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.

Missing a ‘mark’ without even trying (pt. 2)

I’m sure many of our churches miss the “mark” of church discipline for a variety of reasons — they don’t have the stomach for it, fear the consequences, lack confidence in the biblical imperative, etc. But I’m also sure that many churches flounder in their discipline because they intuitively know they lack the standing to exercise the authority granted to them by Christ himself (Mat 16:18-19; 18:15-20). Consider two examples:

1) Discipleship — This is an increasingly difficult feature to cultivate in today’s local church. Discipleship requires time, personal involvement, patience, and many other personal commodities that we loath to relinquish. But discipleship is the means by which we instruct, encourage, correct, and even rebuke a brother so that we spare him (and us!) the pain of a more severe discipline down the line.

When a local church fails to cultivate a spirit of discipleship in the body they will often find themselves at a disadvantage when serious discipline is required. By failing to care for a member in the midst of a struggle against sin it becomes that much more difficult to show our concern by turning him out (1Cor 5:1-5). Should we actually excommunicate a member without prior intervention we show ourselves to be half-hearted followers of Christ.

2) Meaningful membership — Ever tried to discipline someone else’s kid? Awkward to say the least. Why should we be surprised to find that the absence of meaningful membership in a local church would create a similar tension in the face of sin. The church is responsible to care for her own which means that something should be said for knowing who belongs to whom.

It only stands to reason that Paul assumed a church was able to identify its members when he instructed a church to put a man out (1Cor 5:9-12) or not to associate with him (2Thess 3:14). Furthermore, it also stands to reason that those who were put out or “disfellowshipped” were able to notice a difference when it happened. That can’t happen in a church with mere attenders.

Missing a ‘mark’ without even trying (pt.1)

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.
–Belgic Confession (1561), art. XXIX [emphasis added]

If we’re to believe historic confessions of the Protestant church, there was once a time when church discipline was actually considered a defining characteristic of the church. It (nearly?) boggles the mind of the 21st century churchman to consider that of all the practices which might define a church, church discipline would trump the others save preaching the Word and participating in the sacraments (i.e. baptism & communion). Why not preaching, sacraments, and fellowship? or making disciples? or mercy ministry?

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not church discipline is rightly considered a defining mark, at a minimum we can agree that Christ Himself prescribed such a mark as a normative part of church life. So do our churches bear this mark as part of the call to follow the commands of Christ (Mat 18:15-20; see also 1Cor 5:1-13)? I suspect the answer would vary drastically depending on the church but I also suspect such a question is increasingly irrelevant–maybe “unrealistic” is the better word. After all, it’s darn near impossible to hit a mark when you’re not even facing it.

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