Descriptive and Prescriptive Ecclesiology in the New Testament

One of the continuing challenges of much contemporary ecclesiological writing and reflection is the issue concerning how the New Testament documents cast the churches of their period.

How often have we opened a text, or read an article that refers to the ‘early church’ in a singular, unified sense, or heard a speaker making a point about a particular practice demonstrated in the New Testament that should, in their opinion, be used in churches today. However, when one looks closer at the text or example they are drawing from, there is no clear teaching established with application to the local church.

apples and orangesThe confusion, it appears, surrounds the difference between descriptive and prescriptive ecclesiological statements in the New Testament. Not all things in the New Testament concerning the churches are meant for application beyond the Apostolic Age.

More to the point, many contemporary ecclesiologies make claims about the normative functions of church theology from many accounts in the New Testament which are intended to be merely descriptive. As a result, many contemporary discussions about the nature of church theology, polity, and forms take positions based on New Testament descriptions of the nature of the earliest Christian communities rather than from directed instruction about their forms. The challenge for ecclesiologists in the present day is discerning what parts of the New Testament documentation about the nature, function, and theology of the earliest churches are descriptive and which are prescriptive. Assuming that all the discussions about the nature of the Church, or churches in the New Testament have normative bearing on the form and function of ecclesiology in the present day is a dangerous and misguided approach.

To better describe this challenge one quick example is in order: There is a rising segment of Christianity in the western world that posits institutional churches buildings and established hierarchy is contrary to the intention of the apostolic founding of the New Testament Church. Instead, using the New Testament examples of house church communities, a decentralized and non-institutional house churches are the normative form for ecclesial practice in this present day and age. Yet there is a caution because the New Testament writers might be describing their context where building a formal structure was both improbable and impossible, since it would be destroyed before it was completed. House churches, in this specific point, became the regular place of meeting, just as they did with the diaspora synagogues and voluntary associations, out of convenience and safety and not because they were the planned means of God’s people for all ages.

Here is where understanding the difference between descriptive and prescriptive ecclesiology is helpful.

Descriptive ecclesiological statements, such as ones dealing with house churches (cf. Acts 2:42-46; Romans 16:1-27; Colossians 4:15; etc) are describing the conduct and nature of the earliest churches in the Apostolic Age. The New Testament writers are not concerned with making these descriptions of how the earliest Christian communities met normative for all Christianity. They are, instead, simply talking about how these communities functioned. In reality, from the earliest days of post-Pentecost Christianity, the primary way most Christians desired to meet and observe the forming liturgy was either in the Temple, in Jerusalem, or in synagogues in Palestine and beyond (Acts 2:46.)

Prescriptive ecclesiological statements, are those statements where the New Testament is instructing the churches of its era and beyond about forms and functions that are to be part of every church. Instances of this include the list of requirements for leadership offices (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Ephesians 4:11.) Prescriptive ecclesiology exists in the New Testament and is vital to the function of a legitimate New Testament church. Some prescriptive ecclesiology also deals with the nature of the corporate, or universal Church that is established in the body of Christ.

If we don’t understand the difference between these two point, our ecclesiological work will be done in error. Part of this challenge is being willing to humbly confront the reality of the forming churches in the New Testament and the developmental ecclesiologies seen therein. While later generations will begin to codify forms and structures for the churches in the known world, by the end of the New Testament there continued to be a reasonable diversity of form. As a result, much of the time spent discussing the nature of the churches of the Apostolic Age is, indeed, descriptive. However, where the prescriptive texts exist, there is much to be learned.