Descriptive and Prescriptive Discipleship, Part 1

By Paul Wilkinson

When I was learning ethics, I had to spend a healthy amount of time learning differences, values, and dangers between descriptive ethics and prescriptive ethics. Descriptive ethics seeks to describe how people actually act, whether in this culture or that culture, whether with respect to God or not. Prescriptive ethics seeks to supply rules (or commands) for how one ought to act. It appeals to some standard that entails certain obligations and duties. This distinction can be helpful to the disciple-maker in two ways: first, we can look at how the disciples actually acted post-Easter when they fulfilled their vision of discipleship and, second, we can discern from Christ what a disciple and disciple-maker ought to do.

Descriptive discipleship would be simply to describe what we see from the disciples. I will just choose a sampling from Acts:

  • These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer (1:14)
  • Declared the gospel (2:14)
  • Devoted to apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread, to prayer (2:42)
  • Healed or ministered to others (3:6)
  • Praised God for His works (4:24)
  • Met each other’s needs (4:34)
  • Teaching and preaching (5:42)
  • Went and proclaimed (8:5)
  • Service: kindness and charity (9:36)
  • Provided disaster relief (11:28-29)
  • Fasted (13:3)
  • Filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (13:52)
  • Followed up with those they taught and trained (15:36)
  • Disagreed sometimes (15:38)
  • Examined Scriptures to test teaching (17:11)

And of course they did these things in the power of the Spirit. Each of these points could be multiplied many times over as they repeated these tasks when going throughout the various towns. More could be said if we extended beyond Acts to the other New Testament letters and the Gospels, but I simply wanted to set forth some general description of what the disciples actually did.

The question for us is whether a descriptive look at our lives would yield a similar list. Are our actions such as those of the early church? Now, all this is not to say that if you were simply to do this list then, necessarily, you would become a disciple, rather I mean to suggest that if you are a disciple of Jesus then this list should represent, at least in part, your very life. Just like with LIFE and the descriptors attached to each function, challenge your groups with this sort of list so that they may examine themselves. I have certainly been convicted!

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