay no mind at all to how they did it.  We recognize the commands to be of one mind, to submit to one another, to contend earnestly for the faith, and so on.  And Acts 15 becomes a sermon illustration: “See, they stood up for the truth.  We should too.”

Yes, but how?  Are we acting in continuity with the way they did it?  We don’t know.  We never even checked to see how they did it.  We just take the goal that the requirement gives us, and improvise something that we think will get us there.

At some point, some observant soul may point out how they did it, back in the day.  “Look at what they did.  They appealed to another church with more theological ‘horsepower,’ they appointed a day to gather, they pursued the dispute until everyone had fallen silent, and then they responded, unanimously, to the issue.”

Most evangelicals respond to that observation in the same way that they do to the suggestion that we must sing this arrangement of this psalm this week.  That is, they say “Sure, that was a good way to do it.  But it’s descriptive, not prescriptive.  We don’t have to do it that way, just because they did.”

True, up to a point.  Every situation is somewhat different, and it is the province of God-given wisdom to appraise those differences and tweak our response accordingly.  This is to say that we will not respond in unison with our fathers at every point; sometimes we will be in harmony with them.

But what madness makes us suppose that we may simply invent an approach without regard for the examples that God gives us in inspired Scripture?  What makes us think that we may act out of harmony with the way in which our fathers obeyed?

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