Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Recognising a true church requires objective criteria!

A friend recently brought this article to my attention:

What follows is my rather blunt response.

Recognising a true church requires objective criteria!

The translation of Acts 2:43 is very wrong! It's says, "And fear came upon every soul:" That's the reverent loving fear of God which is a mark of every Christian, and the beginning of wisdom. It is seen not in emotional experiences but in obedience to His commandments, as Christ said, if you love me, obey my commandments. In this verse in Acts, Luke is not talking about a sense of awe in their worship services - he's talking about the godly obedience in the hearts of these early Christians.

The first point only begs the question: what is it that glorifies God? To this question, every Tom, Dick, and Harry has a different answer. The only way to judge this is by asking, is this church faithful to SCRIPTURE.

The instruction here is imbalanced because it immediately speaks of the important of good application without insisting upon what must come first - correct sound biblical doctrine. The biblical presentation is different - right knowledge of God always manifests itself in right practice in the lives of believers (otherwise they are hypocrites!). Paul's prayer for the Ephesians begins with this petition for them - heavenly wisdom, knowledge and understanding of God. II Peter sums up the Christian life, "grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ". John 17:3 says, eternal life is this, to know God in Jesus Christ whom He has sent. The Bible is the revelation of Jesus Christ, so that knowledge of the Scriptures is the only source of knowledge of God.

Unbelievers also show seemingly genuine concern for one another, as the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. They may be very warm and naturally affectionate towards one another, united in their rebellion against God. Again, Scripture must be the judge, objectively. We cannot tell what love is in people's hearts except in the expression of it, which we may not be able to distinguish from the "love" of hypocrites!

Furthermore, we must not confuse the healthiness of believers with the healthiness of the church. Obviously the two are related, but remember that there are always hypocrites in the church, and the saints are filled with all manner of weaknesses too, even though there may be nothing wrong with the church. We must not blame the church for all of our own failings and weaknesses. Often there is some blame there, but not at all always!

Historically this subject was dealt with, especially when the church was coming out of apostate Rome. Then it became necessary to establish more clearly how the Bible teaches us to objectively judge what is a church and what is not, because it is not enough for an institution to take to itself the name "church". The Mormon "church" does this (as does Rome) but judged by the Bible, they are not churches at all! So, how do we judge, and how did Christians historically learn to judge this? Again, look at their confessions, where they tell us how the judge, and bear witness of the wisdom that the Spirit worked in their hearts. Guido de Bres, who was martyred for his faith wrote a confession for the Belgian Reformed churches while in prison, which was recognised as so biblical, indisputable, and helpful, in time of great controversy, that the continental European Reformed churches universally approved of it, and began to use it as their official confession. In it, Guido explains what the Bible displays as the three marks by which a church can be recognised. The healthiness of the church is directly related to the church's faithfulness to these.

First, is the pure preaching of the biblical Gospel. That stands to reason for anyone who knows the Bible even a little. It cannot be a church which doesn't preach the true Gospel. The biblical Gospel is simply the good news about Jesus Christ, what He has done to save us. It is not, therefore, instruction about how we may save ourselves by our own will or work, or how to make the world a better place to go to hell from, or how to be successful in life, or any number of other popular false gospels!

Second, is the sacraments that Jesus Christ instituted for His church. A group which doesn't have these two sacraments of the Lord's Supper and baptism, can clearly not be called a church. It is not a church which replaces the sacraments with corruptions that have no bearing to what Christ instituted, such as the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, or which add to these sacraments many more which Christ never authorised!

Thirdly, is biblical Christian discipline. Christ instituted this too in His church, and gave authority to the church to carry out this discipline with the keys of the kingdom. Naturally, this implies that a church has ruling officebearers (elders who meet the biblical requirements) who can carry out this discipline, according to the biblical mandate and readmit repentant brethren (which also implies official church membership!). This implies also that the elders have the rule over the administration of the sacraments, to refuse those who are impenitent and unbelieving. That which does not have this rule, and corrupts the sacraments by allowing all and any to take part asking no questions cannot be considered a manifestation of the kingdom of God - the church.

Finally, in these, the long-confessed attributes of the church are maintained. Unity, so that we have the same Lord, and believe the same Gospel and so on; catholicity, so that none are excluded or discriminated against on the basis of anything other than impenitence in life or doctrine; holiness maintained by Christian discipline; and apostolicity, doctrinal faithfulness to the teaching of the apostles.

I don't get why this article ignores these long-established doctrines concerning the church.

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