Marks of a True Church: Introduction

from Jan 16, 2013 Category: Articles

Sadly, we live in an age in which the church is viewed more or less as a smorgasbord. There are all kinds and types of churches, providing consumers multiple options from which to pick and choose what they like. This was somewhat true in the time of the Reformation, as there were Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, Lutheran, and Reformed churches. Today the situation is even more confusing, since so many organizations call themselves churches. We have everything from theological cults, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to thousands of garden-variety nondenominational churches, to the so-called “mainline” churches, and everything in between. The Belgic Confession’s words are just as true today as they were when originally penned: “all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church” (Article 29).

The Reformers searched the Word of God to answer the question of which churches were actually churches. Although there was some debate between Lutheran and Reformed theologians, and even among Reformed theologians themselves, the Reformed churches eventually settled on the belief that the Word revealed three essential outward marks by which any discerning person could determine whether any given congregation was truly a church: “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin” (Belgic Confession, Article 29).

The marks of a true church—pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline

These three marks of a true church—pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline—are in contrast with the marks of a false church, as the Belgic Confession continues: “As for the false Church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry” (BC, Art. 29).

The Reformed churches are not motivated to talk about “true” churches and “false” churches by ego or arrogance, but by a sincere desire to see all God’s sons and daughters in churches that feed their souls. We certainly pray that the Holy Spirit will grant us continued resolve to purely preach the gospel, purely administer the sacraments, and exercise church discipline, and that He would protect us from ascribing more power and authority to ourselves than to the Word, from refusing to submit ourselves to the yoke of Christ, from adding to and taking from Christ’s sacraments, from relying more on men than on Christ, and from persecuting those who live godly lives. We pray these things will be true of us because of God’s purpose for His church: “Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.3).

Over the next three posts, we are going to spend some time examining the marks of a true church.

See also:

This blog series is adapted from Welcome to a Reformed Church by Daniel Hyde.