Beyond the Preference-Driven Church: Revisiting the Marks and Works of the Church, Part 1

We’re seeped in a culture where preference rules. As a result, many American Evangelicals treat church like malleable clay to be molded and shaped into whatever form they think it should be. Our expectations for what a church is and what a church does too often reflect our personal preferences. We may prefer contemporary music or traditional hymns . . . dynamic youth activities or deep discipleship . . . personable pastors or powerful preachers . . . state-of-the-art facilities or stunning sanctuaries. But do these preference-driven churches really reflect the biblical marks and works of a church?

The solution to a preference-driven church mentality isn’t to compose a new “me-centered” wish list, but to identify and adopt God’s essential marks and works for an authentic and healthy church. When we do this we’ll be equipped to focus on our church’s central strengths and address inevitable weaknesses, establishing reliable criteria for recovering a lost identity. But first we need to remind ourselves of the fundamental marks and works of the church. And to do this, we need to have a bit of historical perspective.

During the sixteenth century Reformation, Protestant leaders like Luther and Calvin sought to define what it meant for a congregation to be counted as an authentic Christian Church. They knew they couldn’t define themselves by medieval Roman Catholic standards under the Pope with his seven saving sacraments and rigid rituals. But amidst a growing diversity of Protestant practices, what could they identify as the essential marks of a true church? The Lutheran Augsburg Confession put it this way: “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered” (Article 7). Later the Westminster Confession expressed a united Protestant perspective on what it meant to be truly “catholic” in the Protestant (not Roman Catholic) sense: “This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (Article 15.4).

Of course, we aren’t bound by the original Protestant confessions, but as the Evangelical heirs of that great Reformation tradition, we should be just as careful as they were about answering the question, “What makes a congregation of believers a true and faithful church of Jesus Christ?” I find it helpful to think in terms of essential “Marks” and “Works” of a true church, incorporating biblical and historical emphases that have stood the test of time. In the remainder of this article, I want to briefly summarize these Marks and Works illustrated in the diagram. In later articles I will further develop each of these with concrete, practical suggestions on how they can be reinforced today. Though my terms are different, these Marks and Works fit the classic early church and Reformation “marks of the church.”

The pillar of essential Marks includes Orthodoxy, Order, and Ordinances. Orthodox believers are those who hold to the essential truths of the Christian faith—those fundamentals of the faith that have been believed everywhere, always, and by all. It corresponds with the Protestant emphasis on the “Word of God purely preached and heard” (1 Tim 3:14–15; 2 Tim 1:13–14; 3:13–4:5). Order emphasizes the necessity of trained, trusted, and tested pastors, teachers, and shepherds of the church, to whom the orthodox faith has been entrusted to pass on to the next generation (Eph 4:11–12; 2 Tim 2:2; 1 Tim 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:1–3). And the term Ordinances refers to the sacraments of the church, including baptism and the Lord’s Supper as closely associated with discipline and purity of the church’s members (Matt 28:18; 1 Cor 11:23–26; 1 Pet 3:21–22).

The pillar of essential Works includes Evangelism, Edification, and Exultation. Evangelism is primarily world-focused, emphasizing local and global missions. It includes invitation and initiation into the church through the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in the person and work of Christ (Matt 28:18; Luke 24:46–49; John 20:30–31; Acts 1:8; Eph 2:8–9). Edification describes the church’s role of building up believers in love and good works through the participation of its various members in their Spirit-gifted ministries, resulting in unity and maturity (Matt 28:19–20; Rom 12:4–8; 1 Cor 3:10–17; Eph 2:19–22; 4:11–13; Heb 5:12–14; 10:23–25). Finally, Exultation refers to the purpose, goal, and focus of the church—to glorify God the Father, through the Son, and by the power of the Spirit. The church must exult God through corporate worship and prayer as well as by a God-glorifying presence in the world (Matt 5:16; 25:34–40; Rom 11:33–12:2; Gal 1:3–5; 1 Pet 4:8–11).

If a local church is not consciously employed in the business of continually revisiting and strengthening the pillars of essential Marks and Works of the church, eventually these will erode, crack, and crumble. And it doesn’t take a structural engineer to predict what will happen to the structure when its foundational piers collapse! Personal preference and me-centered pragmatism can not determine what the church should be or what it should be doing. Only a careful reflection on the defining Marks and Works of a healthy church can keep us focused on what God wants us to be and do in the twenty-first century.

(To be continued…)

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