The New Testament has no category for someone who is a believer in Jesus Christ but who is not also a member of a local church. The reason is so obvious that we take it for granted. Since all true believers become members of the body of Christ by virtue of their union with Christ through faith, the New Testament assumes that those who are members of Christ’s body will naturally identify with a local assembly of those who likewise believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord before the unbelieving world. Sadly, many Americans have completely different assumptions.
Given the rugged individualism of American culture and our innate suspicion of authority, many Americans who consider themselves faithful Bible-believing Christians make little connection between their own personal faith in Jesus Christ and membership in a local church. This is one of the most pressing issues of our day and it arises from a general ignorance of the doctrine of the church and the necessity of membership in a local congregation of fellow like-minded believers. In fact, John Calvin writes in his commentary on Isaiah, “We cannot become acceptable to God without being united in one and the same faith, that is, without being members of the church.” These two things, “justification by grace alone through faith alone,” and membership in Christ’s church are inseparable for Calvin, because the Bible clearly indicates that all those whom our Lord justifies through faith, he also gathers together is a visible assembly, a local church.
If it is true that all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ must join with a local congregation of like-minded believers and then submit to the yoke of Christ, then how can we tell which church is like-minded and faithful to the gospel and administers the sacraments according to the word of God? Do we ask ourselves if the people in a church love Jesus and if the church has good programs for our kids? Or do we look to see whether or not the church preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments as commanded in Scripture, and is willing to defend these things through disciplining its members who teach against this doctrine, or who by their lives, demonstrate that they really don’t believe the doctrine taught by the church. The marks of the church are objective (we can see them clearly). These marks do not stem from the piety and sincerity of those who attend (which we cannot determine).
Here is where people often get confused. A church can be a true church–preach the gospel, administer the sacraments and discipline its members–yet still have sinful members and non-Christians within its midst (people who profess the truth, but who don’t believe the gospel). We can think of groups of Christians who call themselves a church, who assemble for worship and to serve Christ, and yet do not possess the marks of a true church. Yet, such a group (while not a true church) may include many people who are truly Christians. The discussion as to whether or not a congregation is a true church or whether it has some of the marks of a false church does not at all imply that all people who attend such a church are not Christians.
The first mark of a true church is the pure preaching of the gospel. This is the foundation for everything else and effectively defines the church’s mission. Get this one wrong and nothing else matters! If this mark is not present then a church cannot possess any of the other marks (since, for example, the sacraments draw their efficacy from the gospel, not from the church or the minister). The pure preaching of the gospel entails what Paul calls the public placarding of Christ (Galatians 3:1). It involves the faithful proclamation of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners as defined in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. To preach the gospel is to speak of God reconciling sinners to himself in the person of his Son (Romans 5:8-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). It is to proclaim that through the cross, God manifests his love and his justice, satisfying his just anger toward people who deserve his wrath (Romans 3:20-25). According to Romans 10:14-17, faith comes about through the hearing of the proclamation of that gospel. The pure preaching of the gospel involves very specific content: proclaiming Christ’s saving work for sinners through his active and passive obedience, his death and resurrection. To talk about Jesus in some vague way in a sermon is not preaching the gospel!
The second mark of the church is the proper administration of the sacraments. Since we remain sinful, even though we are presently justified by the merits of Christ received through faith alone, we are all prone to hardness of heart and all of us feel the constant pull toward sin. God gives us the sacraments precisely because we are weak and sinful. Since God promises to rescue us from the guilt and power of sin in the gospel, so too in the sacraments God confirms the promise made in the gospel in a visible and tangible way. In fact, so tangible that we get wet. So tangible that we actually hold in our hands and taste with our mouths those same elements (bread and wine) which Jesus gave to his apostles. And these sacraments are based upon the same covenant promise–“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (cf. Matthew 11:28)!
The third mark of a true church is that it exercises church discipline so as to correct and punish sin. The critical biblical text in this regard is Matthew 18:15-17. In this passage, our Lord establishes both the need and procedure for us to deal with our disputes, in which the highest court of appeal is the church. In 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, Paul speaks of excommunicating professing believers whose unrepentant sin brings scandal upon the church. In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul commands the Corinthian church to expel a wicked man from their midst–a man who had taken his step-mother as his own wife. To ignore such behavior and not deal with it by removing the offending party is to risk bringing down God’s judgment upon the entire assembly. Like church membership, church discipline is also not an option.
These three marks (the preaching of Christ, the proper administration of the sacraments, and church discipline) not only identify a true church (which is faithful to God’s word), these marks define the mission of the church.