Instead of asking if your church is a true church,
how about asking this question instead:
Is my church an obedient church?
Ever had someone ask you this question –
“Can God make a rock so heavy
that even He can’t move it?”
Such a thing is not a ‘real’ question, since there is no such thing as a ‘God-sized’ rock too heavy for God. Only God is God-sized, and only God creates all there is.
Questions like these assume contradictions in terms exist in the real world. They don’t. Here’s another. Can God can make a square circle? No, He can’t. Square circles don’t exist; they too are a contradiction in terms.
There is something else that’s a contradiction in terms: true and false church Christianity. Oh, lots of people believe in it, but it isn’t real. So long as a church of people gather for the stated purpose of worshiping Jesus Christ, it’s a true church, even if there are no Christians in it. It isn’t hard to prove. The word ekklesia meant “gathering, assembly,” not validity of the worship of those gathered.
But I have a more important reason for writing this article than proving a cheap semantic point. I argue here that if you are one of those with a “true church – false church” view of Christianity, it is training you to misread the apostolic Scriptures. That’s my real point, and if I’m right, then your unity with your genuinely saved brothers and sisters in Christ hasn’t been formed by God’s inerrant and infallible written word, but by men.
The “True Church” is Missing
For starters, the word “church” has only two distinguishing adjectives in the New Testament: “My church” and “whole church” (Mat. 16:18, Acts 5:11, 15:22, Rom. 16:23, 1 Cor. 14:23).The adjectives “my” and “whole” are classified as determinative adjectives. Other adjectives such as “every,” “other,” “the rest of,” do not make distinguishing differentiations between churches. In the New Testament the Spirit of God never used an adjective such as true or false to teach us how to think rightly about churches.
Therefore God Himself doesn’t describe a church as either “true” or “false.” Only men do. So as abrasive as this might seem right now, this article begins by asking you to recognize that the true and false church dichotomy is not directly taught in Scripture. I’ll even argue later it isn’t implicit in Scripture, either. But for now I am asking you to agree that the true church / false church dichotomy in never known in the explicit words of Holy Scripture.
Which is one reason why professing Christians have such different takes on what a “true church” is. Those churches in submission to the Roman Pontiff are true churches to Roman Catholics, but no one else. Those churches in submission to an autocephalous archbishop are true churches to the Eastern Orthodox, but no one else. The 16th century Protestant Reformation brought some new definitions of a true church, and ever since, definitions have been proliferating with ever-decreasing clarity.
Confusion abounds. Individuals, not churches, are justified by faith and given unconditional promises of God’s grace in Christ, and thus there are true Christians and false Christians.
But true churches and false churches?
Every sect and cult proclaims itself the “true church.” The Mormons consider themselves the true church, the Restored Church of God calls itself the true church (it teaches God is only two beings), Armstrongism (restoration of Israel, unitarian) is the true church, etc. Then too, the 7th Day Adventists boast of being the true church. All of these groups are disobedient to God’s word, yet bestow legitimacy on themselves by calling themselves the ‘True Church.’
Those who buy into the true/false church dichotomy use it for confidence. They can say, “I’m in a true church” or even, “I’m in The True Church,” even though they all disagree with each other about what makes a church true or false. When they talk among their own, they all agree that they are ‘true.’ When they talk among others, they aren’t.
And how do they measure themselves? Through a ‘No True Scotsman‘ fallacy: just as ‘no true Scotsman would do such a thing,’ so too ‘no true church would do such a thing.’ You ask, ‘Wouldn’t do what thing?’ ‘Well,’ comes back the answer, ‘Whatever thing true churches don’t do.’
So, let’s play it out – how to know the ‘true?’ The ‘true church’ is known by the ‘marks of a true church.’ Each ‘true church’ defines itself by certain doctrines, philosophies, and practices that make it ‘true’ and others ‘false.’ Some of these markers are a specific creed or confession, or a specific practice like laying on of hands resulting in apostolic succession, or certain sacraments, or submission to an anointed leader or to certain bishops, or church discipline, etc.
Yes, the marks are the all-important thing. Seventh Day Adventists must accept Ellen G. White as a prophet of God in order to be baptized by them:
Do you accept the biblical teaching of spiritual gifts and believe
that the gift of prophecy is one of the identifying
marks of the remnant church? (vow 8)
So the “true marks” theory goes like this: if your church is upholding the correct marks then you are in a true church. If it doesn’t, you aren’t.
Breaking News: You Are in a True Church
Now to everyone reading this, I couldn’t agree with you more.
You are in a true church.
I agree with you because you can’t have a false church any more than you can have a square circle. If we just go with the word’s meaning in Scripture, an ecclesia (the word for ‘church’) was a gathering of people: “I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse” says Paul in 1 Cor. 11:17. Come together as what? “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you” (1 Cor. 11:18).
Churches are groups of people who meet together for the stated purpose of worshiping Jesus Christ. We gather in assembly, for “assembly” is the meaning of ecclesia: “Therefore if the whole church assembles together… (1 Cor. 14:23). That’s why every church is a true church, because every meeting is true meeting, every gathering is a true gathering, and every assembly is a true assembly. The only way it is false is if the meeting, gathering, or assembly doesn’t occur.
If you’ll suspend judgment on the quality of the church’s worship for the moment, you’ll catch what I’m saying.
Once people gather together for church – good, bad, or indifferent – it’s a church, a gathering. It is a “called out assembly.” There’s no such thing as a false gathering, or a false assembly. Those gathering can, and may, have a completely damning understanding of Jesus Christ. But it doesn’t matter. You either have a gathering, or you don’t. Its just digital/boolean/black and white. You can’t have a false gathering because once a gathering gathers together, it’s true.
The scriptural proof of this is very simple. Jesus Christ Himself calls groups that have damnable worship practices, “churches.” Let’s start with Laodicea. Jesus Christ called the Laodicean group that met weekly for worship a “church” (Rev. 3:14). That was not a term of praise because He then said to them, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” The word is better translated “vomit.” Then there’s more: “you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”
Now let it sink in for a moment. He, the Lord of the Church and Head of the Body calls them a church while at the same time condemning them and their worship of Him. The eternal Son of God called the Laodicean gathering a “church” just as much as He called the other six churches in Rev. 2-3 a “church.”
Then take the church in Sardis. Jesus calls them “dead,” but He still calls them a “church” (Rev. 3:1).
So when Jesus Christ calls a hypocritical gathering that He is about to spit out of His mouth a ‘church’ , or a spiritually dead gathering a ‘church,’ then who are we to deny them what they in fact are – a ‘church?’
Or look at the other way – He didn’t call faithful churches in Revelation 2-3, “true churches.” Now if the Lord of the Church is not up to speed on what makes a church true or false, then certainly none of us are.
But, of course He is right and we are wrong. Laodicea and Sardis were churches. They were true churches.
How should we look at this, then? The Lord of glory is merciful. He pointed out the Laodicean and Sardian churches’ grave disobedience and instructed them so they might escape His judgment.
He is merciful to disobedient churches, is He not?
The True Church
Comes out of Church History
The first man to speak of church in terms of “true and false” was Cyprian in his battles with another bishop named Novatian (~250 AD). Friend, that’s a long time after the resurrection.
Cyprian had arranged an excommunication of Novatian and the churches that submitted to Novatian’s teachings. Foremost among them had to do with not re-admitting into a church those who denied Christ when the earlier persecutions occurred. Cyprian wanted these folks to be let back in (I agree with Cyprian, for what it’s worth). So, the excommunication from Cyprian against Novatian-influenced churches existed for centuries and brought about an ecclesiastical crisis in many cities. Which church was the right church?
Cyprian’s famous dictum, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother” represented not only his excommunication of Novatian but his certainty that the true church comes from a linkage of bishops connected back to Peter. In one of history’s precious ironies, however, Cyprian violently disagreed that Rome should have priority over any other church. He was a “one church in a city” guy who thought the true churches had a rightly ordained bishop (like him). As an aside, Cyprian is also thought the originator of the four marks of the true church; it is a “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.” More on that below.
Anyway, true church theory was not a big thing, even for centuries after Cyprian. And it wouldn’t even be a big thing in the next problem along these lines, the ‘schism’ involving the Donatists. Augustine appealed to the ideology of a true church to excommunicate the ‘schismatic’ Donatists, writing:
“Rogatus, the founder of your sect…. might perhaps have found some true defense if he had not separated himself from the true Church, and then audaciously claimed to hold in the name of the true Church the disputed possession.”Augustine, Letter 93, A.D. 408, To Vincentius the Donatist, 3:11.
Then, from Augustine’s time, true church theology slowly grew in importance to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox institutions. In the 4th laterna council of 1215, it was more or less ratified that the Roman Catholic Church was the true church, and still today, for many the true church is the Roman Catholic Church. Their offspring, so the account goes, are the Protestants who were either hereticalized or labeled wayward and schismatic children. These embrace their own true church theology developed during the the time of the “Magisterial Reformation.” Meanwhile the Orthodox churches claim themselves truer churches than are Roman Catholic churches, and yet somehow, both think of themselves as the other set of lungs through which Christ breathes on earth.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century made the matter of true and false churches a truly public matter. Then the emergence of independent churches in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries required more nuanced definitions. The first leaders of independent churches (i.e., John Smyth) claimed the ‘true church’ could be found wherever two or three believers gather together in worship and prayer. Things like a visible structure wee unnecessary, and so groups today like the Free Church and house-churchers are not in any way dissuaded by ‘true church’ identifiers, for they have their own. Some Baptists have claimed the ‘true church’ was pushed underground after the time of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, and the true church is represented in persecuted churches like the Novatians and Donatists listed above.
It gets woollier. Still other groups that deny the Trinity claim they are the true church, like the Jehovah Witnesses or Iglisia Ni Cristo, a Philippine-based group that claims there is no salvation apart from their church.
Confused? Not my problem (!). One man explained the development of true church theology this way:
“Seeking the true church and its teaching in history is akin to trying to follow a single noodle in a bowl of spaghetti.”William E. Nix, The True Church and Its Message to the Council of Nicea, Christian Apologetics Journal Volume 4. 2005 (1), p. 64.
The problem is, without a text of God-breathed Scripture to tell us who the true church is, and to teach us that by both precept and example in the apostolic deposit, we must rely on the writings of men.
It ought to be no surprise then that men – religious men with good intents – have been quick to fill a perceived vacuum in the Scriptures with their own sanctified thoughts. Yet, there are no explicit “marks” of a true church defined by the apostles of Jesus Christ in sacred Scripture.
So if you accept the theory that true churches are to be known by certain marks then you must convince yourself the churches of the NT had those marks, too. But you won’t find them that way, and sadly your true church theology will control your reading of Scripture. You’ll never find apostles explaining or defining the marks of a true church, or you’ll have to claim Laodicea was a true church and did all you claim true churches do. Except they didn’t.
So I’d like to stop that misreading the apostles for you, so you might learn to judge churches by the apostolic measure, obedience.
The Functionally Worthless Marks
The earliest designation of who the true church is that which was added to the Nicene Creed in 381 AD, which reads “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Those four words are sometimes called boundary markers, defining the criteria by which the true church is alleged to be known. This was 350 years after Pentecost, remember.
Depending on who is doing the reading, for a Roman Catholic that means the Roman Catholic Church and their bishops. They (alone) show forth the true church outside of which there is no salvation (Fourth Lateran Council). Alternatively, as the Anglicans and Orthodox read it, the true church is known in connection to a true succession of bishops.
But by the time of the 1500s many judged these four boundary markers as corrupted and inadequate for the times. The Reformers declared the RCC a non-church and instead developed their own marks of the true church. They pared it from four marks down to two or three marks, depending on which reformer one reads. Calvin defined but two – the pure preaching of the word and proper administration of two sacraments (Lord’s Supper and baptism), while Luther held to a third – discipline for the ungodly.
As important as these boundary markers might be for their constituencies they all suffer the same problems. First, all these groups often use the word “church” in a way foreign to Scripture, that is, to describe their own small groups of churches under their own hierarchy. Neither Christ nor the apostles ever defined “church” that way, and hopefully we can agree that when a religious group defines itself as a “church” that is contrary to how the apostles and Jesus defined “church,” then it’s presumptuous to accept their claim they are the True Church, or even a True ChurchFor more information on how Jesus and the apostles define “church,” read Jesus Defines His Church and The Church
Second, the Protestant version of true church theology is functionally worthless. What if the preaching of the gospel in a church is mixed with significant amount error? Let’s say a church preaches the gospel correctly only 40% of the time, but through human frailty teaches the gospel falsely 60% of the time. Is it then a non-church? What is the proper percent, accounting for human frailty and sin?
Third, it invites subjectivism. One popular pastor identifies eight marks while Free Church theologian Wayne Grudem recommends twelve “less pure” and “more pure” marks of a church.Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 874. His discussion spirals into individual subjectivity even on his twelve marks on p. 883. But since the apostles didn’t enumerate the marks anywhere, who is right? Are churches to no longer to be built on the foundation of the apostles, but on the marks?
Fourth, such churches are typically at a loss for how to account for ecclesiastical disobedience in themselves. Can a church be holy when its bishops and priests are notorious for the very worst vice and scandal known to man? Can it be one (as in one, holy, catholic, apostolic) when it never gathers together as one for the Lord’s Table? Can it be catholic when only a tiny percentage of the truly saved in a city go to it? Can it be a true church when it schisms those churches out of its own denomination who hold to the denomination’s original theology, such as happens in Liberal Protestantism and Episcopalianism?
Among independent churches, how can one be true while it doesn’t merge with another church that holds the same theology and is less than a mile away? Is unity among the local body of Christ that unimportant?
The True Church
is an Arbitrary Church
Can a church be true if say, 10% of its members are actually indwelt by the Holy Spirit? What about a church that holds to an orthodox confession of faith, but has no regenerated members? Or what about a church that performs church discipline unevenly, confronting some members harshly for minor infractions but neglecting the elder who beats his wife? Is that church true because they try church discipline in some cases, but fail to act in others? Is there an honest refuge in saying, “hey, no church performs discipline perfectly?”
In the “true church” paradigm, who but God can judge who is truly true to the true? God has seen fit to undo any local church that is morally disobedient regardless of how true or false they judge themselves to be. And to date He has been unwilling to display to His elect His “true churches” by placing a rainbow over them.
True church ideology is too arbitrary. It doesn’t really tell anyone whether or not Scripture is actually obeyed and orthodoxy believed. Typically, it leaves it to those running the church to decide that for themselves based on a few points of practice.
Which means it always defines itself as obedient, of course. Hence true church markers can support a blinding force to what Scripture teaches, and in many churches, confirms men and women in their sins. How can church repent when it’s a true church?
As mentioned above, the true church architects drew their battle lines in ecclesial conflicts, and for their followers these battle lines are what make their own church true church and others false. But such theologizing relies on reading Providence instead of Scripture for if those architects had lost their ecclesial battles, their own definitions of true church would have gone by the wayside. But as Providence had it, Cyprian, Augustine, the 4th Lateran Council, and Luther and Calvin, won in their day. Ever since, “true church” has come from their definitions, definitions reflecting their ecclesiastical victories.
This is partly why true church ideology trends towards ministerial charism, believing that the power in a church comes from a special gift from God located in a man. I have nothing against ordination, having been ordained by a council of elders myself. But in 1 Corinthians Paul locates the church not in a man performing the Eucharist, or even in a pastor’s preaching, but in the Christians coming together (1 Cor. 11:18-20). If the true church were ever located in good men, then why would Athanasius, Jan Huss, Jonathan Edwards, and a thousand others preach great messages in “true churches” that met the marks of their ecclesial traditions, and still got sinfully removed, or worse, killed?
The “true church” didn’t define itself in them but hated them.
History Providence isn’t kind to “true churches.” The country of England shows the hypocrisy. For alternating decades the true church would kill people from the false church. It’s awful but it happened. Years later it happened again, only vice-versa. The throne switched hands and the false became the true, and rose up to persecute and kill those in the new false church.
The True Church is Always “Us”
A lot of self-defined independent churches can’t stand much of Catholicism or Protestantism ecclesiology but still want the respect that history bestows, so they too hang on to true church ideology. It’s a slippery grip – locating one’s church within church history while cutting off virtually all of church history so one can be self-defined. So they too claim to be true in a self-defined way, thus showing an ironic dependence on what they despise, while rejecting the marks of their historic parentage:
“What are the marks “necessary for a church to be a true church? It is not the government of the church which makes it the church. It is not having a proper ministry (i.e., reformed). It is not certain forms of service. Wherever believers are gathered together with Christ in their midst and the gospel taught, there is the church of Jesus Christ.” John H. Fish III, The Life of the Local Church, Emmaus Journal Volume 6. 1997, p. 43.
True church, in other words, is self-defined for independents: “We’re true because we say we are.” But as we’ll see in the next section, his definition conflicts with the true church in Laodicea which had no believers in it (Rev. 3:14-22). And quite plainly, the government of the church is important, or what shall we do with the third chapter 1 Timothy where two and only two offices are defined, elder and deacon, and where only such a church as exactly that is called “the pillar and support of the truth?”
Here’s something else that’s arbitrary. No one ever says, “I’m in a false church.” Nope. Everyone is in a true church and it’s always “other people” who are in a false church.
True church ideology also makes biblical support arbitrary. If I believe the marks of a church to be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” then I go to the Bible in order to find a verse here and another verse over there to support my belief. Same thing with the two or three marks of the Reformation’s assessment of a true church. Just like the Roman Catholic I’ll take a text from here and one from over there, and another one over there, and stitch them together in a way the Holy Spirit did not.
That’s not how doctrine is rightly developed. Scripture comes in a Spirit-designed context. Who are we to say there are only four marks, or only three marks, when Jesus or the apostles did not? Like Cyprian and the Reformers we read our Bible in light of our theological battles, trying to make the best sense of it we can in light of our frailty and weakness. But sometimes we miss the forest for the trees.
I don’t doubt the intentions of good men, but in highlighting some aspects of faithfulness to the Lord we will likely downplay others. The Roman Catholic Church can be depraved in that it is loathe to remove fornicators and homosexual men in its priesthood, but the apostle Paul was not (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Some Protestants denominations and independents churches are institutionally depraved in that they consider schism righteousness. But the apostle Paul did not (1 Cor. 1:10, Titus 3:10-11). Are those not rather important marks of a church’s obedience to Christ?
Every Church is a True Church
To Jesus Christ, a church’s spiritual condition is no indicator of how true or false it is. We see this in how He speaks to the churches in three cities in Rev. 2-3: Laodicea, Sardis, and Ephesus. Let’s start with Laodicea.
As mentioned above Laodicea was a true church because Jesus Christ called it a “church” (Rev. 3:14). Yet they possessed no one who was regenerate: “you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev 3:16-17). What would you call this group? Jesus didn’t call them a false church, a non-church, or separated brethren. He called them a “church.” Evidently, the word ecclesia does not by itself signify the group that is going to heaven. At least, not to Christ.
Likewise, Sardis was a true church but a dead church. Jesus called the group in Sardis a ‘church’ but said to it, “To… the church in Sardis… you are dead” (Rev 3:1). It even had a few members who were truly regenerate (Rev. 3:4). But it was dead, spiritually. Ecclesiastically it was a mess.
Now to make this point a bit more personal, this is a good time for a quick question. If you had been alive at the end of the First Century, just before Jesus wrote that letter to the church in Sardis, what would you have thought of that church? Would you have thought it dead, too?
Actually, no. You would have told other Christians, “what a great church! That place is alive! It’s on fire for Jesus Christ!” That’s why Jesus said to it, “you have a name that you are alive.” That’s how Christians thought of it, but the Lord saw it as it actually was: “you are dead.” It’s the Lord telling you, that you, as a Christian, don’t know how to assess churches like you think you do. Your assessment of the church of Sardis would have been wrong. Dead wrong.
You see, only Christian people like you and me label a church as being “alive.” And we would have been the only ones making that judgment because non-churchy people don’t categorize churches as “dead” or “alive.”
Non-Christians pretty much just call churches, “churches.” They don’t make spiritual distinctions like “that’s a dead church,” and, “that’s an alive church.” They could care less about what churches are like in distinction from each other, for the most part.
The non-Christian simply says, “it’s a church.” Which is exactly what Jesus said: “to the church in Sardis…”
Hence, when it comes to evaluating true churches the pagans might be closer to the mind of the Christ than the Christians. Know why? They aren’t tempted to judge churches as fitting into one of two buckets, one called “true” and the other called “false.” They only have one bucket – “church.”
By now we should know better. As Rev. 3:1 and church history prove, we Christians not only misjudge churches to be the opposite of what they in fact are, we even make up categories to support our wrong judgments. And then we instruct others to find spiritual rest in our false ecclesiology. You see, according to Jesus, Sardis was not only a dead church. It was also a true church.
Let’s move on to Ephesus. The church at Ephesus was a true church but Jesus threatened to remove their lampstand, that is, removing the church’s power to bear witness to the gospel.G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 230. Lampstands aren’t the light, they only hold up a light. It’s the lamp on top of the lampstand that gives the light.
So once Jesus removes a lampstand there is nothing for the lamp of the gospel to sit on and shine forth. Spiritual darkness fills the church. Removing the lampstand doesn’t turn a true church into a false church but rather renders that church powerless to shine the light of the gospel. But be sure of this. They still gather for worship services, Sunday after Sunday.
The only way not to be a true church is not to gather. That’s it. Even if a church gathers on Saturday and has no regenerate people in it, it is still a church. Yes, it disobeys the NT, which teaches that churches are to meet to worship Jesus Christ on the first day of the week (c.f., 1 Cor. 11:18, 16:1-2, Acts 20:7, John 20:19, John 20:26), but the group that gathers on Saturday is still a true church. They are a true church in that they gather for the stated purpose of worshipping Jesus Christ. Do they do that rightly? Not even close. They disobediently gather on Saturday.
Perhaps they are like Laodicea, the church of no regenerate Christians but who nonetheless gathered for the stated purpose of worshipping Christ. That present-day Saturday gathering, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, need to repent even as the Laodiceans needed to repent (Rev. 3:19). But guess what? To Jesus Christ, the Laodiceans were a true church (Rev. 3:14). You see, being a true church is no indication that those within it are in fact Christians. It just tells you, yes, people are regularly gathering together, purportedly to worship Jesus Christ.
Although it flies in the face of centuries of ecclesiological thinking, I highly recommend we throw away the “True and False” categories of churches as unbiblical, vague, and arbitrary. Let us go back to the original meaning of the word “church,” which means “a gathering called together,” i.e., an assembly, without making a meaningless value judgment on any one church’s trueness.
Let’s instead evaluate all churches, starting with our own, based on obedience and disobedience to the church’s one foundation. Let’s judge churches by a more searching standard than three or four marks arbitrarily judged. Yes, those marks are important and can represent good sober theology. But they are arbitrary in that ultimately, they are formulated by men and history to approve of their own churches and separate from others.
Let’s instead judge churches based on how they obey or disobey those practices and beliefs clearly taught in both Precept and Example in the writings of the NT. Not only will the NT provide us with a better way to understand Christendom and all its permutations, but those who love Christ can form a consensus about those practices which obey Jesus Christ. With Precept and Example conforming us to the mind of Christ we can all return to the biblical church governance of eldership, which will then lead us to end schism by merging.
The church’s one foundation provides the one consistent way to look at all groups that call themselves churches, from the most ancient, to the most orthodox, to the most schismatic, to the most heretical. The apostles and Jesus Himself evaluated churches, like people, as either obedient or disobedient – and often as a mixture of both. Obedience and disobedience can be measured by us in the clear teachings of Scripture that are not arbitrary since they can be cross-checked by Precept and Example.
The Lord Wants an Obedient Church
The glorified Lord wrote letters to seven churches in Revelation 2-3 that exhibit His assessment of each church’s obedience and/or disobedience. Each church was given promises of blessing for obedience and/or promises of judgment for disobedience.
These seven letters reflect Christ’s own perfect insight into churches and form a heaven-sent scale by which ecclesiastical loyalty to Him can be rightly measured. The letters don’t contain any kind of black and white determination as to which of the seven churches are true and which are false. Those are not the categories Jesus passes along to us in His holy word.
There are only obedient practices and disobedient practices in the seven groups, each of which are called “church.” These letters, instead of comforting the recipients that they are in the true and right church, often rebuke the recipients and urge them to repent of their short-comings in immediate and whole-hearted obedience to Jesus Christ. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:22). No church is ever promised a hedge of protection that the Lord will protect it from error or defection.
Paul’s letters to the churches are the same. They are a detailed account of his comforting and confronting churches with truth in order that they may repent and grow ever more obedient. Paul never commended a church for being true or rebuked a church for being false. Those aren’t apostolic categories.
“For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test,
whether you are obedient in all things”
(2 Cor. 2:9)
“we are ready to punish all disobedience,
whenever your obedience is complete”
(2 Cor. 10:5-6).
If the Corinthian Christians ever tried to take comfort in thinking, “I’m in a true church,” that comfort was shattered as Paul painfully exposed their ecclesiastical rebellion against Christ, as a church (1 Cor. 11:17-18).
Peter and the rest of the writers of the NT do the same. They write letters instructing, pleading, and strengthening Christians for obedience to Christ. Never do they list out the qualifications for a true church. Peter will list out the qualities of true faith (2 Peter 1:3-8). But the qualities of a true church? Never.
The great majority of apostolic letters don’t even mention the alleged marks of a true church, such as the Lord’s Supper, baptism, or church discipline. Although important, the NT letters aim at each person’s obedience to Christ in the context of each one’s baptism into the local body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-14). And when in their letters they do mention those matters of the Lord’s Table and baptism, it is always in a context of obedience commended and disobedience rebuked. Never as a mark of a true church.
The NT does not tell us how to discern a true church from a false church because that is nonsensical by its own meaning. That’s like asking one of the apostles, ‘Can God make a rock so big even He can’t move it?” Or asking them to draw you a square circle. A false church doesn’t make sense because it’s a logical impossibility. How can a gathering be false? Can a human being be a false being?
Instead they wrote infallible truth on what a church should obediently believe and practice, and what a church should not believe and not practice. Just like our personal lives, our churches should be an ever increasing practice of obedience “until we, the all, attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Every act of obedience brings its own reward, just as every act of ecclesiastical disobedience sows its own judgment.
When a church believes it is a true church, or the true church, it loses the will to repent. It instead grows more hardened in its self-identity and retreats into its own tradition. And having become a bit more hardened in its impenitence it will almost certainly double down every time Christ calls it to repent.
A church can and should be judged as either obedient or disobedient across a wide spectrum of issues, some of which are more critical than others. Foremost is schism. The most disobedient church in Paul’s ministry was Corinth, and the first sin he confronted was schism (1 Cor. 1:11-12). His letter preserved them from splitting up into various churches.His words in Romans 16:23 were written from Corinth several years after his letter of 1 Corinthians. The phrase “the whole church” shows the Corinthians had not schismed, praise God They learned how to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. After all, there is only one body of Christ in every region, the “whole church” (1 Cor. 14:23, Eph. 4:3-6, 12, 16).
True church ideology breeds and retains schism because it defines itself by itself in order to make one group distinctives their resultant tests of fellowship. Like teen-aged girls who establish their own boundary markers or who is a part of the “in-group,” true church ideology looks to itself and not the Scripture for who is “in.” But the body of Christ is all those in a local region who are “in Christ,” not just those of one’s own ecclesial tradition. If you love Christ then you must love them as yourself. That is Christ’s distinctive: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).
From start to finish every Christian’s life is lived out and empowered in an ecclesial “in-Christ” fellowship of obedience in a church (Phil. 1:1, 1:5, 1:7, 2:1-2, 3:10, 4:15). We begin our Christian life by obediently responding to the gospel message, repenting of our sins and believing the promises of God in Scripture. And by God’s grace that pattern ought never stop in this life.
Your church should be the same, and so it should repent of schism. And why would a true church ever appoint full-charge elders in obedience to Titus 1:5 except that they wanted obedience to Christ more than their tradition from which they derive their self-identity? What is self-identity, anyway? Isn’t our goal to be made into the image of Christ? So then let us all exchange our self-identity and merge with other churches in order to obtain the greater identity of being the local body of Jesus Christ.
True churches are everywhere and nowhere, depending on how you define them. The real issue is obedience and an ecclesiastical identity of “in Christ Jesus,” as in Phil. 1:1:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi,
with the overseers and deacons.”
All the Christians in Philippi (every single last one!) are ecclesiastically related to each other, as the phrase “overseer and deacons” shows. These two groups are the office bearers in the church, that is, they represent the institutional church in Philippi. If Paul was merely saying that every Christian in Philippi was “in Christ Jesus” salvifically, then why add “with the overseers and deacons?” Are they not among “all the saints?’ Are they not “in Christ Jesus?”
Instead, Paul is using the phrase “in Christ Jesus” ecclesiastically.”Although this phrase has a range of meanings and does not always refer to corporate union with Christ, the primary focus in Philippians is the community of Christ.” G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, 32 Every Christian in Philippi is institutionally connected “in Christ Jesus” to the overseers and deacons,” and to what their office connects to – the one church in Philippi (Phil. 4:15).
Who would ever want a different ecclesiastical self-identity than “in Christ Jesus?”
So here’s the question for your church. If your church had been on Crete and Titus had come to it, demanding it merge with the other churches in your region and submit itself entirely to the elders whom he would appoint, would your church go along, or resist? Would you and your church prove themselves to be among the elect (Titus 1:1) or among the “self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11)?
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||The adjectives “my” and “whole” are classified as determinative adjectives. Other adjectives such as “every,” “other,” “the rest of,” do not make distinguishing differentiations between churches.|
|2.||↑||Augustine, Letter 93, A.D. 408, To Vincentius the Donatist, 3:11.|
|3.||↑||William E. Nix, The True Church and Its Message to the Council of Nicea, Christian Apologetics Journal Volume 4. 2005 (1), p. 64.|
|4.||↑||For more information on how Jesus and the apostles define “church,” read Jesus Defines His Church and The Church |
|5.||↑||Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 874. His discussion spirals into individual subjectivity even on his twelve marks on p. 883.|
|6.||↑||John H. Fish III, The Life of the Local Church, Emmaus Journal Volume 6. 1997, p. 43.|
|7.||↑||G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 230.|
|8.||↑||His words in Romans 16:23 were written from Corinth several years after his letter of 1 Corinthians. The phrase “the whole church” shows the Corinthians had not schismed, praise God|
|9.||↑||”Although this phrase has a range of meanings and does not always refer to corporate union with Christ, the primary focus in Philippians is the community of Christ.” G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, 32|