Some of these are not like the other

I have no idea what the half-life of a blog post is these days but I’m sure we’ve already reached that point with Donald Miller’s farewell to the church. Even so, some good questions have been raised concerning the nature of the Church, her structure, and one’s connection to her.

A central concern in all of this seems to surround the definition of a “church.” Framed as a question “What counts as a church?” If that question remains answered then the rest of the discussion is pointless. Every man is left to do what is right in his own camera angles.

Church history is very helpful on this point. When Protestants began to break with the Roman Catholic Church they found it necessary to clearly articulate the biblical traits of a true church. After all, Christians were leaving what, at that time, was considered the church. How then was one to recognize a true church beyond the enculturated trappings and traditions of the day? Confessions were subsequently formulated in an attempt to clearly and simply outline the marks of a church. Two examples will suffice:

Now this church is the congregation of the saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered.

Augsburg Confession, art. VII (1530)


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: in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto corrected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known from which no man has a right to separate himself.

Belgic Confession, art. XXIX (1561)

Following these two statements we might affirm the following:

1) a church exists as a gathering of saints (i.e. those who have been saved by faith in Jesus Christ)

2) a church exists where the gospel is taught/preached

3) a church exists where the sacraments (i.e. baptism & communion) are observed

4) a church exists where discipleship & discipline is practiced

Now there’s a lot that could be said about these marks and the associated implications–what it means to preach, who exercises discipline & how, chapter & verse support, etc.–but that’s a discussion for another time. For now it’s enough to maintain that the aforementioned traits provide something of a litmus test for all of our “this is (not) the church” pontificating.

So when someone says they’re leaving the “traditional church” it makes a big difference whether the stress is on traditional or church. When you conflate the two in your manifesto no amount of nuance will save you from the ensuing disaster.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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