In August 2016, my wife and I took a trip to South Africa to visit a pastor friend and his small church in Nelspriut. I was amazed at how much it felt like being at my home church during our two-weeks visit. It dawned on me after our trip that the reason we felt at home was because the true church of Jesus Christ will always be the same no matter the location. If a local church is being faithful to God’s calling—that is, they are being obedient to the Scriptures—then they will have the same vibe as other faithful churches throughout the globe.
Now, of course, I do not mean that there will not be culture differences or traditions differences or service differences. What I mean is that the true church of Jesus Christ will have the same Biblical priorities and for those in faithful churches, that gives a level of comfort that God is indeed at work in His church throughout the world.
What are those marks? I wrote about them here on PS23 a year ago from Acts 2:42-47 and figured I had said my peace. But then my wife and I went on another trip last month, this time to Ireland, to visit another pastor friend and their church in Lisburn, N. Ireland. And while there, I was again surprised at how comfortable I was with these Irish saints. So, when I returned home, I got into Scripture again to find more marks of a true church. This time I was led to 1 Thessalonians 1 and found 7 more marks:
This simple introduction gives us the framework of what a true church looks like. They are God-focused. The apostle Paul uses a phrase unique to the NT: “IN God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul (along with Timothy and Silas) use this phrase to show the vital and inextricable union this church has with God and Christ. As people and as a church, they participate in the very life of God and the life of Christ, because their life is in Christ. Because this is the case, then, they mirror a famous 5th c. Irish prayer from St. Patrick of Ireland:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Prayer is the church’s way of expressing their dependence upon Jesus’ Headship (Col 1:18). Therefore, a faithful church relies heavily on prayer, because they know Jesus is the one building the church, not them. If you think about it, this should be obvious, but many people in the church either don’t pray, or only pray out of obligation/formality. Think: the church cannot change situations, but God can. So we pray. The church cannot change people, but God can. So we pray. The church is not build by humans, but by Jesus. So we pray. The church can plant and water unto spiritual things, but cannot cause salvation or spiritual growth; God does this growth. So we pray.
The Thessalonian church is not seen praying in 1:2, but they are still dependent upon the prayer of Paul. The prayers of a church are necessary and vital to the true church of Jesus Christ.
Do you want a good litmus test for a church? Are they being faithful? Find how and what and when they pray.
True faith in Christ is never a stagnant faith and true church is also never a motionless church. Never does true faith do nothing and never does the church do nothing. True faith produces the fruit of godly living and the true church has godly discipleship happening.
I am not speaking of perfection; for there is not perfect church. Rather, I am talking about the aim of a church. Where is the compass of the church set? A true church has the aim to exalt the Person of Christ in every area.
- Righteous Deeds = holy conduct, godliness, obedience (Eph 2:10)
- Active Love = giving sacrificially to others in the church (cf. 2 Cor 5:14)
- Confident Hope = endurance through trials because Jesus will return to right the wrongs.
These are the “faith-works” of a true church.
In these verses the apostle Paul rehearses his gospel ministry with the Thessalonian church. Paul does this to show that they are a gospel-minded church, because they heard the gospel, embraced it, and still live it out. Paul shows God’s pre-elected choice of them unto salvation, his preaching of the gospel, the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, their salvific reception of the gospel, their “counting the cost” of what it meant to receive the gospel, and their obvious life-change as their godliness had spread throughout Greece.
In other words: the gospel began with God, preached by Paul & Silas, the Holy Spirit applied the gospel unto salvation, and they are continuing to be transformed by its life-changing power (cf Rom 1:16). This is a true church: one that hears the gospel, is saved by it, and continues to grow because of it. A church that is void of the true gospel (https://www.gotquestions.org/what-is-the-gospel.html) from beginning to end, is not Jesus’ church.
A characteristic of a genuine, faithful church is their regular proclamation of the gospel message to this lost world. The Thessalonians were “sounding forth” the message, like a trumpet to their community, as well as the surrounding areas (“Macedonia and Achaia”). As they were being further changed by the gospel, they were spreading its good news to those they encountered. They were getting “the word of the Lord” out, so that more could be saved.
This should be true of every true church. Evangelism (whether door-to-door, or relation-based, or gospel-services, or children outreach, etc.) should be a high priority of the local church.
Every true believer in the church has undergone soul-surgery. They once had only an affection for the things of this world. No one could change that. But then the Holy Spirit came with the gospel and changed them. Now, the church is full of these people and it should be obvious, as obvious as turning from serving idols to serving the living and true God—like the Thessalonians. As a body, the people have a difference allegiance and therefore the difference between them and the world should be palpable to the unbeliever and believer alike.
True churches do not play “Christian.” They are Christians and it is obvious to their friends, families, community, and each other.
A final mark of a true church is that they long for Jesus’ return. You may not think that hope for Jesus’ return is a big deal, but it is a HUGE deal, because hope for what is to come informs us on how to live today. For example, if a parent told their child if they clean their room and then they will be rewarded with ice cream, the child will bolt from the parent’s presence into immediate obedience because of the prize that awaits on the other side. Hope for ice cream motivates obedience.
In a much more infinite way, knowing that Jesus will return to eradicate sin and set up his eternal kingdom, motivates a closer walk with Him, better obedience, firmer trust, greater love. Proof? Go read Titus 2:11-13.
In sum: my trip to Ireland (and last year’s trip to S. Africa) has shown me again that the church is what God is all about right now (cf. Matt 16:18). He, through Christ, is building the church and so to be a part of the church—through faith in Jesus Christ—is to be a part of the best thing God is doing.
Are you in a faithful church?