A Healthy Church: A Loving Church
Several years ago, I gave a lecture on the threefold office of Christ, Christian ministry, and the marks of a true church. During an interview that followed, I was asked a question about the marks. I replied with a standard answer, repeating something of what I had said in my lecture, that a true church is recognized by whether or not it teaches God’s word and preaches the gospel of Christ rightly, whether it administers the sacraments in purity, and whether or not it maintains and practices church discipline faithfully. As the conversation continued, one of the group asked, “What about love? Isn’t love a mark of a true church?” I don’t recall my answer, but I do recall a conversation I had with a friend to whom I was describing the interview some days later. In that conversation, I challenged the idea that love could ever be an objective mark of a true church. We can listen to what a church says to understand whether it proclaims the truth of Scripture. We can watch the way sacraments are administered to determine if a church is following biblical instruction. We can read the minutes of the church’s governing body to see if they engage in disciplinary actions. But love? What does love look like in any given church? Is there a clear, simple, quick and objective standard by which we can judge? It seems there is too much variation in the way love is expressed to allow it to be a mark of a true church. Frankly, I was wrong. A Christian is not a Christian who does not love God and people and a church without love for God and people is no church. The greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to love God and the second is like it—to love your neighbor as yourself.
When we describe the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic we mustn’t miss the emphasis on fellowship, which is the outward expression of a spirit and attitude of love. To be one is to be united not merely by mutual assent to a doctrinal statement or creed, but by a genuine care and concern for one another. If we are to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:14-16; Lev. 11:44), we must imitate God’s love in Christ (1 Jn. 3:1) for God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). If we’re truly catholic (universal), our care and concern will extend beyond our local church and denomination to our brothers and sisters in Christ of every race and nation. To be apostolic, not only are we to believe, embrace, and teach what the apostles taught, we must give ourselves to building relationships with one another in emulation of the apostles’ fellowship (Acts 2:42).
A healthy church—a church that is genuinely being the church—will be marked by a fellowship of love. John says very clearly: If you don’t love your brother and sister whom you see, how can you say you love God whom you don’t see (1 Jn. 4:20-21)! Jesus said, they’ll know you’re my disciples if you love one another (Jn. 13:34-35).
So, how do we know if we’re loving one another as we ought in Christian fellowship? In that regard, the Westminster Confession of Faith provides a helpful insight in its section on the communion of saints, especially in 26.1. Not only do we have fellowship with Christ “in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection and glory,” but, the paragraph goes on to say, “being united to one another in love, they [Christians] have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.” This communion in gifts and graces is to be displayed, lived out, demonstrated not only in encouraging one another to grow in godly maturity and Christ-likeness, it’s to be lived out in ministering to one another’s needs in the “outward man.” Put differently, the fellowship or communion of the saints espoused by the WCF and clearly reflecting and echoing Christ’s teaching is that we’re to be joyfully involved in one other’s lives, building bonds, helping in every aspect and dimension of life, fostering a joyful living-out of the Christian faith. In other words, we’re to be building relationships that, in the end, point clearly and directly to the communion and intra-Trinitarian love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If this kind of life-encompassing fellowship of love is missing from a church, it’s time for a health check-up.
Michael J. Matossian was ordained to gospel ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1998. He has served since 2009 as Senior Pastor at Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Delaware. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University. He and his wife, Judy, and their Son, Matthew, are all natives of southern California.