Is a small group Bible study a church? Is the Roman Catholic Church a church? Many people are confused today about what a church is. How do you know if what calls itself a church is indeed a church?
Christians in the past thought about this. They developed the idea of “the marks of the church,” that is, the characteristics that distinguish truly Christian churches. The Protestant Reformers concluded that there are two of these: the right preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Let’s spend just a moment thinking about each one of these.
Christian preaching is declaring and explaining God’s Word. If you’re reading this as a Christian, it’s because sometime, somewhere, someone brought God’s Word to you. It may have been through a book or a conversation, it may have been through a Sunday school lesson. For many of us, however, it has been through a sermon (Deut. 33:10).
God’s Word has always been the way that God has brought life. We read in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The apostles in the book of Acts scattered throughout the known world preaching the Word. And then, when a church was established, they made sure that there were ministers there to teach regularly God’s Word to the congregation (see Titus 1).
Have you ever noticed how God’s Spirit will instruct or encourage or chastise you through His Word preached? Have you ever come into church one Sunday morning not feeling very spiritual, perhaps even feeling cold to God as the sermon started? But then, as the preacher read from God’s Word and began to explain and unfold it, you became extra-aware. Your spiritual attention was caught. As the preacher spoke of God’s character, or of a certain sin, or a certain opportunity for service, it was as if God Himself was addressing you. He was! God has ordained that His children would be fed by His Word being preached. In fact, this is the most basic function of a local church.
But preaching isn’t the only work of a Christian church. Jesus Christ clearly commanded His followers to act out images, involving symbols of His gracious provision for sinners. There are two such commanded actions for the local church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The first is the initial sign of membership in God’s people; the second is the continuing sign of membership in God’s people.
Baptism is the initial sign of belonging to God’s people. One dispute about baptism is well-known — whether it should be administered to the children of Christians or not. Either way, all Bible-believing Protestants would understand that baptism is a sign of God’s gracious activity in the baptized individual’s life. And from the command of Jesus to His disciples in Matthew 28 to Paul’s assumption in Romans 6:3–4 that all the Christians in that church had been baptized, we see that baptism is to be taught and practiced by any truly Christian church.
It is important for us to pause here and note that we are not saying that the physical act of baptism is necessary for regeneration. I was having lunch with a friend today, and at one point I asked him how one becomes a Christian. He said that “you have to be baptized.” I had great sympathy with his answer, but wanted to make sure he didn’t misunderstand the Gospel. You should be baptized, and if you’re taught you should and you refuse, then something is seriously wrong. But we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, not by baptism.
The Lord’s Supper is the continuing sign of belonging to God’s people. Questions about how it should be received — sitting in the pew, standing or kneeling at the front of the church — are not important. Most important is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper — as a remembrance (1 Cor. 11:24–25) and a proclamation (v. 26), and the Gospel integrity of those who take it. Paul wrote a letter of stern correction to the Christians in Corinth because they were allowing those who were in unrepentant sin to take the Lord’s Supper. Paul told them that this should not be.
Taking the Lord’s Supper would never save such an unrepentant sinner. It is true that the Lord’s Supper is only for sinners. But within that group, it is only for repentant sinners. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, properly administered, portrays God’s faithfulness to us. But our participation in it also speaks publicly of us personally being known to be partakers of God’s grace in Christ.
One important implication of this is that a church is in one sense created by a group of people who will take that responsibility to celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly and rightly. Therefore they must decide who may and may not receive the Supper. The list of those regular recipients is basically the membership of the church. And the refusal to allow those who do not evidence saving faith to participate in the Lord’s Supper is what is called “church discipline.” The church means to do all this in obedience to Christ. And it is marked out as a truly Christian church if it rightly preaches God’s Word and rightly administers baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is the church’s responsibility, therefore, to define visually for the world what a Christian is.