Three Marks of a True Church

Excerpted from “Finding a Church” by Michael S. Horton, Modern Reformation, Nov./Dec. 1993 Vol. 2 No. 6, pp. 25-30.

Make Sure Your “Church” Is A Church
Until this century, Christians of all types believed that there are true churches and false churches. Just because it says “church” over the door doesn’t mean it is one. That is why the reformers drew from Scripture two undeniable marks of the true church: It is where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered (emphasis added).

To be sure, the reformers knew that this happens in varying degrees. For instance, even in a conservative Protestant church, one might be disappointed with the handling of a certain text. One might be absolutely convinced that the preacher was in error in his explanation. But that does not mean that an otherwise sound church should no longer be regarded as a true church. The reformers meant that it had to be a church in which the clear preaching of the text focused on Christ’s promise to save sinners. In other words, the preaching of the Law and the Gospel must be clearly affirmed and proclaimed in the local parish, if it is to be considered a true church. When a denomination or a church officially rejects the Gospel or any essential teaching of the Nicene Creed, it commits apostasy and is no longer part of the visible body of Christ. Individuals within it may be saved, but the congregation or denomination has officially severed itself from Christ’s visible church.

The second mark of a true church is that the sacraments are affirmed and employed alongside the Word as a means of grace. Traditionally, Reformed, Presbyterian and Lutheran Protestants have argued that “rightly administering the sacraments” surely entails infant baptism and the rejection of any view of the Lord’s Supper which reduces it to a mere symbol or memorial. Again, this does not mean that people who disagree with this definition are not really Christians; it is a question of what properly constitutes a rightly ordered, visible church.

If a church fits these definitions, you may want to overlook other problems. When taste, rather than truth, is the criterion for choosing a church, people will place music style, programs, and children’s activities at the top of the list. The most essential issue is this: Is this a place where God and his revelation in Christ’s person and work is clearly declared, and where people are serious about growing in Christ through Word, sacrament, prayer, evangelism, and missions? Is this a place where my children will be trained in addition to the instruction they will receive in the home? Will they grow up hearing the Gospel?

In Article 29, the Belgic Confession recognized that, in this life, every congregation will contain “hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.” Even though the church is mixed, it is possible to distinguish a true church from the “false church” and from “sects” (Art. 29). A true church “engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.” (emphasis added)

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Excerpted from “A Perfect Church? Not in This Life” by R. Scott Clark, Evangelium, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005).

Church Discipline: A Necessity
Since the fall, the institutional church has always contained believers and unbelievers. Our Lord himself compared the church to a field with both weeds and wheat. According to Christ, the program for this age is to “[l]et both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'” (Matt 13:24-31).

The church is composed of wheat and weeds. We live in the time of sowing. In terms of the parable, the harvest time comes with the return of Christ, the judgment and end of all things. We need to adjust our view of the church to match that of Jesus. It is not that there can never be discipline. Cain was excommunicated because he showed himself to be in open rebellion to the Lord and an unbeliever (Jude 1:11). We are not, however, authorized to go rooting about the church (to stretch a metaphor) looking for “weeds” or to disregard the church because it is mixed.

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus prescribed the method of discipline for the church. If one member of the congregation sins against another, the offended should speak to the offender. If the erring brother is resistant, then he is to be approached by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). If the offender “refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (v.17). If he remains impenitent, he is to be excluded from the congregation. This is a potent act: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v.18). This is also a formal, judicial decision: “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (vv.19-20). This passage not only teaches us the necessity of discipline, but everything taught here assumes the existence of an institutional church (cf. John 20:21-23).

Peter exercised the most severe church discipline upon a couple who lied to the Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). The Apostle Paul ordered the Corinthian congregation to excommunicate an impenitent member:

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:4-5).

Notice that Paul wrote to a congregation about discipline, not only as a punitive measure, but for the sake of the rebel’s own soul.

Furthermore, the Reformed confessions speak about church discipline with one voice. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 30 requires church discipline. Heidelberg Catechism question 83 describes church discipline as one of the keys of the kingdom. According to the Belgic Confession Art. 29, church discipline is a mark of the true church. In other words, though the church is unavoidably sinful, it must also be disciplined to be a church.

In this life, however, even the act of discipline is imperfect, and no disciplined church will be perfect. The Corinthian congregation is proof of this. Nevertheless, despite all their sins (e.g., gross immorality, factions), Paul continued to call them a “church” (1 Cor 1:2). The Scriptures and the Reformed confessions do not teach that discipline must be done perfectly, only that it must be done.

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