If asked on a quiz, you could probably state what the three marks of the true church are: the pure preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline. But why these marks, and how should they affect you as you worship with your congregation week by week?
In understanding the reasons for these three marks of the church, or the notae ecclesiae as they became known during the Reformation, a few important clarifications should be kept in mind. Otherwise, we will miss the purpose of upholding these marks and their place in the life of the church.
First, when we speak of the marks, we are speaking of the visible church. Theologians have distinguished between the invisible church, or all the elect through all time both in heaven and on earth, and the visible church, which is all those who profess to be Christians. The three marks help determine among all visible gatherings which ones can truly be thought of as churches belonging to Christ.
Next, the visible church possesses, or at least should possess, numerous qualities, attributes, and activities, but only certain marks define her as a church. We can discuss adjectives that should describe her, such as holy or loving. Various titles are given to the church, such as the bride of Christ or the body of the Lord. The church should be engaged in many activities, including worship, evangelism, service, and caring for the poor. But when we stress the three classic marks of the church, we are speaking of the essential identity of the church. What makes a church a church? Preaching the gospel, practicing the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and encouraging formative and corrective discipleship show the presence of God’s Spirit among those who claim to be a Christian church. As Francis Turretin said in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, “It is of great value to know [the church’s] true marks that we may be able to distinguish the true fold of Christ from the dens of wolves.”
During the Reformation, great struggles ensued between Protestants and Roman Catholics not only over doctrinal matters such as justification by faith alone but also over the very definition of the church. The Roman Catholic Church based its definition of the true church on the four qualities found in the Nicene Creed, which declares, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The Roman church made it clear in the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, in a section titled “The Marks of the Church,” that each of the attributes of oneness, holiness, catholicity, and Apostolicity is treated individually, and further that all within the church should know these marks. Each of these attributes, Trent claimed, finds its expression in the papal throne, as this statement regarding oneness makes clear:
The first mark of the true Church is described in the Nicene Creed, and consists in unity: My dove is one, my beautiful one is one. So vast a multitude, scattered far and wide, is called one for the reasons mentioned by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians: One Lord, one faith, one baptism. The Church has but one ruler and one governor, the invisible one, Christ, whom the eternal Father hath made head over all the Church, which is his body; the visible one, the Pope, who, as legitimate successor of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, fills the Apostolic chair.1
This claim by Rome that the oneness of the visible church comes from the pope was vigorously denied by the Protestants, who saw Christ alone as the Lord over both the invisible church and visible church. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states: “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof” (WCF 25.6).
The affirmation of the headship of Christ leads us to a clear conclusion. If Christ is the Head of the church, which is His body (Eph. 1:22–23; Col. 1:18), then the church has marks because it has a Marker. In other words, who Jesus is defines who we are as His people. In particular, because it “pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Savior of his Church” (WCF 8.1), then we should expect the church to reflect these offices of Christ.
Put another way, because Jesus as our Head is our Prophet, Priest, and King, He shares these identities and roles with us. That is why we find in Scripture such statements as Peter makes to the church, when he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9, emphasis added). We can see here that the church is to be prophetic, priestly, and kingly because its Lord and Savior is. These three offices of Christ, reflected by the true church, correspond directly to the marks and show us how our congregations should worship and live for the Lord in this world.
The church is to be prophetic, preaching purely the Word of God. You should be in a church where the whole counsel of God is proclaimed faithfully from the pulpit each week by a godly minister who not only preaches the message but lives according to it (Acts 20:20–21, 26–28). You should come with the congregation to church each week eager and prepared to hear and to heed the gospel. Knowing the blood of Christ is upon you, you and your fellow worshipers should respond to the message with a heart and attitude that says, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Ex. 24:7). Your congregation should eagerly study God’s Word in other settings as well, and it should have a reputation as a place where the gospel is known, cherished, and promoted throughout the community and the world.
The church is to be priestly, meaning that each member is like a living stone in a holy temple offering sacrifices to God (1 Peter 2:4–5). As such, your congregation is to be holy, consecrated for service by participating in the sacraments that mark you as being under the blood of Christ. Thus, the Lord sets your congregation apart by applying the pure waters of baptism on each person upon their entrance into the church. He then nourishes you along the way with the Lord’s Supper. You should see each fresh application of baptism on a new member and each new time of examination and sitting at the Lord’s Table as a call to marvel again at God’s choice of you and of your consecration to the holy service of Christ. Pay careful attention to the sacraments and live out with the church its priestly function.
The church is to be kingly by living as sons and daughters of its risen King. By making disciples of its members according to the command of the One who has all authority and power, the church reflects the lordship of Christ in the congregation (Matt. 28:18–20). As a faithful member of a local church, are you being formed as a disciple by learning and obeying the commands of the Bible? Are you open to correction from godly mentors and leaders in your congregation, and do you receive it humbly when it is given? Is your church a place where, if a member strays into sin, there are loving, sincere efforts to reclaim that person and even exercise formal discipline if necessary? Are your elders true shepherds who seek the lost, bring back the straying, bind up the injured, strengthen the weak, and protect from strong, harming influences (Ezek. 34:16)? Your church should show by how it lives that it is truly ruled over by Christ.
If you are in a congregation where the marks are present, you should rejoice and give thanks for Christ’s work in your midst. And if not, the lack of these marks shows you something both profound and frightening about your church: Christ is not present. May the Lord lead you to a church where His Spirit is clearly among His people.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on September 13, 2019.
- J. Donovan, The Catechism of the Council of Trent (Chorley, England: Christian Books Today, 2009), 74. ↩︎