The Marks of the True Church

October 19, 2014 / No. 3746

Dear radio friends,
We confess that we are living members of the church of Christ in this world. Here is what is included in that confession. First, confess that we are elect believers whom God by His grace has called out of unbelief and into the body of Christ. We are members therefore of the body of Christ gathered from the beginning of time to the end and from all nations. Second, we confess that we belong to the church militant, the church that is in this present world of sin and fighting sin and the devil. Third, we confess that we are living members of the church visible, i.e., the church as she comes to manifestation in this world by the confession and walk of her members. Finally, we confess that we are living members of the church institute, i.e., the church as she becomes organized under duly ordained officebearers. We also noticed, in that regard, that a person cannot ordinarily be a member of the church universal if he or she is not a member of the church institute.
Already we have found that the Bible teaches us much about the church. Yet, we have only covered the half of it. There is more implied when we say with the Heidelberg Catechism: “I believe I am and forever shall remain a living member of the church.” And it is this that we wish to consider today.
You see, there are many church institutes in this world. Among these there are true but also many false churches. There are faithful churches and apostate churches. This ought not to surprise us. Neither ought it to offend us. Jesus says in Matthew 24, “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many…. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders.” Paul writes to Timothy about this too in II Timothy 4:3, 4, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” What makes it even more difficult is that there is a scale from better to worse on which many other churches appear. There are those who are searching to be faithful and there are those who are in the process of apostatizing. In this maze of church institutes and denominations we are called to join with the church institute in this world. Which one do we choose? That can be a tough question for many today.
One thing is for certain, however, and that is that we must use the Scriptures alone to guide us into where we ought to be members. There are denominations that faithfully maintain God’s Word and that are truly manifestations of the elect church. There are other denominations that are not. And there are still other denominations that are so, partially. But one thing is for certain: God’s Word points out to us what institute is the one we ought to attend. God’s Word alone must determine this for us—not our feelings, not friends, not what is popular, but the Word of God alone. For that reason, we want to search the Scriptures today in order that we in faith might determine where to be a living member in the church of Jesus Christ in this world.
Its Offices
Our search for a faithful church institute begins with its essential organization. In order for a church to be called the church of Christ, it must be organized in the way that Christ Himself has ordained for it. There are many today who call themselves church, but when it comes down to the offices of the church, they are far from faithful to the Head of the church: Jesus Christ Himself. In other words, the church institute is not some man-made organization that may institute itself the way that men please. Men may not simply take it upon themselves to start up an organization they call church, using their own form of governing the church. Christ stands at the Head of the church. The church is organized under Him. And for that reason men must follow their Head in order to determine how Christ would rule over His people in the church institute. The true church institute in this world will be organized in such a way that Christ can rule without the interference of men.
Now, there are many forms of church government that are used to rule many a church institute. There is what is known in history as the Erastian form of church government. This system maintains that, though the church has her own offices, the government of the church must be given over into the hands of the civil magistrates. The secular government therefore rules over the affairs of the church. There is also the hierarchical system of church government practiced in the Roman Catholic Church and several others. This gives ultimate power to one man—the pope—and then there are different levels of power and authority under him: archbishop, bishops, priests, and so on. A third system of church government is known as the democratic system—a system used by many protestant churches today. These set up a board of men to run the affairs of the church. Sometimes this board is called a Board of Deacons. The men of this board are merely representatives of the people, however, and have no power of themselves. Anything done in the church has to be taken to the congregation as a whole and put to a democratic vote. The board of directors is answerable to the members. It is puzzling that in all these various systems of church government churches do not seek out what the Bible itself teaches. It is almost as if this unimportant. The question must be asked, however: how has Christ, the Head of the church, chosen to rule over His people and His church? That is what is of the essence! To answer this question we must turn to the Scriptures.
The fundamental principle of faithful church government is that Christ is the highest authority in the church. That almost goes without saying. Everywhere Scripture testifies of His rule over the church as its Head. The Word of God instructs us in Ephesians 1:22 that God put all things under Christ’s feet and “gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” Christ, then, is the highest authority in the church institute, which in turn means that God’s Word is the highest authority. The Scriptures are the word of God and therefore the word of Christ Himself. What Christ our Head commands His church is recorded in the Bible. Here Christ tells us, His body, the church, what we may do and may not do. This is the law that governs His kingdom and church. So, first of all, it is through proper church government that Christ rules over His church by His Word and Spirit.
In the second place, this rule of Christ over His church is a visible rule. It is true that Christ Himself sits in heaven and rules over His church there. Christ is no longer present with His church bodily. He is here by His Spirit and Word, but Christ has also chosen to rule over His church by means of visible representatives. We touched on this in our last broadcast. Christ in His Word has appointed certain offices in this church, through which He can rule over His church. The men the church chooses to serve in these offices are undershepherds of Christ. It is under these offices, therefore, that the church is properly organized. A faithful church institute must reflect these offices of Christ.
The first office is that of elder. We already showed that last week when we spoke of the fact that Christ instituted His church. The apostles and missionaries appointed elders in the various churches organized in different places. That this office represents the rule of Christ in His church is evident everywhere in Scripture. Paul’s final instruction to the elders in Ephesus is recorded in Acts 20:28: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Christ through His Spirit chooses the elders to be overseers of the church. The terms bishop and presbyter also used in Scripture both make reference to this same office.
So, in order to find a faithful church of Jesus Christ among the myriads of denominations, we must look for a church governed by a body of elders. These elders are responsible to Christ—not to the body of members in the church, as is the case in a democratic system of church government—but to Christ, their Head.
The second office in the church is that of the pastor. You see, there are really two types of elders: the ruling elder and the teaching elder. We read in I Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” Those men who labor in the Word and doctrine, that is, the teaching elders, take on an office of his own in the church—an office, once again, that Christ, the King of the church, has ordained. This is the office of pastor and teacher. We read of this office in Ephesians 4:11. We read of this office also in Romans 10:14, 15: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” Christ has chosen to teach His church—not just rule His church—by means of the office of the pastor and teacher. In order to find a proper church institute, therefore, there must be men trained, called, and sent by the church to preach the gospel. These ministers of the gospel take their place alongside of the elders in caring for the needs of the church. Just as the elder rules on behalf of Christ, so also does the preacher proclaim authoritatively the Word of Jesus Christ. Christ dwells in the church that has faithful pastors and teachers.
But there is also a third office to which men are called in the New Testament church. Paul in I Timothy 3 gives a whole list of qualifications for men called to serve in the office of a deacon. This office was ordained by Christ too. This is why the apostles in Acts 6 called the church together to elect deacons. Christ chooses to serve His church with His mercy and love by means of the office of deacon. Christ not only rules over the church, Christ not only teaches His church, but Christ also dwells in His church by means of the office of a deacon. In this way Christ chooses authoritatively to administer His mercy to His people in need. We do not look for a board of deacons to rule the church, but we do look for deacons to be present to handle the financial affairs of the church of Christ. Where these men are present together with the elders and pastors we find the church of Christ properly instituted. And when these officebearers bend the knee to Christ and submit to Christ’s Word and command as given in Scripture, Christ the Head of the church is present. And that institute properly represents the church of Jesus Christ in this world.
The Marks
Now, these offices will come to clear manifestation in the labors they are called to perform. What are the proper labors of the church institute? What particular work does Christ call His church to do? What must we look for in a church in order to determine if it is faithful to Jesus Christ and therefore the institute where we must be living members? Well, dear listener, the church is not commanded by Christ to become the best of all social institutions in this world. Neither does Christ command His church to carry on all kinds of special ministries or to establish humanitarian programs. The church is not called to be an entertainment center or relief agency for the homeless of this world. If individual Christians desire to do these things in order to help others, that is commendable. But this is not the work appointed by Christ to the church. The church is given an official work that it is called to perform by means of its offices. The chief task of the church, according to the Bible, is to preach the gospel! This is the means of grace Christ has given into the hands of His church. By means of the preaching, Christ calls sinners to repentance. We find in I Corinthians 1, the last half of the chapter, that the preaching is the power of God unto salvation therefore. Romans 10 asks, how can a person call on the name of Christ unless he believes, and how can he believe except he hears Christ, and how can he hear Christ if there is no preacher called and sent by the church? Pastors are given the task to preach the Word, and elders the work of guarding the preaching from heresy. In this way—through the preaching—Christ will gather His church in this world. He will call His people out of darkness into His light. That is the work given to the church. The church must preach the gospel.
In the second place, the church is called by Christ to administer the sacraments—which are also means that Christ has given His church to use. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were instituted by Jesus Christ Himself, not to be used in homes, not to be used in para-church organizations, but to be used by the church institute in this world. The church is given this task—and the work of ministers, elders, and even deacons is to maintain and perform this work of the church.
There is a third work Christ gives His church to do: administer Christian discipline. Matthew 18 lays this out for us very clearly. The church must excommunicate out of the church all those who walk contrary to God’s precepts and Word. In this way the church is kept holy!
These three tasks: preaching, sacraments, and Christian discipline make up the distinguishing marks of the true church of Jesus Christ in this world. We can sift through all the denominations that are available right now. Finding a church with proper church government and these three marks already narrows our search substantially. Not just any church will do, will it? Not if we are going to be faithful to the Word of God! Do not take my word for it today. Go to the Scriptures and search out for yourself what the marks of the true church are. Then go to that church that most purely manifests them and maintains them. We do not look for the church that is the most famous in this world and has thousands of members, or that has all kinds of humanitarian programs, or that offers great entertainment. If these are the determining factors, we will soon grow weary of such a church because it will leave our souls empty and unfed.
There is one thing that is of the essence: the preaching of the gospel must be heard there! That is what we must search out for ourselves! We must do that for the salvation of our souls and the souls of our children. We must hear Christ speak to us.
With this, we must also come under the proper administration of the sacraments. We must be strengthened in our faith and love of God and His kingdom. Christ does this where those sacraments are performed according to the command of Scripture.
And, finally, we must willingly submit ourselves to the rule of Christ by submitting to the rule of elders who are concerned about the welfare of our souls. When searching for a church institute to which we can join ourselves, what we must look for is as objective as Scripture itself.
Its Confession
Again, just a word to young men and women who may think going to church is foolish. God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to save His people. Do not walk away from that powerful means of grace found in the church institute. In this age when there is little commitment to anything or anyone, be convicted and commit yourselves to the church. Those members of the true church of Jesus Christ in this world are convinced in their hearts that it is in their church that the marks of the true church are most clearly displayed. There is conviction. So convicted are they that they are willing to die on behalf of that church. That same conviction we desire to be in you! That is the conviction of faith. In faith confess: “I believe a holy, universal church and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it!” It is in that church that I want to be! That we confess, because that is what we believe. And in the conviction of faith we join ourselves with that church in this world and stand together with God’s saints of all ages. Behold the beauty of Zion!