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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; 5:19–20; 2 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.

Until that glorious day, true churches will be a mix of good and bad.

In this age, however, no true church will be a perfect church. As Christians, we are already gloriously blessed to be included among Christ’s people, but we await the better city (Heb. 11:10, 16, 40), the heavenly Zion without spot or wrinkle, in which the members of Christ’s body will be freed from all wickedness and weakness in glory (Eph. 5:26–27; Rev. 21:1–8). Until that glorious day, true churches will be a mix of good and bad (see Matt. 3:12; 13:24–30, 47–58). This is important to remember because we can be tempted to expect a perfection in our churches that the gospel has not promised until Jesus comes again. This form of perfectionism can lead Christians to grumbling and eventual disassociation with churches that, while not flawless, are faithful. When this overly realized ecclesiology meets Western consumerism, in which personal preference is king, faithful expressions of Christ’s bride are rejected as members move from church to church in search of one that they feel satisfies their wants. By contrast, biblical expectations of the church’s progress defined by a biblical pattern of church health can help us not only to live with but to love the faithful yet imperfect churches that God has provided for us in this age.

This does not mean that the already–not yet of the church’s current state should be used as an excuse for an “already–not much” aspiration for a church’s health or as cover for failure to address sin in church members or leaders. Jesus rebuked churches with otherwise faithful marks because of their apathy, toleration of iniquity, and lifelessness (Rev. 2:2–5, 20; 3:2–3). Contentment with God’s means is not the same as complacency about Christ’s cause or His commands. It dishonors God to give lip service to the “ordinary means” when our hearts are apathetic to or rebellious toward the One who meets His people and ministers His grace through those means (Isa. 29:13; Mark 7:6–7). In such cases, we should not expect the blessing of His Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). A faithful church is earnest in its prayers, preaching, worship, and discipline, employing biblical means with sincere desire and effort toward God’s glory and the edification of those who receive them. But when commitment to the means that God has ordained to accomplish His purposes is married to holy aspiration for His glory in and through His church, we might expect to see the Spirit provide a foretaste of the glory that is to come, even in our yet-flawed churches (1 Cor. 14:25).

Augustine advised godly members who were experiencing difficulty with their church “mercifully to correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff.” 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. Let us pray for the change that our churches need (Eph. 3:14–19), pray for the preaching of the Word (6:19), and speak the truth of the Word in love to the right people the right way (4:15; Matt. 7:3–5) as we eagerly wait for the day when we will enjoy communion with God in the perfect church planted in the new heavens and new earth.

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