The Offices of Christ and the Marks of the Church
One of the great matters that ought to be on the forefront of every believing mind is that which concerns the nature and evidence of a true church. The Reformed Confessions spoke to this issue, as it was pressing for the Reformers and Puritans to do so in light of Roman Catholic perversions of the biblical teaching on the nature of the Church. For instance, Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3 and 4 describes the marks of a true, visible church when it states the following:
“Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto...and particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.3-4).
Here, the Divines state that "the doctrine of the Gospel, ordinances and public worship" are necessary for a church to be considered a true church. The Belgic Confession (a precursor to the Westminster Standards), in article 29, outlines in a more succinct form what have been so frequently termed "the marks of a true church" when it states:
"The marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin."
After setting out these three marks of a true church, Guido de Brès, the principle author of the Belgic Confession, went on to contrast the three marks of a true church with those of a false churches when he wrote:
"As for the false Church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”
Of course, we must recognize that the Belgic Confession does not say "the perfectly pure..." in regard to the preaching of the Gospel, administration of the sacraments and the carrying out of church discipline. Additionally, the Westminster Standards explicitly teach that there are true churches that are "more or less pure" (25.4) and that "the purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error" (25.5). Nevertheless, there are still marks by which we may discern whether a particular church is a true church or not. In seeking to do so, must first answer the question, "Is there a reason why the pure preaching of the Gospel, the right administration of the sacraments and the pure practice of worship and discipline are distinguished as marks of a true church?" Daniel Meeter, in his book Meeting Each Other in Doctrine, Liturgy and Government, makes the following important observation about the "marks of the true church" flowing out of Christ's three offices as the head of the church1:
We believe that the Lord Jesus is very much alive, and always active in the church. Where Christ is active and His Lordship is honored and obeyed, that is the "true church." The true church has certain marks by which it may be known, and these marks are directly related to the threefold office of Christ who is active within it as prophet, priest and king. The "three marks of the true church" are described in article 29 of the Belgic Confession. They are, first, "the pure preaching of the Gospel," second, "the pure administration of the sacraments," and, third, "the practice of discipline."
How are these three marks of the church related to the threefold office of Christ? First, preaching arises out of the gift of prophecy...Second, the administration of the sacraments arise out of Jesus' priestly work upon the cross, His prayer for us and the communication to us of the benefits of His sacrifice by means of the washing in His blood and the breaking of the bread ...Third, church discipline arises out of the rightful claims of Jesus' kingship.2
All of this means that when the word and Gospel is not faithfully preached, the prophetic office of Christ is not at work in a so-called church; when the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are not administered by ministers of the Gospel, in accord with the the biblical teaching about them, the priestly ministry of Christ is not functioning in a so-called church; and, when church discipline is not being carried out according to Christ's command (Matt. 18:15-20), the kingship of Christ is being rejected in a so-called church.
While we must acknowledge that every true church on earth is "subject to both mixture and error," it is incumbent on every elder in every local church to seek to ensure that the marks of the true church are being observed purely. The fact that "particular churches are more or less pure" is not a license for us to grow slack in seeking after the purity of the church in which we serve. After all, it is Christ's church! He is the One who has appointed the marks and means by which He is advancing His kingdom in this world and bring His people to glory through His own prophetic, priestly and kingly ministry in His church. May God give all of His elders grace to labor to exalt Christ in His threefold offices by faithfully seeking to preserve and protect the three marks of His true church.
1. I first heard this idea in Carl Robbins' talk on church discipline at Twin Lakes Fellowship.
2. Daniel J. Meeter Meeting Each Other in Doctrine, Liturgy and Government (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992) pp. 161-62.