Marks of the Church

This week, a number of my friends are in Holland, Michigan,
attending our denomination’s annual assembly, which we call General
Synod. Some important issues are up for discussion: Belhar,
non-geographic classes, the “Covenant of Care,” homosexuality. In
addition, councils and commissions and task force groups will give
reports, a number of them crafted to make clear their connection
with “Our Call,” the RCA’s ten year plan. In the midst of all that
chatter, I believe a particular question will be present, even if
never acknowledged: What is a true church?

In theological parlance, this is the question of the “marks” of the
church: that which identifies a congregation as truly a church. In
the Reformed tradition, the marks of the church are typically
enumerated as being two in number, and possibly three. They are, as
most readers know well, 1) where the Word is proclaimed and
heard, 2) where the sacraments are properly administered, and,
possibly, 3) where Christian discipline is exercised.

(My dear friend Eric Titus, in his exams before classis twelve
years ago, suggested a fourth mark of the church: potluck suppers.)

Lately, there have been some murmurs within the RCA that we ought
to supplement the marks. In particular, we hear calls to add to
those marks of the church this fourth mark: mission. A true church
is one that, in addition to the other three, is missional. Others
would add (instead or additionally) evangelism: a true church is
one whose members evangelize.

I believe that, as well intentioned as they are, those who ask us
to add to the marks of the church, and particularly to add these,
have misunderstood the marks. Indeed, they have misunderstood it in
a remarkably un-Reformed fashion.

John Calvin wrote about the marks of the church. For example,

“Hence the form of the Church appears and stands forth
conspicuous to our view. Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt. 18:20)” (Inst., IV.I.9.)

What I find striking about Calvin’s discussion of the marks is how
modest it is. Perhaps such a term does not readily suggest itself
for Calvin. But recall that he developed his understanding of the
church over against Roman Catholic ecclesiology, for which there
were seven sacraments and an extensive concept of the
magisterium. For Rome, there were a number of marks of the
church. Yet Calvin doesn’t answer the Roman understanding of the
church by positing more marks. Instead, he takes a minimalist
approach, and gives us but a few. Word. Sacraments. (And perhaps

For Calvin, the marks were not meant to describe all of what the
church could be. He names only that which was essential to a
congregation. The marks were meant to help those in that time of
Reformation upheaval to answer a very practical question: “is this
new church of which I am now a part truly a church? For Rome would
say ‘no’. But I believe that this is where God has placed me. What
am I to think?”

In the face of that, Calvin defines the marks minimally. Yet this
was not merely a pastoral move, nor was it an act of compassion for
the worried. No, I believe that Calvin offered a minimal definition
of a church for an important theological reason, one that lies at
the heart of his theology.

For consider what the first two marks truly are. In a Reformed
perspective, Word and sacrament are not what we have done, but what
God has done. They are means of grace, because through them the
reality of which the Gospel speaks is made present to us, not by
our action, but by God’s. Moreover, by these means of grace in
particular the church is constituted. The church, we believe, is
not fundamentally a humanly constructed institution. It exists by
the grace of God. It lives and breathes and grows, truly, only as
it draws life and sustenance from those gifts of God by which God
has called it into being: Word and sacrament.

Even discipline, if accepted as a mark of the church (and there is
some dispute about this among scholars of the Reformed tradition),
is fundamentally not about the works of Christians, but about the
table of our Lord. Discipline is appropriately a mark of the church
only when its beginning and end is the reconciliation that Christ
shows us in this table he has set.

Now, it seems to me that the foregoing explanation enables us to
see the problem with expanding the marks to include mission or
evangelism. For by adding these marks, we say that our efforts are
part of what establishes the church. We say that the church is
defined by what we do, rather than by what God does. And we thereby
do what we so often love to do: we shift the focus from God to

Our friends who are such enthusiastic and effective voices on
behalf of mission and evangelism ask us to expand the marks of the
church. I believe that in this request what they are truly seeking
is a vocabulary to talk about “good” churches, so that all
churches, “good” and “bad” and in-between, may be encouraged to
become even better, to become what God desires them to be. Surely
that is a good thing.

Yet such a vocabulary, and the pragmatic leverage that such
vocabulary offers, is readily at hand. We already speak of churches
strong and weak, healthy and unhealthy, faithful and unfaithful. Or
perhaps we instead gauge our own proximity between the poles
indicated by such words, and ask ourselves: how strong, or healthy,
or faithful, are we?

A good/strong/healthy/faithful church ought to be engaged in
mission and evangelism. But does the failure to engage in these
mean that a church is not a church? Or just that it isn’t a
faithful church?

Do we want our very existence to be dependent upon our own

The Gospel we affirm, to which we cling, is God’s declaration in
Jesus Christ that our works don’t constitute our relationship with
God. They are our response to God’s decision to establish, and
reestablish, that relationship.

This is true not only for individual believers, but for the church
as well.

8 thoughts on “Marks of the Church

  1. Yes, Dan, you have hit the mark concerning the theological notion of ‘mark.’ It reads well: I’ll copy it to my elders for their edification.

    Just as in days of yore, when ‘evangelism’ was the elephant in the room, it now bears fruit to ask concerning ‘missionality’ how that relates to the Lord’s Table, and to ‘baptism.’ (And also to discipline; but recall Calvin’s famous emphasis on the ‘third’ use of the law, the ‘usus didacticus’ or ‘usus pedagogicus’ in this).

    The question about missionality cannot be one by which we separate the kernel from the chaff, but needs to be asked in the Spirit of the Heidelberg Cathechism: ‘How does it Benefit You?’

    As a further thought: the lections for this upcoming Trinity Sunday all have to do withe the difference of our perspective and God’s perspective. E.g. Saul’s mistaken notion that he would build the Kingdom of God as his own; or Nicodemus who thought that God’s seal of approbation would be attached from below; or (in the epistle election of Rom 8 ) the view that somehow we are God’s children, and God our Abba by birthright, rather than by adoption through our brother Jesus. And Psalm 29 admonishes all heavenly beings –and us in concert with them– in ascribing the glory and awesomeness of creation to the LORD God (and not to no-God gods).

    Once upon a time there was a Reformed Church crest with a top banner that said “Nisi Dominus Frustra” -(Unless the LORD builds the house its laborers build in vain; Ps 127:1). Our forebears applied it to the CHURCH!!! (As Saul’s successor David had to learn (see II Samuel 7:11,12). It must be true that it is our intention to place missionality within the orbit of the church, and not in front of it…

    Thanks Dan,

  2. Dan – I’m interested in what you see as to the primary importance of the marks of the true church. What do you see as the purpose for getting right the marks of the church? (those are real questions – i’m interested in your response).


  3. Bill,

    These are hard questions to answer, in part because you’ve given me so little to go on. But let me take a shot, and if I have not understood the question, then redirect me.

    It’s possible that the first question may betray a bit of a misunderstanding, although an instructive one. “The marks of the true church” — but that is setting a far higher standard than we have any right to set. It is not open to us to determine who is among the elect, nor are we able to set forth standards that would prove that any congregation of which we are a part is a “true church.” The marks are not to be used in that fasion, as a means of setting ourselves above or cutting down others. They are, in language perhaps too Lutheran, a matter of Gospel, not of Law.

    As I understand the marks of the church, they (ideally) provide guidance for what, basically, a church is. They direct our attention to what is most important. As I argue in my article, the marks of the church are fundamentally those means by which God has constituted the church. These are most important. These are those things around which a congregation is to order its life. In the case of the Reformed marks, the church is fundamentally about word and sacrament. Without these, a church is not a church. With them a church is a church, although it may barely be so.

    In other words, there may be a lot that goes into making a church a great church. But it can’t be a great church without Word and sacrament. Indeed, without these it cannot be a church at all.

    Yet it’s not about our doing. It is easy for us to fall into the trap of understanding Word and sacrament as things we do. Of course, in a sense they are. But in a Reformed perspective, these are rather mostly things God does. God has spoken, and speaks. Christ offers bread and wine. The Spirit washes over the baptized. It is on God’s word spoken and Christ’s sacraments given that the church is founded and grows. Preaching and celebrating the sacraments are things we can do only because they are more importantly done by God. Everything else is response, the third use of the law, the third portion of the Heidelberg Catechism.

    In short, the primary importance of recognizing these marks, the purpose of “getting them right,” is to direct our attention again to the Triune God, whose grace has founded and continues to nurture the church, in all its manifestations.

  4. The “marks” are quite simple. The “old” church had the bishop as the “mark.” Where the bishop was/is, there is a church. What must be present for a church to be a church? The Reformation answer was: not the bishop, but “Word” and “Sacrament.” Hence, Christ is present. There is the church. EVerything else may be important, very important even, but not essential.

  5. Dan and Al – thank you for your helpful and insightful comments. I appreciate both your wisdom and your humility.

    – bill

  6. I’m all with you, Dan and Al. But I can hear the missional people, over-doing Newbiggin, suggesting that Mission is not a mark of a good church, but of a real church, and that when a church is not missional, it isn’t even church (and can be closed down!). They would say that mission is not what we do, but what God does.

    I would answer that if they don’t think preaching the Word and celebration of the sacraments is already “missional” and evangelical and call for conversion, then I would ask what their preaching and how they’re celebrating the sacraments.

  7. I beg to differ. Jesus instructed us to “GO and make disciples of all nations, etc.” If that isn’t mission, I don’t know what is!

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