To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken.—Jer. 6.10

[Marks of the True Church, from The Original Covenanter.]

Excerpted from:

VOL. III.    SEPTEMBER, 1883.    NO. 11.

All sound divines distinguish between the visible and the invisible church; and they agree in distinguishing a true from a pure church. They also agree that on earth exists no pure or infallible church; also, that a true church may degenerate into a synagogue of Satan.

Sound divines teach that "the visible church consists of all who profess the true religion, together with their children;" and that the invisible church comprises all who have been, are, or shall be united to Christ, and these only. They agree, moreover, that the true Christian church is to be known by certain marks, notes, or characteristics; and that these are three in number, namely, sound doctrine, a legitimate ministry, and the due administration of the sacraments. By these marks the true, visible church was recognized in the early ages of Christianity, and by all real reformers from the Romish apostasy. But in recent years the phrase, "true church," has been very generally discarded, and another—thought to be better—more charitable, has been substituted, viz., "an evangelical church." This so-called evangelical church has not hitherto been accurately defined, if, indeed, susceptible of definition. "All the evangelical churches" is language now so popular as to supersede the necessity of testing them by the old Scriptural marks. The nearest attempt to define an evangelical church is in these few words: "All that hold the Head." This is too vague, for the Romish Church is tenacious in holding the Head—a church which we believe would be excluded from the category of evangelical churches by most of those who use the popular language we have quoted.

The first mark and test of a true church is sound doctrine: and it is true that holding the Head, Christ, is essential. For "whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father." 1 John 2.23. But yet in our time, as well as in the times of Arius and Socinus, there are many who freely use all the Scriptural names of the only Saviour, and still deny his supreme deity, just as did the older heresiarchs. Of course, all who refuse to "honor {325} the Son even as they honor the Father," must deny the doctrine of the Atonement, and to be consistent, reject all the other doctrines of grace. The erroneous views of Christ's person, offices, and work, are innumerable. Indeed, all the doctrines of supernatural revelation have been, and they continue to be, misrepresented or repudiated by professed disciples of Christ. Hence, the indispensable necessity of "forms of sound words," subordinate standards of faith, systems of doctrine by which to "try the spirits," in obedience to the divine injunction, 1 John 4.1.

A legitimate ministry is the second mark of a true church. "God hath set some in the church." 1 Cor. 12.28; and "no man taketh this honour unto himself." Heb. 5.4. No doubt the apostolic commission, accompanied by the promise of Christ's perpetual presence, legitimates the existence of a permanent gospel ministry; but it does not involve authority for every church member to become a teacher. "Are all Apostles?" No, nor "teachers," any more than "workers of miracles." 1 Cor. 12.29. The official teachers appointed by our Lord were of two distinct classes, extraordinary and ordinary. Of the former class were apostles, prophets, and evangelists; of the latter, pastors and teachers. Eph. 4.11. The ordinary mission [commissionating, ordination] of a standing or permanent gospel ministry is through the joint action of their predecessors in office, with fasting, prayer, and imposition of hands. Acts 13.1-4. In this way only can ministers be said to be "sent forth by the Holy Ghost," and all who "climb up some other way are thieves and robbers—through covetousness making merchandise" of their deluded followers. 2 Peter 2.3. Of all such usurpers and deceivers we are expressly forewarned. 2 Tim. 4.3,4; 2 Peter 2.1.

We admit that the Holy One of Israel is not limited by his own rules, but we are; and those regular ministers who countenance and co-operate with self-styled evangelists and revivalists, male or female, are chargeable alike with folly and criminality: with folly, in disparaging their own office; and with criminality in "strengthening the {326} hands of evil-doers." When a true church degenerates so far as to provoke the Lord to cast her off and remove her candlestick, he then uses extraordinary means, and enables his faithful children to recover their faithful guides. This he did and enabled them to do, by bringing Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others, out of apostate Rome. This extraordinary work of divine providence and grace, however, will by no means warrant to justify the irregular and extravagant pretensions of enthusiasts who claim to have had a divine [immediate] call like Saul of Tarsus. Even superior gifts will not prove a call to the work of the ministry; nor will the highest degree of intellectual culture; for many attain to this who are "the enemies of the cross of Christ." Neither will piety, of itself, fit one for the ministerial office, because a "mother in Israel" excels in godliness many or most of regular ministers. "Let your women keep silence in the churches—I suffer not a woman to teach." 1 Cor. 14.34; 1 Tim. 2.12.

The due administration of the sacraments is the third and last note of a true church. Of course, it is requisite that these be well known, that they be not confounded with Rome's "five bastard sacraments, marriage, holy orders," etc. The only signs and seals of the New Testament, or [new dispensation of the] covenant of grace, are baptism and the Lord's Supper. These, the same in substance as circumcision and the passover of the Old Testament. In reference to the proper subjects of baptism, much ignorance and error prevail. In worldly things, common sense would say that only parties to a document have right to its seals. No one becomes a party by sealing a document. He affixes his seal because he is a party to the contract. All who are members of the visible church, and none else, are the proper subjects of baptism. But who are they? This question has been already answered, viz., all who profess the true religion, and their children. The membership of the church is not constituted by baptism, as is too generally taught and believed, not only by those falsely called Baptists, but by many others. The ignorant remark may be often heard, Such a one "was baptized and—joined the church," thus reversing the order of reason and Scripture. {327} The membership of the church is supplied and perpetuated chiefly by the birth of her own offspring, as is clear, Rom. 11.16-24. There was not a new church organized by the apostles, but the old church received new members by the accession of the Gentiles, and was thus perpetuated. In these two ways the church is still continued in the world, by birth and profession. It was because the hearers of Peter's preaching gave credible evidence of repentance, etc., that the first Gentile converts were received into the church. Acts 10.46; 15.7.

There is a proverbial saying—"The blind are often bold enough." It has been often asserted that "circumcision was not a seal of the covenant of grace, but only a badge of national distinction," although Paul teaches the contrary in a variety of forms and in several of his epistles, especially in Romans and Galatians. He says explicitly that "the sign of circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith," Rom. 4.11; and calls the covenant of which it was a seal, "the gospel preached to Abraham," Gal. 3.8. Indeed we have seen the bold assertion in the writings of a Baptist of literary and theological pretensions, that, "God never had a church in the world till the time of the apostles!" He certainly did not understand the eleventh chapter of Romans, nor the testimony of the proto-martyr, Stephen, in the seventh chapter of Acts. Surely his eye had never caught these words of the thirty-eighth verse, "This is he that was in the church in the wilderness," etc., where he might have found that God had a church in the time of Moses. Oh! the blinding power of error. The exclusion of at least one-half of God's covenant children from the initiatory seal and privilege of his covenant, and so treating them as Heathens and Publicans, may render it questionable whether the other half constitute a true church.

On the other part of this mark of a true church, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and its due administration, still greater controversy and more heretical opinions prevail. Besides the corruption and the profanation of the ordinance by the idolatrous Romish mass, few Protestant churches exemplify its {328} due Scriptural administration. In this ordinance Christ is evidently (although symbolically) set forth "crucified." Gal. 3.1. In it Christ our passover is "sacrificed." 1 Cor. 5.7. The stewards and the guests at this feast are required to possess certain qualifications in order to its due administration. The Bible knows nothing of what is called "open" or "catholic communion." [communing with those of other denominations.] And even those who are bold enough to deny the substantial identity of circumcision and baptism, will hardly refuse that the Lord's Supper comes in the room of the Passover, seeing the latter is expressly called by the same name, "the feast, the passover." Among the many directions given by the Lord in the due observance of the passover, we notice the strictness of this one, "There shall no stranger eat thereof. A foreigner and a hired servant shall not eat thereof;" and still more explicitly—"No uncircumcised person shall eat thereof." Exod. 12:43,45,48. "Behold this is the law of the house" under the New Testament dispensation. Ezek. 43.12. Nevertheless, many or most Protestant and Presbyterian churches disregard these divine injunctions, to manifest their superior piety and exuberant charity, as though sinful mortals could be more charitable than the God of love and mercy. Only a few days ago, came into our hands the published answer of a Presbyterian pastor to the question, "May an unbaptized person be admitted to the Lord's Supper?" After "beating the air" by a profusion of irrelevant matter, he, at length with seeming hesitancy, answered in the affirmative! Then, to illustrate and strengthen his position, in selecting among the unbaptized, he fixed upon a Quaker. He could not deny the children's bread to pious Quakers. But where could he find the pious Quaker who would ask for the bread? Quaker piety is of such sublime and spiritual nature, feeding on ambrosial nutriment from the "light within" as to supersede such "carnal ordinances." Then the result would be that the Presbyterian's charity would in fact be a temptation to the Quaker to violate his conscience: and what sort of charity is that?

The reader may see from the foregoing remarks, that the characteristics of a true church agreed upon by reforming {329} divines, are now cast aside and very generally discarded. It may also be said that our views, as above outlined, are too strict; and to make them appear so, they will be misrepresented and caricatured. If so, we will only fare as our fathers did at the hands of time-servers. They were represented as requiring a "faultless and sinless ministry." They replied—"We seek not a sinless but a faithful ministry." So we seek not a pure, but a true church—a church that may be known by sound doctrine—a legitimate ministry, and the due administration of the sacraments. No, we do not expect a pure church on earth, for he who knoweth the end from the beginning has told us (and we believe his word reliable), that tares will be found among the good seed until the harvest, which is to be reaped by the angels. Matt. 13.26,30. But there is to be another harvest besides the final one, and also an awful reaping time, when rebellious nations shall be utterly destroyed; and, in addition, a tremendous vintage, when the clusters of the vine of the earth shall be cast into the great wine-press of the wrath of God—an apostate church. Rev. 14.15-19.

Now it was in view of this intervening harvest and vintage, together with other cognate events, trying the patience and faith of the saints, and evidently predicted, that learned and godly servants of Jesus Christ framed and fixed those landmarks of a true church. But besides those marks more general, the Scriptures contain many other more specific and distinctive characteristics of God's people, of which we notice a few. They are described as an "afflicted and poor people." Zeph. 3.12; James 2.5; Rev. 2.9; as "men wondered at," Zech. 2.8, teaching principles "hurtful to kings and provinces," Ezra 4.15, "customs not lawful to receive, neither to observe," Acts 16.21, "turning the world upside down," Acts 17.5: "a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men," 1 Cor. 4.9. These are only a sample of the traits of character by which the true church of God has been distinguished [either by God, or by her enemies] in all ages. Now where is the church of our time which answers to these Scriptural tests? The church which Christ distinguished from the "flocks of the companions" {330} as his flock, Canticles 1.7,8, he addressed in the days of his flesh thus: "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12.32. Christ's little flock, "the flock of slaughter," (Zech. 11.4) is distinguished from the companions very conspicuously by two marks. Whereas the votaries of Antichrist are marked in their forehead—"or in their right hand," Rev. 13.16, Christ's flock are both marked and sealed, Ezek. 9.4; Rev. 7.3, and "upon or in their foreheads" only. The former parties "are arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls"—the "attire of an harlot." Rev. 17.4; but the latter party are arrayed in "fine linen, clean and white." Rev. 19.8.

"The kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High"—"I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them." Dan. 7.27; Rev. 20.4. Sic factum sit.