I was young and God was blowing up my world. I’d tasted the poison of the world and had found fulfillment in Christ. An unquenchable desire to be in God’s Word was in my heart. I would find myself reading the Bible yearning for God to use it to change me. I’m thankful that He met my desire and continues to do so.
But there was a problem, and it was huge. Why didn’t the church that I was a part of look like the church that I was reading about in the Bible? I would read about the church gathering together on a daily basis. I would read about all-night prayer meetings where God broke people out of jail (how stinkin’ awesome is that!!). Ownership of possessions was seen as being more fluid than most of us today would be comfortable with. The Lord was adding to the church daily. Miraculous healings were commonplace. God was adamant in displaying his glory and love through church discipline (remember Ananias and Sapphira???).
I could go on but I will spare you because I know that you get the point. As I read the Bible I was continuously comparing what I was reading with what I was witnessing in my church and in other churches. They didn’t line up and I didn’t know why. What I didn’t yet know was that I was wading into the waters of the Prescriptive vs. Descriptive dilemma.
The Dilemma: To Do Or Not To Do?
The question is not one of obedience. The question is one of hermeneutics and interpretation. For example, when it says that Paul took a boat and set sail for Syria (Acts 18:18), am I to see that as prescribing a certain mode of transportation, or am I to see that as simply describing what happened? Must I take a boat, or do I have the liberty to take a car? Or what about a bicycle? Four Wheeler? Golf Cart? Hang Glider? Will God remove his providential hand from my ministry if I parachute in from a Gulfstream V? Can I (Lord forbid!) WALK????
You might see that example as having an obvious answer but others aren’t nearly as clearly defined. To return to the previous example, must Christians meet together daily, or was Acts 2 simply describing their habit? Do we have the liberty to meet less often, or must we follow their example? What about the frequency of the Lord’s Supper? If it is true that early Christians ate of the Lord’s Supper on at least a weekly basis (and by the way, I believe the evidence leans heavily in this direction) must we or should we follow their example?
These questions led me into a spiritual fog. The following five guidelines have helped bring me out.
See The Trees AND The Forest.
Biblical theology helps tremendously in this area. Being able to see the meta-narrative of scripture aids the reader in deciding whether the details displayed in a narrative are symptomatic of overarching principles that are weaved through God’s Word. If you don’t have at least a basic grasp of the ‘big picture’ of the Bible, get one. Study. Read. Know how it all comes together. Without this knowledge our interpretation of scripture is often crippled, lame, and biased.
Ask: Is There A Principle Behind The Action?
Sometimes the nugget of overarching truth being conveyed is not necessarily the action in the narrative. Instead we may need to look for the principle that brings about the action. The principle may very well be universal while the particular action works its way out in a culturally-palpable way. Don’t read “Paul took a boat to Syria” and think “I must take a boat”. Instead, think “I need to care desperately about making disciples in the most efficient, effective ways possible”.
What’s Your ‘Gut’ Feeling?
Be careful with this one. Sometimes that gut feeling you feel is just a leftover mango-jalapeno chicken wing that hasn’t yet worked its way through the proper digestive channels. Other times your gut feeling is based on a past sermon you’ve heard or teaching you’ve encountered, whether you remember it or not. Spiritual muscle memory can often hinder our hermeneutical process, but it can sometimes help it. This is one area where it may happen to be beneficial.
Pray and Trust
If you have been Born Again then you have the Holy Spirit living in you. The presence of the Holy Spirit does not diminish the need for careful exegesis. Rather, it reinforces it. Beg God to show you the balance in scripture between what is prescribed and what is described. Trust that His desire is that you rightfully divide the Word.
Offer abundant grace to our Sister Churches.
Although they may not remember what it is, there’s a reason churches do what they do. The older I’ve gotten the more gracious I’ve become toward other churches and the way they work out this dilemma in practical matters. Let’s be gracious toward one another. Besides, we’re all playing on the same team.
And Now What?
There are no hard and fast rules that pull us completely out of this dilemma. Do your best. Study hard. Be open to correction. Preach, teach and apply the Word as best you can. Give the glory to God believing that he’ll lead you in the fog.