On the Marks of a True Church: A Question

Ever since the Reformation era, it has been common to define a “true church” as a congregation where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments/ordinances are rightly administered. (Some would also include the practice of church discipline as a third mark.) Christians in a variety of traditions use this terminology all the time, but I suspect some have not thought through the implications of adopting this schema. Other Christians, however, have clearly thought through this language and its implications, and that’s the reason for this post.

I was alerted this past week to a cyber-kerfuffle between a non-SBC Reformed Baptist scholar and a pedobaptist United Reformed Church pastor and professor. The controversy began when the latter argued that there is no such thing as a “Reformed Baptist” because the Reformed tradition is incompatible with credobaptism, a claim that understandably miffed the Reformed Baptist. While that is an interesting discussion in itself, it’s only the backstory. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on a secondary aspect of the debate.

At some point during the debate, which spilled over onto at least four blogs and a message board, several of the pedobaptists argued that Baptist churches, whether they are self-confessedly Baptist or simply theologically baptistic (like many nondenominational churches), are not true churches. They claim that the refusal of Baptist congregations to baptize “covenant children” and the requirement of believer’s-only immersion as prerequisite for church membership makes Baptist churches “sects” rather than churches because they do not rightly administer baptism.

Some of you will know that we Baptists have our own version of this rhetoric. There is a long history among Baptists, particularly (though not exclusively) of the Landmark variety, to argue very similarly about pedobaptists. These Baptists more or less affirm the definition of a true church as tied to gospel purity and right practice of the ordinances, and because of the latter refuse to recognize pedobaptist churches of any kind as true churches. This is among the rationale some Baptists use for rejecting post-conversion immerisons performed by pedobaptist congregations. Pedobaptist churches are not true churches, but rather are sects or “religious societies” because of their aberrant view of baptism.

For the record, those who embrace this logic, whether pedobaptist or Baptist, typically do not go so far as to argue that those in the other camp are not believers. The Reformed pedobaptist referenced above believes that there are many Baptists who are sincere Christians-they are just wrong on baptism and thus not members of true churches. Landmark Baptists argue similarly-many pedobaptists are genuinely saved, though they are not a part of true churches because of their baptismal convictions. So let’s not criticize anyone for what they are not saying: we all agree that salvation is by grace through faith in the person and work of Christ, not ecclesiological practices.

Also for the record, both sides obviously think they are more biblical than the other. While I am dealing with a theological definition of true churches with roots in the 16th century, it is clear that nobody ultimately believes what they believe because of historical theology. All sides are attempting to be biblical, and historical theology is simply a secondary aid in that endeavor. To say it another way, both the Baptist and the pedobaptist who argue the other is not a member of a true church make their primary arguments from Scripture, not an extrabiblical definition of a true church. Keep that in mind as you read the next paragraph and contemplate answering my question. I am not looking for biblical arguments in this particular post, but rather am seeking input about langauge that many Protestants have used since the time of the Reformation.

So here’s my two-part question, and I am very much looking for some healthy discussion: is the so-called Reformation definition of a true church a valid descriptor, and if so, what does this mean for how Baptist Christians think of local churches in other Christian traditions?

I have some thoughts about this, but I am interested to hear where readers are coming from before I share my own perspective.

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  1. Bob Cleveland   •  

    I feel really out of place, being (apparently) the first commenter on such a subject. Guess I just don’t know any better.

    When I look up “ekklesia”, and I’m certainly no scholar on old languages, it looks like it means a called-out assembly, a religious congregation, a community of members on earth or saints in heaven. At least that’s what my computer Strong’s says.

    IF that’s the case, then everything beyond that seems to be what man has added to what the bible says. Based on other scriptures and its statements about how Christians ought to behave.

    So, unless we want to change what the Bible said when God penned it, I’d imagine we ought to recognize what the Bible says is a church, as a church. Anything beyond that seems a manifestation of man’s propensity toward an “us & them” mentality.

    Or not.

  2. Paul Brewster   •  


    These are timely questions in light of the cyber-discussion you mentioned. If I have understood John Hammett correctly, he suggests that the first criterion goes to the issue of the being of a church. That is, where the Gospel is not rightly preached, there can be no church. The second criterion is a bit more complex. If the ordinances are celebrated in such a way as to deny the Gospel, then I think Dr. Hammett would say that means a true church is not present. On the other hand, he would allow that some unfaithfulness to Scripture in the handling of the ordinances might only affect the well-being of the church, without necessarily implying that a church does not exisit.

    In evaluating Baptists relationships to other denominations, this leads to some interesting questions. Would we say that the Catholic church up the road is “rightly proclaiming the Gospel”? How about the liberal mainline church that denies the historicity of the resurrection? When they preach Jesus lives again only as he lives in the lives of his followers, can we call that “rightly preaching the Gospel”? If the answers to these situations is that no, they do not rightly preach the Gospel, then they are not true churches at all.

    Part of the scandal of Christianty today is its particularity. And part of the scandal of being Baptist is a certain particularity about what we think constitutes a true church.

  3. Nathaniel   •  

    Instead of viewing these marks as a definition, it is perhaps better to view them as a snapshot, helpful for identifying a healthy church. What has happened is that these marks were taken from commands and examples within the New Testament and then imported into the definition itself.

    The possible problem with this is similar to the problem that would occur when trying to identify someone from their picture. Even assuming that a picture could represent the best possible person you could be, you could potentially change and still be you. For instance, the picture could show you at perfect health, then, later you lose an arm. It is not that the loss of an arm is ideal, however it does not mean that you stop being you. Likewise, failure at any of these marks does not mean that a body is not a church, instead it may mean it is not an ideal church or a healthy church.

    Hopefully, this metaphor is not too confusing. However, I think there are at least two reasons to consider viewing the marks as a snapshot of a healthy church rather than a definition of a true church. First, the Bible itself does not present these marks as a definition of a church, but simply assumes (and sometimes commands) them to be true of churches.

    Though the Bible does not explicitly define the local church, I think these marks can clearly be shown to be expected of the churches. This is the second reason I support viewing them as a snapshot of a healthy church. Because, ultimately I believe that is the way they are presented in the NT. They are therefore helpful for identifying a healthy church and are instructive, like a mirror, for a church seeking to be healthy.

    So to directly answer the questions – are the marks a valid descriptor? I believe the are valid descriptors, but not valid defining points. Secondly, how should Baptists view churches in other traditions. We should view them as churches. Local expressions of the larger Bride of Christ. And our love for Christ’s bride should make us want to present her to Christ as beautiful as possible. Therefore we should urge every local congregation to take a look at the snapshot and stand in front of the mirror for comparison.

  4. Hardy Smith   •  

    I have to agree with Bob Cleveland – I see no specific definition of a “church” in Scripture apart from the normal meaning of “ekklesia” and its use in the Bible. I do like the Reformation emphasis on the gospel, the sacrements (ordinances), and discipline as being bottom-line distinctives of a true Church, but I still don’t see this being commanded, taught, or described in Scripture. Acts does give us good accounts of these characteristics occurring, but it also includes speaking in tongues. Should we require that as well?

  5. Bob Cleveland   •  

    It seems to me this isn’t about what a church IS. To think we can set up requirements beyond that which the Bible calls a church is .. well, just indescribably something.

    What should churches DO? There y’go. That’s the sort of thing we can certainly discuss, and would lead to different views which would lead to different denominations.

    Do we think God didn’t know this human tendency? Or do we believe He thought we’d perfectly comprehend all of scripture, to its exclusive interpretations? That would really be necessary for us to point at any church described by the meaning of His word for “church” in the Bible, and say “That’s not a true church”.

    I was a Presbyterian for 12 or 13 years before becoming Baptist; my wife and I really studied what we believed, and, strangely, I never ONCE heard anyone question in the slightest, whether Baptist churches were “true churches”.

    If they do now, perhaps that’s something they learned from us.

  6. kamatu   •  

    Well, all of the various denominations are “sects” by the primary definition. (Just a reminder to make sure the words mean what you think they do…)

    The only question I have on a church or person’s position on infant “baptism” would be if they consider it a baptism for salvation. If not, then I would almost assuredly have no issue with some form of baby dedication that includes water. I dedicated my son (without water) a few years ago and I was “christened” with water as an infant. Of course, it was explained to me that it was simply a dedication ceremony and I’d have to be (and was) baptized with a believer’s baptism after accepting Christ.

    As for deciding what church doctrines to accept, ignore or reject, I stick to fundamentals like:
    1. Inerrancy of the Scriptures (by Chicago statement)
    2. The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus (includes Trinity doctrine)
    3. The doctrine of salvation by God’s grace, not works
    4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus
    5. The literal return of Christ

    If they have these, they usually end being acceptable. The problem we have with practicing Christian discernment follows directly from the lack of education among the rank and file believers. I can harp on this one for a long time because I trace every issue that comes before the Church (the body of believers) to be related to a failure of the Church to teach as Christ commanded us to at the end of Matthew. This one is no different, because the average believer in the US has no clue about what the differences between orthodoxy, heterodoxy and heresy are.

    I see it all the time doing lay apologetics online or as part of talking to someone I’m working with. Most of the unsaved have very little clue about Christianity or Scripture, but other than memorizing a few verses (maybe), the unsaved have a better idea than the majority of church members I’ve met on “difficult” things.

    I’ve seen more time wasted on “well, I heard some preacher say…” or “well, I read this book…” or “well, the old preacher told us that…” or “well, this is just the way we’ve always done…”. All done without a clue as to the real issue involved or how to resolve it.

  7. David Rogers   •  

    Only with much fear and trembling do I dare to contradict such theological giants as Luther and Calvin. However, as I reflect about it, I believe that including a proper administration of the sacraments/ordinances as an defining element of the essence of a church, rather than its well-being, has caused a great amount of harm and heartache in the history of the Church. And, it seems to me that much of what many Baptists have believed and practiced regarding this issue has been a result of mistakenly following the lead of the Reformers.

    As I understand it, a “true church” is merely an expression of “The True Church.” No doubt, some churches are more faithful expressions of the Church than others. But that does not necessarily prevent them from being a legitimate expression of the Church. As Paul Brewster correctly observes, however, a denial of the essentials of the gospel, does just this.

    According to Revelation, it is possible for a church’s lampstand to be taken away. I read this, however, from the perspective of the “city church.” As long as there are still true believers within a particular city, there is still an authentic expression of the “True Church” in that city.

  8. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Bob, this is most certainly a debate about what a church is. Whether it should be or shouldn’t be is up for debate, but when people use the Reformation definition of a true church they are indeed defining what a church is, by definition.

    As for ekklesia, I don’t think you can define what church means based solely upon a word study. The word means different things in different places. Sometimes it means a local church (Philemon 1:2). Sometimes it means the church universal (Matt 16:18; Eph. 1:22). Sometimes it means all the believers in a given city or region (Acts 9:31). Sometimes it means simply a secular assembly (Acts 19:39). And sometimes it could go one of two or three different ways (e.g. “the church” at Jerusalem in the early chapters of Acts). So we have to do a bit more than simply say ekklesia means “assembly.” The context of a particular use of the word ekklesia has to factor in to the discussion.

    In addition to a contextual interpretation of ekklesia, we have to look at the full scope of the NT as to what these assemblies did. Bare minimum, they met together, set apart officers (elders and deacons), listened to teaching from Scripture, practiced baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayed. These must be “defining characteristics” in some sense. But then that’s where the debate comes in, isn’t it? Which is why many Christians thoughout history, including some of the Reformers, have developed various “marks” of a true church.


  9. Bob Cleveland   •  

    Nathan, I appreciate your observations.

    My only thoughts are about what God meant when He penned the Bible. I am not interested in what the church has become or what others thought it ought to become. The very fact that it sometimes means the “universal church” (all believers everywhere), the local folks who gather in a particular place, the house churches scattered through Ephesus or Corinth, etc, seems to strengthen the view that it’s the ekklesia. A religious assembly.

    Infant “baptism”, as I was taught as a Presbyterian, is a sign of the covenant (as it is for adults, I might add). It symbolizes the visible coming of the Holy Spirit … not as an accomplished fact … but as the covenant and promise of God. They use different verses to widen that meaning to include believers, infants, and the family of the believer. They also point out that the Bible says there’s “…one baptism …” and the baptism, by the Holy Spirit, into one body, is a baptism.

    I’m not arguing for that. I believe being immersed, as an act of obedience, is the appropriate response for a believer. But I am definitely not willing to say that any group which disagrees with me is not a “church”.

  10. Paul Brewster   •  


    Granting that true churches may observe the ordinances in a way which is not completely faithful to the NT, what about the other issue: can we speak of a true church if that body does not rightly proclaim the Gospel? It seems to me that there may be a gray area in which the Gospel is being proclaimed, but not too distictly. For example, MG Gutzke used to say that Catholicism was like a stained glass window…a little light gets through. So people might differ on exactly what constitutes the Gospel being “rightly preached.” With that said, surely a line can be crossed somewhere and the Gospel can be lost. When that happens, the body ceases to be a true church, no matter what the members may say of themselves or the sign may say outside. If it is true that the NT does not provide a structured definition of a church, I would think that a certain minimal theological content surrounding the Gospel is inherent in the examples we see of NT churches. Put another way, not every “religious assembly” constitutes a church.

    The question then becomes: how do churches relate to those who are not true churches? To what extent can we or should we cooperate? I’m not 100% sure that’s worked out in my mind, but I do know that it is a complex issue, if for no other reason than the fact that non-churches come in all flavors. Some have apostasized from the faith once delivered, some never received that faith at the start, and some have maintained it in creed but lost it in practice. Most SBC pastors will get a crash course in the subject in their first rural pastorate when the WMU Chairwoman delivers them information about participating in a joint service sponsored by the local ministerial alliance. Good luck with that.

  11. Bob Cleveland   •  


    I don’t think we’re talking about the “Church of Set”, or Sun Myung Moon. I’m thinking of what Nathan mentioned first, which seems to point to “Covenant .. or Reformed” theology, liked Presbyterians, who sprinkle infants. The implication seems to be that they aren’t “true churches”.

    I spent enough time there to know they proclaim the gospel as well as I’ve heard in Baptist churches. Sure, we differ on many things, but short of heaven, ain’t none of us got it quite right.

    And as to faithfully proclaiming all of the gospel? How do we do at that, with reference to the 8 or 9 million Southern Baptists we can’t find? Is putting up with those sad statistics .. our church has 2700+ members and 900 there on Sunday .. including 250 children not counted as members .. is that faithful proclamation of the gospel? To the exclusion of those who disagree with us about Baptism?

    It’s not demanding adherence to the Gospel, or our interpretation thereof, or attendance I’m concerned about. I’m concerned about a mindset that says “if you disagree with me on this or that, you’re not a true church”. I never ever heard any of my reformed brethren say anything like that about Baptists, and we’re saying THEY’RE getting it wrong.

    The church is a gathering of believers who came to Jesus as little children, which means (to me) on the basis of what a child can understand. I am very uneasy about the stuff we heap on others before we’ll acknowledge that they’re a “church”.

    My last words.


  12. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Bob, I’m not sure you understand the point of this post. It doesn’t have anything to do with Reformed theology–I simply noted it was a Reformed debate that inspired this post. And I certainly did not argue, one way or other, my thoughts about the “true churchishness” of pedobaptist churches (or any churches). I simply noted that some Reformed folks (mostly in OPC and URC circles) argue that Baptist churches are not true churches, and some Baptists argue pedobaptist churches (whether Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran, whatever) are not true churches. I’m simply pointing out that the debate exists and that it is sometimes related to the “Reformation” definition of a true church.

    Tomorrow morning I will post my actual thoughts about this. The only purpose of this point was to start the conversation. Thanks for contributing your thoughts to that conversation.


  13. Bob Cleveland   •  

    Y’welcome, Nathan. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this stuff.

  14. Pastor Kelly   •  

    I enjoyed your article. I also agree that denominations spend more time debating what the believe is true and less time teaching the people the genuine Gospel in its entirety. I am a pastor and I have come across more people who claim to be christian and know absolutely nothing about the Bible. I have to say a lot of it is because people in this day and age only want to hear the good and usually leave if there is anything preached about God’s disappointment with His people and how he will chastise for not following his Word. Anyhow it goes back to what the bible says about people in the last days only wanting to hear the feel good Gospel not the complete Gospel. Well with that I look forward to the next post but I notice that there hasn’t been anything since December 2009. I hope this page doesn’t go by the wayside like so many others do.

    God Bless
    Pastor Kelly

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