Distinguishing Characteristics of a True Church
Not every institution that calls itself a church is really a true church. In the Bible, some such institutions are called “synagogues of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). So, how can we tell if a church is really a church? When the New Testament church began in Acts 2, it was described this way: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41–42). There was the preaching of God’s word, the sharing of the common life, the ordinances, and prayer. From this list, I want to draw out two distinguishing characteristics of true churches and then add another one that became part of church life later. A true church can be distinguished by three primary characteristics:
1. The Preaching of the Word of God
That this is an essential characteristic of a true church is evident from what Jesus said in Matt. 28:19: “. . . and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The preaching of the word of God must be central to the very definition of the church. This is why one of the very first achievements of pioneer missionaries who came to Africa was to translate the Bible into the language of the people. They knew how important the preach- ing of the Bible was to the health of Christians and of churches. Sadly, in too many of our churches in Africa, preaching does not occupy a central position anymore. Rather, we have many choirs that take turns on the same day—children’s choir, men’s choir, women’s choir, the main choir, and so on. By the time all these choirs have finished singing, everyone is ready to go home. Drama has also begun to feature quite prominently in some churches. This must change. With regard to preaching, Louis Berkhof says, “This is the most important mark of the Church. . . . It does not mean that the preaching must be perfect and absolutely pure, but that it must be true to the fundamentals of the Christian religion and must have a controlling influence on faith and practice.” 1
As the church in Africa continues its growth, there is a pressing need for resources on what the church is, and how it should function. Using 30 years of pastoral service in Lusaka, Zambia, Conrad Mbewe applies biblical principles to help bring depth and maturity to African church leaders.
Closely connected with the preaching of the word of God should be the proclamation of the true gospel. This is the heart of the word of God. The church should be one place where men and women are constantly reminded of the way in which God reconciles sinners to himself. The person and work of Christ should be taught in all its fullness. Where salvation is being taught as achieved through works of righteousness—whether in part or in whole—you will not have the church of Christ there, even if the place is called a church. The true gospel must be an essential component of the definition of the church.
2. The Provision of the Ordinances
This refers to the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (see Acts 2:41–42, referred to earlier). The latter is sometimes called Communion. Whereas churches may differ on the right recipients and mode of baptism, this religious rite should be part of the activities of local churches as a means by which individuals enter into the church. While inside the church, they should participate in the Lord’s Supper, which typifies the death of the Lord Jesus for his people. Again, there will be differences in the frequency and the precise way in which this meal is celebrated, but it must be part of the church’s life.
The only people who should remain in the church are those who show genuine faith and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, the great head of the church.
3. The Practice of Discipline
The church is meant to be a place where godliness and truth are upheld. Where either of these is missing in the life of a person, they should be warned and urged to repent so that they are restored to a healthy spiritual life. However, where they stubbornly continue living a life of sin or holding on to and teaching heresy, they should be disciplined in terms of public rebuke or excommunication (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5:1–13). In the book of Revelation, Jesus warned those churches where stubborn sinners are not disciplined that he was going to do it himself (e.g., Rev. 2:16). Where that happens, often entire churches end up being closed down. We must all take this matter seriously. Discipline is part of the very definition of the church.
The only people who should remain in the church are those who show genuine faith and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, the great head of the church. This is seen when individuals are doing everything possible to flee from sin and pursue a righteous life. This is also seen in their love for fellow believers and for the God whom Christians worship. Where you have individuals like this filling up the membership of a local church, you can safely say that you have a true church on earth.
- Louis Berkhof, Summary of Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1938), 153.
Conrad Mbewe is the author of God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders.
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