Marks of a True Church

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Recently, I returned from a ministry trip to South Africa. My wife and I were visiting a couple that we knew from seminary who are now doing gospel work in Nelspruit, South Africa. Our goal in going was to come alongside them in their church plant for encouragement, support, uplifting, and some Bible-training with their church. It was a precious time to be with them and I am grateful to the Lord of their friendship and work in the Lord.

While we were there, focused on serving them, I was taken aback at how strangely churchcomfortable I was. This “comfort” was not certainly not due to culture, as South Africa definitely has a different culture and way of doing life than my NW Arkansas culture. But I was comfortable. I didn’t feel out of place. As I reflected on this more, I realized that this comfort was due to the fact that the church in Nelspruit was a faithful church just like the one I currently serve at and just like a few of the churches I have served at in the past. I was “at home” in this church—making connections, caring for others, etc.—because it was just like my church.

This gave me pause. How could a church thousands of miles around the world be like my church? The answer I discovered: every faithful church, regardless of culture, has the same priorities, including the very first church in Acts 2.

42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

John Stott remarks that these passages are “a beautiful little cameo of the Spirit-filled church.”[1] John MacArthur agrees: “This brief glimpse of the first fellowship gives valuable insight into what makes a healthy, growing church worthy of the name.”[2]

So what are those marks? What marks the true church of Jesus Christ both then and now?

Instructed from God’s Word (2:42)

The foundation of any true church of Jesus Christ is God’s Word, the Bible. Without it as central, people cannot come to know Christ unto salvation and people cannot grow in their walk with Christ. Therefore, if a church is going to be faithful to Christ, they are going to preach-the-wordmake sure that the Bible is absolutely the center piece of every gathering. A true church is going to be expectant and ready to hear from God through His Word. Church is not a story-time club or a mention-a-Bible-verse-at-the-beginning-of-the-sermon-and-then-talk-about-what-I-want-to-talk-about gathering. No, the church that Jesus spoke about and the Holy Spirit inaugurated is one that is known for digging deep into the truths of Scripture to unearth the treasure God has in store.

Paul reminds pastor Timothy that the Word is his sole job, “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus.” Pastors and church-members are to “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2; I have already writing a blog post about the pastor’s one job, so I refer to there). The point is that God’s true church is completely engulfed and marked by its absolute insistence of being a Scripturally-minded, unapologetically Bible-church.

High View of God Worship (4:42-43)

The second mark of a faithful church is its high view of worship, both formal and informal. The church is to be a worshipping community filled with worshippers of God who spread the gospel to make more worshippers. Since this is true, the church’s worship is well thought out and is intentionally God-focused.

For the early church, they made sure they were devoted to “the breaking of bread” (communion) as commanded by Jesus, prayer as Jesus commanded, listening to instruction from godly men, and being in awe of God’s marvelous works.[3]

The point is that God’s true church loves to worship. Formally (in church) and informally (in homes). For the faithful church of Jesus Christ, Paul’s admonition in Rom 12:1 is true. They live intentionally before their God every moment of their daily lives and especially when they gather corporately on Sunday. They are joyful and reverent towards their holy God because their life has never been about themselves, but aboutHim!

Personally, this is where I see most churches fail. “Worship” is merely a 15-20min musical set on Sunday morning or when the Christian radio station is on during the week in the background. And even these fail to be about God. Seemingly, most of the music coming from the Christian radio or from “worship” on Sunday’s is about me, my struggles, my doubts, my life, etc. Folks, this is NOT worship! Worship is getting our eyes off ourselves and exulting our God in every area of life because He is worthy. A true church will do just this and it will be obvious.

 Loving God’s People (2:44-46)

church mattersJesus was clear on this one: “By this all men will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The apostle John picks this up in 1 John by showing that if you have no love for other Christians, then you cannot call yourself a Christian (1 John 2:7-17; 3:11-24; 4:11-21; 5:1-3). Steve Lawson comments: “One of the primary evidences that we have been genuinely converted to Jesus Christ is our display of sacrificial, selfless live for fellow believers. Assurance of salvation become real when love gets real.”[4]

In the first century church, the people were experts at loving one another. They were meeting up on a daily basis. If there was a need, someone stepped up to give. There was no room for selfishness because the people of the church were God’s people and since God has placed His love on all of them, then their duty was to love them also.

Practically, this means that your best friends are in the church. Your favorite days are the days you get to be or serve church folks. You look forward to the next time you get to be with the church community. You actively look for opportunities to meet other people in the church’s needs. Maybe you even plan vacations together so that you can spend more time together. Simply, the church is family.

How many of us have the perspective? When I as in high school and the first 2 years of college, I had the perspective of me-centered church. I went to church for what I could get—mainly social interaction with a lot of nice people. I was only a part of church so long as I could get good feelings. I was too self-focused to look for other’s needs and too self-absorbed to care about knowing others. But that is not church! And I am so thankful that God—in His providential care for me—brought a book into my life by Joshua Harris entitled Stop Dating the Church (now called Why Church Matters). In this book, Harris exposes that our faith is meant to be lived out in the church. Christians are saved to be part of a community of other believers to grow us, encourage us, and serve one another. Without the church, a Christian is at best spiritually stagnant and at worst not really a Christian (cf. Heb 10:19-25).

The early church knew this and the true-faithful church of Jesus Christ has always known this and therefore the people of God wrap their whole lives in their local church.

 Engaged in God’s Commission (2:47)

Finally, the true church is marked by fulfilling the Great Commission in regular evangelism. This is exactly what the church in Thessalonica was known for. They were just a young, Great-Commissionsmall church, but Paul said of them: For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” In other words, wherever the people of the church from Thessalonica went, the gospel was heard. And this is what is to be expected, because every faithful church throughout history has been this way. It is what they are known for.

So, how is your church? Is it instructed from the Bible? Does it have a high view of life-worship? Are the people intimately involved in one another’s lives? Is it marked by evangelism?

No church outside of these marks can rightfully call their “church” a church. At best, they are a Christian-morality-based social club.

I pray you would prioritize being involved in a faithful church. It is for your own good and for God’s glory. What better reasons do you need?


[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1990), 81.

[2] John MacArthur, Acts 1-12, MNTC (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1994), 92.

[3] For the record: “wonders and signs” are no longer happening as they did through the apostles. These “wonders and signs,” such as tongues (previously unlearned languages) and miraculous healings were for the first century church only and were meant to confirm to people that the apostle’s message was truly from God. Once the Bible was completed, these miraculous gifts were no longer needed. For more on this, see Thomas R. Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Kregel Resources, 1996) or Samuel E. Waldron, To Be Continued? (Greenville, SC: Calvary Press Publishing, 2005) or Robert L. Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999).

[4] Steven J. Lawson, Absolutely Sure (Colorado Springs: Multnomah books, 1999) 88

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About Greg Peterson

Greg received his B.A. from Moody Bible Institute in Bible & Theology and his M. Div and Th. M. from The Master’s Seminary. Greg has served in various areas of the church, including youth, senior adults, events, and choir. Greg currently serves as the Youth Pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Springdale, AR. Greg is married to Michelle and looks forward to one day being blessed with children.