What kinds of things should believers in Christ look for when choosing a church? How do you know when you ought to remain at your current church? Conversely, how do you know when you may need to leave your church and find a new church home? To quote The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”
Many in our day seem to make such decisions based largely upon what might be considered peripheral issues, such as the style of music, children’s programs, the personality of the pastor, etc.. Those are not necessarily unimportant things to consider, but are they really the right standard by which we should measure a particular church?
This is where the concept of the “marks of the true church” often proves helpful. The Westminster Confession of Faith (25.4) deals with this subject (although it does not use the phrase “marks of the church), when it says,
“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”
Keeping in mind that the word “catholic” here (as in the Apostles’ Creed) simply means universal, not Roman Catholic, it is helpful to see that no particular (i.e. local) church or denomination is to be considered as coextensive or coterminous with the catholic/universal church. Frankly, that is how cults tend to view & present themselves (i.e. as the only true church, while all other churches are false, apostate, etc.). Rather, we are to consider particular/local churches in relation to the catholic/universal church.
And so when we are considering a particular church, our primary question must be whether or not it is truly a member of the one catholic, visible church. And how is that to be determined? By considering it in light of what is known as the marks of the true church.
The Confession’s statement above (25.4) states that the standard by which a church is to be measured, the things that we are to consider in order to determine whether or not a particular church is either “more or less pure” are as follows:
- “The doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced.” This must come first. If the gospel of Christ is not truly taught and embraced, then a particular church is a Christian church in name only. A false gospel equals a false church. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5 speaks of such churches as “no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.”) And so our first and primary concern when deciding on a church must be that the Word of God is truly preached and taught.
- The proper administration of the “ordinances.” This is refers primarily to the sacraments, but most likely includes such things as church discipline, the maintaining of the offices of the church, etc. Sadly, the proper administration of the sacraments is probably an afterthought to many sincere believers, but it has been commonly held to be one of the distinguishing marks of the true church. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are vitally important in the lives of believers. The fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith devotes no less than three (3) whole chapters (27-29) to this subject testifies to its importance.
- The purity of public worship. Now the public worship of the church is probably one of the first things that many people consider when choosing a particular church. But the purity of the public worship (i.e. that it conforms to what is commanded in Scripture) often does not seem to be the priority, but rather the personal preferences of the individual. In other words, we commonly ask whether or not the public worship of a particular church is pleasing to us, rather than asking whether or not it is pleasing to God. (Or we simply presume that if it is pleasing to us, then it must somehow be pleasing to God as well.)
Now there is obviously a lot of overlap between those three things. And those three things are not exactly the way that the marks of the true church have most commonly been articulated and defined. (The Confession, of course, does not use that term here.) The classic formulation of the marks of the true church is found (for example) in the Belgic Confession. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession puts it this way:
“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.”
So the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of proper church discipline are stated as being the three (3) marks of the true church. That is not to say that the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Belgic Confession are at odds on this issue; they simply articulate the same things somewhat differently. And notice that the Belgic Confession basically summarizes the three marks by saying, “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God.” That is really the standard.
As for the original question – “Should I stay or should I go?” Article 29 of the Belgic Confession sums it up well when it says, “By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.” If your particular local church does not demonstrate these three simple marks, then you probably need to find yourself a different church. But if it does show itself faithful in these three distinguishing marks (however unimpressive it may be), then (as the Belgic Confession states above), you ought not to be separated from it.
The marks of the true church are as much about knowing when you should stay at a particular church as they are about when you should leave it. Choose your church wisely, measuring all things according to the Word of God. And then faithfully worship, serve, and remain there to the glory of Jesus Christ.