When speaking of the church, it is helpful to distinguish between the universal and the local church. The universal church is all God’s people in all times and places. Someone becomes a member of the universal church by virtue of being a Christian. Local churches are smaller gatherings of the universal church where Christians assemble as God’s people. In fact, the word for church in the Greek New Testament (ekklesia) means “gathering,” “meeting,” or “assembly.”
Throughout the centuries, church leaders have characterized the church according to four marks. The church is (1) one, unified by the confession and shared life of Christ through the Spirit. The church is (2) holy by its Christlike character, not just by what it doesn’t do through religiously obeying rules, but by actually living out new life modeled after Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power. The church is (3) catholic (universal); the church and its gospel have no limits in time or space because Jesus is Lord of all people, not just a people. The church is (4) apostolic as it lives under apostolic authority, following the faith and life of the apostles given to us in the Bible. In addition to these marks, the Reformers added the marks of 5) pure preaching of the Word, (6) right administration of the sacraments, and (7) discipline.
While good, we believe that even these seven marks are not quite sufficient to capture the thoroughness of the biblical definition of the church. They omit both the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor and the Great Commission to take the gospel to the whole world.
If we follow the definition of church summarized from Acts 2, we can identify eight key characteristics of the local church.
1) The church is made up of regenerated believers.1 The Spirit dwells in them and has given them new hearts. The church is a fellowship of true disciples who are devoted to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,2 and to attending meetings together and fellowshiping in their homes with glad and generous hearts.3
There are unbelievers and outsiders who participate in the activity of the church and have an important place in the extended community.4 Likewise, children are welcomed into the church to be loved and served so that they would become Christians with saving faith and later become church members. But the church itself, the body of Christ, is made up of confessing believers who are justified by faith and made new by the Spirit. It is a community manifesting the supernatural life of the triune God.
2) The church is organized under qualified and competent leadership. In Acts 2 we see them exercising their unique role of teaching the whole church.5 They led the congregation in wise decision making about a potentially divisive problem.6 They sent Peter and John to Samaria to confirm the authenticity of the evangelistic outbreak there.7 We also see the appointment of senior leaders in Acts 14:23. In the next chapter they practice their leadership in a doctrinal dispute with the party of the Pharisees in Jerusalem. The Bible also describes the leadership of servants (sometimes also called deacons which simply means servants), men and women who love God and others by serving.8
3) The church regularly gathers to hear God’s Word rightly preached and to respond in worship. The church is under the apostolic authority of Scripture. In Acts people eagerly devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles,9 not because they had to but because their regenerated hearts wanted to. They had received the Spirit, seen remarkable miracles, and witnessed an evangelistic event that was history altering. But they refused an exclusively experience-based Christianity devoid of any teaching. As disciples, they were keenly aware of their need to continually increase in their understanding of Scripture, and so they studied not just for information but also for transformation in all of their life. Therefore, the church studies Scripture to show submission to the apostolic authority of the Word of God.
In the earliest days of the New Testament church, we witness a worshiping community where believers praised God and had favor with all people.10 Worship is a response to the revelation of the Lord for who he is, what he has done, and what he will do. It consists of (1) adoration and proclamation of the greatness of the Lord and his mighty works;11 (2) action, which is serving him by living out his character in gracious service to others in obedience to the commands of Scripture; and (3) participation in the divine life and mission.12 It is both proskuneo, to fall down and kiss Jesus’ feet in an expression of one’s allegiance to and adoration for God,13 and latreia or leitourgeo, which is ministering, or doing work and service in the world in the name of Jesus.14
4) The church is where the biblical sacraments of baptism and Communion are performed regularly as visible symbols of the gospel in the life of the church.
5) The church is unified by the confession and shared life of Christ through the Holy Spirit. The unified life of the Trinity itself is manifested among God’s people who live in loving unity together as the church. This unity comes in several concrete aspects.
- Theological unity. The leaders and members of the church must agree on what they will and will not fight over. Every church must clarify what it considers to be primary, closed-handed doctrines. We would urge as primary for every church doctrines such as the Trinity as the only God and object of worship, the Scriptures as God’s perfect Word, Jesus as fully God and man born of a virgin to live without sin before dying for our sins and physically rising for our salvation, and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There are also secondary, open-handed doctrines, such as musical style, mode of Communion, schooling options for children, or belief in the rapture, which permit a range of beliefs providing they fall within the limits of biblical truth and are held with a humble and teachable spirit.
- Relational unity does not necessarily mean that everyone likes one another, but it does mean that people love one another and demonstrate it by being cordial, respectful, friendly, and kind in their interpersonal interactions.
- Philosophical unity characterizes ministry methods and style. These are house rules or ministry philosophy about how the church does things, and they are in many ways the cause of a particular and primary cultural style in a church.
- Missional unity concerns the objective of the church. Ultimately, the goal of everyone in the church must be to biblically glorify God in all they say and do, with the hope of seeing the nations meet God and also live to glorify him.
- Organizational unity is based on how things are done in the church, such as job descriptions, performance reviews, and financial policies, so that the church can be a unified good steward of the resources God has entrusted to its oversight.
6) The church pursues holiness starting with Spirit empowered self-discipline where people grow to be more like Jesus. The heart of self-discipline is discipleship. Leaders use Scripture to teach, correct, train, and equip Christians to be a holy people who continually grow in Christlikeness. When believers sin, they are supposed to confess and repent and others are to lovingly and humbly walk with them to help them grow in grace.
7) The church obeys the Great Commandment to love. The church is supposed to be a Spirit-empowered loving community that devotes itself to fellowship. God’s people live together in intentional relational community to seek the well-being of one another in every way—physical, mental, spiritual, material, and emotional. This does not mean that everyone is required to be best friends with everyone else, but it does mean that people take care of each other like extended family. The people who make up the church gather regularly15 for such things as worship, learning, the sacraments, and encouragement. But even when not gathered, the church is still the church. There is a Spirit-bond of belonging and mission that unites the believers wherever they are, in the same way that a family is still a family even when Dad is at work, Mom is at the store, and the kids are at school.
Not only does Scripture command Christians and churches to love, but it also tells us whom we are to love. First, we are to love God.16 Second, we are to love our family.17 Third, we are to conduct ourselves in such an honoring and respectful way that our church leaders find it a joy to pastor us, which is a practical way of loving them.18 Fourth, we are to love fellow Christians.19 Fifth, we are to love our neighbors even if our neighbor is a difficult person.20 Sixth, we are to love strangers.21 Seventh, we are to love even our enemies.22
8) The church obeys the Great Commission to evangelize and make disciples. The church is an evangelistic community where the gospel of Jesus is constantly made visible through its proclamation of the gospel, the witness of the members’ lives, and its Spirit-empowered life of love. From the first day, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved”23 because they took Jesus’ command seriously: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”24
The church is to be a Spirit-empowered evangelistic people on mission in the world, passionate to see lost people meet Jesus Christ as Savior, God, and Lord. Any church submitting to the Holy Spirit and obedient to Scripture wants fewer divorces, addictions, thefts, and abuses and knows the only way to see that happen is to make more disciples. The church loves people and is continually and painfully aware of the devastation that is wrought in this life and in the life to come for those who are not reconciled to God. Therefore, while not imposing religion on anyone, the church of Jesus Christ is to constantly be proposing reconciliation with God to everyone.25
As local churches implement these characteristics of the church, it is vital that the distinction between principle and method be retained. These eight characteristics give us timeless biblical principles that are unchanging regardless of culture. Nevertheless, they also require church leaders to use timely biblical methods that are changing depending upon culture. This is the essence of what it means to be a missional church that contextualizes its ministry. Paul demonstrated this by not changing his doctrine or principles but often changing his methods, depending upon his audience. Paul explains missional contextualization in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23. Practically, this means, for example, that it is fine for churches to meet in different kinds of buildings or outside under a tree, have services that take an hour or a whole day, and sing different songs with different instrumentation (if any), as is most fitting for each one’s specific cultural context.
We know the church is imperfect and led by imperfect people like us. But, the gospel of Jesus Christ through the ministry of the church is the hope of the world. And as these eight characteristics of the church are pursued by grace, we trust that the glory of God the Father will be made visible through lives changed by Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Is there anything more you could be doing to encourage unity in your local church?