What makes a church a church?

What is a church? Probably our first response is to say the place we go each Sunday! But what makes the place to which we go each Lord's Day a church? Is it just the sign above the door? Or is it the day that makes the place; is it a church because we go there on the Lord's Day?

Now, I do know that the Church is a people not a place, but telling me that 'We are the church' is not going to answer my question, for such a response is a confusion of categories. Indeed, we are the Church, but I'm asking about a church, not the Church. Capital letters and small letters make a difference! In theology typically a distinction is made between the invisible church and the visible church, between the church triumphant and the church militant, and between the church universal and the church local (NB these are three different distinctions!). The latter, in Apostolic terms, is the difference between the Body of Christ and the assembly. Yes, both the body of Christ and the assembly, the Church and the local church, are made up of people rather than buildings, but identifying what is an assembly, and what is not, requires us to say more than that 'we are the church'.

Some people take the stress on the church being people and not buildings to extremes. Thus from time to time I encounter comments as 'we are members of the church, the Body of Christ', which seems to be code for saying 'we are not subject to the decisions of the Anderlecht presytery', or 'we don't feel the need to regularly attend the Anderlecht assembly, but expect to be treated as members nonetheless'. I have even encountered those who go to the extreme of being part of no local assembly whatsoever, but going round different ones each week (often with a 'message' to deliver). Thus confusing the Body of Christ and the local assembly can lead to problems (we theologians don't just make distinctions for the sake of it!).

So, we return to the question at hand: what makes a church a church?
Well, not surprisingly this question has been answered before. After all, it is an important question. However, the question has been answered in different ways. So which is the correct response?

Millard Erikson comes closest to giving a definition when he writes:'The church is to be a fellowship of regenerate believers who display the spiritual qualities of their Lord. Purity and devotion are to be emphasized.' (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 1059). In this he would appear to speak for a large segment of the evangelical world. Yet, such a definition doesn't seem to be enough. When I was at university I was a member of CICCU (the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union). CICCU is a group of Christian students who meet each week in their colleges and university-wide. I could very well write that CICCU 'is to be a fellowship of regenerate believers who display the spiritual qualities of their Lord. Purity and devotion are to be emphasized.' Yet no one would claim that CICCU is a church. Come the Lord's Day morning and you will find CICCU members spread among Cambridge's many evangelical churches. What makes my assembly a church and CICCU not a church?

The Reformers were more precise in their definition. According to the Belgic Confession (to give an example of Reformed thought):
We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church-- for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of "the church."
We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.
But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves "the church."
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: 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. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church-- and no one ought to be separated from it.
Just to make sure that we understand properly, the Belgic Confession goes on to give the marks of a false church:
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 men, 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.

These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.
(Both quotations are from Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.)

Thus, for the Reformers, the marks of the true church were:
  1. The pure preaching of the Gospel
  2. The pure administration of the Sacraments
  3. The exercise of church discipline
If 'a fellowship of regenerate believers who display the spiritual qualities of their Lord' do not display these three marks they are not a church. E.g. CICCU does not administer the sacraments, nor exercise church discipline, therefore CICCU is not a church (which everyone already knows).

But, I hear you say, such a definition is nearly 500 years old, and it belongs to the Presbyterians and the Reformed Churches. Yes, it is old, but who said newer was better. The gospel is older still. And, yes, Apostolics and other Pentecostals do not subscribe to the Belgic Confession, but that doesn't mean we necessarily disagree with it on this point.

For an apostolic definition, let us turn to our own catechism.

How is the Church on earth known?
It was known after Pentecost as the body of people who continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers (Acts 2:42).
(Asked & Answered: A Catechism of Apostolic Principles, 'The Church' a.6)

Here in the catechism, the Apostolic love of Sola Scriptura is seen in the theological answer being given in the form of a Bible verse. Acts 2:42 has always been considered of great importance in Apostolic ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). In this verse we see the same marks of the church as those put forward by the Reformers.
  1. Pure Preaching of the Gospel = Apostles' Doctrine
  2. Right Administration of the Sacraments = Breaking of Bread
  3. Discipline = Apostles' Fellowship
Thus we are in essential agreement as to what the marks of the true church are with the Reformers all those centuries ago.

Of course these marks by which we know a true church have important implications. For assemblies, obviously, this means that each of the three marks must be in place in order to be a true church. (The same goes for denominations). The gospel much be preached purely. The sacraments must be properly administered, and church discipline must be duly exercised.

For church members, this means that we must heed the pure preaching of the Gospel; we must attended the breaking of bread meeting and properly receive the sacraments (furthermore, we mustn't treat baptism as optional or something to be put off for later); and we must submit to, and approve of, proper church discipline.

So, what makes a church a church?
  1. The pure preaching of the Gospel
  2. The pure administration of the Sacraments
  3. The exercise of church discipline

No less will do!