What is a church?
Is the church a group of people who gather at a coffee shop to talk about Jesus? Is the church a group that worships together via the Internet? Or is a church a social club reminiscent of a country club?
As Christians we don’t have the right to call just any group a church. Just because you talk about “Jesus,” serve as a spiritual director for some youthful free thinkers, and use a Bible that would make even Thomas Jefferson cringe, that doesn’t make you a church. This even goes for those groups we’re involved with that provide us with an emotional or “spiritual” benefit. The government knows this much and doesn’t award tax-exempt status to just any church.
The Bible provides us with a framework to examine any self-identified church and test its legitimacy. The following are eight marks of a true church given in Scripture that I believe are helpful for many churches and church leaders.
1. THE CHURCH IS MADE UP OF REGENERATED BELIEVERS IN JESUS
Church membership is to be reserved for those who are regenerated in Christ (Acts 2:38–41). The leadership of your church does this best by being involved in the life of the church. There should be a process by which your people are informally and formally examined.
Within the Bible we also observe the importance of creating an environment by which nonbelievers and outsiders can participate in the church’s activities (1 Cor 14:22–25).
Children should also be welcomed so that they too can come into saving faith and then church membership. At Mars Hill Church Sunday services, we provide children’s ministry for kids up to about seven or eight years old, and we encourage parents to have their children to be included in these activities so they can learn about Jesus in an age-appropriate manner, but parents have the option to have their children join them in our worship services at any age.
2. THE CHURCH IS ORGANIZED UNDER QUALIFIED LEADERSHIP
Inside the book of Acts we see the leadership role of the apostles, including their unique role in teaching (Acts 2:42), their receiving of gifts (Acts 4:35–5:2), and their leading the congregation in wise decision-making (Acts 6:1–6). We also observe the church appointment of elders in Acts 14:23, and in Acts 6 we see the beginning of what was likely the office of deacon.
3. THE CHURCH GATHERS TO HEAR PREACHING AND TO RESPOND IN WORSHIP
The church is to be nurtured through the preaching of the whole counsel of God’s word (Acts 20:27). This is the primary way by which the church learns and grows. The early church was known to regularly devote themselves to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42).
4. THE CHURCH RIGHTLY ADMINISTERS THE SACRAMENTS
The church regularly administers the sacraments of baptism and Communion.
5. THE CHURCH IS SPIRITUALLY UNIFIED
God the Holy Spirit unifies the church. In this way the unified life of the Trinity is manifested among God’s people who live in loving unity together as the church.
6. THE CHURCH IS HOLY
The church is to be a holy people. This doesn’t mean that the church has it all together, is better than everyone else, and has the privilege to criticize everyone else. It does mean that the people of the church repent of their sins. Regularly.
If someone is in sin and unrepentant, then church leadership should lovingly discipline this individual with the hope of having them reconciled to God through Christ and with his people (Matt. 18:15–20).
7. THE CHURCH IS DEVOTED TO FELLOWSHIP
If you are in Christ then he will propel you to be purposefully involved with Christian community. This includes living together in intentional, relational community that seeks the well-being of one another in every way, including physical, spiritual, material, and emotional (Acts 2:42).
8. THE CHURCH IS COMMITTED TO JESUS’ MISSION
The church is to be an evangelistic community that is committed to preaching the gospel and making disciples in a Spirit-empowered life of love (Acts 2:47).