In introducing and wading into this subject of “Discerning the True Church” I am quite aware I am walking in a theological mine field. I am willing to risk it because, in my opinion, of all the theological subjects considered and debated by Christians the question of the core identity of the Church is arguably one of the most important. For how a person or Christian community answers this question of discerning the true church will reveal how that person or community also answers other core theological questions. I fully expect that my readers will disagree with some or all of my arguments and conclusions (or at least say that I did not include some essential point or consideration). I am at peace with this because my purpose is to name this “Elephant in the Room” and challenge my readers to critically evaluate their own convictions and conclusions regarding the identity of the Church.
Recently, I went to my banking institution to withdraw a fairly large sum of cash. I specifically requested $100.00 bills. I usually do not have or use money of this value so I thought it was noteworthy that there are security markings on the $100.00 bills. I know why this new marking is needful—to help prevent counterfeiting of American currency from being used at businesses. The markings are unique and cannot be duplicated (at least not yet) by counterfeiters and thus they establish for me and for businesses that those bills are legal United States currency.
If a process of placing authenticating markings on United States currency is necessary how much more necessary is it for God to establish in his own Church authenticating markings? Some of you reading this are now pushing back against this assertion. I ask you to keep an open mind and to continue to read carefully. For what I have asserted above aligns with Scripture and is indeed necessary for sound doctrine and true spirituality.
There are certain characteristics that cannot be faked among God’s people because they are produced by the Holy Spirit. I am not here referring to features of organization or the inherited customs of the particular church or church tradition. Rather, these are intangible spiritual realities that are expressed through the lives of those who claim to belong to God through the Lord Jesus. To know these characteristics and identify them is needful to discerning the true Church.
The bedrock of discernment is that Truth (God himself) has created and governs the world in accord with truth. And his word written defines for us what is true—in terms of right thinking (doctrine) and conduct (righteous acts) in community. And it is the fear of the Lord that leads to wisdom and knowledge. As the Psalmist articulates,
“Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments. Those who fear you shall see me and rejoice, because I have hoped in your word. I know, O LORD, that your judgements are right, and that in faithfulness you have humbled me. Let your steadfast love become my comfort according to your promise to your servant. Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight.” (Psalm 119:73-77, NRSV)
One of the hallmarks of the true Church is a communal love for truth. This is expressed in a commitment of believers to put themselves under the authority of God’s Word and God’s Holy Spirit and to pursue a continuous step by step effort to better understand God’s revelation. To give just a few examples, this has been expressed in praise and prayer lifted up to God. It can be expressed through commitment to mutual exhortation. And it has frequently been expressed by actions to warn God’s people of false teachings and false teachers. For Scripture warn us to be aware of and not listen to false prophets and false teachers.
This warning was heeded by some of the most noteworthy figures in the history of the Church. For example, Bishop Irenaeus (130-202) wrote Against Heresies, a four volume book which described and critiqued the Gnostic groups. Athanasius (c.298-373) wrote extensively against the teaching of Arius and his followers. The leaders of the churches sought to clarify and agree on language that captured the essence of biblical teaching regarding God as Tri-unity, God’s work of salvation and the Person of Christ. The result was the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon (wonderful gifts to the Church of every generation!). Augustine (354-430) wrote extensively against the teaching of Pelagius (354-430) on “free will.” Peter the Venerable (1092-1156) researched and wrote a book on Islam, giving a thoughtful and reasoned critique of it. Martin Luther (1483-1546) publicly lodged his theological objections and called for reform regarding the practice of Indulgences and other matters of belief and practice in the Roman Catholic Church of that time.
Yet this is just the pressure point in Western culture now that we as Christians are being condemned for. For we live in a time when the very idea of believing that certain notions about God are exclusively true is increasingly viewed as a heresy by the cultural elites of Western societies. Disciples of the Lord Jesus are now being marginalized because we believe in truth and thus have chosen to stake our lives on that truth revealed in Scripture and confirmed by the Holy Spirit.
This is not, of course, a new phenomena. And there are compelling reasons to keep the faith in this culture of indifference and hostility. For example, that brilliant committed Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), in his book Orthodoxy, recorded his own winding exploration of dialogue and argument with the writers who happily mock and reject Christian Orthodoxy. He states his basic reason for accepting Christian Orthodoxy
“and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the [Christian] religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the things that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, . . . And its [modern philosophy] despair is this, that it does not really believe that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot hope to find any romance; its romances will have no plots. A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of skepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walk through a forest of doctrine and design. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 9 [cited from Collected Works, Vol. 1 (Ignatius Press:1986), pp.361-362, 363].)
To discern the true Church requires having a desire to know what is true, what is real, what is beautiful. Where this is sought with sincerity and faith there one will find the Lord Jesus. For in spite of the pervasive blindness of human pride the Lord is still present in his creation. And his voice of love rings out as he exalts his holy Name through all that he has made. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37, NRSV) The true Church, the gathering in community of God’s own people, will be known by this marker: The love of the Triune God (the Truth) and what he has revealed (the truth).