Marks of a True Church

When our fathers were expelled from the Church of Rome five hundred years ago, they had to reconsider what it meant to be a true church.  Since the first few centuries of the Church, they had been able to tell themselves that if they were in communion with the other churches (and then later, if they were in communion with the Pope), they were a true church.  Suddenly they found themselves cast out of the political organization they’d come to identify with the Church, and this forced them to re-confront the question: What is a true church?  How can you tell if you’re in one?

I’m not going to review the whole discussion here, but suffice it to say that over time, the Reformation fathers settled on an answer: the marks of a true church are faithful proclamation of the Word, faithful practice of the Sacraments, and church discipline (which protects the other two).   For quite a long while, “word, sacrament and discipline” were considered the marks of a true church throughout the Protestant world.  Even today, many Protestant churches consider these marks to be the core of their church activity.

As a result, a certain sort of superstition has grown up around the marks of a true church.  Many people believe that if a church is faithful to just maintain word, sacrament and discipline, then God will bless that church.  Unfortunately, in the world we actually live in, churches are regularly closing despite what they would consider their faithful preservation of word, sacrament, and discipline.  Something wrong there…

In my own tradition, the word/sacrament/discipline got boiled down to just word, which is to say, doctrinally sound teaching.  A similar superstition plagues us: if we will just maintain the teaching of sound doctrine, God will bless us, and the rest will come.  But in our tradition also churches are closing every day, despite having maintained the teaching of sound doctrine.

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Scholars have often commented on the stance of the OT sage as a distinct vantage point, especially as distinct from Moses as lawgiver or the other prophets.  Where the prophetic stance begins with direct verbal or visionary revelation, the sage does not.  The sage observes God at work in the world, and the sorts of things that God tends to do, and draws conclusions.  In other words, the prophet starts with “Thus says the Lord…” and the sage starts with “How’s that working out for ya?”

The sage — even the inspired sage of the book of Proverbs — appeals to observation and experience.  See Prov. 24:30-34, 6:6-11, etc.  The sage catches things that the doctrine-wonk might miss, like: “Hey, guys?  This isn’t working.”  This is quite openly an appeal to experience, and if you have the doctrine-wonk turn of mind, you’ll object that everybody’s experience is different, and how can you really appeal to that?

The answer, of course, is “carefully.”  It is actually easier to decode God’s revelation in His Word than in His spoken World.  It’s easier to misread the World.  But for all that, the World is revelation, meant to be read and understood.  If it requires wisdom, then we will need to be wise.

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Experimental science arose from ‘natural philosophy.’  One of the key points of departure between philosophy and science (as we now know it) is the willingness to go out and look.  Philosophy can be done from an armchair — if you know the basic nature of things, then you can arrive at all the conclusions you need by thinking through how they interact together, or so the natural philosophers once thought.  But they kept being wrong about the way the world actually worked.  The experimental scientists realized that there are lots of ways God could have made the world — if you want to know how He did make it, you have to go look.

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The ‘marks of a true church’ approach to church ministry is like old-school natural philosophy; it revolves around sitting in a study and doing lots of thought experiments.  If we’re meeting the standards, then of course we’re doing it right, and of course God will bless our efforts.  The path of wisdom is a little more complex: it involves getting out into the world and seeing what God is, in fact, blessing.

It will turn out that the ‘marks of a true church’ approach is also bad doctrine, but that’s not really the point.  The point is that God reveals that it’s bad doctrine by not blessing it, and so the way you learn it’s bad doctrine by going out into God’s world and seeing that it doesn’t actually work.  What does?  Love.  Service.  Care for children, the poor, for orphans and widows and the defenseless.  Healing the sick; comforting the broken; hugging people who stink.  Getting out of the holy huddle and engaging the people who need Jesus most.

I’m not rejecting correct doctrine here; it’s important.  I think it’s important enough that I make time to design Bible curriculum for Christian middle school students, and to teach Greek and theology courses to Bible college and seminary students.  Nor am I rejecting the proper practice of the sacraments; in fact, I dare say I take a much higher view of the sacraments than the vast majority of you who will read this post.  And I’m certainly not denigrating church discipline.

What I am doing is observing that being the Body of Christ in the world involves a ministry profile that looks like Jesus.  If we don’t look like Jesus, then how dare we console ourselves because our teaching is good?

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