Question: Pastor John, what are the marks of a true church? I have heard people say there are three: 1. The preaching of the gospel takes place. 2. The sacraments are rightly administered. 3. Church discipline is exercised. I can see that all of these are biblical components. But are these all we should look for? What about prayer, love, evangelism, discipleship and practical care for people, etc.?
Thanks for your question. Of course, many sects call themselves a “church.” Such has always been the case throughout Church history. Because of this, the Protestant Reformers in coming to understand the true Gospel of Christ, sought to help people distinguish between true and false churches. Since early on in Church history Christians have used the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as summaries of the faith, to be affirmed by all Christians. If a Church has a problem affirming these basic doctrines found in these catholic creeds (the word catholic here means universal, meaning that all orthodox Christians would affirm these truths) it leads me to think that they do not embrace true and sound doctrine. If a Church cannot affirm essential truths such as the Trinity or the full deity and humanity of Christ, then it is embracing something else, and anything else is a heresy.
A heretical church by very definition cannot be a true church. It is vital that we get our doctrine right on the essentials of the faith. We only have to read Galatians chapter 1 to realize that if a church preaches another gospel, it comes under the anathema (the eternal curse) of God. That is why Martin Luther called the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone) the article upon which the church stands or falls.
The Reformers were clear: The one true holy and apostolic church is present where (1) the word of God (and the Gospel) is preached and taught; (2) the sacraments of the church are rightly administered (namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and (3) church discipline is faithfully exercised. By implication, this third mark necessarily requires the presence of godly leadership (elders) who provide a safe place for the sheep to grow in Christ and who can ward off any wolves who seek to devour (see Acts 20). That is why Christians simply getting together for fellowship, though wonderful, without the oversight and care of elders, it does not consititute the gathering of a true Church. Christ, the Chief Shepherd has established His under shepherds for the care, protection and spiritual well being of His precious sheep (see Hebrews 13:17).
Other things are vital for church life as you rightly observed. In fact, we could add many more elements to your list. However these things flourish only where the three marks of the church are present.
For instance, lets talk about love. Love is absolutely vital for the health of a local church, yet we need to ask “how do we distinguish true Christian love from all imitations?” We do so by being exposed to the word of God. That is because when God’s word is rightly preached and taught it actually cultivates true Christian love among the people. It is a function of faithful shepherds of God’s church to (at certain times) bring caring, Christ like, Biblical discipline to the church’s members, both as an act of love and as a means of cultivating genuine and authentic love among the members.
I heard a good illustration some time back that I feel is worth sharing. Think of the three indispensable elements of a house: a foundation, a frame, and a roof. Many things may be installed in a house, such as couches, chairs, curtains, sinks, toilets, a bath or shower, a washer and dryer, an oven, electrical wiring, beds and so on. I am sure we agree that the list could be endless. Yet though I may have all of these things in a yard somewhere, I really don’t have a house until I have the three essentials elements of a foundation, a frame, and a roof.
There are many essential elements for healthy church life. Yet unless the Word of God is rightly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised, there is no true church present. Where these marks are absent, true holiness will be absent too. If even one of these three marks are missing it should not be considered to be a true church of Christ.
Article 29: The Marks of the True Church
We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church– for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.” We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The 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.
In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it. As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.
As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry. These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.
“Now, wherever you hear or see this Word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica (Christian holy people) must be there… And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s Word cannot be without God’s people and, conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s Word.” – Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church