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Introduction

In more recent years, pastors and theologians have often debated on matters pertaining to the doctrine of the church. They have sought to define what the church ought to be doing in the world in which we live. The recent “Emerging Church Movement” (hereafter referred to as ECM) maintained that there were nine practices or marks of the church. Anthony Bradley, in an article on the end of the ECM, explained it thus:

[They are] a new expression of church. The three core practices are identifying with the life of Jesus, transforming secular space, and commitment to community as a way of life. These practices are expressed in or lead to the other six: welcoming the stranger, serving with generosity, participating as producers, creating as created beings, leading as a body, and taking part in spiritual activities[1].

Many writers and pastors have sought to condemn or espouse it within the last twenty years. While that debate is not pertinent to this essay, let it suffice to say that the ECM is wrong in their understanding of the main practices of the church. Throughout church history, many theologians and pastors have maintained a simpler Reformed view of the marks of the church. While the ECM has more or less passed away, vestiges of it still remain in the world and often muddy the waters of ecclesiology. Therefore, a careful and clear understanding and application of the marks of the church is needed so that the church may know what it is called to do. The true church, defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith as “the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all[2],” is made discernible by having three marks: “the sound preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of discipline[3]”.

Preaching of God’s Word

R. B. Kuiper in his book, The Glorious Body of Christ, states that “the church’s task is to teach and preach the Word of God. Whatever else it may properly do is subordinate and subsidiary to that task. This is its supreme task[4].” In today’s society, many churches espouse the “social gospel” and seek to extend the ministry of the church into the community through caring for the poor or even just living “good lives”. The main goal of the church, a glorious one as Kuiper asserts, is to preach the gospel to sinners[5]. This “supreme task” not only consists of preaching the gospel to sinners outside the body of Christ, but it also concerns teaching and preaching to those within the church.

The church is charged with the task of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to lost men and women. The message of the church has numerous facets: “it is an urgent and loving call to repentance, it brings the glad tidings of what God has done in human history for sinners, [and] it is the gospel of salvation by grace[6].”  The gospel can also be summed up in the following verses: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures[7].” And, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast[8].” The true church is marked by the clear and unadulterated message that it preaches. Sadly, as Kuiper acknowledges, the churches that do this are sparse. “They boldly substitute salvation by works or character for salvation by the grace of God. But by doing so they forfeit every claim to Christianity[9].” Some even split the work of salvation between God and man[10]. Such a compromise is dangerous to the truth and beauty of the gospel. The church is charged with preaching the gospel to all men.

A second facet of the primary charge of the church is to teach its members and their children. This charge of teaching is really no different than the former task of preaching the gospel for “preaching is first of all teaching[11].” The function of teaching in the church should not only be practiced in the pulpit but also extend to other areas such as Sunday school. The church’s primary task of teaching is to be administered to both believers and their children. The Bible speaks much of the education of children. Moses commands the people of Israel thus:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates[12].

The church’s education of children does not automatically make them Christians. However, as Proverbs 22:6 rightly states, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” It is therefore very necessary for the church to focus on teaching covenant children. “It is the God-provided and God-commanded means for the continuation of the means of God’s grace[13].”

But not only should children be taught, but their parents as well. Kuiper warns that the teaching of both children and adults is often neglected by churches and the sad result is that those members and their children will be ignorant of what is taught in God’s Word. Hosea 4:6 declares that “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” and “… since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” The Bible speaks elsewhere of the instruction of believers. Much of the Epistles were written as instruction for the believers within the church and this teaching should also be applied today. The practical instruction contained within them is based on apostolic doctrine[14]. Sadly many of the churches today abandon the teaching of adults for three primary reasons. Many embrace the idea that Christianity is merely a way of life and all we are commanded to do is to do good[15]. Churches also neglect the education of their members because they think that salvation is a “momentary experience not as a continuous process[16].” The third reason why churches often neglect teaching is that they consider that the only primary task of the church to preach the gospel rather than to preach the gospel and instruct those who have believed. The primary function of the church is not a one sided operation.

If this primary mark of the church is so important, how then is it to be applied? It is to be applied through the church’s adamant desire to have the Word of God read, preached, and taught in its public worship services and other studies (Sunday schools, midweek studies, etc.). The church is to preach, in season and out of season, both to nonbelievers but believers as well. Kuiper writes of the double responsibility of the church and states that “He who would evangelize those without the church while neglecting the building up of those within the church is a good deal like the head of a family who is moved with deep compassion for the emaciated children of his neighbor but neglects to feed his own[17]”. He also writes that “the church must maintain a proper balance between its task to the inside and its task to the outside. But this does not mean that it should do a little of each. It rather means it should do much of both[18].”  One of the best applications of this mark of the church is found within the Westminster Standards, especially in the Confession of Faith and the Directory for Public Worship. The Westminster Divines included reading of the Holy Scriptures in public worship because it is a “mean[s] sanctified by him for the edifying of his people[19]”. They take this practice directly from Scripture, especially from Acts 15:21, 1 Tim 4:13, and Revelation 1:3 where it mentions the reading of the Word in public worship. The Westminster Divines further apply the practice of reading of the Word by prescribing who should do it, what should be read, and how that reading should be further applied. The reading of the Word is to be done by pastors and teachers (namely elders) and the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments (excluding the Apocrypha which is not scripture), is to be read in order that the people may “be better acquainted with the whole body of the scriptures”[20]. Furthermore, the pastor or teacher ought to read a whole chapter of each Testament in each service, according to his discretion, and ought also to give brief explanation or application[21].

The Westminster Divines considered preaching as “being the power of God unto salvation, and one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel[22]”.  The right practice of preaching is performed by a minister who is called by God for the role, educated in the original languages of the Bible, and knowledgeable in the Scriptures and theology, and possesses a gift for illuminating the Scriptures and pastoring the flock of God[23]. The material for the sermon ought to be a passage of Scripture that the pastor has studied during the week and he is to bring to light the truths and doctrines found within it[24]. The minister is to show how the truths in a certain passage are of God and directly come from the passage[25]. Moreover, the minister is to make application of the passage to his flock’s life as well as his own[26]. The Divines also wrote several key elements concerning the manner of his preaching.  He is to perform the work of preaching “painfully, not doing the work of the Lord negligently”; “plainly” that the simplest and youngest may understand; “faithfully”; “wisely”; “gravely”; “with loving affection”; and as one who is also “taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ[27].”

Whilst the practice of Sunday school or Midweek Bible studies are not prescribed in the Westminster Standards, the regular teaching of children and adults is something practiced in the Scriptures as mentioned earlier. From the Mosaic commands to teach children the doctrines of the faith, one can see that this is a necessary task. Kuiper argues in his book that if “the continuation of the covenant were automatic, without exception and without the means of grace, covenant children would without religious education grow up as Christians. As it is, their religious education is not only desirable but essential[28].” He also writes that “Diligent instruction of the children of the church will go a long way toward producing an adequate supply of laborers for the Lord’s vineyard[29].” Teaching should also be extended to adult believers as well. Kuiper alludes to the fact that much what Jesus did in the Gospels and what Paul does in his epistles was teach[30]. “Preaching should primarily be teaching[31].” Kuiper also gives some practical applications for this mark of the church. “Every pastor should conduct an adult Bible class. Whether it meets on Sundays or on a mid-week evening is a matter of minor concern. To combine it with mid-week prayer may in certain cases prove advisable, but in no case should less than an hour a week be devoted in this class to the study of the Word of God[32].” Pastors ought to teach and educate their flocks on all matters concerning the Great Shepherd. Kuiper warns churches that they should not be satisfied with entering heaven with so little knowledge; this where Sunday school and other such classes will help[33]. They should be taught the body of Scripture as a system, should learn about the common errors of the present and how to confront them, and many more matters which can be found in practical theology[34]. It is a great benefit for the church (both young and old) to learn the catechisms, confessions, and creeds of the faith since they are wonderful aides for understanding and organizing the doctrines of Scripture. Paul gives a set of exhortations to Timothy at the end of 1 Timothy which summarize what the primary mark of the church is: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching[35].”

Proper Administration of the Sacraments

The second mark of the church is the proper administration of the sacraments. As mentioned beforehand, the Word of God is a means of grace whereby we are encouraged, taught, and built up in our faith. Kuiper states that the church has been given the means of grace which includes the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. Firstly what is a sacrament? According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a sacrament is “an holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers”[36].

One of the key factors in understanding the sacraments is that they are only those things which Christ directly ordained. The Roman Catholic Church holds that there are five additional sacraments: penance, confirmation, ordination, marriage, and extreme unction. There is no scriptural basis for penance, confirmation, and extreme unction[37]. Kuiper also declares that whilst marriage and ordination are found in scripture, “they do not signify saving grace[38].” Just as there were two ordinances in the Old Testament, circumcision and the Passover, there are two in the New Testament.

The sacraments, being the Lord’s Supper and baptism, are sensible signs. In the old covenant, the Passover and circumcision were the signs and seals of the covenant. The Passover, instituted by God in Exodus 12, was a memorial when God passed “over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses[39]”. It was signified by the killing of a lamb and the spreading of the blood on the lintel and doorposts of the house. Circumcision was also a God given command to Abraham and to his offspring as a sign of the covenant[40]. It was also marked by blood and a mark upon the flesh of every man’s foreskin. So the Lord’s Supper, instituted by Christ in the Gospels just before his death, is signified by the bread and the wine. Baptism, ordained by Christ explicitly in Matthew 28:19, is signified by water. These sacraments, with their signs and seals, do not merit or infuse salvation in a person. They are a means of grace and do not contain any grace within them[41].

Not only are the sacraments sensible, but they are signs and seals of the covenant. Kuiper explains that “they signify and seal to those within the covenant the benefits of Christ’s redemption. Not only do they signify salvation, as seals they are attached to the divine promise of salvation to authenticate it, much as the rainbow was made a seal of the divine promise to Noah of the continuity of nature[42] (his emphasis).” They seal the benefits of redemption to us.

Finally, the sacraments are the means whereby grace and benefits of the new covenant are applied to believers. He adds further that they “convey grace…much as a key conveys admission, a deed an estate, or the ceremony of marriage the rights of marriage[43].” So the Lord’s Supper and baptism seal the promises of the new covenant to us.  As mentioned before, the sacraments do not contain any grace in themselves and neither do they grant saving power to those whom it is applied to. Grace only comes through them if the partaker partakes in faith. The Scriptures teach that very explicitly. Severe warning is given in 1 Corinthians 11:29 for those who partake in an unworthy manner. Also, the Scriptures tell us that those who were baptized were believing before they were baptized[44].

How then should these two sacraments be applied? First let us deal with baptism. According to Matthew 28:19, baptism is to be administered in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the Westminster Standards give more specific directions for the administration of baptism. In the Directory for Public Worship, baptism is to only be administered by a minister of the gospel, is to be done publicly, and all believers and their children are to be baptized. While the Directory gives more specific instructions and even an example of what the minister ought to say, there are briefer matters to bring to light. The pastor is to give instruction as he baptizes, is to exhort or charge the parents of the child being baptized, to exhort the congregation and to bid them to remember their own baptism, and is also to pray before and after giving baptism. Also only sprinkling or washing is needed in baptism[45].

The Lord’s Supper is taught plainly in Scripture. Not only are there three accounts in the Gospels where Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper but Paul also speaks much on the matter in his first epistle to the Corinthians. There is a due course of order in the administration of the Lord’s Supper which is given by the Westminster Divines. The pastor ought to give exhortation and warning about the Lord’s Supper that no one should eat or drink of it unworthily or with known and unrepentant sin in their lives. He should warn those who are too young to eat of it and open the table to those who are members of the visible church. With the table being fenced, the pastor ought to read from the Scriptures a passage concerning the Lord’s Supper such as one of the Gospel texts or Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:23-30. The pastor, then as the Scriptures prescribe, is to give thanks and bless the elements and then is to break and distribute the bread with the words, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”.  That being done, the pastor is to hand out the wine and to say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.” When all have partaken, the pastor is to close by giving thanks. Both of these sacraments are to be done publicly and by a minister of the gospel.

Faithful Exercise of Discipline

The third mark of the church is the exercise of discipline. The Westminster Confession of Faith declares that “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of His Church, has therein appointed a government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate[46].” This government has been given “the keys of the kingdom” “to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures, and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require[47].” This mark of the church is concerned with the admission of believers into the church and the correction or discipline and, if necessary, excommunication of those within the church who do not repent of their sins. This is perhaps one of the hardest issues for the modern church to practice. In an age where people do not want to exclude anyone for fear of hurting their feelings or being called bigoted, the church must practice the truth that it is not a part of this world and is called to be “holy and without blemish[48].” That is one of the duties of the elders of the church. Before going on to explain how church discipline ought to be observed, some theological issues must be dealt with.

The Roman Catholic Church also maintains that the church is charged with the keys of the kingdom but not in the same way that the Reformed church does. The Reformed church believes that when the Scripture says “the keys of the kingdom” or the “kingdom of heaven”, these terms are synonymous with the church. Christ is ultimately the Head of the church and he only can forgive sins and admit sinners into heaven[49]. If then Christ is the head of the church, then the church does not exercise the keys of the kingdom in the same way as the King does. The Church, though it may be “divinely originated” and have a “divine Head”, is not divine and will never be[50]. Kuiper says that the “church on earth consists of sinful saints, and even the perfected members of the church triumphant in glory continue as finite creatures of the infinite Creator[51]”. The Roman Catholic Church does not hold to this truth since it believes “that the apostolic office is continuous, that the church is infallible, and that special revelation is not complete in the Bible[52]”.

The church demonstrates the keys of the kingdom in both its preaching and its exercise of discipline[53]. The church cannot infallibly determine who is a believer and who is not but is required to guard the church and proclaim the Gospel to the lost. The church must declare and keep pure the fundamental Scriptural doctrine that sinners are only saved by faith in Jesus Christ[54]. If a man denies the deity of Christ but says he admires Christ and hopes to make it to heaven by his good deeds wants to enter the church, the church must not admit that man into the church but continue to preach the gospel to him. Kuiper also gives the example that even a man who is guilty of adultery or murder but “kneeling at the bleeding feet of Christ crucified, cries, ‘Wash me Savior or I die,’” declares that Christ is the Son of the Living God, knows that Jesus died for sinners, and has abandoned himself as a hell-deserving sinner, is one whom the church should admit into the flock[55]. If this is what church discipline is in theory, how should it be applied?

The goal of church discipline is the salvation of the offender[56]. Church discipline is to be administered humbly and never with force[57]. The exercise of discipline does not ultimately start at the elders’ level. It starts at the members’ level. According to Matthew 18, if someone sins against you, you are to confront them privately. “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother[58].” If he does not repent, take one or two others with you. If he still does not repent, tell it to the elders. If he does not listen to the elders, then he is to be considered “a Gentile” or one who is not part of the church. At this final stage, the Westminster Confession gives good instruction: “For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person[59]”. This is how discipline ought to be applied in the church. It is a serious task but one which the sanctity and purity of the church depends on.

Conclusion

The Church is the Bride of Christ and is endowed with three very important marks: the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. These three marks are concerned with the building and strengthening of the church. The church is often likened unto a building with Christ as its chief cornerstone. The preaching of the Word is the highest form of worship and is the means whereby sinners are saved and the sheep are fed. Churches should strive to work outwardly and inwardly with its preaching and teaching. The sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, are the signs and seals of the new covenant to us. Not only do they remind us of what Christ has done for us but they, through faith, are the means with which the Holy Spirit grants us grace. God’s promises are sealed and applied to us. The church is endowed with the keys of the kingdom for the admittance of sinners into the church. The church is not infallible in this but should strive to “be holy as he is holy”. The church is not of this world and must be governed by elders as such. Christ, the Head and Husband of the Church, has declared that He will build his church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Would that all churches around the world sought to teach and practice the marks of the church which are so expressly given in Scripture.

 

[1] Anthony Bradley, “Farewell, Emerging Church, 1989-2010, it was a good run!” Aquila Report. April 16, 2010.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1

[3] R.B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ, 305.

[4] Kuiper 163.

[5] Kuiper 167.

[6] Kuiper 182.

[7] 1 Corinthians 15-3-4.

[8] Ephesians 2:8-9.

[9] Kuiper 182.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kuiper 216.

[12] Deuteronomy 6:6-9.

[13] Kuiper 217.

[14] Kuiper 223.

[15] Kuiper 224.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kuiper 159.

[18] Kuiper 162.

[19] Directory for Public Worship, “Reading”.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Directory for Publick Worship, “Preaching”.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Kuiper 217.

[29] Ibid. 222.

[30] Ibid. 225.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 226.

[33] Ibid. 227.

[34] Ibid. 228.

[35] 1 Timothy 4:13.

[36] WSC 92.

[37] Kuiper 202.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Exodus 12:27.

[40] Genesis 17:9-14

[41] Kuiper 203.

[42] Ibid. 203-4.

[43] Ibid. 204

[44] Acts 2:41, Acts 16:31.

[45] Directory for Publick Worship, “Baptism”.

[46] WCF 30.1

[47] WCF 30.2

[48] Ephesians 5: 27.

[49] Kuiper 298.

[50] Kuiper 302.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Kuiper 303.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid. 303-4.

[56] Kuiper 309.

[57] Kuiper 308.

[58] Matthew 18:16.

[59] WCF 30:4

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