No Flawless Church

As Christians, we will, inevitably in this age, find ourselves in a flawed church. But where God has planted a faithful church within our community, we can thank God for His gracious provision, both for our nurture in Christ and for a witness to Christ in our world. And we can allow the disappointments and difficulties we experience to drive us, in faith and hope, to the means that He has appointed for our church’s transformation: prayer and the Word.

Many years ago, a move for a new job meant that my young family needed to find a church in our new community. This provided an opportunity to train my children for the day that they would need to choose a church with their own families. We reviewed Acts 2:42–47, and after each visit to a congregation my boys provided their assessment of how, so far as one visit could show, the congregation evidenced the marks of church health found in the passage. How was the Word preached? Was a commitment to fellowship and prayer apparent? How were the sacraments observed? Did there appear to be a desire to add to the church through evangelism? The intent was to equip our family to choose a healthy church, using biblical categories. These are questions that should be asked again as we consider planting churches in a culture deeply shaped by consumerism and discontent.

These marks of church health form a pattern that is stitched through the narrative in Acts describing how Jesus built His church through His Apostles (e.g., 4:32–33; 6:4, 7; 12:5; 13:3; 19:10, 20). When the Apostle Paul sent Timothy to lead the church in Ephesus back to health, he focused his efforts on the means of prayer (1 Tim. 2:1, 8) and the Word (2 Tim. 3:16–4:4) while he also sought to restore discipline according to biblical orthodoxy and order (1 Tim. 1:3; 3:1–15; 5:19–202 Tim. 1:13–14; 2:14). The Reformers recovered this scriptural pattern and summarized it as the means that God has ordained to administer His grace and therefore the marks of a true church. In other words, when we ask what Scripture tells us about how to identify a true church (its marks) and the methods that God uses (means) to work in and through it, the answer is found in the faithful administration of God’s Word, prayer, the sacraments, and discipline. These are the instruments through which God, by His Spirit, powerfully does more than we could ask or imagine in the lives of church members (Eph. 3:20–21). Where these marks and means are present and faithfully administered, there a true church is, and Christians should feel not only free to join with it but immeasurably graced to be included.

In this age, however, no true church will be a perfect church.

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