Some current and recent reading on what the Bible says the church should be has helped me find new language for a question that is often present for me. Is the Bible meant to be prescriptive, or descriptive?
If the Bible is prescriptive, then we come to it with an understanding that it is a manual of sorts. It prescribes how life is to be lived by humans both individually, and in community. If we need to know how the church should operate, or how a marriage should work, or most any “how to” question, we assume that the Bible can prescribe the appropriate answer to that question.
To understand that the Bible is descriptive is to hold to a more historical understanding; the Bible describes what was going on with God’s people in the specific context that each book was written. For example, Jesus’ teachings (Sermon on the Mount, parables, etc.) should be understood primarily the the lens of what he was trying to communicate to his listeners at that time. (Or, for another perspective, what the Gospel writer wanted his original readers to understand about what Jesus had communicated to those hearers.)
I think the obvious answer is that we have to see both patterns in the Bible. But, modern Christianity often errs on the side of prescriptive, and we should err on the side of descriptive. While there are prescriptive portions throughout the Bible, the whole of the Bible should be seen as descriptive. It is the contextual account of how God has been at work in creation and with humanity through recorded history. Those parts that are taken as prescriptive must first be placed within a descriptive framework.
To put it simply, context, no matter how elusive it might sometimes be, always, always matters.