What are the essential ingredients of a true church?
SPROUL: In the sixteenth century, with the rupture of unity in the ecclesiastical situation, there was a huge debate about what makes a valid church because there was such a proliferation of different denominations and so on. The essential ingredients were a place where the gospel is truly preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and where there is true discipline and government within the church. That’s where you begin.
You want to make sure that the gospel is truly being preached. A church that is not preaching the gospel is not a good church—it’s an apostate one. If the sacraments are being mutilated, that’s also a very serious sign of apostasy.
It’s also a sign if there is no discipline. We’re in a time where there’s rampant antinomianism inside the church. It’s not just as a matter of neglect; there are those who are positively proclaiming the legitimacy of antinomianism. I recently heard in one church: “We don’t do judgment here.” If a church says, “We don’t do judgment here,” it says to me, “We’re not a church here.” You need all of those elements. If you want to find a good church those are the elements.
And you ask me, “Where do you find that church?” We hear that question all the time because there are so few examples of true, authentically godly churches. I’d just say, whatever it takes, find it, because they’re there and they can be found. There are a lot of good churches out there.
THOMAS: I’m tempted to say that First Presbyterian Church in Columbia is a very good church because it serves really good coffee—I don’t mean watered-down church coffee; I mean the real stuff.
In seriousness, Acts 2:42 says, “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” That’s Luke saying something about what some of the marks of the church are.
“One, holy, catholic, apostolic” would become marks of the church. The right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and church discipline would become Reformation attempts to say what makes a good church. Today you have 9Marks, Mark Dever’s organization, which is an attempt to say, “Here are nine things to look for in a good church.”
It’s a really good question. We find people asking all the time, “What should you look for when you’re looking for a new church?”
WEBB: Is there ever a good reason to leave a church?
SPROUL: Yes, but one of the things that really scares me is that people are making decisions on a poor basis, such as: “My biggest concern here is for the youth group. We want to have a lively, vital youth group in our church. It doesn’t matter what they’re preaching on Sunday morning or what they’re doing. What really matters is, Are we reaching the kids?” Come on, what really matters is that we are reaching the parents and that they are communicating the faith to their kids.
So, I think it’s extremely important what happens Sunday morning for corporate worship, where we are instructed by the Scriptures and we gather together in fellowship and prayer. We don’t want to let these lesser programs usurp the central purpose of the church.
This is a transcript of R.C. Sproul’s and Derek Thomas’s answers from our Theology in Dialogue event and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.