IV. The Church Is Distinguished by Three Marks
There are three marks or indications by which we can tell a true church from a false church; three marks by which we can tell if a church is a church in God’s eyes.
(1) A true church preaches the gospel. In Acts 2:42, a text we saw earlier, we are told that the early church devoted itself to the apostles’ "doctrine." Primarily this refers to the message about the Person and Work of Christ; the gospel message which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). This message includes as well any and all doctrines that flow out of the gospel message. A true church teaches the gospel and clings to the Word of God. A church which fails in this is not really a Christian church. Notice the seriousness with which Paul addresses this issue:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal. 1:6-9)
Paul pronounces a curse on those who preach a false gospel, such as the Judaizers who taught that one must follow the ceremonial law of Moses if one was truly to be saved. We may presume that any church which preaches a false gospel, or fails to teach the true gospel of justification by faith alone, would receive the same curse.
(2) A true church faithfully administers the ordinances in accordance with God's Word. The ordinances, of course, are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have already addressed the meaning and importance of baptism, but the New Testament equally stresses the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Looking at Acts 2:42 once again, we note that another thing the early church devoted itself to was "the breaking of bread." This is most likely a reference to the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance symbolizes the sacrificial death of Christ, the bread representing his broken body, and the cup representing his shed blood. Paul speaks of our solemn obligation with regard to this rite:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor. 11:27-29)
A true church observes both the ordinance of baptism and the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, and it does so with reverence, guided by the teaching of the New Testament.
(3) A true church practices church discipline. The Lord Jesus commands the church to hold members accountable to holy living. We find an allusion to this in his Great Commission:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20a)
Jesus tells the church to teach Christian disciples to obey all of his commands. He also gives us specific instruction on what to do if a church member fails in this regard:
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." (Matt. 18:15-17)
Jesus expects the church to confront sinful church members with their sin, and he lays out the procedures to follow in doing so. But, if a church fails to carry out biblical church discipline, allowing sin to flourish in the church unchallenged, then Jesus has very harsh words for that church:
"To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.’" (Rev. 2:18-23)
A church that fails to discipline wayward members is under God’s judgment, and ceases to be a true church. J.L. Dagg, the famous Baptist theologian, once said, "When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it."