When is a church not a church?

As we return from lockdown, there are still some significant restrictions expected about how we will be able to go about meeting together. The one that has provoked the most reaction has been the likely ban on singing and yet, maybe more importantly (and still with minimal discussion) we can expect restrictions on baptism and communion for some time to come, maybe even after we start to sing again.

Historically as protestants, we have identified the two marks of a true church as:

  1. The right (or pure) teaching of the Word
  2. The right (or pure) administration of the sacraments/ordinances

Some protestant traditions add a third mark, the right or pure practice of church discipline. Others see this as existing explicitly in the first two.[1]

My friend, Steve Kneale raised the question on Twitter the other day that if we could not practice the ordinances/sacraments, then do we really still exist as churches?

As promised, here is my first attempt to flesh out an answer to this. I hope that this will lead to further discussion.

The historical purpose of identifying marks

Before we apply the question to contemporary church life in the middle of a pandemic, it is worth asking the question “Why were those marks identified in the first place?” It is helpful to note that this is a particularly Protestant thing to do.

Up until the reformation, it would have been fairly easy for people to answer the question “What is the true church?” There was only one church (at least in the West). However, the Reformation led to break away groupings.  The identification of marks therefore became important for recognising one another as belonging to Christ’s body. I want to be sure that the church I meet with is a genuine church and not a cult, I also want to know how our church should relate to other fellowships in my city.

These marks therefore did two things. First of all, they distinguished the Protestants from the false theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, now regarded as not a pure and true church. So, Article 29 of the Belgic Confession goes on to say:

“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.”

Here, you can see that the authors had in mind the way that the unreformed church had added traditions and superstitions to Scripture and how the Lord’s Supper had been confused with a new sacrificial event, The Mass.  The pure administration of the sacraments therefore would not include transubstantiation nor the belief that baptismal waters had special redemptive qualities.

However, the Reformers had another problem to address. If they wanted to distinguish themselves from the Roman Catholics to their right, they also wanted to distinguish themselves from the radical reformers, including the anabaptists to their left. These groupings were seen as politically dangerous and into some fairly whacky things.

This is important then, if a little uncomfortable for today’s church, or specifically for credo-baptists.  To the Reformers, our practice of baptising believers on confession of faith by immersion might not have been considered within the terms of “pure administration.”

This suggests that we have to be careful about just talking about the marks without thinking carefully about both what they were designed to do and how they best function today. I want to suggest that our thinking, by necessity has evolved a little and we would want to suggest a generous application of how the marks are understood.[2]

So today, we are unlikely to be prescriptive about things like

  • Does the Preacher use an expository or topical method?
  • Do we use one chalice or lots of little glasses?
  • Do we sprinkle or immerse?

We recognise that there are differences of opinion on hoe we do these thnings. However, the important things are that we acknowledge both the importance of sharing communion, hearing God’s Word and baptising as an outward symbol of faith and repentance.  We also recognise that there are ways in which we can distort those things through superstition.

Answering Today’s Question

It is important therefore, to remember that these marks are simply indicating that the church you attend has a correct and Biblical approach to how it meets. We are not at this stage offering a measure for the health of that church. 

Therefore, in my opinion, we should not worry too much about trying to answer questions that were not previously answered by the marks.  Remember for example that they don’t take us into the detail of things like how often communion should be celebrated and the form in which it takes place (as long as you don’t reoffer Christ as a sacrifice).

Far more important is to step back and look at the bigger picture.  We should ask, what has been the long-term practice of the church and what are its intentions for the future. Are they seeking to observe the sacraments and teach God’s Word in a fitting way that evidences obedience to Christ?

Let me give two examples.  I know that Stephen and I are in general agreement about the central tenants of the Gospel and quite a lot in terms of theology and practice. However, we do disagree on some things.  This include aspects of how we approach communion. Particularly in the context of a pandemic, Steve takes the view that we cannot share the Lord’s Supper until we are physically in the same building together. My view is that whilst it is not ideal, we can and if possible should seek to share the Lord’s Supper as best as possible using Zoom.  We can agree to disagree robulstly on that issue without deciding that either of us are part of false churches. 

However, supposing that instead of just saying that his church should go without communion and baptism during the virus, Steve and his fellow elders concluded that we didn’t really need these things at all. Suppose he says “Look, we know what these symbols represent, so we don’t really need them.” Now, I might understand his motives to pastorally care for people who remained fearful of viruses getting past on but I would be concerned that this was a significant departure for the agreement about what a church is.

On the other hand, Steve may feel uncomfortable with our approach in Bearwood of sharing communion during a Zoom meeting. He may think I’ve got my conclusions wrong on this and he might choose not to join us for it.  However, he can take that position whilst still recognising us a s a church and if someone from Oldham Bethel were to end up with us after moving to the Midlands, I hope that he would not denounce us as a weird cult and urge then to stay away. 

However, suppose that we start saying that communion is just a spiritual affair and so it does not matter how and where we take it. Again, we might be aware that people will be uncomfortable with sharing bread and wine with all the fear of passing on germs. Suppose that we then conclude that we will intentionally and for the long run continue to do communion online. We might even go so far as to make the whole thing virtual with avatar participants and emoji bread and wine.

I think at that stage, Steve would be right to express concern about our crazy innovations nd raise a red flag about us.  I think that if you were a church member here, the you should be asking some serious questions of us at that point.


I would expect our actions during a crisis to be consistent with our deep -seated views oh these things.  I would encourage a charitable view between churches. A church should be judged on its long term witness not just how it acts in a  short term crisis.

[1] See e.g. The Belgic Confession, Article 29 which says “The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.”

[2] It is worth noting that this may have been happening from quite early on see the discussion here.https://www.puritanboard.com/threads/3-marks-or-1-does-westminster-soften-the-belgic-confession.15930/

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