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?