Small churches become aggravated at megachurches because many leave the small church for the megachurch. On the other hand, megachurches have a way of defending themselves that seems to lash out at small churches who criticize them. Both groups have stereotyped the other side. One side will say that the other only entertains, while the other side will say that the other is old and is not a church that people want to attend. This is counterproductive to the Kingdom building that is supposed to be taking place. After all, people leaving one for the other is not an increase in God’s Kingdom. In fact, this back and forth between these two sisters has brought much confusion to many believers. What is more, it has brought confusion to those who find themselves in a place where they are not committed to a church, but may actually be in the process of looking for a church. What I mean is that they have heard the echo from those in both camps of this issue. So this means that they are hearing this discussion between the two sisters, and I would argue it is a negative discussion, which is aiding people who are not committed to Christ choose the church in which they worship and serve at that may not be the Spirit’s leading. With one side pointing out the imperfections of the other, it seems appropriate to outline those characteristics of what aright church looks like. There are four universally, historically, marks that someone should look for in a church so that he or she may decide whether or not they have found a right church or a wrong church.
Those who are looking for a church should be looking for distinctive marks that seem to help define church on whether or not it is a right church, or wrong church. Of course this type of discussion is nothing new. In fact the Early Church set forth The Marks of The Church, which can be observed from the book of Acts. You may recall that the book of Acts is a book that describes the birth of The Church as a result of the Holy Spirit coming to indwell those who receive and follow Christ. According to H. Ray Dunning, in 381 B.C., The Marks of The Church were stated formally for the first time in the Creed of Constantinople” (529). Four Marks were named in the Creed, Unity, Holiness, Catholicity (which means universal), and Apostolicity. Dunning further pointed out that these marks are produced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “They are not the result of organization or administration but are the creation of the Spirit” (529). This last statement is another discussion for later, but it certainly should cause one to pause at the role of leadership, and administration, in many Protestant churches today. Since these marks are understood to be the creation of the Spirit, this means that people, both inside and outside, of the Church, should be able to see these traits as reality. If these traits are not seen as reality in regard to a group, then it is possible that group may not be a right church. Here is a little more clarification to aid understanding these marks.
The first mark in our list of four is Unity. This mark is one that both small churches and megachurches need to consider again. Remember the discussion in my intro of this article. Each side tends to point out what the other side believes to be wrong with the other. Jesus’ teaching to His followers should be applied in this situation, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, Let me take the speck out your eye, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). If both sides rightly understood this, then each could be beneficial to the other which would glorify Christ. Consider a statement that makes a great point, and should be a rule that is kept in mind, James B. Chapman said, “The Christ in me will never be at variance with the Christ in you” (Dunning 531). This obviously should demonstrate the unity of Christ’s Church. These two statements are important for each side to consider because these were made in reference to what leads to disunity, and what should help to create unity. Christ is not divided against Himself. The Holy Spirit should be aiding to keep this from happening. Our goal as those who are part of The Universal Church is that we be united as part of, and by taking part in, God’s Kingdom. When we work against each other it creates disunity and this means there is no benefit to the Kingdom.
The second mark is Catholicity. This term is not about being a geographical location, or part of any particular tradition of doing church. It means that it is universal by embracing Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you (Christians who have been saved by the Blood of Christ and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them) are all one in Christ Jesus.” This again seems to be another way of saying unity too (532). Clearly, this is what Paul had in mind here, and in his other epistles. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit ties us to all who are in Christ. This means that those who have the Spirit are part of The Universal Church. This is important because this means that there isn’t a worship style, or a particular way of being the church. Instead, it is an outer reality, that exists on the basis of the inward reality of the Spirit that makes the church be the church. After all, there is only one Savior; and He is not divided in Himself. We are “doing” church right, when we are being the Church through the aid of the Spirit.
The third mark is Holiness. Holiness, unfortunately, sometimes is understood in a variety of ways. For example, does one become Holy simply because Jesus automatically gives it to those who He calls His? Or does Jesus offer Holiness to those who surrender themselves totally to Him so that He they can receive another helping of Grace? This is a debate without end. Yet, as a Wesleyan, I believe that Holiness is imparted by Christ. From John Wesley’s point of view, “Holiness of the Church is attributable because of a real, rather than imputed, holiness” (532). It should be pointed out that the Church does have within her those who are babes in Christ. In fact, we are becoming Holy by allowing the Spirit within to mold and shape us. We also are learning from the Great Teacher, Christ. This means that each person is walking in the light they are given at that particular point of their new life in Christ. If this be so, there will be issues each church will have to deal with because of the universal impact of sin in our world. Further, corporate Holiness also involves accountability within the church. I recognize that writing this some might say that this leads to judgment and condemnation and more legalism in the church. By the way, both sides of this discussion have this element to contend with. On the contrary, I believe it is about motivation. Holiness that comes from the Spirit is centered on love for God and others. It is not involved in lording over other people. Instead it is driven by the heartfelt need to keep a brother or sister from sinning. This in turn helps to keep the purity of the Church’s witness. In fact, this is why Covenant Memberships exist in many churches. This, too, will be a topic for another discussion. Holiness, as Dunning puts it, is “the conscience of the church” (533). Moreover, it is time that we Christians understand that we are Saints; and that we should no longer be sinners. This is the common cry of many Christians today. It is important that we remember that God still has expectations of us. Therefore, right churches will remain aware of this.
The final mark in this list is Apostolicity. This is not to be understood as an office what one can seek. Instead it is what should be present within the Church through her members. Members who are empowered by the Holy Spirit who dwells within. This is the same Holy Spirit who dwelt within the Apostles. In other words, in regard to Apostolicity, “It is the truth of the gospel proclaimed in the power of the Spirit” (534). In fact, this is why each person receives spiritual gifts. These gifts are meant to build up the Church. If we localize this by saying build up the church, which is part of The Church, then we realize that it is not about one person, or a few, who have the ability to attract. It is about the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within the corporate Body, and in individuals who make up the Body. Therefore, it is not really about the greatness of the speaker, singer, or leader. It is more likely that it is about the greatness of God who is present in His believers and among them as well. With this type of understanding it easy to see that each person has a gift, or gifts, which they bring to the local church so that they too can help build up that particular church. In turn, if the church being built up has these marks, then the Kingdom is being built up. In fact, The Bible said that the Holy Spirit places in you in a church to do just that.
The purpose of writing this is to help those who may wonder whether or not their church is a right church. At some point, All churches who claim Christ as their Savior must stop acting as if they are the only church who is really right. Beware of that type of rhetoric, whether it comes from large or small. It seems more likely that God uses both megachurches and small churches. As a small church pastor, I want people to know that I understand these marks. In fact, I wanted to write this because my church is small and can easily be labeled as a church that doesn’t get it. Therefore, if Christ is in me and in those who attend my church, then it is dangerous when other pastors make blanket statements about churches who are not right or productive, in their opinion, because of a certain tradition that may seem to be out of touch with this new age. Likewise, it is dangerous when smaller church pastors preach against what God is doing in larger churches. The damage that is being caused is only to the mission of Christ to make disciples by using His Church.
There are more developed Marks of The Church, for example Mark Dever wrote a book called The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I have looked though this book, and it looks to be a good read and teaching tool. However, I elected to stick with what I see as the earliest work on this subject. I say this because I am aware that there are other variations of The Marks, but each should be developed from The Creed of Constantinople in my opinion. I believe Dever’s is. But his is a book, and this is only article that is meant to be basic.
Once one establishes whether or not a church is a right church, and there doesn’t seem to be division of Christ taking place, he or she needs to seek and hear from God whether or not that is the place to serve. This should be helpful for those who are wondering what a good church looks like.
Dunning, H. Ray. Grace Faith and Holiness. Kansas City,
MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1988.