We hear lots of voices from different churches. Everyone is claiming to be “the one true Church.” How can we discern if we are following God’s will? Christa Petzold provides us with some biblical advice to help us understand the “marks of the Church” and discern which churches are faithfully preaching Jesus. The following has been adapted from Gathered by Christ: The Overlooked Gift of Church.
How to Identify the Church
Christ has created His Church to be a beautiful, comforting community. We know this is true, but how can we tell whether any given church we attend is part of that community? Lutheran theology outlines two “marks” of the Church—two clear signs that a congregation belongs to the Body of Christ. The Augsburg Confession, written in 1530 to articulate Lutheran theology, explains these marks of the Church:
Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere. As Paul says, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all”(Ephesians 4:5–6).
—Augsburg Confession, Article VII
The Church Teaches Pure Doctrine
The first mark is that “the Gospel is purely taught.” Irenaeus confessed this when he said that the Church throughout the whole world proclaims the Gospel message as with one mouth. The second mark of the Church is that “the Sacraments are correctly administered.” All practices within a local congregation flow from its understanding of the Word of God. When the Word of God is rightly taught, preached, and understood, then the correct understanding of the Sacraments will naturally be present as well. The content of the faith is what makes a church the Church.
In 2 Timothy, Paul instructs Timothy on the central importance of teaching the Word of God in the local congregation:
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:2–5)
These words of Paul, written to encourage a young pastor, still reassure and instruct faithful pastors today. Pastors are called to preach the Word—to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v. 2). When we sit down in church, we should expect to hear God’s Word taught in its purity—not necessarily what we want to hear but what God wants us to hear.
The Importance of the Pastor
Living in the internet age, we have seemingly unlimited access to all types of biblical teachers and resources. While these are surely a blessing, do not neglect the gift of your local pastor—a man who has a call from God to serve and teach you in the faith. When you read Christian books or listen to sermons or messages, be aware of the variations in different theological traditions. If you have questions about someone’s teachings, use your pastor as a resource and ask him about it.
Pray that God would strengthen your pastor, and all pastors, as they continue the difficult calling to teach the pure Word of God with patience.
Paul’s words also provide caution and instruction for those of us who are not pastors. We live in a time when “accumulating for ourselves teachers to suit our own passions” (see v. 3) has never been easier. We can find books, sermons, and theologians who will tell us anything we want to hear. But when we consume content that teaches about the Word of God—a book, a social media post, online sermons—we should expect it to align with the rule of faith, the same truths that have been taught by orthodox Christianity throughout history.
Churches Preach the Scripture
When literally every possible message is available to us, holding fast to the pure doctrine of the Church can feel harder than ever. The Bereans in Acts 17 provide an example of how we should approach teachers of the faith with discernment:
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went
into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were
more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.
Like the Bereans, we should examine the Scriptures to see if what we’re being taught is biblical. And the beauty of the Church is that we do this together, as Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (3:16).
Blog post adapted from Gathered by Christ: The Overlooked Gift of Church, pp. 43–46, © 2023 Christa Petzold, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
The quotation from the Lutheran Confessions in this publication is from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, second edition © 2006 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
To learn more about God’s gift of the Church, read Gathered by Christ.