When it a church not a church? It’s an important question.
What are the essential, non-negotiable elements which must be present, in order for a religious group to be considered a Christian church? These elements have historically been called the “marks of a church.”
- How many marks are there?
- What does the New Testament tell us?
- Do each of these marks have to be present?
- Can a few be absent?
- If so, how many can be missing before a church is no longer a church?
This might seem like silly, ivory tower nit-picking. After all, who cares as long as you love Jesus, right?
Imagine this scenario:
- A group of eager, young Christians gather at a local Starbucks every Sunday for a bible study – at 1100 sharp!
- A different “leader” takes a turn every week reading a passage of Scripture and explaining it. The group always has a wonderful discussion. “The Spirit is, like, really moving in our lives,” one attender explains, eyes alight with joy.
- Once per month or so (“whenever we feel the Spirit leading us”), they observe the Lord’s Supper together. But, they like being different. So, the group usually observes the ordinance with Cheese-Its and Diet Coke. They tried pita crackers and milk once. It didn’t go over so well. It was . . . gross.
One attender explains he doesn’t feel the need to go to a “traditional church.”
It’s, like, so confining. I used to go to a ‘normal’ church, but it just became, like, way too much. All the rules. All the stuff that just, you know, like, gets in the way. I like coming here better. It’s like we’re getting back to the, you know, the . . . the purity that Jesus always talked about. Here, we just keep it simple. No rules. No judgment. Just the Word and the Spirit. I’ve grown in Christ more here than I ever did in a traditional church. When the Spirit is working, who am I to judge or criticize, ya know?
Does this young man go to a “church”? Is his Starbucks fellowship a church? Why, or why not? You see? It does matters what a “church” really is, and what it isn’t. And for that, we must turn to the New Testament.
Baptist theologian Kevin Bauder explained this dilemma pretty well:
An analogy may be helpful. A dog by definition is (among other things) a quadruped. If it loses a leg, does it cease to be a dog, or is it simply a damaged dog? How many appendages can it lose before it can no longer be called a dog? Eventually, if one lops off enough parts, the dog dies. The same principle applies to churches. How many characteristics can be lost before a church can no longer be called a church? Baptists do not have a single, straightforward answer to this question.
For the foreseeable future, I’ll be systematically working my way from Acts – Revelation, trying to answer:
- What are the marks of a church?
- Can any of these marks be missing?
As I finish my review of each New Testament book, I’ll post my thoughts here. I’m not sure how long this will take, but it will surely be fun!
For now, here are some thoughts from a smart, dead guy on this matter:
When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exist, our meaning is, that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults.
Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like.
Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord?
The words of the apostle are, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you,” (Phil. 3:15.)
Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.
Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord.
Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, “If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace,” (1 Cor. 14:30.) From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order.
In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged
 Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 217.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 4.1.12.