One thing the coronavirus pandemic has taught us is the importance of the local church. While you can “live stream” almost any church in the nation from the comfort of your living room, this is no substitute for being a member of a specific local church. Choosing a local church is an important decision.
Thankfully, you are not the first person in history to have to make the decision. Throughout history, Christians have faced the decision of what church to join. In fact, choosing what church to join became an important issue in the sixteenth century Reformation.
In the sixteenth century, churches sprang up everywhere. And not only Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, but all kinds of “churches.” Therefore, the Reformers had to decide what constitutes a true church in order to know what church to join.
Based on Scripture, the Reformers derived three marks that constitute a true church: (1) The gospel is preached accurately. (2) The ordinances are administered correctly. (3) Church discipline is practiced faithfully.
The heritage and instruction these Reformers left us is that you can use these three marks to help you choose a church. This works in both a positive and negative direction. Positively, these three marks will include churches; negatively, these three marks will exclude churches. What do I mean?
The marks of a true church will exclude churches that are not preaching the gospel. If you have a potential church you are evaluating, ask: What is the message preached at the church you are interested in joining? Do they preach the gospel from all of Scripture?
The marks of a true church will exclude churches that are not administering the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If you have a potential church you are evaluating, ask: Does the church you are considering administer these two ordinances on a regular basis? What importance does the church assign to these ordinances?
The marks of a true church will exclude churches that are not practicing church discipline. If you have a potential church you are evaluating, ask: Does the church have church membership? Do they have processes in place for church discipline? When was the last time the church excommunicated someone from membership?
Positively, however, these marks should also include churches. Where a church is preaching the gospel accurately, administering the ordinances correctly, and practicing church discipline faithfully, join that church.
In our setting in the United States, we get too hung up on personal preference: “I do not like the music style; I do not like the children’s ministry; they do not offer Bible study groups”; etc. But in light of the three marks, you need to strongly consider putting your preferences aside and join, actually join, the closest church to your home that practices these three marks. As churches re-open, if you are not a member of a local church that practices these three marks, now is the time for choosing a church to join.
For more on the marks of the church, see the series here.