Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point many Bible-believing Christians became passionate about the dichotomy between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” passages in Scripture.

“Prescriptive” means God is prescribing, or commanding, or telling how something must be done. We must follow prescriptive passages. For instance, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20.3) is prescriptive for the Christian church.

“Descriptive” means God is simply describing what happened in biblical times, not telling us how something must be done, but only telling us that something was done. Many Christians apparently believe we are never obligated to follow descriptive passages. For instance, Abraham had more than one wife, and yet He was blessed by God. That is descriptive, not prescriptive for the Christian church.

I generally agree with the distinction. And I think it is fairly obvious whenever something is purely descriptive, not intended for us to follow (like multiple wives). But, as I’m sure you suspected I might say, please be careful.

Some commands are descriptive of a certain time period and/or covenantal arrangement (“all males must be circumcised” or “you shall not eat shellfish”). And my contention is that many descriptions in Scripture are prescriptive. And for sure, all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable to help us do good works (2 Timothy 3.16-17, note “all”).

So listen more closely to what God is saying by what He said. I would give examples, but I don’t want to get your mind going in more directions than it needs to. The principle I am aiming for here is we must let all of Scripture– not just the explicit commands– speak to us and shape our thinking and make us more Christ-like. If there is a description of something often in the Bible that looks good, seems to be commended, seems to be blessed by the Spirit, and/or has good results, then we should take those descriptions as prescriptive.


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