In an astonishing sign of gospel reconciliation, in 2017 the Bible Presbyterian Church reestablished relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from which it separated in 1938. Nearly eighty years of hostility turned around and a bright future awaited both denominations. Even in the midst of such a joyous moment, the taint of sin was not missing. During an address, one member recounted how different the welcoming attitude of the OPC was to the BPC's reception by other reformed denominations. This experience is the unfortunate norm rather than the rule. Certainly, there are historic and theological reasons for division and difference, however, within a shared theological framework, charity and fellowship should reign. How lamentable that organizations committed to bringing God's people together would include those who advance division without warrant.
This presents a question for those who would live Christian in an unchristian world. The church is not unified and wears a great many names. How ought a Christian consider the question of which church or denomination with which to associate? This is a knotty question to address and one fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, it is a necessary one, for it determines the very heart of our souls.
To begin, we must define the sine qua non of the church, the necessary elements of a Christian church. Throughout the life of the church this question has been debated. During the reformation, theologians described three marks of the true church in contrast to the marks the Roman church advocated. These follow from the one core value of the reformation, sola scriptura, one that we have already examined in this study. With the primacy of the word of God, what the church does with the word of God marks it as the true church. The marks of the true church then consist in the faithful preaching of the word, the faithful administration of the sacraments (sensible word), and the faithful exercise of discipline (administrative word).
From these marks, we observe that two of the primarily appear in corporate worship. We must then assume that a corporate community is also necessary for the existence of the true church. At its heart, the church is a worshipping community. It is not a social club, a moral education society, or an entertainment venue. The first question one ought to answer is this. Is this were God's people gather to worship? This question rests at the heart of the rest of the biblical criteria
The worship of this community must then be by the book. We often try to separate the preaching portion of worship from the rest of worship, but this will not do. The entire worship service preaches to us. How one worships preaches a sermon on worship. If one would hear that sermon, one must ask whether it is faithful to the Word of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way. "[T]he acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture." (WCF 21.1) This states the so-called regulative principle of worship, that we may only worship as God has expressly prescribed in Holy Scripture. This does not answer all questions about the character and particulars on worship, but it does guide those decisions in a Biblical way. One ought to ask of a prospective church, does the worship conform to the regulations of the Bible?
The next mark indicates the faithful administration of the sacraments. The sacraments are the Word made sensible, that is, appreciable to our senses. Many churches don't have problems with the correct observance of the Sacraments since the instructions for their use appear plainly in Scripture. Baptism is to be administered with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:36; Matthew 28:19) The Lord's Supper is to be administered through the bread and cup according to the instruction in I Corinthians 11:23-34. Where many churches reveal a latent problem, their low estimation of the sacraments, is in their delinquency and irregularity in their observance. Baptism, by its nature, is an irregular sacrament. The Lord's Supper, on the other hand, must be scheduled. While properly occasional, it does not have to be irregular. The lack of regular observance says something about how important a church considers the sacrament. If a church does not regularly observe the Lord's Supper, that church communicates to its membership that the sacrament is not a necessary part of their spiritual life. This expresses a low view of the sacrament. A church that has a low view of the sacraments often struggles with a low view of Scripture. As the sacrament is the word of God made sensible, a low view of the sacrament suggests a low view of the word of God in all its forms. One ought to ask of a prospective church, what is their view of the sacraments? Do the regularly observe the Lord's Supper?
The final mark noted by the reformers involved the faithful exercise of church disciple. The reformers took seriously the Scriptures teaching on the new life that believers have in Christ. Failure to live this new life required action by the church. This principle requires careful and biblical analysis. Faithful exercise of discipline does not mean that the church regularly engages in public censures. Excommunication should remain a rare occasion. This extreme censure should only occur when all calls to repent have gone unheeded. The object of discipline is first, the repentance of the sinner. All are sinners and must live lives of repentance. Lack of repentance brings ones profession of faith into doubt. Only at this point ought excommunication be effected. The church must be willing to engage in this act if repentance does not appear in the life of a sinner.
Discipline includes more than the official censures of the church. Discipline begins in the preaching of the Word. A church that fails to call people to repentance by showing them their sin through the preaching ministry is not engaged in the faithful exercise of church discipline. The church must proclaim the reality and heinousness of sin, all sin that the Bible condemns. We have no warrant to call sin what the Bible does not condemn, nor to ignore those things the Bible clearly condemns. Both violate the duty to faithful church disciple.
Within Christianity we find churches who have abandoned discipline altogether. Nothing is ever considered sin. Sin is not discussed, nor are people warned of its danger. This lack of teaching and warning shows that the church does not take the Bible's message seriously. Whatever contextualizing argument might be advanced, the Scripture's warnings ought not be ignored in order to accommodate the modern, worldly opinion.
In this vein, we must also observe the truth of churches the wound their members. In these recent years, the discussion of so-called "spiritual abuse" has increased. While the language often gets applied too broadly, examples appear all too often of religious groups and churches that use religious authority and power to violate the consciences of those under their jurisdiction. Even otherwise Biblical churches have fallen into these errors. Nevertheless, we must be careful before condemning any church, minister, or elder. Ministers and elders sin like any other human. They can wound their flock, intentionally or unintentionally. We must charitably analyze their work and practice. Are they ready to repent and make things right when they overstep their duties? Have they created an environment of fear or suspicion? Does the congregation share their censorious (def., severely critical of others) attitude? These factors will indicate whether there has been a breaking of the duty to the faithful exercise of disciple for severity.
In analyzing a church, I encourage you to consider whether you trust the leadership of the church. In most churches, either by vow or expectation, the members promise to submit to church leadership. If you do not trust that leadership, you should never make that promise. Do you believe that the leadership of the church loves you and seeks your best? Can you listen to their criticism knowing that they bring it to you not quickly, but with consideration and thought? Can you trust the minister and elders with the care of your soul?
One final mark that the reformers did not consider is that of fellowship. The concept of unity appears throughout Scripture. The one body of Christ pictures the nature of the church. To that end, we are commanded not to forsake the gathering of the church. (Heb.10:25) This warning does not appear in a purely worship or preaching context, but appears as a practical application of the church's duty to encourage and edify one another. Again, Paul in Philippians encourages the church to put deeds into their fellowship one with another. (Phil. 4) This means that the fellowship of the church is necessary to its spiritual life.
Again, this mark needs proper biblical analysis. Fellowship does not mean that you ought to find a church filled with people like you where no one ever disagrees. No church is free from a difference of opinion or practice. Paul's discussion of the strong and weak christians reflect the way we ought to deal with differences within the church. (I Cor. 8,9, Ro.14,15) This means that love ought to rule our relationships within the church. We respect our differences in love, knowing that we have one Lord and are part of one body.
Here again are the marks: Bible teaching, Bible sacraments, Bible discipline, and Bible fellowship. When we address these marks to denominations, we must exercise caution. Some groups have so abandoned these principles, that though there may be some isolated examples of true churches within that group, the trajectory of the whole ought to warn us that the natural pressure will be toward that abandonment. Other groups known to be faithful to these principles may include churches that contain serious failings in one or more of these marks. While denominational reputation may be helpful, it is certainly not determinative.
While we use these marks to determine which church with which we wish to associate ourselves, we ought also to consider how we interact with the church to encourage these marks. Are we preaching the word faithfully to ourselves and others? Are we taking the sacraments seriously? Are we disciplining ourselves, participating in discipline well, and encouraging others in their obedience? Are we participating in church fellowship, and edifying one another? If we would live Christian in an unchristian world, we must do so first in the church.