The Indispensible Mark of the Church
‘What are the marks of a true church?’ is a question that has quite rightly occupied the minds of theologians through the centuries, because the history of the church is littered with many bodies that have claimed to be churches, but have so drifted from their moorings in Scripture that they are no longer genuine. But what marks should we be looking for to identify a church that is both true and faithful?
We might be forgiven for instinctively reaching for the answer that has been widely embraced by Reformed and evangelical churches through the ages. Namely, a church that faithfully preaches and teaches the word of God, faithfully administers the sacraments and is faithful in maintaining discipline in the church. These three identifiers – or some permutation of them – were highlighted in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras in response to the Roman Catholic view that true churches should be recognised through their allegiance to the Pope.
It is interesting to note, however, that although the Bible places a very clear premium on all three of these vital signs of fidelity and orthodoxy, it places one other mark above them all. Indeed, it is the only mark of a genuine church that is formally identified and the one who draws the church’s attention to it is none other than Jesus himself. He told the disciples – who were on the brink of becoming the foundation stones of the New Testament church – ‘by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (Jn 13.35).
In making this statement Jesus was by no means suggesting that faithfulness to his word, the sacraments or to a disciplined approach to church life did not matter. Rather, that the one quality that must suffuse all three (and indeed church life generally) is love.
We see the importance of this worked out in the real life pastoral crisis facing the church in Corinth some 30 years after Jesus spoke these words. The church had been founded relatively recently under the ministry of Paul, but within a very short space of time had gotten into serious difficulties. It had begun to embrace teachings that were in conflict with the Bible – especially in relation to Christ’s teaching on the resurrection. Its administration of the sacraments, notably the Lord’s Supper, had become a mark of disgrace for the church. And even though there had been serious moral and spiritual failure in the church, if it had not been for Paul’s intervention, there would have been no meaningful attempt from within the church to deal with them.
Yet, interestingly, despite such significant failures in relation to all three marks of the church, the apostle did not declare it apostate. And, indeed, it would appear from the other evidence we have from 2Corinthians and his reference to another letter he wrote to them which no longer exists, Paul invested considerable time and effort in seeking to restore the situation there.
However, most striking thing of all is what Paul has to say about the role of love in the restoration of this failing church. In a very real sense he makes it clear that love is the one mark of an authentic church that is indispensible. Even when a congregation such as this one may have stumbled so badly in its conduct, drifted seriously in its handling of Scripture and so misused the sacraments to have bordered on the scandalous, the presence (or lack) of love among its people will be the key to seeing where it really stands and where it will finally end up.
When Paul speaks in depth about this necessary characteristic of the church in 1Corinthians 13 some people regard it as a digression because it appears to break the flow about church life and church worship that forms the focus of attention in the chapters on either side. But to see it as some kind of interruption to his train of thought would be to miss the point of what Paul is doing.
As the apostle uses this discourse on love to touch on every issue he has already addressed and will go on to address in what follows in the letter, he is showing his readers there is one element in solving these issues that is common to them all: the need for love. But what is perhaps most striking of all is what the apostle says about where this love ultimately leads.
In the closing section of the chapter he speaks about things that had a vital part to play in the life and growth of the church in the New Testament era – namely, prophecies, tongues and knowledge – but all of them will ‘cease’, ‘be stilled’ and ‘pass away’ (1Co 13.8). Those things that loomed large – too large on the horizons of this church – would not last. But love would. It alone would never fail. He goes on the remainder of the chapter to impress three important things on his listeners.
The first is that love outlives all other things that matter. Paul points to what will happen when ‘perfection comes’ (13.10). The word he uses conveys the sense of end-point, completeness, fulfilment or maturity. Given that the section begins with Paul saying ‘love never fails’ (13.8) and ends with, ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love’ (13.13) it is hard not to see the link between the supremacy of love when comes into its own and the ‘perfection’ of which he has been speaking. If we take this perfection to be the beginning of the eschaton (as many commentators do), then it only serves to heighten the church’s appreciation of love in the here and now.
How might we translate this into the post-New Testament era in which we live? Revelation along with its proclamation and understanding are all vital to church life in this age, but none is an end in itself; they point us and lead us to the perfection that is to come and love is the key to how they get us there. Love takes us from the means by which God is please to make himself know – the word written, proclaimed and received by faith – to the redeemed relationships with himself and with each other for which they were given.
In the second place, love is the measure of our maturity in the life of faith. Just as all human expressions of love mature in the course of natural development, the same is true when it comes to our spiritual growth and development. In a not-so-subtle way Paul prods the Corinthians over their childish behaviour and failure to grow up in the faith as they were taught from the word. For that reason he reminds them how the limitations of Christian experience in the here and now will inevitably be eclipsed by the church’s ‘coming of age’ in the world to come – hence his reference to leaving’ childish ways’ behind and no longer being content with mere reflections of the real thing (13.11-12). In that sense learning to love God as the Revealer and the Giver (rather than his revelation and the gifts in themselves) becomes the measure of our progress towards maturity in the faith.
The last point Paul makes is to show that love in a unique sense endures from this world to the next. The closing verse speaks of three vital components of Christian experience that remain (in time), but one stands out as being ‘the greatest’ because it will outlive time. Faith is vital, but it must give way to sight. Hope is crucial, but one day it must become reality. Only love will last and ultimately come into its own in the perfection of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Only there and only then will we know and love as we have been known and loved by God – in a way that will transform our interpersonal relationships as much as it will our relationship with God.
In a very real sense, then, love becomes the link between this world and the next. The arms of love that pulled us out of the mire of our lostness, carried us through the life of faith in this fallen world, will carry us finally into that coming age. The God who ‘is love’ is himself that link through Jesus Christ our loving Lord and Saviour, as he sheds his love abroad in the hearts of all his people by his Holy Spirit.