What is a Reformed Church? The answer to this question can be given in two categories. First we can describe the “attributes” of the Church and second we can describe the “marks” of true local churches.
Attributes of the Church
The Nicene Creed was given its final form in 381 A.D. at the council of Constantinople. The goal of the Creed to was to summarize and make known the teaching of the Bible on certain topics. One of the topics the Creed addresses is the nature of the Christian church. The Creed confesses that “we believe in…one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Ever since this time, the Church has found it helpful to use these 4 categories to describe the true essence of Christ’s church as it is described in the Bible.
Paul emphasizes the oneness of the church in his letter to the Ephesians. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). This repetition of the word “one” is no accident. The church is one because it has one head, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:9-13; Eph. 5:23). Paul tells us that it is part of God’s beautiful “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). God’s Spirit is uniting his true people together as one in spiritual fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 6:17, 19; 12:13; 2 Cor. 12:18).
The church is holy because its members are in union with Christ (John 17:19; Titus 2:14; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 2:9; Eph. 5:25-27). God is holy, therefore so are his people (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Pet. 1:14-16). In Christ, we are imputed with his righteousness and progressively renewed by his Holy Spirit. Just as the temple of the Old Covenant was holy because God’s special presence dwelt there, so also now the church (1 Cor. 3:10-17; 1 Pet. 1:15-16; 2:4-6).
The word ‘catholic’ basically means ‘universal.’ The church is catholic in the sense that it embraces all true believers at all times and places, and outside of it there is no salvation (Rom. 1:8-16; 10:18; Gal. 6:16-17; Eph. 2:14; Col. 1:6). The Christian church is international, interracial and global (Mal. 1:11; Matt. 8:11; 28:19; John 10:16; Acts 2:1-13; Rev. 7:9). It is for every rank or social status (Jam. 2:1-7). This catholicity is not characterized by allegiance to a single pope or bishop. And it is not centered in Rome, Constantinople or any other single location. Instead, biblical catholicity is characterized by allegiance to the true gospel of Jesus Christ confessed by gospel congregations worldwide.
The term ‘apostolic’ is not referring to the succession of office-bearers from the apostles themselves (as Roman Catholic church claims). Instead, it is referring to an adherence to the gospel doctrine and mission of the apostles. The early church devoted themselves to “the apostle’s teaching,” (Acts 2:42) not the apostles themselves (cf. Acts 17:11). If an apostle like Paul deviated from “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), he was to be judged, not followed. This was true for Peter (Gal. 2:14), Paul (Acts 17:11) or anyone else (Gal. 1:6-9). The authoritative word of the apostles is today preserved for us in the authoritative Scripture. Furthermore, the apostles preached Christ from “all the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:27). To be “apostolic,” then, is to preach Christ and his gospel. To be apostolic means we hold to the same doctrine of the apostles and in all of our preaching, and we preach the same Christ that the apostles did.
In history, these 4 qualities of the church began to disappear over time, which led to what has been called the Protestant Reformation.
Marks of True Churches
While the church is busy trying to bring Christ to the world, the world has been busy trying to bring its own spirit into the church. During the Reformation, the true churches of Christ came to be recognized primarily by three identifying marks: (1) the true preaching of God’s word, (2) the right administration of the ordinances, and (3) the faithful practice of church membership & discipline. These marks are biblical and help us to recognize true churches today as well.
1. The True Preaching of God’s Word.
Paul told Timothy that churches are the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In the ancient world, pillars and buttresses were sections of a building’s architecture that served to lift the roof high in the air. When Timothy read Paul’s letter, he could turn and look out at the temple of Artemis on a hill in the city (one of the 7 wonders of the world), with its more than 100 pillars and many buttresses, lifting the immense marble roof up to be admired by all who came to Ephesus. In Paul’s mind, the role of the local church is like that. It has the responsibility of lifting up God’s word for the entire world to see. That is why Paul would later urge Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). God’s word is rightly preached when a church consistently preaches the whole truth, not just a selection of sound bytes. The New Testament admonishes preachers to give themselves to the teaching of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and “all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). Jesus said we are to teach “all that he commanded” (Matt. 28:19). Furthermore, this must be “sound teaching” not whatever suits peoples passions or tickles their ears (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
2. The Right Administration of the Ordinances.
James Bannerman rightly said that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are “the characteristic badges or symbols by which the Christian is distinguished from other men.” In other words, they are ordinances of a gospel church which show who is identified with Christ and his people. In this sense, they are covenant signs because they are only for members of the New Covenant who have united with a gospel-preaching church as a member. They draw a line around the spiritual fellowship of the church in order to show who is in and who is out (Acts 2:47).
Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are meant to remind us of the gospel itself. They symbolically picture Christ and his work. They also symbolically picture the new relationship the church has with him (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:1-5) and each other (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 10:16-17; 11:17-34; 12:13).
The ordinances are also a means of grace to the church because as we explain the symbolism with Scripture and we participate in them by faith, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The ordinances, then, are visible words of the gospel. That is how the Lord graciously continues to strengthen the faith of the church through them. “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
3. The Faithful Practice of Church Membership & Discipline.
The New Testament churches knew who was in and they knew who was out (“outsiders” Col. 4:5; 1 Cor. 5:9-13). In fact, they kept a running tally of every member person who joined (Acts 2:41-47; 5:14). It was not just whoever shows up for church on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. In Corinth, there were people who gathered with the church that were not part of the church (1 Cor. 14:16, 23, 24).
A local church is a congregation made up of believers who are committed to Christ and each other. Church discipline goes hand-in-hand with church membership. In giving local churches the power of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:16-20; 18:15-20; John 20:), Christ gave the power to join with, separate from, and restore individuals on the basis of their credible profession of faith (Matt. 7:1-5; 1 Cor. 5:22-23; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Tim. 5:20). The faithful practice of church membership and church discipline clarifies the gospel, encourages the saints, convicts the world and glorifies God.