If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it is a duck. But what can you see about a church that shows it really is a church?
I was struck by a recent news story entitled ‘I think I’ve accidentally joined a cult’ (ABC News 7th September 2021). The tactics sounded strangely familiar: a group who approached strangers asking for their views on life and religion which turned into a friendly chat, then a catch up for coffee, and an invitation to join a Bible study. But even though they looked like sheep, this group turned out to be wolves (Matthew 7:15-16).
Simply claiming to be a church doesn’t make an organisation a church. And as much as we’d like to think that having a particular denominational name on the sign outside or on the website, belonging to a particular organisation doesn’t make a church a real church.
What does? Jesus says ‘You will recognize them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:16). Some characteristics (or marks) are necessary.
Our assessment of a church usually starts with how it worships. It’s probably the most obvious expression of a church’s life and doctrine.
And the temptation is to look for what we prefer in worship. “Is it a contemporary church?” “Is the worship traditional?”
As always, we need to remember what Jesus tells us: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)
A real church determines how it worships based on who God is and what He says.
That determines the sacraments the church celebrates. A true church celebrates both of the sacraments Jesus instituted (Matthew 28:16-20, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34), and only those. We are not free to ignore baptism or the Lord’s Supper, to create alternatives to them or to add our own ceremonies, traditions and practices.
In identifying those two marks, we are working our way back to the foundational mark: the faithful teaching and receiving of the word of God.
It is the Gospel that creates the church (Acts 2:40-41, Ezekiel 37:4-10). So, it is impossible to have a church without the word of God. As Presbyterians, we can be very thankful to God that for many years, the faithful proclamation of His word has been a mark of this denomination. But that isn’t the whole story.
When Jesus told the Parable of the Sower, He said, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?’ (Mark 4:13). At the heart of that parable is how we receive the Word of God (Mark 4:15, 16, 18, 20).
Not only must the trustworthy message be preached, it must be received: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Dead orthodoxy should be a contradiction, but it’s a sad reality in many churches: We can say we believe the truth but not live it (James 1:22). So, reading the doctrinal statement on a church’s website doesn’t tell us everything we need to know. We have to ask whether the word is at work in the church, starting with us. Are we faithfully receiving it as the word of God?
No Decoys or Lame Ducks
The fact is, no church has this 100% right. Even where there is great care to order the church’s gathered life and worship according to the Bible, there will always be blind spots. Local churches always include some people who are unconverted. And all people in all churches have not reached perfection yet.
As the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us, “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.” (WCF 25.4)
So, we should not be too surprised or too disappointed to find that even ‘good’ and ‘Biblical’ churches are not as pure as we might have thought. That’s important when we’re considering what church to join, and also when the elders of a church assess its health.
Jesus requires discernment (Matthew 7:6), but not judgmentalism (Matthew 7:1-5). To find ways that the church needs to change, we only have to examine our own hearts in the light of God’s word (as Groucho Marx once quipped, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”).
But in that assessment, God gives us every reason for confidence because of what He is doing in us. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, ‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 1:6).
That’s the wonderful thing about Jesus’ church: It’s not for the righteous, but for sinners (Mark 2:17).
It’s easy to say that, and much harder to live it. Is there a gap between the doctrine we believe and the doctrine we practice? The Gospel gap is where we say, ‘Saved by faith’, but live ‘Saved by faithfulness’. But churches that embrace the Gospel are made up of people like us whose confidence is not in ourselves to complete the good work in us, but in God.
That’s not an invitation to be lazy or to give up growing holiness. But it does allow us to be open and honest, and to ask for help from God and one another. That’s only possible when our confidence is not in ourselves but in Jesus.
Fellow Workers, are we embracing the Gospel?
Convener, State News Committee
This editorial originally appeared in Fellow Workers Spring 2021 edition