Tuesday, April 20, 2010

So I Talked to Mark Dever About the Church...

(I promise that this is not some sort of name-dropping post.)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the practice of the early church. It is fascinating that there is almost no disagreement among scholars or anyone else about what the early church looked like.

The argument, instead, is over whether or not the structure and practice of the early church is prescriptive or descriptive. In other words, do we in the church now have to follow the example we see in the early church, or is what we see in the bible simply telling us what happened?

I've been pondering this prescriptive/descriptive issue for a while now.

While at the T4G Conference, I thought to myself that it would be nice to talk about this with Mark Dever since he has written so much about the church. Well, I got my chance.

Here's how it happened: my friend Micah Thornton was standing in line to get into one of the conference sessions. Meanwhile, I was wandering around looking at different promotional booths. When I returned to find Micah, he showed me that he had been handed two tickets to some sort of gathering later that night. We didn't know what it was all about, but because the tickets said "T4G Latenight," we figured we would go. When we got there, we found out that this meeting was for a randomly selected 200 people to attend to get to hear from the main T4G speakers in a much more intimate setting. As I looked around, I realized that the focus was young men. I was just about the oldest man in the room. Oh well, I enjoyed it anyway.

After hearing from Dever, Mohler, Duncan, and Mahaney, we were given the opportunity to talk with any of these four men individually (as long as we could wait in line for a few minutes). Micah turned to me and said that I should go talk with Mark Dever. I didn't really feel like it at the time, but also figured that I might never get the chance again.

After waiting in line for only about five minutes, I spoke with Dr. Dever. He was very friendly, engaging, and knowledgeable. I did not want to take too much time since there was a long line behind me. Therefore, I decided to jump right into my question. I asked him this, "Do you know of any book that has been written about the practice of the early church and whether it should be prescriptive or descriptive for us today?" I may not have used those exact words, but that was the gist of the question.

I appreciate Dr. Dever's answer, although I'll admit that it surprised me. He said, "Do you want an infuriating answer? I haven't found it."

I have read 6 or 7 of Mark Dever's books, and I know that he is extremely well read. Therefore, if he hasn't found a book that addresses this issue, then that at least tells me that very few people have written about it.

Dr. Dever went on to encourage me to continue reading the New Testament and looking for the broad picture of the church there. I appreciate this suggestion, but it is already something I'm doing.

I write this post simply to illustrate that more study needs to be done in this area. More books need to be written. If there are good books out there dealing with this topic, then we should be talking more about them.

This issue (what is prescriptive and what is descriptive for the church) is critical for the life and health of the church. We in the modern West, with our love of freedom, seem to randomly pick and choose what early church practices we want to say are prescriptive and what we want to say are descriptive. Sadly, we all have a tendency to call things prescriptive that we are already doing anyway, while at the same time calling other things descriptive that we would rather not do.

There must be a better way to determine what is prescriptive and what is descriptive.

Have you read a good book on this topic? If so, what is it?


Alan Knox said...


A couple of year ago I wrote a paper on normativity (i.e. prescription) in narrative sections of Scripture. I agree with Dever that very little is written on this topic. Even less is written specifically as it relates to the church.


Alan Knox said...


By the way, whether people want to admit it or not, hermeneutics generally plays less of a role than tradition/background in determining what is normative (prescriptive) in either narrative or propositional sections of Scripture.


Eric said...


Could you please email that paper to me? I'd like to read it if you think it would be helpful.

Isn't is fascinating that so little has been written on this specific topic. It seems critical to how we live out the life of the church.

I agree completely with you that tradition/backgrounds trumps hermeneutics in determining what we do. We all like to think we hold to sola scriptura, but we really don't. Selective interpretation is a reality that hurts the church.

Jason_73 said...

I randomly found my way here via a link and wanted to make a quick comment. I think this question you are asking is very important and interesting.

It's always puzzled me why we invest so much time and energy into our doctrine and teaching but maintain, tradition and status quo on "the church".

My naive/un-professional feeling is that the church today should look a lot more like the early Acts 2, people following around Jesus, kind of church.

I read the thread on the other post about "The biggest problem at T4G" and think you are asking good questions. Keep it up!

Arthur Sido said...

Dude, that was TOTALLY a name dropping post!

Eric said...


I agree with you about the church needing to look like what we see in Acts.

We do need to ask hard questions. It is often difficult to change when tradition holds so strong.

The question is whether or not we will be biblical in all things.

Thanks for commenting.

Eric said...


Did it come across that way? Yuck. I really was trying to avoid it.

Alan Knox said...


I completely disagree. Eric didn't mention me or you, so obviously he wasn't name dropping.


Eric said...

I have to agree with Alan. You are the two most famous guys who ever comment on my blog. Thanks!

Pastor Leo said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the T4G updates. Wasn't able to go but will be at the Basics Conference in Cleveland next month (I think when you are up here). Glad I found your blog. Will be in Savannah in July. Perhaps we can get together then.

Eric said...


It's good to hear from you. T4G really was a good experience. I hope you have a great time in Cleveland.

When you come to Savannah, give me a call or shoot me an e-mail.

Out of curiosity, how did you find my blog?

God bless.

Pastor Leo said...

Frank Turk has a link to SBC Voices on his site. Once there I clicked on the Georgia blog directory.

I will give you plenty of notice about our visit.


Steve Scott said...

Eric, (I drop by occasionally via Alan's blogroll)

You're asking a great question on prescriptive/descriptive. I also appreciate Dever's response. Count me in as somebody who would love to write a book about the topic.

My own sense on this is that the practice of the early church isn't meant to me merely descriptive, and also this shouldn't be an either/or question. I think it should be looked at this way: if whatever tradition/background you hold to limits or prevents the explicit commands and duties in Scripture from being carried out, then they should be readily available to revision. We should examine what the early church did and then give great thought to what would result in NOT doing those things.

One example might be in looking at the practice of sharing a meal together at the church gathering. Not having a meal might mean everybody with kids or anybody else who is hungry leaving very quickly (and individually) after the meeting is over to go get food somewhere else, dramatically affecting fellowship. Now for the question; would this be good for the church? Another question might be that if an alternative were set up for taking care of eating together, would it take so much extra time and effort to make it work to be impractical? Etc.

Keep asking questions like this!

Eric said...


Thanks for commenting. And please, DO write a book on this topic (I'm speaking selfishly because I'd like to read it).

I agree with you that this is not necessarily an either/or issue. I also appreciate the things you are saying.

I just so surprised that not that many people seem to be asking this type of question. I hope more people do.

Jeffrey said...

For those that really want to adjust to the teaching of the New Testament on what the church should be, a book describing this issue would be great. However, I propose that the issue of tithing demonstrates that "understanding" is not the issue; "desire" is. Tithing is clearly not part of the biblical model for the church, and yet it's taught as a doctrine in every church I've ever attended. The financial pressures of running the business is strong motivation to teach a falsehood. Do we really care about aligning ourselves with the intent of the text? That's the central question in my opinion.

Eric said...


I agree with you on the tithing issue. That one is very clear. I also agree that the motivation to continue harping on the tithe is the financial needs of the church as institution.

As for other issues, such as church gatherings, I do think there is some legitimate lack of understanding. However, the bible clearly gives us some direction (much of which is ignored).

I still find it interesting that no real good book has been written on the issue of description/prescription and the church.

Maybe you should write it! I'll support you.