Description vs. Prescription

You shouldn’t do everything in the Bible.

…Hmm? Still here? Okay, cool.

It’s an odd phrase for a Christian to say: you shouldn’t do everything in the Bible. It’s true, though. Even the most hard-up, old-school, fundamentalist Christians can agree on this. Yes, the Bible is our source, we believe the Bible is the ultimate authority and without error, but to do everything in the Bible is not only impossible, not only contradictary to Christianity…it’s just plain stupid!

Should Christians go and build an ark? Should we make animal sacrifices to God? If an evil corporation is in our way, should we walk around it in circles and then shout like in Joshua? (Please do that, it’d really make me smile.) Of course not! Any idiot can agree that there is a difference between description and prescription.

Description: Something that happened. John ate three waffles, six eggs, and a holiday ham.

Prescription: Something you should do. Don’t eat the yellow snow.

Knowing the difference between a descriptive and prescriptive passage of the Bible could literally save your life. Matthew 27:5 says, “[Judas] went and hanged himself.”

Hop on![Source: Google]
Hop on!
[Source: Google]
I’m dealing in extremes, of course, but there are a lot of Christians who take the Bible a little too prescriptively. I hear this a lot from the book of Acts, like how the disciples all met in homes. I’ve heard stories of Christians who take that as a “must,” so they only meet in homes and they think it’s wrong to go to an actual church building.

The problem is that the disciples met in homes for a their own reasons: first and foremost, thre WAS no church for them. Later on, there was persecution, so home was the safest place you could find.

The difference between description and prescription lies requires good interpretation of the Bible. The Bible is written in human words with human meanings, so we must read carefully as we do any other book. If a magazine said a new car costs an arm and a leg, would you really think to pay in limbs? Of course not; face-value is not always correct. The Bible is literature, so treat it as such.

Here are some tips for figuring out if a passage is descriptive or prescriptive:

  • HISTORICAL CONTEXT–What was happening at the time? Ex: See what I said about the book of Acts above.
  • LITERARY CONTEXT–What does the rest of the paragraph/book say? Ex: 1 Corinthians 11 sas that women should cover their heads when they pray and that it’s shameful for them to cut their hair. But then Verse 16 says, “If anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (NKJV). It was an isuse of custom, not doctrine. It was an issue for the Corinthian culture, not necessarily the church at large.
  • WHAT DOES THE REST OF THE BIBLE SAY?–Never ever ever ever ever ever EVER use a SINGLE verse as your doctrine for life. The entire Bible is canon, meaning it’s all in line with itself, so the Bible must support itself. Ex: 1 Corinthians 14:34 says that women must not speak in church. Sounds harsh! But nowhere else in the Bible does it say that women should not speak in church. It appears this was a matter for the Corinthians again. One theory is that women were causing trouble at the Cornthian church, but I have not studied the matter myself. But as the rest of the Bible doesn’t support shutting women up, I don’t try to shut mine up.
  • WHAT DOES GOD SAY?–Many times, the Bible says what happened, not just what SHOULD have happened. Ex. Genesis says that Lot slept with his two daughters. But elsewhere, God says incest is sin. Lot was indeed sinning, but Genesis is a historical account, so it says what happened, not just what should have happened.  

A lot of trouble and heresy can be avoided by knowing what things in the Bible should be done and what is simply a description. Use wisdom and explore the Bible to really get its full meaning. Otherwise, you twist the scripture, and I think theists and atheists can agree that there’s far too much of that.

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5 thoughts on “Description vs. Prescription

  1. So true! I think my biggest epiphany was when I realized that the Bible was literally about REAL people – they were not perfect, they did horrible things (David?? Yet a man after God’s own heart), but God blessed them because they truly desired His blessing and guidance. And an excellent point – just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t necessarily make it a commandment…a good incentive for me to truly study out what God really does say.

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  2. So many people take things out of context or forget to look at passages from a historical perspective. The Bible is my absolute favorite piece of literature! Good post, and advice!

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  3. It’s also true that God himself changes the way He wants things done. For example: He required certain sacrifices in the Old Testament that are no longer necessary since the sacrifice of Christ. You could get a lot of wrong ideas if you only read selected parts of the Bible; the Bible must be taken as a whole.

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