“Most Christians know they are supposed to go to church. Yet if they had to explain what a church is, what would they say?” This is the questions behind the book Hitting the Marks by Barry J York.
In every city there are hundreds of churches. Across Canada there are hundreds of denominations. How does one identify a true church of God from one that is not? How does one identify the liberal from the orthodox, the legalistic from the grace-filled, or the weak church on the verge of collapse from the robust one that will last beyond the most recent fad in church growth?
The answer can be found by looking for the marks of the true church.
This book is written for a variety of audiences. It could be for the new Christian seeking out a true church of God, or it may be for the church leader who is looking to redirect his floundering liberalizing charge back to orthodoxy. It may also be for those leaders who need to do a spiritual check-up on their church or for the Christian who is seeking to decide if now is the time to move his family to a church that better reflects the truth of God’s Word.
In the Introduction, York identifies the ‘three keys of the kingdom’ or the three marks that have been used by Protestant Reformers to identify a true church of God. The first mark is that of faithful preaching of the Word of God. The second mark is the faithful administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The third mark is the proper exercise of church discipline – meaning both corrective discipline of those members who go astray, but also positive discipline of leading and directing the flock towards Christ.
Why focus on these three? They are the root of the church. It is all too easy to reflect on the outward elements of the church, the number of members, variety of programs, the presence of children, or the diversity of background and culture. However, the strength and health of a church is not essentially reflected in those things. These things can be the result of a church that is founded on the marks of the true church, but they can also just as easily be present in a floundering and decaying church. Thus, it is important to look to the root, before looking at the branches. A rotten root will mean that an otherwise healthy-looking tree will not long survive.
It is also possible that the church pays outward lip-service to these elements – to the keys of the kingdom – but in practice treats them lightly, disrespects them, or does not practice them at all. There are certainly many denominations that hold strong biblical statements of faith, while they gather dust in a back closet, and the church does not practice them at all. There are in fact numerous mainline denominations in Canada that may hold, in principle, to the Westminster standards, and yet their outward practice shows they do not respect them at all.
In Chapter 1, York explains the historical debate between the Protestants and Catholics as to how a true church could be identified. The conclusion they came to was that since Christ built the church, only he can show us how to recognize it. Thus, we must find the signs of the true church in God’s Word. Peter, in testifying of Jesus as the Christ in Matthew 16:16, declared that this knowledge was a truth not found in himself but was revealed to him by heaven. The rock of the preaching of the gospel was the foundation of the church – a living-breathing body.
We see here also that the keys are given of Christ to the under-shepherds of his flock. They are only stewards of what is Christ’s. These shepherds must point to Christ himself as the head, for only from him can come forgiveness and life everlasting.
In this same passage Jesus talks about bestowing the keys on the apostles – the ‘you plural’ to the apostles who were with him. Thus, the keys are not given only to Peter (as the Catholics believe) nor also to every believer, but only to the overseers of the flock.
In Chapter 2 York discusses the offices of Christ and how he founded the church, established its leadership with the apostles, sustains it throughout time, and will one day bring the church militant to be the church triumphant in glory. It also touches on Christ’s roles as prophet, priest, and king and how the church must also reflect those roles.
After this initial overview in the Introduction, Chapter 1 and 2, York then goes into a lot more detail on each of the marks:
Chapter 3, 4 and 5 speak to the first mark – detailing the role of the minsters in the church and pointing to the Word and the preaching of the Gospel in the church.
Chapter 6, 7, and 8 speak of the second mark – that is baptism and communion – the sacraments that mark a true church.
In Chapter 9, York diverges a bit to talk about some other marks that have been proposed as part of identifying a true church. For instance, ‘why is love not one of the marks of the church?’ Love is hard to quantify, where discipline and love are related to each other in the Bible. Proverbs in particular talks of this relationship. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24). Another is the qualification of things like evangelism, and community outreach and more of the church. York analyses both Luther’s thought and Mark Dever’s ‘Nine Marks of a Healthy Church’ and then explains how these items can all be placed within the identity of the church, while still not being necessarily essential to its faithfulness. While ministries like outreach soup kitchens, and youth groups can be good and supportive of the church’s health, they are not the essential elements by which a church can be identified.
In Chapter 10, 11 and 12 he continues with the third mark – that is church discipline, and ultimately the role of excommunication in a true and healthy church.
In the concluding Chapter 13, York calls the reader to take what they have learned in the preceding chapters and use these tools to examine their church. While examining the church can be seen by some as unloving or judgmental, scripture is quite clear (and the previous chapters of this book show evidence of this) that there is a very clear standard for the true church, and the risks of a church that is not meeting these marks are far too severe to contemplate tolerating.
If you are a member in a faithful church, York concludes “such a congregation is experiencing the true love of Christ that is far more satisfying and intimate than the passing adulteries of this present age.”
~ Review by Colin Postma