The Marks and the Purposes of the Church

How can we recognize a true church? What are the purposes of the church?

For the past few days my family and I have been reading in our after-breakfast Bible reading how Wayne Grudem answers these questions in Chapter 44, “The Church: Its Nature, Its Marks, and Its Purpose,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). Here I’ll share some of what we’ve read there.

The Marks of the Church

In the early centuries of the Christian church there was one world-wide church and naturally it was viewed as the true church. However when the Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic Church as a true church, they had to decide what were the marks of a true church. John Calvin concluded, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 volumes, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960, page 1023). Martin Luther expressed a similar view. Grudem argues, “It seems appropriate that we take Luther and Calvin’s view on the marks of a true church as correct still today” (Grudem, page 865).

Grudem claims that both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses deviate sufficiently from the teaching of the Word of God that they must be considered false churches. However in a footnote he excuses the non-observance of the sacraments by the Salvation Army, concluding that it “has substituted other means of signifying membership and continuing participation in the church [which] provide a substitute for baptism and the Lord’s Supper in terms of ‘membership controls'” (page 866).

The Purposes of the Church

Grudem identifies three purposes of the church in terms of whom it ministers to:
1. ministry to God: worship
2. ministry to believers: nurture
3. ministry to the world: evangelism and mercy

My favourite Bible passage regarding the purpose of the church is Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). In this “Great Commission” to the eleven Jesus suggested that the church is both to evangelize the world and to nurture those evangelized. And certainly, as Paul encouraged the Christians at Colossae, God wants the church to worship him by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

Which of these three purposes is most important? Since all three are commanded in the Bible, all are important. Thus it is essential that the church has effective ministries in all three areas. However, as Grudem points out, since the members of a church have different gifts, it is right for individuals to emphasize the area of ministry most related to their gifts. “This is only an appropriate response to the diversity of gifts that God has given us” (page 869).

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