All Christians who have believed in God and His message constitute the Body of Christ, the Church (From gr. ekklesia, which means assembly), that it is universal and invisible. However, although believers are united in Christ with one faith, the members of this Body also share different social-cultural backgrounds and have a diverse thought about how the Christian life should be, among other aspects. This is the visible church. Thus, while one can find a particular congregation that emphasizes the role of worship in the community of faith, one also finds another congregation that believes that a social gospel is what modern society needs.
Since the very first moment of the creation, one appreciates that God’s work was not a selfish act, but an act full of generosity —God wanted to have an intimate communion between Him and humankind. This was later revealed in the New Testament when the Scriptures says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28, NIV) Hence, when the first human beings were created, God started the process of creating a close relationship with them, even that relationship would be later broken by sin. Through Christ, God reestablished what it was broken, and believers not only connect now with God but also they take part in his mission on earth — being one in Christ in a community of faith in order to promote the Kingdom of God. And that community of faith is the church. God has given the church to us so that every Christian can have a communion with Him, and may participate in the benefits of Christ’s fulfillment of the Law (the Old Covenant), who is also the mediator of the New Covenant between God and his people.
In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Old Testament speaks of this new covenant in the following terms:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
Hence, one benefit of this New Covenant is the union with Christ. Believers are bound to Christ by the Holy Spirit to enjoy the benefits of salvation from Christ. This union with Christ then enables them to be obedient and to be in active participation in the church.
Now how to recognize the true church?
In order to recognize the truth church, one should look for its three marks or notes: the preaching of the Word, the good administration of the sacraments, and church discipline. The Belgic Confession affirms that 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 (Article 29, Belgic Confession).
Besides the three notes of the true Church established in our Reformed Church standards, I consider discipleship is an innermost character to also identify the true church. Since all who follow Christ forms the church, discipleship is a “note or mark ” one cannot forget of the Church as Body of Christ on earth. I understand discipleship as both a process where someone receives the basis of the Christian faith and put it into practice, acting, following, and sharing proactively the good news of the Gospels. The true church should be recognized by its willingness to reflect Christ in word and deed. For instance, in Pat Taylor Ellison’s Dwelling in the Word, the author explains the sad state of modern Christianity. She states,
In our work with hundreds of congregations, no matter the denomination or continent, we have been amazed at the absence of ‘God talk’ in one-on-one interviews, comparatively safe encounters, even when an interview question asks where God is present in congregational life. In one large set of interviews in which over 35,000 words were recorded, fewer than 90 were the words God, Jesus or Christ, or the Holy Spirit, ‘God talk’ in modern culture is extremely private. Many fear exposure and shame. (p. 84-85)
Taylor-Ellison’s words show that it is possible that a church seems to be true in appearance, but after a deeper reflection, one observes it does not follow Christ and that her lifestyle does not reflect the truth of the Gospel faithfully. Being a disciple requires one can be proactive in the Kingdom of God and his Church. From the biblical narrative, one notices that when God works in one’s life, he also expects one shares those experiences with neighbors, friends, and family, etc. It is through sharing the Word of God that others will know what the Christian life is about. Since being a Christian is a journey of learning and trust in God, discipleship is also a journey.
As God deserves praise and worship, believers should always be thankful for the redemptive work of Jesus. Christians should respond to God’s grace both privately and publicly. I believe that sharing faith is not an optional practice inside the true church, but something that one has been commanded (cf. Mark 16:15). When believers keep their faith and commitment to follow Christ publicly, not only are they obeying the Scriptures, but they are also sharing the Good News. And even more importantly, they are offering an acceptable sacrifice to God. In Francis A. Schaeffer’s True Spirituality, he affirms, “God has always intended that Christians should be the evidence, the demonstration of Christ’s victory on the cross.” (Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1972, 71) That is, believers are living examples of what God has done in their lives, and others will notice it through different ways —their actions and their words, for instance (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4). Schaeffer also states, “Christians are called upon to be a demonstration at our point of history that the supernatural, the normally unseen world, does exist; and, beyond that, that God exists. They are to do this individually and corporately, each generation of Christians to their own generation.” (Schaeffer, p. 72). Thus, the church is not only a group of people who think alike about God, but a body formed of all representatives of Christ who are faithful witnesses to the world.
Rephrasing theologian Darrel Gulder’s words, the first note of the true church “preaching of the Word” is more the teaching of God’s Word rather than the preaching of the Word one sees in the New Testament (Darrell L. Guder and Lois Barrett. Missional church: A vision for the sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998., p. 135). This is interesting! Rev. Juan Carlos Ortiz writes, “Discipleship is not a communication of knowledge or information. It is a communication of life. That’s why Jesus said, ‘The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life'” (John 6:63). Discipleship is more than getting to know what the teacher knows. It is getting to be what he is.” (Juan Carlos Ortiz, Disciple. Florida: Creation House, p. 105). Hence, the proclamation of the Word is then about sharing the Good News to everyone that Christ has brought to the world rather than teaching cognitively that Word to the people of God. And discipleship is about living out the proclamation of the Gospel and sharing it faithfully not only in word but also in deed. As seen, discipleship is a significant distinction between the true church because when the New Testament talks about the church, it refers to all people who have believed in Christ and follow him.