Weekly Bible Study
Tuesday 1st September 2020
Topic: THE MARKS OF A TRUE CHURCH (DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS)
Text: Matt. 16:18, Rev. 2:9; 3:9
As we continue with our study on the Church, there is the need to state categorically that there are True Churches and there are False Churches. In the early centuries of the Christian church, there was little controversy about what was a true church. But how can we recognize a true church?
In order to answer that question, we have to examine the “marks” of a true church or the distinguishing characteristics that help us to recognize a true church. The scripture certainly speaks of false churches. Paul speaks of the pagan temples in Corinth. (1 Cor. 10:20) These pagan temples were certainly false churches or false religious assemblies.
Moreover, the scripture speaks of a religious assembly that was called a “synagogue of Satan.”(Rev. 2:9; 3:9) Here the risen Lord Jesus seems to be referring to Jewish assemblies that claim to be Jews but were not true Jews who had saving faith. Their religious assembly was not an assembly of Christ’s people but of those who still belonged to the kingdom of darkness, the kingdom of Satan. This also would certainly be a false church.
Let us therefore examine the marks of a true church.
1. Right Teaching of the Word of God.
Martin Luther defined the church as “the congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.” Similarly, John Calvin said, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there is no need to doubt, a church of God exists.” Their understanding of the distinguishing marks of a true church is quite similar.
Certainly if the Word of God is not being preached, but simply false doctrines or doctrines of men, then that is not a true church. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) does not hold to any major Christian doctrines concerning salvation or the person of God or the person and work of Christ. It is clearly a false church. Similarly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach salvation by works, not by trusting in Jesus Christ alone. This is a fundamental doctrinal deviation because if people believe the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they simply will not be saved. So the Jehovah’s Witnesses also must be considered a false church.
2. Right Administration of the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper)
The right administration of the sacraments is also a mark of the church. An organization that begins to meet for worship and prayer and Bible teachings on Sunday mornings also would clearly be attempting to function as a church but it must include baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper also serve as “membership controls” for the church.
Baptism is the means for admitting people into the church, and the Lord’s Supper is the means for allowing people to give a sign of continuing in the membership of the church. The church considers those who receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be saved. Therefore these activities indicate what a church thinks about salvation, and they are appropriately listed as a mark of the church today as well. On the contrast, groups who do not administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper signify that they are not intending to function as a church. Someone may stand on a street corner with a small crowd and have true preaching and hearing of the Word, but the people there would not be a church. Even a neighborhood Bible study meeting in a home can have the true teaching and hearing of the Word without becoming a church.
But if a local Bible study began baptizing its own new converts and regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper, these things would signify an intention to function as a church, and it would be difficult to say why it should not be considered a church in itself.
There are false churches today if we examine the churches based on these two distinguishing marks of the church discussed above. A close look at their teaching and their administration of the sacraments will reveal their true colour. A true church must also be fulfilling the purpose for which Christ established his Church on earth. We shall examine this next week.