Second is the question on how do define the “true gospel” as well as what constitutes the proper exercise of the sacraments. On the issue of the true gospel the Church has historically responded with creedal statements that define true Christian faith and expose false expressions of that faith. Although many ignore or even disparage creeds, in fact they begin in the Scriptures themselves. Paul gave us this creedal statement,
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. 1 Timothy 3:16, ESV
From this Scriptural origin, creeds continued to manifest themselves as needed, especially in the face of error. Perhaps the most famous are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. The Presbyterian Church subscribes to these ancient creeds and in doing so demonstrates that it is a part of the larger and historic Christian Church. As indicated earlier, the Westminster Confession of Faith is the most recent creed in the long history of doctrinal statements to which the Presbyterian Church embraces.
Those churches that subscribe to creeds are known as creedal churches. Those churches that do not subscribe to creeds cannot readily be identified as true churches embracing the historic doctrines of the Christian Church. As such, it is often not certain that they meet the criteria of point one above or not.
In addressing the second point, the sacraments, a unique situation develops. Although all true Christians baptize and take the Lord’s Supper, one group, the immersionists, have concluded that if the candidate for baptism and the mode of baptism are different than what they have come to embrace, then this baptism is not a true Christian baptism. That being the case, a person entering one of their churches that has failed to meet one of these criteria, although a member in good standing of another Christian church, must be re-baptized, or more accurately, to partake of what they consider to be a “true Christian baptism,” or they cannot be admitted as a member. Practically speaking, this position declares all churches that practice pouring or sprinkling in baptism to be outside the pale of a true Christian church. Although the immersionists of previous generations were adamant on this point, in more recent times greater charity has been shown to those that disagree with them on this point. Interestingly, since the founding of the Church about 90% of all those who have identified themselves as Christians have received baptism by pouring or sprinkling. Immersion is truly the minority report on this subject.
To the two marks of a true church mentioned above, John “Knox added ecclesiastical discipline as a third mark.” Church discipline demands the involvement of the representatives of the Church in the life of a member who is struggling with issues of holy living. And as Paul clarifies in I Corinthians 5:1-5, at times it becomes necessary to put some out of the Church. This is done for the purity of the Church as well as to dissociate the name of Jesus with recalcitrant and unrepentant sin. However, this mark of a true church has not been embraced in recent years by many churches.
From the first two marks of a true church mentioned above, the Presbyterian Church is readily identified as a true Church. It preaches a true gospel and it faithfully practices the sacraments of Jesus Christ. Indeed, many are faithful in Church discipline as well.
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In the Presbyterian church and historically, there have been two reoccurring answers to this question and are known as marks of a true church. First, a true church is a community of believers meeting for the purpose of hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ rightly taught by its ministers. And second, a true church properly administers the sacraments introduced by Jesus-Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Several things can be said about this description.
First, this definition of a Church does not limit itself to Presbyterian churches but recognizes the universal character of the visible church across the globe and for all times. Presbyterians do not believe that they are “the” Church, as do some denominations, but understand that there is a universal Church composed of believers from every age and many denominational backgrounds.
The Marks of a Church
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