How to Recognize a True Church, Part 1 by John MacArthur

From the first sermon I ever preached at Grace Community Church on February 9th, 1969, my first Sunday, I addressed the issue of who really belongs in the church? Who is really and genuinely and truly a part of the church? In considering the ministry of Grace Church, that’s where we started. And it has always been a very important part of the emphasis of all of our ministry and our teaching at Grace to make sure that we understand the nature of the church and the function of the church, and what the church is.


Specifically, the church is not a building. The church is not an institution or an association. When we talk about the church, we’re going to use that word that we talked about a few weeks ago at Grace Church, ekkaleo, “the called out ones.” A church is a gathering of those who have been called by God to salvation, to redemption, to adoption, to conversion, to justification and ultimately to glorification.


So, when I talk about the church, I’m talking about the people who make up the church. Not the building, not the institution of the church, not a denomination, not a particular theology, not a particular style, I’m talking about the living, breathing people who are the church. How are we to understand the church and how is the church to function. So I’d like us to consider how we must understand the church, the church of Jesus Christ.


I was listening to a radio program years ago, Christian radio station, and somebody called in–it was one of those talk programs–and said, “What do I look for in a church?” And I turned up the volume because I wanted to hear the answer. And the answer was, and I wrote it down, you look for fellowship, caring, and sharing–that’s most important. You might find that in a bar. You might find that in a club. You might find that in a thousand sociological associations and events; that’s not the right answer.


How do you choose a church? Some people would be pretty superficial about it. There was a study done a number of years ago that said, “The most important thing that a church does to attract people is to provide parking.” Parking was number one. Number two was nursery. And I kept reading, looking for pastor, but he didn’t appear until number six or so. There were all these things that people assumed were the important aspects–style, comfort, music, air-conditioning, friendliness.


What are you looking for in a church? And what should a church be? Well, that is a question that has very clear, biblical answers. But just to give you sort of a basic answer, and this would be Ecclesiology 101, there’s really only one issue: How do those people who gather together handle Scripture? That’s the issue. How do they handle the Word of God? What do they believe about the Bible? What do they believe the Bible teaches? How does the Bible inform their living and their preaching and their teaching?


I suppose it could be summed up by the psalmist in Psalm 119:161 who said, “My heart stands in awe of Your Word.” “My heart stands in awe of Your Word.” The purest demonstration of a true church is that it is an assembly of people who are in awe of the Word of God. In the language of Isaiah 66, they tremble at His Word. They tremble at His Word. Among those who are the architects of stylistic ministry today, it’s very popular to say that the traditional church has failed. That’s a very common thing to hear.


One of my friends recently wrote a little article on that, sort of pointing it out that the church is indicted repeatedly today as a failure–the church has failed. And they say the church has failed. Look at the world; that’s evidence of the church’s failure. Look at America and its moral decline and its abandoning of Scripture. And there’s very little question that we’re on a path and it kind of goes like this: eliminate the Bible; that’s step one. Eliminate the Bible–out of the public discourse, out of everything. Step two, then, is reverse morality. Do what Isaiah 5 says, turn bitter into sweet, sweet into bitter, light into dark, dark into light, good into bad, bad into good. And now the crime is not to affirm homosexuality, not to affirm immorality. Flip morality on its head. The third step is demand tolerance. The fourth step is intolerance of those who are not tolerant. And the fifth step is persecution. And we’re fast moving toward that last step of persecution.


You look at the world around you and people are saying, “Look, this is where we are, the church is about to be persecuted. That’s how far we’ve gone and that’s an evidence of the church’s failure. The church has failed. Look at the state of the nations. Look at the state of the planet. The church has failed and so the church has to change its strategies, we’re told.


But the truth is this; the church can only fail in one way. If it has failed, it has failed to be biblical. That is the only way the church can fail. If the church is faithful to the Word of God, it cannot fail. It cannot fail. If the church lives and proclaims the Word of God, it does not fail. It cannot fail because God accomplishes His purpose through His Word. He saves through His Word, He sanctifies through His Word. He provides grace through His Word.


There’s only one way the church can fail and that’s to fail to be biblical. It isn’t a question of failing in its strategies. It isn’t a question of failing to connect with the culture. It’s not failing in its marketing. If the church has failed, it has failed in one way, it has failed to be biblical. And frankly, there are many so-called churches who have really failed to be biblical.


There’s only one way to do ministry right and that’s to do it biblically. Years ago I read a book and shared this many years ago, a book by Alexander Calandra. This is a book on mathematics, you know, preachers who are desperate enough to even read a book on mathematics because there are some good illustrations there. He was a professor at Washington University, actually, in St. Louis, Missouri–a very fine university; he taught math. And Alexander Calandra wrote a book on some of his experiences as a math teacher.


He wrote about a fellow professor who had a class, an upper division class in math, and he gave an exam. The exam only had one question, just one, and this is the question: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the use of a barometer.” Did you get it? “Show how it is possible to tell the height of a tall building with the use of a barometer.”


The students spent the hour writing their answer and one answer stood out. To this student who gave this answer, he gave a zero. Here was his answer: “Take the barometer to the top of the building, tie it to a long rope, lower the barometer all the way to the ground, measure the length of the rope and you have the height of the building with the use of a barometer.”


Since that demonstrated no competency in physics, and you wouldn’t want to put a student like that out with the illusion that he knew what he was doing, he gave him a zero. The student asked if he could have a second opportunity. And so the professor reluctantly said, “You can have a second opportunity, you have six minutes.” After five minutes the student had written nothing. The professor looked at him and said, “Do you give up?” He said, “No, I just have many answers, I’m trying to figure out which would be the one you would like the best.”


He quickly wrote, “Take the barometer to the roof, lean over the edge, drop the barometer, time its fall with a stopwatch using S equals one half of the power of two and calculate the height.”


This just infuriated the professor even more. He said, “You have others?” “Oh yes,” he said. “Go out on a sunny day, measure the shadow of the barometer, measure the shadow of the building by simple, proportional calculation. You can determine the height of the building because you know the height of the barometer.”


“But, professor, here’s one you’d like even better. Go in the building at the ground floor. Take a barometer, put it on the wall, go up the stairs, mark off a pencil mark, go all the way to the top, come back down, count every mark and you have the height of the building in barometer units.”


But he said, “Sir, here is the best answer, the best answer. Go to the basement, knock on the door of the building superintendent, say to him, ‘If you tell me how tall this building is, I will give you this beautiful barometer.’”


And sometimes when I look at the life of the church, I see people doing that. You say, “What is the answer? What is the answer?” The answer has to do with the difference in air pressure. There is a right answer. There is a scientific answer to the use of the barometer. And there’s a lot of similar foolishness going on, demonstrating incompetency as to the nature of the church and the life of the church following the biblical pattern. There’s a right way for the church to function. There’s one right way for the church to function, and that right way has been revealed to us through the laws and principles of Holy Scripture.


Everything in the life of the church must conform to sound theology, sound doctrine and biblical truth. New Testament truth frames the church as it does every other area of theology. It eliminates these identity crises. It eliminates all these novel, substitute answers that demonstrate no real competency and no real bowing to authority. That student, by the way, was a rebel. He was tampering with the authority of his professor. There are many who do similar things, tampering with the authority of the Lord of the church Himself, by coming up with their own schemes rather than doing what God has ordained. The church is the kingdom of heaven. The church is the spiritual  realm ruled by King Jesus. The church is the fellowship, the communion of all the souls to whom the Holy Spirit has given eternal life–the church belongs to Christ. The life of the church is under the rule of King Jesus. He is the head of the church.


So as a pastor, I am compelled and confined by the theology of the church, by what the Bible says about the church. The Bible exercises all control over the life of the church. The Bible has all  authority over all ministry, all preaching, all discipleship, all evangelism, all mission efforts. And to  be honest with you, I am completely indifferent to cultural expectations. I am totally indifferent. I am disinterested in cultural expectations. I am indifferent to pragmatic strategies. I have no interest in surveys, polls. I am not curious about the desires of unregenerate people as to what they would like the church to be. Nor am I particularly interested in the whims of the carnal and the immature who would want to define the church in a way that entertains them.


There’s really only one reality that compels me and compels any faithful leader in the church, and that will be the focus of my next article.[1]


[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. Pulpit Magazine March 2013 Vol. 02. No. 4.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.