But what is it that makes a church a sound church? We need to know this for one simple reason – as believers in Jesus Christ we are expected, yes, even commanded to join ourselves together with other believers in a local assembly or fellowship, referred to as a church (1 Cor. 11:18-20; Hebrews 10:25). And we must know what a church is and how it functions, for not every group that identifies itself as a Christian church is a sound or true church.
While it is right to want to join a church, it is wrong to join any group because they call themselves a church. Just as we are commanded to join a local body of believers, we are also warned not to identify or fellowship with those who would proclaim false doctrine or place personal preference, and things like form and function above the truth of God’s Word (1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-5).
So what then are the marks of a sound church according to the Bible? We will summarize them into seven points. These seven things must be present for a church to claim rightly that they are a church that is obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ. A sound church is an assembly of believers in Jesus Christ where:
1. God is worshipped in spirit and truth – Rom.12:1; Philip.3:3; John 4:5-26
2. Prayer is central – Acts 2:42, 1Thes.5:17
3. Love for Christ and the Brethren is demonstrated – 1 Pet.1:22, Jam.1:22
4. The Word of God is faithfully preached, taught, and heard – Acts 6:4, 13:44; Rom.10:17; 2Tim.4:2
5. The Ordinances of Baptism and Communion are administered – Acts 2:42; Mat.28:19
6. Discipline of the membership is Biblically administered – 1 Cor.5:10-13; Mat.18:15-17
7. Church government and leadership as instituted by the Apostles is established – Acts 14:23, 6:2-3; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9
If these seven marks are present, the church can rightly claim to be a sound church. If none of these are present, nothing else in the world qualifies them to be a church. They are but pretenders, a social gathering or a religious country club playing church if they are without these characteristics to some degree.
The New Testament church presented in the pages of Holy Scripture gives us the blueprint to follow in allowing Christ to build His church through us. After all, we do not grow the church one bit, and anything we add to His building is frail and weak and will serve only to pollute the work He is doing. Again, let me stress this point. It is Jesus who builds His church (Matt. 16:18).
A true church can never be qualified by its size, location, budget, or by the building in which it meets! None of these factors makes it more or less a true church. In fact, in the pages of the New Testament, we see churches that fill whole cities while others consist of a handful of believers that met in individual houses. Some met in synagogues and others on the front porch of the temple in Jerusalem. Still others met in catacombs and underground caves. But they all had these seven marks in common and so were considered by God to be His church.
Let us look at each of these seven marks more closely so that we can be sure that the church where we hold membership is indeed a true and sound church.
The First Mark of a Healthy Church: God is Worshiped in Spirit and Truth
Romans 12:1 – “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”
Philippians 3:3 – “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh,”
John 4:24 – “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The first mark of a sound church that we will consider is the character of that church’s worship. After all, the church’s first love is to be its God! He is our God and we are His people. If we really believe everything we preach and teach about salvation and grace and forgiveness, how can we not worship God continually?
Worship, or the telling forth of God’s worthiness, has to have a priority in our church services. We are not to meet together for what we can get out of the praise or the preaching – we are to meet together so that we might worship God through the praise and preaching. We are to focus on HIM.
The qualifications given by Jesus Himself in the New Testament for worship are that our worship is to be offered in “spirit and truth.” To understand this we need to first look at how worship is often the opposite of these requirements.
Worship that Displeases God
In Amos 5:21ff, the prophet proclaims a word from God regarding the acceptability of worship. Have you ever stopped to ask if the worship you offer is acceptable to God? He does not want us to simply go through the motions. That, in fact, is not worship.
In Amos 5 God says that He wants justice and righteousness. He desires worship given in spirit and truth. Instead the Children of Israel were mixing the worship of God with other pagan festivals and religions. They were polluting the worship of the Most High God. They defiled worship by offering God what they wanted, or what they thought He wanted instead of what He demanded! They did things their way instead of His.
In the text, Amos writes as God speaks,
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Can you imagine? God HATED their worship. It was self-centered and self-serving. They tried to keep proper form (feast days, singing, sacred assemblies) but had an improper motive. They approached God with unclean hands and an impure heart and as a result He rejected their worship. We must come before God on His terms, prepared to worship acceptably – and if we come any other way (rushed, with little thought or preparation) then He will likewise reject what we have to offer!
So in order to understand our duty in worship, in order to truly know what God expects and commands of us as His worshippers, we must first grasp the characteristics of worship that displeases Him. Take the time to meditate on these verses and examine these topics as we search the Scriptures for a brief outline of worship that God hates.
Charactersistics of Worship that Displeases God – Ex 20:1-11
A. Worship of Anyone or Anything Other Than or Together with God – Ex. 20:3; Ps 86:10; Rom 1:18-25
B. Worship that involves Disobedience – Ex 20:4-6; Ex 32
C. Worship that Takes God’s Name in Vain – Ex 20:7; Malachi 1:6-14; Matt 15:9
D. Worship that is not Holy – Ex 20:8-11
Worship that is not holy can be further noted to be:
1. Void of Faith – Heb 11:6; Rom 14:23
2. Full of Hypocrisy (Lips vs. Heart) – Isaiah 29:13; Jeremiah 12:2; Matt 15:8
3. Based on Lies (False Doctrine) – John 4:24; Psalm 17:1
4. Worship that is not Separated from the World – Rom 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17
5. Worship that Profanes – Ezekiel 22:23-31
Worship that Pleases God
We see what God rejects when it comes to worship, so what is acceptable to Him? What pleases Him? In John 4, Jesus tells us what is expected and necessary if we are to worship God in an acceptable manner. The account reads:
The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When He comes, He will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”
True and acceptable worship is to render to God respectful spiritual service. This is the definition of “reverence.” Reverence is to be the main characteristic of our worship. Reverence finds us focusing on God instead of self. We do not just do whatever we feel. We do what honors God.
The two characteristics given here by Christ let us know that worship is not about “when” or “where”, but it is all about “how.” It is not a building, location, event, or time of the day or week that qualifies our worship as acceptable to God. It is how we worship. We must worship God in spirit and truth.
To worship God in spirit is to worship from the heart, not simply with outward form! It originates internally, not externally. If the inside (the heart) is not prepared for worship, then no matter what we say or do to worship, God will reject what we offer! He even tells us in the Word that if we come to offer God a gift (worship) and there remember that we have something against our brother or sister in Christ, we are to leave and make things right with others before we come near to God! Our heart has to be ready to worship – we have to be prepared. We have to have our relationships in order and come with a clear conscience or our worship is not acceptable.
To say it is from the heart means that it does not matter what we know or what we claim to believe that qualifies our worship. It is how we express our hearts in love and obedience to Christ! What is in the heart, after all, will come out the mouth. And if our heart is not clean and right and we attempt to worship God, we are lying! That’s right. If what is coming out of our mouths does not match the thoughts of our heart, we are hypocrites of the worst sort, and just pretending to worship!
Worship in Spirit
How do we worship in spirit with a right heart condition and attitude? Let’s expand our study of the Scriptures on this point. Open your Bibles and read these verses and then read how I have summarized worshipping God in spirit into the following seven points:
1. Philippians 3:3, 7-11 – Worship in spirit is offered with no confidence in the flesh. The true believer views his flesh as sinful without any merit or capacity to please God without the intervention of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
2. Revelation 4:10-11 – Worship in spirit is focused wholly upon God with no thought of self.
3. Psalm 95:6-7 – Worship in spirit must be reverent, not loud and obnoxious, with disharmony or showmanship!
4. Psalm 96:9; 5:7 – Worship in spirit must be characterized by fear and trembling! We are worshipping a thrice holy God and cannot ever enter His presence with little thought or frivolity.
5. Psalm 29:1-2; Psalm 99 – Worship in spirit must be holy. To be holy is to be set aside or separated from the world. We should not worship God like the world worships its false gods. Worship should be distinct from the world and not mixed with worldly values and practices.
6. 2 Chronicles 20:18-20 – Worship in spirit must overflow with humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less! Again – the focus is GOD.
7. Psalm 51:15-17 – Worship in spirit is worship with brokenness. We must come expressing a total dependence upon God for everything we need.
Worship in Truth
Jesus also said we must worship in truth. This means that our worship must first meet the above-mentioned requirements of worship in spirit, and then added to that, it must also be consistent with Scripture and centered on Christ. Here are a few more verses to read as we look at five ways we worship in truth:
1. Revelation 14:7 – Worship in truth gives God honor, reverence, glory, and expresses His worthiness.
2. Psalm 45:11 – Worship in truth is based in the truth that we worship Him because He is our Lord. We don’t make Him Lord. He is Lord. Forever. The question here is whether or not we obey Him as Lord since He is Lord?
3. Psalm 66:4 – Worship in truth offers praise to His name. We worship Him, not His provision or creation, not His works or ways. We worship HIM, as He is characterized by His many names revealed in Scripture.
4. Psalm 138 – Worship in truth is worship in lowliness. We must have a proper opinion of ourselves, a low opinion of self. We are sinners and but for His grace we would not be able to approach Him at all. Our worship of Him is all based on His doings – His salvation, forgiveness, and grace.
5. Psalm 148, 149, 150 – Worship in truth is worship in ways of which God approves!
Meditate on these verses of Scripture (Bible Reading for Further Study, below) that tell us more about what God expects from us in worship, and remember, next time you gather together with other believers to praise and worship God, be prepared, and keep this simple truth in mind – worship will either please or displease God. Take the time to be ready to worship and please Him!
The Second Mark of a Healthy Church: Prayer is Central
Acts 2:42 – “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17 – “pray without ceasing,”
When the church in the Book of Acts identified itself by faith and practice as a sound church, they were approved by God and used by Him to expand the work of the gospel. One of the signature marks seen in the Book of Acts was the mark of continual prayer. The church in Jerusalem continued steadfastly in prayer.
To understand this we must understand what it means to pray. The Bible commands that the believer “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Can we pray without ceasing and truly make prayer a central part of our lives and our churches and still have time for other activities? Yes. To pray without ceasing does not mean to always be uttering a prayer of some sort. Prayer itself is communion. It is a dialogue between God and us. We talk; He listens. He talks; we listen. To pray without ceasing is to ever be in communion (open communication) with God. It is to be aware of His presence and dependent upon His power moment by moment.
A Christian cannot pray without ceasing and at the same time rely upon himself and his own resources to deal with whatever trials or temptations he may encounter. Instead, we must be ever aware of our relationship with God. That relationship defines who we are as Christians.
It was preached by Del Fehsenfeld, Jr., that being a Christian was not based on what you did, what you said, what you believed, or how you lived. Being a Christian is just that – being! It is what you ARE. Because you are His child and have a relationship with Him, you should naturally commune with Him often.
In the New Testament we learn that even Jesus would go off by Himself to pray to the Father. If He, being God in the flesh, needed to pray often and for long periods of time then how much more do we, as fallen human beings, need that time alone with God? And time alone with God produces a deep prayer life.
The evidence of prayer for most people though is found in what they utter from their mouths when they are called upon to lead in prayer during a church service. This is not any evidence whatsoever of the depth or magnitude of one’s prayer life. And if we think we can prove our spirituality by the way we pray in public then we have fallen for the same lie that the Pharisee did in Luke 18:10-14.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
In this text we learn the both the false and the true nature of prayer. False prayer, which is just empty talking and wind, is proud, full of self, and condemning of others. True prayer is humble, penitent, and answered! False prayer is forced. True prayer is the natural flow of conversation with God just as communication between two people who love each other.
The Pharisee here stood for all to see and prayed for all to hear. “Thank you God, that I am so much better than all these sinners around me!” He prayed with pride, comparing his goodness to those around him. He was puffed up and full of himself. And God did not lend him an ear. As a matter of fact, if ever we pray like this, without a proper heart attitude, our prayer is an abomination to God! That’s right. Read Proverbs 28:9. If a person refuses to hear the Word of God and then thinks he can pray to God about whatever he wants, that person’s prayer is abominable to God.
The tax collector humbly approached the throne of grace, not even daring to look up to heaven in his humility and unworthiness. He cried out expressing his deep need, believing that only God could meet the need. And God did what he asked. He showed him mercy and justified him!
The self-righteous, religious Pharisee was shunned. The humble sinner was saved. True prayer contains within it a proper view of God and a proper view of self. True prayer is born out of dependence and humility, reverence and need. True prayer is a delight.
We do not pray humbly because we are worthless, but because we know our own unworthiness. Our salvation, and every other gift God gives us, is completely of His choosing and grace. He does not reward any merit He sees in us. He gives us grace despite ourselves. And when we express our gratitude in prayer, we must do so with a focus on Him, not on us.
Prayer does involve intercession. Pleading with God to meet the needs we have and others have. But that intercession is never to be made with the expectation that just because we ask and end the prayer in “Jesus Name” that we will get what we want. True prayer expresses to God our understanding that His will is going to be done. And when we deny ourselves and follow Him, we want His will, not our own.
Corporate prayer then does not have to fit a formula or be long winded. The most powerful prayers ever recorded have been short and to the point, dripping in both praise and faith. We are to pray with expectation. And part of that prayer that is central to a true church is prayer for one another. We should be ready in an instant to stop what we are doing and pray for a fellow believer in need.
Prayer must be central in the church because it must be central in the life of every believer. How do we expect to have a relationship with One with whom we never talk? Our services should begin and end with prayer, and be full of prayer in between as we seek His will, His provision, His blessing, and His grace as we serve Him as His church.
The New Testament church was born in prayer. It must live in prayer and continue in prayer. As soon as we stop communicating with our Lord and Master, we cease to be His church. Any church that does not give proper place to public prayer and foster opportunity for its members to pray together and for one another often is not a true church. For a true church prays constantly to take advantage of every moment spent in communion with her Lord.
To sum up the importance and place of prayer, let me quote briefly from the writings of Leonard Ravenhill, a man who prayed. He wrote,
No man is greater than his prayer life. The pastor who is not praying is playing; the people who are not praying are straying. Poverty stricken as the church is today, she is most stricken here, in the place of prayer. We have many organizers, but few agonizers; many players and payers, few pray-ers; many singers, few clingers; lots of pastors, few wrestlers; many fears, few tears; much fashion, little passion; many interferers, few intercessors; many writers, but few fighters. Failing here, we fail everywhere. In the matter of New Testament, Spirit-inspired, hell-shaking, world-breaking prayer, never has so much been left by so many to so few. For this kind of prayer there is no substitute. We do it – or die. (taken from Why Revival Tarries, chapter 2).
The Third Mark of a Healthy Church: Love for Christ and His Church are Demonstrated
1 Peter 1:22 – “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart,”
John 13:35 – “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This third mark is often misunderstood. Many people in churches today are more than willing to say that they love Christ and that they love one another. However, when the Bible talks about love it is often a very different quality than what we think of when we talk about love.
We think about an emotion. It comes and goes. You may fall in love, love chocolate, love your new house, love your children, and you might even fall “out” of love. We have allowed love to become an ever-changing warm fuzzy feeling when in reality love is a decision of the will! That’s right. Biblical love is a choice.
When I say Biblical love I am specifically speaking of love as translated from the Greek word agape. There are other Greek words used in the Bible and other ancient literature that are also translated “love,” but I am not referring to any of them. The word phileo for instance refers to family love, as between brothers and sisters. The word storge also refers to familiar love, or affection. A better translation would be the word “like” instead of love. And the word eros refers to physical love and is often confused with sexual lust!
But agape is different. It is unconditional love. Always desiring and thinking the best for the one you love. This is how God loves us and it is how He expects us to love Him and each other. To define this love appropriately let us look at the “love chapter” in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13. There we learn the following:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.(1 Cor. 13:4-8)
According to this inspired text, true love is patient, suffering long if necessary. Love is kind and gentle, always! It is not envious or jealous. It does not parade itself as a public spectacle of pride. Love is not full of itself and puffed up. It never behaves rudely and never seeks its own way. Love cannot be provoked and will not think evil! It does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. Love also bears up under all things, believes the best, hopes always, and endures any situation, encounter, or treatment! That is love. True love never fails.
We are to love one another in the body of Christ. If there is pride, arguments, fightings, and rivalries – there is not love. If there is evil speaking, backbiting, gossip, and slander – there is not love. If there is rudeness and envy – there is not love. And remember that love is a choice of the will. We decide to love one another. Often in Scripture we are even told that in the church a proof of love is our willingness to put up with each other!
Christ said we would be known for our love for each other. The New Testament church was known for the way they loved each other. Is your church known for the way the members love and care for each other?
Above all, we are to love Jesus! And it is not an easy thing to live up to exactly what that means. When we talk about loving God, often we think that it is a normal thing to love God. How many people would answer the question with a “No” if they were asked if they loved God?
But loving God means some very specific things to Him! He says in His Word that to love Him is to obey Him! That’s exactly what it means to love God. If we dare say that we love God and then live in blatant disregard of His Word, we have proved with our behavior that we certainly do NOT love God! Many people stop here and say that surely I cannot seriously believe that to love God means to obey Him. But listen to what He has to say for Himself about what it means to love Him and love His church. Jesus said in John 14:15,
If you love Me, keep My commands.
And John also wrote in 1 John 2:3-5 and 5:3-4,
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world.
If we really do know and love Jesus Christ, then we will obey Him and love each other. If we think His commands are burdensome and hard to keep then we are not loving Him. If the church attempts to carry out its mission without loving and therefore obeying His Word then that church is not a sound church and it will ultimately fail!
All of the Scriptures are summed up, Jesus said, in two commandments. Love God with everything you are. And love everyone else just as you love yourself. He came to give us the power to do just that. To obey Him and love Him and each other in ways that were impossible for us to love before He gave us a new heart!
The Fourth Mark of a Healthy Church: The Word of God is Faithfully Preached, Taught, and Heard
Acts 6:4 – “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Acts 13:44 – “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God.”
Romans 10:17 – “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17″All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 4:2 – “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.”
In these times when “easy believism” and the prosperity gospel dominate most of the preaching people are exposed to, it is very important to understand that for a church to be a sound church the Word of God must be faithfully and consistently preached, taught, and heard. Pastors are responsible before God for what they preach every Sunday. That frightens me. Many pastors in today’s church will be held accountable for leading people astray and for tickling itching ears instead of sounding forth the Word of Truth.
The preaching of the Word must be central to our worship. We must have the Word preached to us and we must HEAR the Word. By hear, I do not mean listen to, I mean obey! We are commanded to hear and do (James 1:22-25). And the Word preached must be preached fully and faithfully. There is no place in the pulpit for the preaching of psychology, preaching to meet “felt needs,” preaching to further a political agenda, or preaching to sooth sin sick consciences.
The preaching must be faithful to the Word, faithful to God, and faithful to the congregation, even if it means hearing something we don’t want to hear. How often were the prophets in the Old Testament voted most popular? Often they were run out of town or killed because they told people the truth!
Why is it so important that the Word preached is necessary for a church to be a sound church? First, because through preaching God has ordained the spread of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:21). Secondly, the Word is the only thing on this earth that can affect salvation and sanctification in the lives of believers! (Romans 1:16; 10:17; Col. 2:6)
Read Psalm 19:7-14. It tells us:
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them Your servant is warned, And in keeping them there is great reward. Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, And I shall be innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer.
We must have a proper view of Scripture, believing it to be inspired and infallible. And in preaching the Word, we must preach it fully and faithfully. According to this text in Psalms we can understand exactly why the Word of God is central to the nature of the church we attend. If the church devalues Scripture and down plays the flood of liberalism, placing scientific theory above revealed truth, then that church is a synagogue of Satan. The Word of God is our authority. It is the only rule we have for faith and practice. This one section of Scripture teaches us the following about the Word of God:
1. The Law (doctrine, teaching) of the Lord is perfect (unimpaired, spotless) converting the soul (to restore, to revive, to bring life to the soul).
2. The Testimony (Ten Commandments, God’s witness of Himself to us) of the Lord is sure (incontestable and reliable) making the simple wise (teaching wisdom to those who have no discernment).
3. The Statutes (precepts, orders) of the Lord are right (straight) rejoicing the heart (causing true joy).
4. The Commandment (code of order) of the Lord is pure (clear and clarifying) enlightening the eyes (illuminating the whole condition and perspective).
5. The Fear (reverent obedience) of the Lord is clean (morally clean and purifying) enduring forever (to abide with divine existence).
6. The Judgments (unchangeable legal decisions) of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (spoken as truth, firm, and inclusively just).
7. By His Judgments we are warned (to shine a light on danger) of our duty, danger, and remedy.
8. There is great reward (multiplied thousands of good consequences and gain) in keeping them.
If all this is true of the Word of God, then why would we preach anything else? That is easy to answer. Because we are sinful. We would rather hear false doctrine to sooth our emotions and build up our self-esteem! We would rather hear lies than truth as long as the lies sound good and convince us that we are good, too! We naturally hate God and His Word. And it is no wonder when so many church members today are not even genuinely saved in the first place that they do not want pastors who preach the Word. The Word brings conviction of sin and it is a mirror that reveals our true nature before God! It demands a change of heart and a daily renewal!
The Word of God must be preached, taught, heard, and obeyed – or there is no soundness in the church!
The Fifth Mark of a Healthy Church: The Ordinances of Baptism and Communion are Administered
Acts 2:42 – “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
Matthew 28:19 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
A healthy, properly functioning church will observe often the ordinances that Christ initiated and left as a sign of His death and resurrection. It is absolutely necessary that a church observe faithful and rightly these two ordinances.
The first is the ordinance of Baptism. In the original Biblical text, the word meant to dip or immerse in water. It is necessary to be obedient to the Lord that we baptize those who profess faith in Him. Baptism, though, while having no active part in our salvation is a direct proof of our obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
He said that we are to baptize those we disciple. We are to go and baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This way the new convert is obedient to our Lord’s first command. And this way they give a living testimony to the change that has taken place in their lives through the grace of God.
Baptism is a vivid sign, an outward symbol of an inner truth. When a person is baptized they are saying with their actions that they have died with Christ and been raised with Him to a new life. We are “buried” under the water and “resurrected” as we are brought up out of the water. Signifying the death of the old self and the new birth and new life of the inner man (Romans 6).
This ordinance is to be administered by ministers of the church to those who have professed faith in Christ. It is to be performed in the Name of the Father (Who of His own free will and by His sovereign grace saved us), the Son (Who lived a perfect and sinless life and died in our place, thus giving us His righteousness while taking away our sin and its penalty and then was resurrected from the dead giving us victory over death and life everlasting in His presence), and the Holy Spirit (Who convicts us of sin and regenerates us by the Word of God preached and heard, going on then to serve as the seal of our salvation and our Helper and Comforter forever).
The Lord’s Supper, or Communion as it is commonly known, is the fulfillment of the Passover Feast. We follow His example, in that on the night He was betrayed, He participated in the last legitimate Old Covenant Passover feast with His disciples. He took the unleavened (free from yeast which was a sign in the Bible of sin) bread and the wine (also free from yeast, the sign of sin, signifying His sinlessness) and gave it to the disciples to eat in commemoration of the sacrifice He was about to make of Himself as the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world.
When He had taken the bread and given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And then later in the supper he also took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” Paul adds that as often as we commemorate His death with this meal, we proclaim His death until He returns (1 Cor. 11:24, 25, 26).
The bread is symbolic for us of His body, perfect and sinless, yet broken and put to death as an atoning sacrifice. The wine is a sign of His blood, shed for the remission of our sins. And as we eat and drink, we are told to remember Him and the price He paid to redeem us.
Paul also lets us know in 1 Corinthians 11 that this commemorative meal is to be used always as an occasion for self-examination. We are to use the Lord’s Supper not only to remember His death, but also as a time to allow the Spirit of God to convict us of sin and prepare us for worship. This offers us the opportunity to make absolutely sure that we have all things right with God and between our brothers and sisters in Christ! It is indeed a time for reflection and a time not to be entered into lightly.
It is also a meal that is to be celebrated often within the church! The New Testament found the young church celebrating this Supper sometimes DAILY! Can we really celebrate the Lord’s death and victory over sin and the grave too often? Why relegate it to once every few weeks, months, or only at special times? It is to be observed often. The examination is to be thorough. And the results are wonderful communion with the Lord and the opportunity to bless others by proclaiming His death until He comes again.
The Sixth Mark of a Healthy Church: Discipline of the Membership is Biblically Administered
1 Corinthians 5:10-13 – Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.
Matthew 18:15-17 – Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
A sound church is striving to be a pure church. Does that mean that a sound church will be without sin or impurity? No. But it does mean that a sound church is faithful to practice discipline and thus protect the membership from the influence of sin and the infiltration of false doctrine.
It is the responsibility of the church leaders to protect the flock just as it is the charge of the members to watch over one another. That is what it means to love! And the church leadership is ultimately responsible before God for the membership and its spiritual condition! They will give account directly to God for those He has put in their care.
The proper form for this discipline is laid out for us in the Scriptures. The Bible tells us:
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Galatians 6:1-3
The process of discipline given in these texts tell us that it is the responsibility of those in the church to care for one another by being willing to admonish and confront, in absolute love, any sin which is not dealt with in the life of the church! The simple steps are as follows :
If any member of the church sins:
1. He is to obey the Lord and heed his conscience by repenting and being reconciled to God and to anyone else he has sinned against (1 John 1:9; Matt. 5:23-24; James 5:16).
2. If he does not repent, he is to be reproved in private (Matt. 18:15).
3. If he still does not repent, he is to be reproved a second time with two or three witnesses who may confirm his response (Matt. 18:16).
4. If he still does not repent, the matter is to be taken before the church (Matt. 18:17).
5. If he will not listen to the church, then the church is to remove him from fellowship and membership (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:12-13).
The whole process is to be carried out in love with the ultimate goal at all times being the restoration of a sinning member to fellowship. This is to be done with care and gentleness. And if at any point, including after removal from the church, the sinning member repents, he is to be immediately restored to fellowship. We are to “forgive and comfort” him (2 Cor. 2:7), and “reaffirm your love” for him (2 Cor. 2:8).
Church discipline is to be carried out without partiality in the case of ANY member who sins (1 Tim. 5:19-21; Gal. 2:11).
The Seventh Mark of a Healthy Church: Church Government and Leadership as Instituted by the Apostles is Established
Acts 14:23 – So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Acts 6:2-3 – Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business;
1 Timothy 3:1-13 – This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise, their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
Titus 1:5-9 – For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you– if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.
Let’s start with a few facts. Plain truth. The church is not a democracy. The majority does not always know the will of God. Actually God usually uses a small remnant to accomplish His will. And as we have already learned, He expects us to do things the way in which He ordained it to be done. So how does the Scripture tell us that the church is to be lead, or “run?”
The Bible is very clear and specific that God gives as a special gift to His church its leaders! That’s right. He gives them to each church. They are not randomly selected, or voted in and out of office by popular vote. They are not elected for a term and the replaced by a younger, fresher face. They are not chosen for their people skills or abilities. They are chosen by God based on their calling and qualifications to fill the job that He assigns to them. He gives them to the church.
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastor and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, – Ephesians 4:11-12
Those He gives were in Bible times the Apostles and Prophets. These offices were filled and no longer exist in active practice in the church today. These were men who spoke specifically for God to the nation of Israel and to the church, sharing direct revelation from the mouth of God.
An Apostle (the word means “one sent on a mission”) were chosen by Christ, physically saw Him after the resurrection (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor 15:7), numbered 12 in total (Rev 21:14) including the Disciples (Matthew 10:2-3), with Paul (1 Cor 9:1) replacing Judas. Apostles served these three purposes in the church:
1. Laid the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20)
2. Received, Wrote, and Declared God’s Word (Eph 3:5; Acts 11:28; 21:10-11)
3. Confirmed the Word by miracles and signs (2 Cor 12:12; Acts 8:6-7; Heb 2:3-4)
Prophets also comprise the foundation of the church, along with the Apostles, and Jesus, Who is the Cornerstone. They served both in the Old and New Testament (Hebrews 1:1-2), called by God (Jeremiah 1:5, etc) and given direct revelation of truth by His Spirit to convey to His people and to others (Jeremiah 7:25). Prophets often foretold future events and were judged by a strict criteria. If a prophet gave one false prophecy then he was branded a false prophet and was never to be trusted (Deut 18:21-22). In the New Testament church prophets were to have what they preached tested by the Apostles (1 Cor 14:32) and proclaimed truth from the Old Testament in order to aid the church in spiritual growth.
Those He gave then and now continue to be evangelists and pastor-teachers. Evangelists are called and tasked specifically with preaching the gospel to those in need of conversion (Acts 21:8). While pastors are to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5), there is also the sense in which this is a separate calling and office within the church. This would be seen today as missionaries and church planters.
Pastor-teachers (the word pastor literally means “shepherd”) are responsible to lead the church in preaching and teaching, applying proper doctrine and exhortation to equip the saints for the carrying out of the ministry in their own daily lives.
Another term for these leaders is “elder.” Those who are called in the Bible elders, bishops, or overseers are those men who are called and qualified to serve as loving shepherds in His church. Christ is Lord of the church and He rules with authority through godly elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Hebrews 13:7; Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-2).
The elders and the body itself are aided by deacons, literally “servants” or to be more specific, “table waiters.” The deacons serve the body in whatever ways are needed. Distributing to the poor and needy those resources given through the church, taking care of widows and orphans, and freeing the elders for the works of prayer and preaching. This is not a position of authority or leadership, but a position of humble service to the church. There is no specific or official responsibility listed in the Scriptures for the deacon to carry out but we are told that they are to do whatever tasks the elders assign them to do in aiding them in the ministry of the church (1 Timothy 3:8-13; Acts 6:1-4).
In summary I would like to share a brief Scriptural look at these offices of leadership and service within the church. A church must these offices functioning according to the Scriptures if they are to be in any way sound in their doctrine and church life.
In explaining the purpose, function, and duty of elders and deacons we will see that there are rigorous requirements and qualifications for those who would be appointed to lead and serve the Body of Christ. The elders (pastors, overseer) and deacons (servants) both serve distinct purposes, though the qualifications are closely matched. The elders are given one additional requirement in that they are to be “able to teach.”
Scriptural Terms for the Elders – 1 Peter 5:1-2; Acts 20:17, 28; Ephesians 4:11
1. Episkopas – translated “bishop” in most Bibles, the word means an “overseer, guardian, decision maker, or manager.”
a. 1 Peter 2:25 – Christ is the “overseer” of our souls
b. Philippians 1:1 – the leaders of the church at Philippi are called “bishops”
c. 1 Timothy 3:1 – The position of “bishop” is a good one to be desired by qualified men
d. 1 Timothy 3:2 – A “bishop” must meet qualifications listed in vs. 2-7
e. Acts 20:28 – told to shepherd the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made them “overseers”
In Romans and Greek usage culturally, the “overseer” (episkopas) was an authority figure representing Caesar in a conquered territory (Pontius Pilate was the Roman episkopas in Jerusalem). The term signified the person’s authority, their accountability to a higher authority above them, and their task of introducing a new order of life to a conquered people.
2. Presbuteros – translated “elders” it means one who is older or mature. It also refers to a “council of elders” (plural).
a. Acts 14:23 – a new church is planted by appointing elders
b. Acts 20:17 – Paul sent for the elders at the church in Ephesus
c. 1 Peter 1:1; 5:1-2 – the churches scattered over Asia had elders
Biblically, the elders (plural) “rule” the church by unanimous decision led by the Spirit and guided by the Word of God. (1 Cor 1:10; Eph 4:3; Phil 1:27; Phil 2:2).
3. Poimen – translated “pastor” , the word means shepherd, one who cares for, protects, and leads.
a. Hebrews 13:20-21 – Christ is our shepherd
b. 1 Timothy 5:17 – the labor of shepherding refers to effort, not amount
c. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 – They must be qualified men
d. Titus 1:6-9 – Restatement of qualifications
e. Ephesians 4:11 – they are given by Christ to His Church
The imagery of shepherding is used throughout Scripture to indicate the role of a caretaker. The shepherd is responsible for the health and well being of the flock. He provides both protection from harmful foods, situations, and from predators.
In examining these terms then we see that they do describe one man in one office, that of a pastor-teacher. The term elder refers to who the man is (his identity as mature in the faith), the term overseer refers to what he does (his job as manager), and the term pastor refers to his heart as he does the job (his character as a shepherd)!
Scriptural Terms for Deacons – Acts 6:1-7; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13
1. Deaconien Trapedzais – translated “table waiters” in Acts 6:2
The Apostles were finding their time consumed with the demands of those needing to be ministered to by the church, but they saw as their calling to be about the ministry of the Word and prayer, so they oversaw the appointment of these first servants of the church. They were to assist in the everyday operations of ministry, especially in the area of provision of basic needs for widows and others in the church.
“The deacons (lit. servants), submitting to the rulership of the elders, serve the local church in order to free up the elders to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-6). Their delegated duties can include caring for the church finances (1Tim.3:8), ministering to the physical needs of the church (Acts 6:1-6), and assisting in areas of church administration (1Tim.3:12).”
2. Diakonous – translated “deacon” the word literally means “servant.”
a. Philippians 1:1 – they were identified with the elders as representatives of the local church.
b. 1 Timothy 3:8-10, 12-13 – the qualifications for deacons are given.
The deacon is a servant of the body assisting in ministry as directed by the elders.
3. Gunaikas – translated “women”, this word in 1 Timothy 3:11 refers to women who are to serve as deaconesses within the body.
Some translations see this as the “wives” of deacons, but there are no requirements for elders wives given and in the Greek text the use of the word “likewise” suggests an introduction to another group of servants, distinct from the men. The qualifications for these deaconesses are given in 1 Timothy 3:11. It should also be noted that Phoebe is referred to in Romans 16:1 as a “deaconess” in a church near Corinth.
A Summary of the Purposes of a Sound Church
1 Corinthians 10:31 – Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
In answer to a question about the purpose of the church, an ordination candidate from our church wrote that the “purpose(s) of the church can be understood as the immediate, intermediate, and ultimate purposes that follow”:
The immediate purpose of the church is to evangelize the lost. The intermediate purpose of the church is to stimulate one another to love and obedience. The ultimate purpose of the church is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Evangelism is not inviting someone to Mainstream Fellowship Church in order to get them into an environment where the talented pastor may elicit from them an emotional response for Christ. Telling people the truth about themselves (Rom. 3:20,23; 5:12), the truth about God (Isa. 53:4; 1Tim. 1:15; Heb. 2:2-3; 12:29; 1Pet. 3:18), and the reason for the hope that is evident within you with gentleness and reverence (1Pet. 3:15, Heb. 6:17-20; Titus 2:13-14) is evangelism. Living your life in a manner that evidences the power of God in obedience to Christ is evangelism (Mat. 5:14-16; 1Cor. 2:3-5; 1Pet. 3:1-2,16). Communicating God’s message of mercy to sinners by virtue of the atonement of Christ is evangelism (1Cor. 2:1-2). Secondly, the verse that often gets left out of the great commission is verse 20; after baptizing them, we are to be “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mat. 28:20).
The intermediate purpose of the church is to teach and rouse one another to love and obey God. This involves teaching, learning, sharing, and fellowship. The early church was “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship” (Acts 2:42). Hebrews exhorts us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23-25). We are to meet not only the spiritual needs but also the physical needs of the church (1John 3:17; 2Cor. 8:3-4, 13-15; 9:12; 1Cor. 16:1-3; Acts 11:29-30; Rom. 15:25-26). We are to use our spiritual gifts to equip one another and build up the church (Eph. 4:12), and we are to admonish and teach every man with all wisdom “that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). We are to nurture one another to maturity. One day, there will be no more lost people to evangelize and no more immature Christians to teach, admonish, disciple, and nurture. We will all be glorified; “we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2).
The ultimate purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This purpose of the church began at creation and will never end. We are to live “to the praise of His glory” (Eph.1:12). We are always to be rendering a proper opinion of God. Our worship is to be reverential, sincere, and pure. Jesus taught that “the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). We assemble together to worship Him, praise Him, sing to Him, and pray to Him. The church is commanded to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Similarly, the church is commanded to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:18-19). We are to meet with God in corporate prayer. The early church was continually devoting themselves “to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
“The immediate, intermediate, and ultimate purposes of the church are all commanded by the Lord in Scripture; no church should stress one to the neglect of another.”
Finally, allow me to finish by saying that in order to carry out its purpose, a church must have the Seven Marks of a Sound Church as laid forth in these devotions. Without these Seven Marks, a group may call itself a church, but it is not recognized as a sound and healthy church by the Word of God or by God Himself. Likewise, if we find these marks missing or neglected in the church we attend, we should sound forth the call for reformation and repentance. If that call is not followed by a spirit of revival and renewal, where these Marks are once again present and active in the church, then we should obey the command to flee such an unholy place. Come out from among them and find a church where Jesus is obeyed as Lord.
No matter the size, location, demographics, budget, building, or activities, the only requirements given for a Biblical church are that:
1. God is worshipped in spirit and truth
2. Prayer is central
3. Love for Christ and the brethren is demonstrated
4. The Word of God is faithfully preached, taught, and heard
5. The ordinances of Baptism and Communion are administered
6. Discipline of the membership is Biblically administered and
7. Church government and leadership as instituted by the Apostles is established.
Then, and only then, your church is a sound church and God is glorified by your obedient participation in its various ministries and outreach as a faithful member!