New Horizons

Sincerely Yours: The Marks of the True Authentic Church

A. Craig Troxel

A youth minister was illustrating how we are fallen image-bearers to a high school group. He began by pulverizing various small "sinful" clay figurines. Then he tried to end the lesson dramatically by producing a samurai sword and a life-size figure of a head. After winding up, he brought the sword swiftly toward the head, only to stop the blade suddenly just inches from the victim's neck.

But much to his surprise (and horror), the blade snapped off the handle and went flying, barely missing several kids' heads, and placed a deep gash in a whiteboard across the room. Naturally the illustration was a huge hit with the class, but it deeply unsettled the minister, knowing that a dreadful accident had barely been averted. What he had not considered was that the sword was not authentic. An authentic samurai sword would have had tempered steel that extended the whole length of the handle. But this sword was a "genuine replica," with subpar metal set into the wood handle by only a few inches. Had the sword been authentic, the near accident would never have happened. (On the other hand, the advisability of a youth minister seeking to illustrate points of theology by wielding a samurai sword is another matter.)

The difference between what is authentic and what is imitation can be enormous, and can even mean the difference between life and death. Replica watches and knockoff purses are of little consequence. But in things that matter, like love, relationships, heroes, friendship, and religion, people yearn for what is real. They are tempted to become cynical by disappointments they suffer from people who are disingenuous.

So when people turn to the church, they are looking for something genuine. In fact, "authenticity" has become the motto du jour in discussions of church ministry and especially in recent books like The Shack and in emerging church literature like Blue like Jazz, The Lost Message of Jesus, and Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic. A church near my home is advertising the "Authentic Jesus" on several signs in our community. But what do we mean by "authentic"?

On the one hand, if people simply want a church with genuine spirituality, a church that believes and practices the gospel it preaches, where the joy of the Lord and the fruit of the Spirit are evident, where one can feel sincerely loved and see a courageous passion for God's truth, and where humility and compassion are evident, then who could fault such a desire for authenticity? Since Jesus warns us about the dangers of hypocrisy (Matt. 23:13-36), and since we know how prone our hearts are to shallow obedience, it is good to be reminded that God requires genuine love and sincere faith (Rom. 12:9; 1 Tim. 1:5).

On the other hand, the pleas for the church's authenticity in some contemporary literature may not actually be so great. If "being yourself" turns out to be an excuse for being your worst self, then you are not being authentic; you are being inconsiderate and immature. If church members simply seek change for the sake of change, or want to resist ritual and tradition at all costs, then that is different from pining for what is genuine.

We must also rise above the superficial categories by which we judge each other. Dressing down and dressing up can be equally contrived. Sitting on couches in a circle or sitting on wooden pews in a row can be equally real. The desire to be authentic can be noble or it can be a thin veneer. But how do we know what an authentic church looks like?

The Marks of the Authentic Church

From about the fourth century until the Reformation, Christians confessed the Nicene Creed's fourfold description of the church as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." These have long been considered the marks of the church. Reformed theologians, like G. C. Berkouwer, have not hesitated to expound the doctrine of the church with these four terms. For the Bible does teach that the church is one as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 4:4), and it finds its "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). The church is holy in God's sight by right of its union with Christ, who is its sanctification (Eph. 2:21; 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 3:17; 6:11), even as Christians are also called to grow progressively in holiness (Eph. 4:24; 1 Cor. 1:2; Phil. 2:12-13). The church is catholic in that it is universal and has spread to the nations, as Christ promised (Eph. 2:11-22; Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:8). The church is apostolic in that it is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and it remains apostolic insofar as it remains faithful to the same message they preached (Eph. 2:20). The church is apostolic theologically, not genealogically.

However, the Reformed tradition has been dissatisfied with these ancient descriptions, because they are not as much "marks" as they are "attributes" of the church. In other words, they describe only what the church is, and this in a general way. They do not get at what the church is supposed to be doing, and this in a rigorous way. The Nicene fourfold formula does not say enough, because it does not test what the church does. It does not help us to distinguish between what is true and what is false, or between what is authentic and what is fake. How do we discern if the church is being faithful to the Great Commission?

To illustrate the point, think of the game of basketball. How do you spot a true guard? If you said, "He is a shorter player on the team who dribbles, shoots, and passes the ball," then you have listed only bare attributes—and those of every guard on every basketball team. But if you said, "A true guard dribbles skillfully through a full-court press, shoots three-pointers, and gains several assists by feeding the ball to his teammates," then you have in mind certain standards and real tests for what constitutes a true guard. The Reformers were concerned to identify "marks" that would actually measure whether a church was a true church.

Luther, Calvin, and Bullinger stated that the pure preaching of the Word and the pure administration of the sacraments were the two marks of the church. But the Belgic Confession and the First Scottish Confession added the pure exercise of church discipline as a third mark. The difference between the two positions is of no real significance. For example, Calvin explains church discipline at great length in his Institutes, insisting on its necessary place, akin to the way sinews bind the organs of the body together (4.12.1). Similarly, although our church's doctrinal standards do not always do so explicitly, they do elaborate all three marks of the church (WCF 25.4; LC 108; FG 1.3; 2.4). In his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus expresses it this way: "That ekklesia in which the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered and discipline is rightly ordered will be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic."

All of the Reformed giants, like Luther, Calvin, Turretin, Beza, and Ames, agreed that ultimately the key mark of an authentic church is the pure ministry of the Word of God. As the "only rule of faith and obedience," Scripture sets the standard for how faithfully the church administers the sacraments and discipline (LC 3, 108; SC 2). According to Herman Bavinck, a true church has only one mark, the Word, which is "variously administered and confessed" in the church's preaching, sacraments, discipline, and life.[1] This is exactly what the Belgic Confession says in Article 29: "The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God." For a more contemporary example, the Reformed Baptist Mark Dever says that a healthy church can be measured by nine marks—yet all nine either have to do with the Word itself or the "biblical understanding of" each mark.[2]

The Reformed church has been right to emphasize the pure ministry of the Word as the mark of an authentically faithful church of Christ, because saving faith and new birth ordinarily come by hearing the faithful preaching of God's Word (Rom. 10:14-17; 1 Thess. 2:13; Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23, 25). Because God's word is his "breathed-out" truth, it is a practical help to teach, rebuke, correct, and train the Christian (2 Tim. 3:16). The Word is what cleanses and renews the church (Eph. 5:26). Here is the church's sword (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12), spiritual bread (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4), and lamp and light (Ps. 119:105). Everyone who departs from "the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ," as found in Scripture, forsakes the standard of godliness and truth (1 Tim. 6:3-5) and builds on shifting sand (Matt. 7:26). This is the primary standard of the church, and it will not pass away (Matt. 24:35; 1 Pet. 1:25). Without the Word of God, the church could not be constantly reformed by God's grace and Spirit, nor recognized as a true church of Christ. But why do these things matter?

The Mark of the Authentic Christian

One way to get at the importance of the marks of the true church is to think about the marks of a true Christian. What are telltale signs of an authentic disciple of Christ? Jesus requires his church to "make disciples" of the nations in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). Notice how this mission contains the marks of the church. Jesus upholds the ministry of the Word in our "teaching them." He assumes the sacraments in our "baptizing them." But note how church discipline is implicit in "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Authentic disciples of Christ are marked as those who not only hear, but also observe, the commands of Christ.

To put it corporately, a church that is faithful to the apostolic ministry will ensure that her members keep the commands of Christ through her exercise of church discipline (as well as through Word and sacrament). Through the ministry of the Word, the church informs us of our duty to obey all that Christ has commanded. Through the administration of the sacraments, the church reminds us of our obligations to obey him in whom we are baptized and of whose body and blood we partake spiritually. Through the exercise of church discipline, the church encourages us to guard the honor of Christ and to promote the purity, peace, and unity of the church by walking in obedience. And should we fall into delinquency in faith or life, the church disciplines us lovingly for the sake of our salvation. We could even say that God gave the church the ministry of discipline in order to keep his professing disciples his authentic disciples.

But what are the marks of an authentic Christian? You could answer, "faith, hope, and love" (1 Cor. 13:13), "the fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22-23), or being "holy" (1 Pet. 1:15), and all of these would be correct. But surely the best answer is "love." Jesus said that "the great and first commandment" is to "love the Lord your God," and that the second is to "love your neighbor." All of the Law and the Prophets stand on these two pillars (Matt. 22:37-40). We may have amazing gifts, knowledge, and faith, but without love we are nothing and have nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Here is the mark by which others "will know" that we are true disciples of Christ (John 13:35).

The mark of this authentic love is obedience—observing all that Christ commands. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). This is the exact language that God used on Mount Sinai. In the Ten Commandments, God says that he shows his steadfast love to those who "love me and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:6).

This contrasts sharply with some Christian literature of our day. In one recent book, a fictional character representing God says, "I'm not interested in rules, only a relationship."[3] But the real God says, "If you love me, you will keep my rules." An authentic disciple of Christ is marked by a commitment to obey Christ. An authentic church of Christ is committed to helping her members obey Christ, by faithfully ministering the Word, the sacraments, and discipline.

There are two reasons why love marked by obedience is important. First, these are issues of life and death. People have put their faith in what the church preaches, oftentimes at great sacrifice. They have built their lives on what they believe is the genuine gospel—that sincerely trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and for eternal life will prove to be a realized hope. What we place in their hands and engender in their hearts must be real. To accomplish this, a true church must faithfully fulfill her entire mission by training, encouraging, and directing true disciples of Jesus Christ. We must hold each other accountable to display the marks of authenticity that Christ expects in the life of his church and his disciples.

The second reason why a love driven by obedience is paramount is that such love is not just the mark of a true Christian, but also the mark of Christ. Here is where we can best imitate our Redeemer. Christ himself said, "I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father" (John 14:31). Jesus does not ask us to do what he is unwilling to embody himself. Obeying his Father's will was his delight, his spiritual food, and his life's purpose (John 4:34; 6:38). His obedience unto death on the cross demonstrated his love for us and the sincerity of his love for the Father (Rom. 5:8). Such is the genuine love that we want people to see in us and in our churches, so that they will say, "There is a true Christian. There is an authentic church." Such is the love and obedience that we want to see in ourselves as well, so that we will be able to say to our God, "I am sincerely yours."

Endnotes

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, p. 312.

[2] Mark Dever, What Is a Healthy Church?

[3] William P. Young, The Shack, pp. 197-98.

The author is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Ill. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2009.

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