The Marks of a True Church
Not all religious organizations that identify themselves as Christian churches are true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Scripture warns us that there will be false teachers and antichrists that arise among God’s professing people (2 Pet. 2:1; 1 Jn. 2:18-19), so it should not surprise us that in the course of church history numerous false churches have arisen. These false churches may be classified into three subcategories: (1) Apostate churches; (2) Sects; and (3) Cults. The distinguishing marks of these three categories of false churches may be defined as follows:
*Apostate churches: These are churches that once bore the marks of being true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some churches which today are apostate churches were once orthodox churches which faithfully and boldly proclaimed the gospel and worshiped God in biblical purity. But over the course of time, often after lengthy periods of gradual decline through compromise with the world, tolerance of heresy and/or false worship, ethical lapses, and refusal to discipline false teachers or maintain its own historical doctrinal and ethical standards, these churches eventually reach the point of no return, and manifest themselves as “synagogues of Satan” (Rev. 3:9) by refusing to maintain even the most basic standards of biblical orthodoxy, and by persecuting the faithful who remain in their midst. While apostate churches may retain some of the vestiges of their former orthodoxy, and may even have small pockets of true believers living within their communion, on the whole these religious bodies tolerate, celebrate and often zealously propagate a false gospel and moral perversity. (False teaching and moral degeneracy tend to walk hand-in-hand.) Many (though not necessarily all) of the so-called “mainline” churches today would arguably fall under this category of false churches.
*Sects: By “sects” I am speaking of “churches” which have splintered off from orthodox bodies for reasons other than valid differences over doctrine, ethics, worship, or church government. Often sects are started by powerful and charismatic personalities looking to build their own personal religious empires. These sectarian leaders often fixate upon non-essential doctrinal formulations or push their own set of strange, innovative pet teachings. Sects are frequently built around the personalities of their founders, who are often self-appointed, unaccountable, renegade types with inflated egos and major control issues (like the Diotrephes we read of in Third John 9), and who often exercise a domineering, authoritarian style of leadership (“lording it over the flock,” if you will). Some “sects” are technically orthodox and biblical in terms of their basic theology, and true believers may be found within certain sectarian churches. Nonetheless, sects cut themselves off from the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” by schismatic behavior, such as splintering unnecessarily from faithful churches and often by intentionally seeking to “steal sheep” from orthodox confessional churches in their area. Such sects will also sometimes sow seeds of discord among the brethren by accusing historic orthodox churches in their area of being guilty of “dead orthodoxy” or of being devoid of the Holy Spirit. Because of its democratic, egalitarian, anti-institutional spirit, the United States has arguably produced more sects throughout the course of its history than has any other nation in the history of mankind. Certain Pentecostal groups, many so-called “mega-churches,” and a great number of “independent” churches today may arguably be classified under this heading of false churches. (Please note: Personally I do not regard all mega-churches or independent churches to be “false churches.” Independency in church government and/or large numbers do not necessarily of themselves cancel out the marks of a true church of Jesus Christ, in my opinion.)
*Cults: While cults often have much in common with sects (especially in terms of having authoritarian and domineering leadership styles), cultic “churches” are distinct from merely sectarian or schismatic churches in that cultic churches reject essential truths of historic Christianity, even while claiming to be “Christian.” For example, many cultic churches reject such essential Christian doctrines as the Trinity, the full Deity of Christ, and justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. Sects tend to be orthodox (with regard to Christian essentials), but schismatic. Cults are both heretical and schismatic (heresy itself being a form of schism). Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, Christian Science, and similar “Christian” groups, may be classified under the “cult” category.
If the religious landscape today is littered with so many apostate, sectarian and cultic churches, how is the believer to find a true church of Jesus Christ? Historically Protestant churches have identified three basic marks of a true church of Jesus Christ:
1. The faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word.
Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith (one of the documents included in the “Three Forms of Unity” adopted by many historic Reformed churches) includes this excellent, biblically-based summary of the marks of a true church: “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” (Proof texts: John 10:27; Ephesians 2:20; Acts 17:11-12; Colossians 1:23; John 8:47; Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:18; 1 Corinthians 11:23; Matthew 18:15-18; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; Matthew 28:2; Galatians 1:6-8.) In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, which identifies the true church as being identified by an apostolic succession through an alleged unbroken chain of ordination and by submission to the Bishop of Rome (the “Pope”), the Protestant Reformers went back to the Scriptures and found the essential “marks” of the true church to be the faithful preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. (Reformed churches have added as a third “mark” the faithful exercise of church discipline, since the other fundamental marks will not remain long unless the church guards the integrity of the ministry of word and sacrament through maintaining basic biblical standards of doctrine, worship and ethics.)
2. The right administration of the sacraments.
The sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace in Christ. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments seal and apply the Word of the gospel to the souls of believers who receive them with true faith in Christ alone. When a church impenitently desecrates the holy seals of God’s covenant through adding human traditions and rituals to the seals, or through casual informality, or through perverting the meaning and import of the sacraments, it invites God’s judgment (see First Corinthians 11). If such a “church” continues without repentance and reformation to desecrate the holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, it manifests itself to be a false church. The sacraments are the Word of the gospel in visible symbolic form. If the sacraments are perverted in practice or administration, then it is likely that the gospel itself is being compromised or perverted in the church’s preaching and teaching.
3. The faithful exercise of church discipline.
When “church discipline” is used in a biblical sense, you should drive far from your mind all thoughts of medieval inquisitions, heretics being burned at the stake, and similar evil practices. Christ made it clear (for example, in Matt. 18:15-20) that the purpose of church discipline is restorative, not punitive. There are basically three purposes of loving, biblical church discipline: (1) Glorifying Christ. (2) Guarding the integrity and witness of Christ’s church. (3) Reclaiming the offender. When it is carried out faithfully and lovingly (that is to say, biblically), church discipline glorifies Christ, protects the church, sets an example to the flock, and works to reclaim and restore the offender to a faithful walk with Christ and to a position of good standing within the church. While matters of church discipline can often be tricky and require great wisdom from the church’s leadership in terms of its proper exercise, a true church of Jesus Christ will seek to maintain the integrity of the ministry of word and sacrament through a basic, faithful exercise of loving church discipline.
In concluding this discussion of the marks of a true church (in contrast to the marks of false churches), we would do well to take to heart the balanced and sober words of Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25, sections 4 and 5 (which speak of the “catholic visible church”):
“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”
“The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.”