And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Mat 16:18 ESV)
As an under-shepherd, I love the church: big churches, little churches and everything in between. And Jesus promised that His church will withstand the gates of hell. But what is the church? As Gregg Allison in Sojourners and Strangers notes the church is:
…the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Allison continues to make the distinction between the universal church and the local church. The universal church is all of the people of God saved in Christ, from Pentecost (the birth of the church) to the second coming of Christ when God brings judgment to earth, ultimately bringing heaven to earth in future glory. The universal church includes all of the people of God in the past, present, and future: saints who have died, who are living, and who are yet to be born, all of God’s elect in Christ. St. Augustine noted that the universal church is mostly invisible; in other works, it’s hard to put a finger on it.
In contrast, there is the local church; you can point to the local church. You can point your finger on it. The local church is mostly visible, though there are invisible characteristics to it. One invisible characteristic is people’s hearts, their motives. Just because a person professes outward faith in Christ does not mean that that person is a true child of God, adopted into the family of God. Jesus taught that the church is made up of false (tares) and true (wheat) believers, making it difficult to tell the difference at times. However, a local congregation does have two visible marks, characteristics which tell us if it’s true or false. In the Reformed tradition, the marks of a true church are if the Word of God is purely preached, and the second is if the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are employed correctly. So, for example, if a pastor from the pulpit continually preaches that Jesus was just a good man, not the divine Son of God, then such a church is a false church. If a believer finds him or herself in a false church, then she or he must leave. Notice, I did not say that if a believer finds him or herself in a false or apostate denomination, but a false church. A denomination (like PCUSA or United Methodist or the Southern Baptist Association, or like the Assembly of God, etc.) is not a church. Denominations are connectional associations from one degree or another, but not a church. A church is a local body, within the larger, church universal.
Jesus said that, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” What He means is that His church will survive, even death and dying, i.e., tribulation and termination. That means the universal church will survive; the church will not be snuffed out!! However, local churches do die. For example, the local church which St. Paul addressed in Corinth is no longer around. Local churches close down all the time. Why? Well churches can get sick just like people get sick. Also like people many times a church can be deathly sick, but look well and vibrant on the outside. Just as there are marks of a true, local church there are marks of a healthy church.
So, what are the marks of a healthy church? Mark Dever insightfully notes “9 Marks” of a healthy church. These marks are: expositional preaching, biblical theology, a biblical understanding of the gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of church membership, a biblical understanding of church discipline, a biblical understanding of church discipleship and growth, and a biblical understanding of church leadership.
No church perfectly demonstrates these 9 health marks, but my hope is that the people of God will continue to get healthier and healthier and healthier as our Lord continues to build us up so that we can continue to withstand the gates of hell!
Soli Deo Gloria