In the urge to see a more faithful expression of the New Testament church, it is natural to look at places where we see descriptions and exhortations to the church and rather than viewing them as merely descriptive, see them as prescriptive. In other words the New Testament writings that deal with the church, especially in Acts, are not merely quaint historic stories that reflect an unattainable ideal but are instead vital glimpses into the life of the church as it should be. The danger here that I have stumbled into on a number of occasions is that we start to view these descriptions as a checklist. In other words, we see the meeting of the church as a checklist with a series of questions we can check off one by one.
The New Testament is far more than a series of checklists. We must not treat it that way. The early church devoted itself to prayer. We pray at our church. Check! The early church devoted itself to the breaking of bread. We observe the Lord’s Supper quarterly. Check!
It is more than a question of prescriptive and normative. The underlying question has to do with the purpose. Why did the church meet daily? Why did they recognize elders? Why is everyone bringing a hymn or a lesson important? Why is putting the family of God ahead of your earthly family important? What is the reason that the church eschewed personal property in favor of the material well-being of the community?
Reading the examples and then applying (or choosing not to apply) them in the manner we see fit is not the point. Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was not compelled to record these events and depictions to create a checklist but instead to describe the life of the church and the purpose for the gathering. The purpose is not ultimately about making a list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. The end result is not to check the list on our clipboard to make sure we hit every task. The purpose is to see how we should view one another and how we should live as the adopted family of God in our everyday life and in our witness to the lost. I do think that if we are faithful to the purpose, the activities will follow. We just need to make sure we are prioritizing the cause and not the effect.
When we view the church as a checklist to complete, it can be awfully easy to think that we are completing the checklist better than the next church: “Well Church A down the street completes steps A thru K but we also do L thru Q!” That is not to diminish at all the vital clues we get in the New Testament regarding how the church met then and likewise from that learning how the church should meet now. Far more than that though, our ultimate goal is to determine the why. What is the purpose, what is accomplished? You can just as easily have empty formalism in a church that can check off a whole litany of primitive church activities as you can in a rigidly liturgical church.
So I guess what my point is (primarily to myself) is to avoid becoming so fixated on the form of the example that you miss the purpose of the example.