Marks of A True Church

The seven churches in Asia Minor, mentioned in Revelation 2-3 were probably founded by the Apostle Paul and his students during his two years ministry in the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10). It is commonly held that Paul was ministering in Ephesus between AD 53-56. Within forty years, the infant churches had developed the distinctives which were highlighted by the Lord in His letters to the angels, or ministers of the churches. These distinctives can be seen in the Lord’s commendations, criticisms and commands to the various churches. The church of Ephesus was commended for her perseverance, and their rejection of evil and false-teachers (Rev 2:2-3); the church of Smyrna, for her perseverance in tribulation (Rev 2:9); the church of Pergamos, for their keeping the faith in the face of external pressures (Rev 2:13); the church of Thyatira, for her labour, charity, service, faith and patience (Rev 2:19); and the church of Philadelphia, for persevering in the faith in the face of trial, and for keeping the word of Christ and honouring His name (Rev 3:8,10). On the other hand, the Lord condemned the church of Ephesus for leaving her first love (Rev 2:3); the churches of Pergamos and Thyatira for tolerating immorality, idolatry and heresies (Rev 2:14-15; 20); the church of Sardis for being dead (Rev 3:1); and the church of Laodicea for being lukewarm (Rev 3:16). Then based on these criticisms, the Lord instructed the churches to do the first works (Rev 2:5); to be faithful unto death and to hold fast till He comes (Rev 2:10, 2:25, 3:3); to repent (Rev 2:16, 3:3); to be watchful; to strengthen what remains (Rev 3:2); and to be zealous (Rev 3:18). A couple of instructive observations may be made from here:

Firstly, we notice that all the seven churches were recognised as churches, including Sardis, which the Lord deemed to be ‘dead’ (Rev 3:1). This suggests to us that imperfections per se do not destroy the essence of a church. This is because God always view His people covenantally and organically, and not just as individuals. This is the reason why Israel was called the people of God in the Old Testament although the greater proportion of the Jews were unbeliever. This is why in the Parable of the Vine and the Branches, even those who do not bear fruit (Jn 15:6) are considered to be branches, though they are eventually cast away. The point is, God views the visible church organically as His people, even if some, if not most, members may be unregenerate. Indeed, as long as there is sin in the world and in the children of God, even "the purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error" (WCF 25.5). But these mixture and error, do not destroy the essence of a church as long as there are genuine believers in it. Thus, Sardis is called a church, i.e. an ecclesia, or a called-out people, because there remained a few who have "not defiled their garments" (Rev 3:4). …Cont. p. 3

Secondly, however, we see that three of the churches were in danger of being disclaimed by the Lord and so becoming non-churches in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord threatened to remove the ‘candlestick’ (or better ‘lampstand’) of the church of Ephesus (Rev 2:5). The lampstand symbolises the assistance of the Holy Spirit (cf. Zech 4:1-6) which enables the church to be a witness of Christ to the world (Matt 5:14). It also symbolises the Lord’s approval of the church (see Rev 1:12-13). With the lampstand removed, Ephesus would be no more a Christian church. The church of Sardis was in danger of being visited in judgement by the Lord unless they repent (Rev 3:4). We are not told what kind of judgement is being intimated, but it could mean the disbanding of the church, or an exposure of the church to the onslaught of Satan. Similarly, the Lord threatened to spit the Laodiceans out of His mouth (Rev 3:16), which would also symbolise His disowning of the church. These frightening threats by the Lord teach us that it is possible for a church to become a "synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9, 3:9; WCF25.5). How does this square with the our first observation that the essence of the church remains as long as there are genuine children of God in it? The answer lies in the fact that while the essence of a church is determined by the existence or non-existence of regenerate members, a church may become a non-church in its form and constitution, and so cease to be a witness unto Christ, becomes no longer pleasing to God, and is in danger of being cut off as dead branches.

It is for this reason that the Reformed Church has always sought to define what the marks of a true church are and also the criteria to measure the purity of a church or denomination. What are these marks?

Reformed theologians are not all agreed on the number and nature of these marks. Calvin and his immediate successors held that there are only two such marks: (1) that "the Word of God [be] purely preached and heard"; and (2) that "the sacraments [be] administered according to Christ’s institution" (ICR 4.1.9; c.f. the Genevan Confession (1536), art. 18; Francis Turretin, Institute of Elenctic Theology, 18.12). TheBelgic Confession of Faith (1561), on the other hand, includes a third mark: "if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin" (BCF 29). Interestingly, Calvin had denied, albeit rather weakly, that a failure to enact discipline is sufficient ground to classify a church as being false and so requires separation by faithful members (see ICR 4.19.15). TheWestminster Confession of Faith (1646), referring to the criteria for judging the purity of a particular church differs slightly from Calvin too by adding as the third mark, the purity of public worship (WCF 25.4). Not all Presbyterian theologians hold to the same three marks, however. A.A. Hodge, for example, in his commentary on the WCF, rather tacitly agrees with the Belgic Confession (see p. 315). Indeed, very few Reformed theologians today will deny that the proper administration of church discipline is a mark of a true church, while only some churches,—that are still holding firmly on the Regulative Principle according to the WCF,—will emphasise biblical worship as a mark.

In any case, there are scriptural bases for all four marks:

1.     On true preaching, see Jn 8:31-32; 14:23, 1Jn 4:1-3, and 2Jn 9;

2.     On right administration of the sacraments, see Matt 28:19, Acts 2:42, and 1Cor 11:23-30;

3.     On faithful exercise of church discipline, see Matt 18:18, 1Cor 5:1-5, 13, Rev 2:14-15, 20;

4.     On biblical worship, see Deut 12:30-32, Jn 4:24 and Col 2:23.

As we consider these four marks, we must remember that they are really only one mark: whether Christ is present and is the Chief Shepherd (1Pet 5:4) of the church. Christ said, "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. …My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: " (Jn 10:14, 27). If the Word is preached properly and accurately, it is Christ Himself speaking to the Church (see also 1 Cor 1:23-24). Similarly when the sacraments are properly administered, Christ is present with us in His power and majesty to assist and nurture us (Matt 28:19-20; Matt 26:29 etc); when discipline is properly carried out, it is Christ Himself meting it (Matt 18:18-20; 1Cor 5:4); and when worship is properly conducted, it is mediated by Christ who is also in our midst singing with us as the captain of the Church (see Heb 2:10-12).

It is sad that many churches today are ignoring the importance of these marks and are making little effort to measure the practices of the church by any standard. Indeed, many leaders of churches today are not even be aware that there are such things as marks of true churches. We live in a day not unlike the day of the judges when "every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Jdg 21:25). It is therefore extremely important that we are familiar with these marks and how to discern and measure each aspect according to the Scripture. We must never join a church because the people are friendly or the pastor is charismatic. We must join a church only on the basis of how pure it is when measured against the yardstick of the Scripture. Yes, since Christ has promised to build His church, and "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:28), we can be sure that there will always, in every generation, be churches which are more or less pure and true. This being the case, anyone seeking to be part of a church to fulfil the Lord’s injunction in Hebrew 10:24-25, has the responsibility to align himself to a purer rather than a less pure church. If we fail to do so, we may unwittingly become part of a communion that is not of Christ,— at least not the Christ of the Scriptures.