Uncertainty – An Excuse for Inertia?
The Christian who does door-to-door visitation or who speaks about the faith with a wide range of friends or work mates will soon discover that there are a number of stock complaints that are used against the Christian faith. Here the question of the multiplicity of denominations is dealt with.
One of the consequences of the Reformation has been the multiplication of Protestant churches. This may be due to different doctrinal positions (as is evident, for example, by the existence of Presbyterian, Episcopal and Independent Churches) or differing histories and traditions (which themselves are often the result of theological differences as, for example, between the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland). We must recognise that like the poor, denominations will always be with us!
However this multiplicity of churches can create confusion, uncertainty and ultimately indifference and provide an excuse for inertia. For, "when you see all the different churches there are you don't know what to believe or where to go!"
Against this confused background the Bible indicates the marks or characteristics of a gospel church. Where these marks are evident to some degree, we can be confident of finding wholesome doctrine and practice and can anticipate enjoying spiritual benefit.
The first mark of the church is the faithful preaching of the Word of God. The central act of worship is the proclamation of God's Word by which the message of the Bible is explained and applied. As God's Word written, the Bible is the supreme source and standard of our faith (what we believe) and of our life (how we should live).
Faithful preaching of the Word is the proclamation of a message which is consistent with the Bible's content and emphases. Among other things particular attention will be given to the great evangelical themes of the creatorhood of God; the universal fallenness of humankind; the certain experience of hell for those who do not repent of their sin; the wonderful grace of God in the gift of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ alone; the receiving of this salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ and the living of a new life of faith as both the expression and evidence of a personal experience of salvation. In so far as the message proclaimed is consistent with what the Bible teaches, then what is preached is the Word of God. In this connection the example of the Berean Christians is instructive. They heard Paul and received "his message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).
The second mark of the Church is the Scriptural administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. These are the only sacraments given by Christ to his church and are ceremonies which are marks of belonging to him and signs and seals of the blessing of salvation received through faith in him. Consequently they should be administered only to those who trust in the Lord and whose lives are consistent with such a trust (and, in the case of baptism, to the children of believers). This principle is clearly demonstrated by Paul when he warns the Corinthian church about their abuse of the Lord's Supper: "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord, eats and drinks judgement on himself" (1 Corinthians 11:24).
The third mark of the church is the Scriptural exercise of discipline. To the post-sixties generations discipline, including of course church discipline, is widely regarded as something negative and to be avoided at all costs. It is often equated with an unacceptable intrusiveness, hypocrisy and harshness. Yet discipline is essentially positive and is concerned with training for life and, within the church, training for godliness.
Christ has given the responsibility of exercising discipline to those with appropriate authority within the church. After Peter had confessed Jesus to be the promised Christ, Jesus said, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).
Church discipline is to be exercised impartially and with compassion and sensitivity, so as to maintain the good name of Christ and to promote the wellbeing of the whole church, including the person being disciplined. For this reason Paul exhorts Christian leaders in these terms: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself for you also may be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). Similarly the church at large is required to "obey your leaders and submit to their authority (for they) keep watch over you as men who must give an account" (Hebrews 13:17).
The fourth mark of the church is a Scriptural concern for the wellbeing of the needy. Historically, the church has been the major (and sometimes the only) provider of relief. In many places the church today continues to exercise this God-given diaconal responsibility.
This concern for the needy was evident from the beginning. As the church grew and embraced many poorer people "all the believers ... gave to anyone as he had need" (Acts 2:44f). Indeed such was the need to provide for the poor in an equitable way that this responsibility was given to a number of Spirit-filled believing men (Acts 6:1-7).
When a church expresses this concern for the wellbeing of others it reflects its own experience of divine grace and demonstrates the compassion and love made known in Christ.
The conduct of a church will indicate in some measure what that church believes. Its life will either enhance or contradict its profession. A true gospel church will be characterised by those marks in different degrees. Where there is a conscious desire for and attempt to attain these marks, we may be confident that that church has some measure of the truth, and can anticipate receiving spiritual benefit.