Every so often, I'm having a conversation with someone, usually about things quite innocuous—family, work, and sundry other pleasantries—and of course, people want to talk to a pastor about the church. They will ask how things are going, and of course these days, how we’re dealing with the virus. In my mind, I think to myself, “A virus, you say? I shall keep my eyes peeled.”
There are no shortages of churches these days, although many are sitting empty or far from half-full. But even if particular churches in certain places have their struggles, the church universal will not be defeated. If a local church implodes upon itself because of faithlessness, then so be it. Businesses close when they don’t make their owners any money, and churches close when they cease to honor the Lord. Is this not what Christ warns against in the early chapters of Revelation?
Churches may close for a variety of other reasons, but the most common, and the most to be feared, is an unwillingness to consider what they should be doing instead of what they are doing. If a faithless church closes, a faithful church will now have more land to plow, and people will actually become Christians with another feckless group gone that looks busy but is otherwise fruitless.
But this begs the question: what makes a church a church? Is it size? Is it the songs they sing? Is it what they preach? Is it denominational affiliation? Is it their stance on certain prohibitions? Let’s look at a technical term that has been used regularly in the last several hundred years of church history.
Marks of the church. Noun. The visible components that are necessary for a body of gathered people rightly to be called a Christian church.
So what are these visible marks? Historically, Protestants have understood at least two: the right preaching of the Word (gospel preaching), and the right administration of the ordinances (gospel signs). Martin Luther is known to have formed and insisted on these two. John Calvin agreed with only these two marks. Down the line, though, it was other Calvinists that added church discipline (gospel formation) as a third necessary mark of a true church when they wrote the Belgic Confession in 1561.
Preaching is the proclamation, through every passage of Scripture, that Jesus is Lord. If a sermon ends without preaching that, then what you have is a book report. Good advice is not good news.
The ordinances are baptism and communion. Baptism is the sign of regeneration and new life in Christ. You are lowered into the water to symbolize death, and you are raised out of the water to symbolize your resurrection, a promised future event. Communion is how the church remembers the new covenant after they have been baptized. We receive the bread and wine as a memorial meal as the disciples did in the upper room.
Discipline is both formative and corrective. Formative discipline is being confronted with the word of God, whether it be in preaching, group Bible study, private disciplined reading, or basic Christian conversation with a fellow believer. Corrective discipline is being confronted about sin in one’s life through fellow believers. The church must strive to be courageous and consistent in dealing with unrepentant sin in the congregation.
These things only happen faithfully in a gathered setting. There are instances when a person might need to hear a sermon or participate in communion or discipline in some way through other means (such as virtual), but the exception proves the rule. There is no such thing as digital baptism. Virtual communion might be necessary during lockdown orders, but once those are lifted, so is the need for virtual communion.
Some people separate themselves from their church for so long that their consciences are seared from any guilt or shame over not being willing to participate in the life of the church and should repent.
The key word in this definition of the marks of the church is “visible.” The church on your couch is not visible.
It’s important to note that while these three things are necessary, they are not all that a church is. Prayer is not always visible. Personal confession of sin is not always visible. Reconciliation between two offended parties is not always visible. And yet, Scripture commands all three for the church.
So how do you judge a church?
Is all you need good preaching? No, because in the same way that a man screaming Bible passages on the street corner is not a church, neither is a podcast or live-streaming.
Is all you need baptism and communion? No, because no one baptizes themselves or serves themselves communion.
Is all you need formative and corrective discipline? No, because a Christian school does this yet is not rightly called a church.
Some things the church does are more important than others. Even mission work only exists because God desires worshipers in places where there are none.
Every decision we make as a church should be guided by faithfulness to what makes a church a church.