Home Pastors Marking the True Church

Marking the True Church

true church

Understanding the marks of a true church ought to be of supreme importance to every believer. How do we know if any given church may be rightly considered to be a true church or not? For instance, every professing Christian ought to know that the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints is not in anyway whatsoever a true Christian church. It has always been, in every stage, a synagogue of Satan parading a false Christ and false gospel. But what about churches belonging to particular Christian denominations or those that have remained independent? The principles that enable us to answer this question have been systematically developed for us in church history. The Reformation era was a particularly formative movement in the development and articulation of the doctrine of the marks of the church.

During the Reformation era, there was a progressive development of understanding what marks distinguished a true church from a false church. This was, of course, owing to the Reformers efforts to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church. Rome had emphasized the four attributes of the church, namely, “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church.” While the Reformers agreed that those are the attributes or marks of the invisible church (i.e., the whole body of believers throughout all time), they rejected a number of these as being marks of the visible church. For instance, whereas Rome insisted that it was the true church, since we believe that there is only one church, the Reformers emphasized that the unity of all believers belonged to the sphere of the invisible church, but that there would be manifestations of the visible church on earth that were more or less pure according to their fidelity to the marks of the visible church.

As Geerhardus Vos explained,

The marks (notae, γνωρίσματα) refer to the visible church and not, like the attributes, the invisible church. A mark by its nature is something that must fall within the sphere of what is visible. Although the Church, viewed in its entirety, can never disappear from the earth, there is still no guarantee that its individual parts will continue to exist. They can completely degenerate and deteriorate; believers who are still therein can die off so that only apparent members remain. But the presence of true members does not let itself be recognized. We cannot see into the heart of men.

While we must distinguish between the attributes and the marks of the church, we must also remember that these are not antithetical to each other. They merely function in a different manner from one another. When we adopt this distinction, we will better understand the development of the doctrine of the marks of the church in Reformation history.

John Calvin on the Marks

While many of the Reformers were developing a theology of the marks of a true church, John Calvin is often credited with the most wide-reaching influence on the development of our understanding of them. Most scholars will note that Calvin only referred to two marks–namely, the right administration ofg word and sacraments. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin explained, “We only contend for the true and legitimate constitution of the Church, which requires not only a communion in the sacraments, which are the signs of a Christian profession, but above all, an agreement in doctrine.” Elsewhere in the Institutes he stated, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists [cf. Eph. 2:20].”

Calvin fleshed out his understanding of the operational role of these two marks in the context of the local church. He wrote,

The Church is called ‘the house of God, the pillar and ground of truth.’ For in these words Paul signifies that in order to keep the truth of God from being lost in the world, the Church is its faithful guardian; because it has been the will of God, by the ministry of the Church, to preserve the pure preaching of his word, and to manifest himself as our affectionate Father, while he nourishes us with spiritual food, and provides all things conducive to our salvation.

So strong was Calvin in his belief about these marks that he posited what it means for someone to be apart from these marks. In Institutes 4.1.10, he insisted, “So highly does the Lord esteem the communion of his Church, that he considers everyone as a traitor and apostate from religion, who perversely withdraws himself from any Christian society which preserves the true ministry of the word and sacraments.”

While Calvin referred mostly to the right ministry of the word and sacraments as marks of a true church, he would add church discipline as a mark later in his ministry. In his Ecclesiastical Orders, Calvin explicitly expressed his belief in three marks. He wrote, “There are three things on which the safety of the Church is founded and supported: doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments.” These would become the three marks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

16th and 17th Confessions

The Reformed Confessions spoke to the issue of the marks of the true church in light of Roman Catholic perversions of the biblical teaching on the nature of the Church. For instance, Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3 and 4 describes the marks of a true, visible church when it states the following:

“Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto…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.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.3-4).