The church is too modern or the church isn’t modern enough. The church has accepted too much of the world’s culture or the church doesn’t engage the culture enough. The church is too politically active or the church isn’t politically active enough. The church doesn’t do this, or that or too much of this thing or not enough of that thing and on and on and on. It’s in vogue to criticize the church. There seems to be no quicker way of appearing theologically sophisticated, spiritually in tune or culturally nuanced than to point out all the ways the Church is doing things wrong.
I fear, however, that much of this criticism doesn’t come from wisdom, but from pride, arrogance, and a distrust of the way that Christ himself is providentially ruling over his church. The way some Christians talk, you would think that what is wrong with the world today and what is causing the greatest harm is actually the Bride of Christ. While we should never be complacent and the church should always be reforming, I actually think that the Church is doing some things right.
One of the problems is that our definition of what we consider “church” is now so broad and generalized that it means practically nothing. This isn’t just an issue of distinguishing between the invisible and visible church, for there are plenty of visible gatherings of people that we can plainly say are not churches. A group may be apostate or heretical, but please stop grouping them in with the church. Rather, call them what they are, heretics and apostates. Many are blaming the Church of Christ for what is actually being done by Synagogues of Satan. Further, many think the church is failing at tasks which the church actually only has secondary or tertiary responsibility for, if even at all.
The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith states “The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.” So while there may be error that must be corrected, true churches are still distinguishable from those that have fallen. Because of this the church ought not to be the punching bag for every problem in the world, for the church does do things right.
So what does the Church do right?
The Church is right in preaching the Gospel. Now you may object, “Well I know this-and-this church down the street that isn’t preaching the Gospel.” Friend, it’s not a church. A church that does not preach the Gospel, and by extension the whole Word of God, ceases to be anything that should be defined or accepted into the fold of a Christian Church. Such an organization may as well be a Mormon Temple, Jehovah’s Witness Hall, Mosque, Self-Help Center, pub, car lot, grocery store, whatever, but they are not a church of Christ. Without the Word and the Gospel they have no authority or power to function as a church, their candlestick is removed. But the churches, those that are actually churches, are preaching the Gospel. They have not bowed the knee to Baal, they point people to repentance and the forgiveness of sins. You may fret that there are not many of such places today, but you should be amazed that there are any at all. In our world of a supposed “moral majority” we act as if Christianity is the norm. However, ever since its birth the Church has been surrounded on every side by the powers of darkness and yet it still exists, it still stands. The preaching of the Gospel is not something that the church is doing wrong, for the preaching of the Gospel is the very thing that is necessary for the church’s existence.
The Church is right administering the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church to the end of the world.” And for over two thousand years the church has continued these institutions of Christ. While varying degrees of purity in the practice of the ordinances have fluctuated throughout the centuries, it is undeniable that they have been present in the Church. This is a mark of the church, which is why they are ordinances specifically of the church. No other organization has proper claim over Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, no club, no para-church, no government. The church of Christ performs these acts as it points to the Gospel and work of Christ. Where there is an emphasis on human endeavor, it seems like the emphasis on the ordinances have waned. For in the ordinances it is Christ that shows through in his New Covenant. Baptism is “…a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.” The Lord’s Supper is “…for the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice of himself in his death, confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe to him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other” In it Christians “…inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death…” Perhaps we think that the church does so many things wrong, because we do not properly understand the importance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The Church is right in practicing Discipline. The church practices discipline, because it carries out the Great Commission of making disciples. Discipline isn’t just negative correction, but it’s also positive development in discipleship. Congregations of immorality and of those that protect and guard those in immorality are in danger of losing their distinction as a church. Christ is the head of the church and he can and has removed the lamp stands of congregations who no longer hunger and thirst after righteousness or supplant his righteousness with their own righteousness. A little leaven can leaven the whole lump and so the practice of proper discipline is a godly and necessary task of the church. While a company, non-profit, or club may have members or leaders involved in various unrepentant sins, a church cannot. Discipline is a process and should always be sought with the desire of reconciliation. Where discipline has been abandoned, so too has the authority of the Word of God has been abandoned. Were the Word of God not longer rules over a congregation, that place has ceased to be a church and is only awaiting God’s judgment. This unique role Christ has given to the church as the Office of the Keys and shows forth the righteous reign of Christ as one day the church will judge angels.
What the Church does right isn’t new.
If this list of things that the church does right sounds familiar, it’s because it’s not original with me. It is a list of what the Reformers called “The Marks of the True Church” which are the pure preaching of the gospel, the use of the sacraments and the practice of church discipline for correcting faults. In summation of these marks the Belgic Confession states “In short, [the church] governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.”
The Belgic Confession continues, “As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on humans, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry. These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.” While a church may falter at times on these marks, which is why repentance and reformation are necessary, they cannot falter on them all and still be a church. Obviously then, the church does these things right, because if it didn’t it wouldn’t exist as a church.
The church is the Bride of Christ and is governed by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. We are often too loose with our tongues in our slander of Christ’s bride, and attribute things to her that rather belongs to some other woman. He rules his Church as he sees fit, and while we must follow after his commands, He is the one who will, as Ephesians 5:27 says, “…present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” These attributes of the Church are stated in the Nicene Creed as “one, holy, universal and apostolic.” Christ not only will work in the church one day, but he is currently working in the church through his power, which is “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Indeed the church does some things right, so let us honor Christ for it who is her head.