How To Recognize a True Church, Part 7 by John MacArthur

What are the marks of a true church? What are you looking for when you’re looking for a real church?

Let me go back and tell you what we’ve already covered. That kind of church will be marked by the absolute authority of Scripture.

The church that understands that it is called of God, that it is built by Christ, that it belongs to God, has been purchased by Christ, that it is responsible to be where heaven comes down, that it is the pillar and ground of the truth–that church will live under the absolute authority of Scripture.

Now I don’t want to back up and get caught up in some of these things because I can preach on these same truths for a long, long time. But it is essential to understand that we live under the authority of Scripture.

I wrote a book some couple of years ago called Slave. That identifies a believer as one who is bound to be obedient. It might surprise you to know that that simple, foundational truth of evangelical Christianity, that simple New Testament truth is under assault from people within the evangelical movement even today, who are saying that our lives are not to be marked by obedience for the sake of obedience. That somehow being obedient because it’s right, being obedient because He is Lord and you are His slave, is a wrong approach to sanctification.

There is a new wave of sanctification, and it’s typically called “cross-centered sanctification.” And this is kind of what it says, that the key to being sanctified is to become emotionally overwhelmed with the wonder of the sacrifice of Christ. You should be overwhelmed with the wonder of the sacrifice of Christ, but this idea says that if you really want to be sanctified, you will only be sanctified when you look at the cross, and when you’re looking at the cross is so constant and so full that you become emotionally overwhelmed with the cross. You’ll hear people say, “If you have a problem in your life, preach to yourself the gospel; go back to the cross.”

This is a fast moving, very popular movement. And what it says, in fact, is this, that what drives your sanctification is your emotion. And so what you want to do is activate your emotion and you want to activate your emotion in a way that is almost a mystical, extensive kind of contemplation of the cross. And the other side of it is, don’t ever get caught up in being obedient just because you’re supposed to be obedient. That’s an unacceptable legalism.

So, you’ve got to find a way, some kind of mechanism, to become so enamored with the cross that you shun sin. Well, there’s nothing in the New Testament about that, and there is everything in the New Testament about being obedient because it’s right, being obedient because if you’re not obedient, guess what? You’re going to be disciplined. Being obedient because if you love Me, you will keep My commandments. Being obedient not because of emotion but because of love and because of faith, because you believe that obedience brings blessing and disobedience brings discipline.

If you haven’t seen this or picked this up, just know, this is a wildfire, this idea of preaching to yourself the cross all the time and getting swept up in some emotion. I don’t think the New Testament even suggests such a thing, and that is why there is nothing in the New Testament about the details of the suffering of Christ. The only thing the New Testament describes about the suffering of Christ is its significance, not its details. There’s not a lot of discussion about the actual pain, the actual agonies, the physical suffering and all of that. There is full explanation of the meaning of the death of Christ. Trying to find some internal mechanism to fire up your emotions and think that will deter you from sin and sanctify you is a path to nowhere, is a path to nowhere. You need to know the Word, love the Lord of the Word, and understand by faith if you obey the Word you’ll be blessed; if you don’t, you’ll be disciplined. And you want to keep yourself in the circle of blessing and obedience.

So churches have to understand to begin with that believers live under the absolute authority of Scripture. If you try to train a congregation to depend on their emotions for sanctification, even though you point their emotions in the most noble direction, you’re going to have chaos.

Well, a lot more could be said about that, but then a lot more could be said about a lot of things and I won’t do that tonight. But we started there with the absolute authority of Scripture. Then we talked about the priority of worship. Then we talked about doctrinal clarity. Then we talked about spiritual discernment, and then we talked about the pursuit of holiness. Those are the first things that are the marks of a church.

When you find a church that understands who it is, this is what you will find: people who submit to the authority of Scripture, people who worship from the heart, people who are clear on doctrine, people who by virtue of their submission to the Word of God and doctrinal clarity, have discernment, and people who live lives pursuing holiness. And they understand that it’s not an emotional thing. Paul said, “I beat my body to bring it into subjection.” Obedience is an act of the will and the will is informed by the mind and the mind has the revelation–obey and be blessed.

All right, so we covered those five already. So it took me a long time to tell you what we’ve already covered. All right, let’s move on a little bit here.

This next point gets us sort of out of all of that theology for just a moment into something that’s very practical and yet it’s clearly New Testament. A true church will be marked by a plurality of godly leaders, it will be marked by a plurality of godly leaders.

Can I add a plurality of mature, godly leaders who are called in the New Testament “elders.” You know what “elder” means? It means older people, older people. The plurality of godly leaders.

Turn for a moment to Ephesians chapter 4. I’m not in any hurry to move through the list. That’s unlikely that I’ll be able to do that because I want to lay these out for you so that you really understand the church. But let’s…this is a good place to start.

In Ephesians 4, and we can actually pick it up in verse 11. “He”…that is Christ…“gave to His church some as apostles, and some as prophets.” Now that’s chronological. The first leaders of the church were the apostles. The Twelve, minus Judas, plus Matthias, plus Paul; they were the original leaders of the church. And you remember that Paul went everywhere, ordaining elders in every city. Subsequent to the apostles there were certain preachers or prophets that the Lord placed in churches, and the New Testament epistles refer to them as well. They weren’t apostles; that is a very unique office. They had to be eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. They had to be called specifically by the Lord Jesus. Even Paul had his calling on the Damascus Road. So the next generation of leaders in the church that follow the apostles are the prophets, and they fill a gap between the apostles and the elders. They were the ones to whom God gave revelation for the church. Sometimes they preached new revelation; sometimes they reiterated revelation that had already been given, but they were the early preachers. Then, following them chronologically, the Lord gave to the church some as evangelists and some as…I think the best way to acknowledge this is pastors/teachers, pastors/teachers. It can be pastors and teachers, or pastors/teachers. So that’s kind of the chronology. Starts with the apostles, then the prophets, then come the leaders of the church, the remaining on-going leaders of the church once the apostles and prophets have passed away. We know they passed away because Ephesians 2:20 says, “They were the foundation of the church.” The foundation was the apostles and prophets. They disappear and in their place come evangelists and teaching pastors. And that’s permanent. The church today still led by those who are evangelists and teaching pastors, those whose responsibility it is to mobilize the church for evangelism. They become our missionary leaders. They become trainers of others to evangelize. They become…they are not only individually, passionately committed to the proclamation of the gospel, but mobilizing the church for the gospel. I would say it’s this simple. When you think about pulling together leaders for the church, they should fall into these two categories. They are either evangelists who see the responsibility of extending the gospel into the community and around the world, or they are teaching pastors who see the responsibility to nurture those who come to Christ and build them up in the faith so that out of those who are built up in the faith there can be another generation of evangelists and teaching pastors. And those are the two gifts.

When I first came to Grace Church in 1969, I knew that the calling of God on my life was to be a teaching pastor. Not that I’m disinterested or uninterested in evangelism; not true at all, and even Paul told Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. We all do that. But I knew that because my passion was the teaching of the Word of God to the people of God, feed the flock of God, that I needed to call around me some who had the desire to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. And so through the years, that’s been the dual emphasis of leadership in the church as it should be, as it should be. So the church then is led by these who are identified as evangelists and teaching pastors.

Now they also are identified in the New Testament in the term “elder.” Elder simply identifies the fact that they’re the mature ones. Of course in the early church they had to mature pretty fast because they were all very young in the faith.

In Acts chapter 14 and verse 23 we read, concerning the apostles, concerning Paul and those who were traveling with him, that they appointed elders in every church. They appointed elders in every church. Praying with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. This was the pattern and we could show it in many other places in the book of Acts. Elders–in the plural. You never see the word in the singular except when it refers to the elder John who is an elder. But whenever an elder is spoken of, it’s always a plural word. This is because the church is to be led by a plurality of mature, godly men.

In the twentieth chapter of Acts, you go over to verse 17, and it says, regarding Paul, “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.” Now this becomes established. The gifted pastor/teacher, the gifted teacher, and we see there are also teachers from 1 Corinthians, that’s clear. So you have pastor/teachers, teachers and evangelists. They compose this group called the elders of the church. And Paul calls the elders together, verse 17, “When they had come to him, he said to them, ‘You yourselves know from the first day that I set foot in Asia how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility,’” and he describes how he ministered. And this is the pattern for how they are to minister as well. He sets the model for their ministry, a model of humble service, warning, watching, teaching, giving the full council of God, shepherding the flock of God which the Lord has purchased, verse 28, “with His own blood.”

He tells them, “Be on guard for yourselves.” Guard your own life. Paul says that to Timothy, “Take heed for yourself, and then guard the flock.” Hebrews says, “You’ll give an account for guarding them.” You are an overseer, you are an overseer. You elders are also overseers. Elder is the word presbuteros from which the Presbyterians have taken their name. Elder means an older, mature believer. They are also overseers; that’s the word for “bishop.” A bishop is no different. A bishop is not somebody higher than an elder, just a synonym. Those of us who are elders are the mature people in the church who had the responsibility to feed and lead the flock according to verse 28–to guard our own lives because of the preciousness of the flock. We are to do that also with a responsibility as overseers, overseers. That’s the word episkopos, and that’s the word from which the Episcopalians took their identification. It’s the same function; it’s the same office. We are feeders and leaders who have oversight of the flock.

The very nature of our ministry here is “to shepherd,” that’s the word for “pastor”– poimen, poimen–that’s pastor. So elder, overseer, pastor–all the same thing. Elder describes his age, his maturity. Overseer describes his responsibility. And pastor describes his personal devotion and care of his flock.

These are the godly leaders, and their ministry goes along the lines defined in Ephesians. They are responsible for mobilizing the congregation for evangelism and also feeding them the Word of God. Every church needs to be led by a plurality of these men. The stronger the men, the stronger the church. The more mature the men, the stronger the church. The more faithful the men in overseeing, the stronger the church. The more compassionate and caring the shepherds, the stronger the church. It’s a flourishing church. I would think that people who are in Christ would run to a church with that kind of soul care and that kind of feeding and leading and responsibility.

What are the characteristics of these men? How does someone qualify for this? Turn to 1 Timothy 3. How do you know if you’re called to this? Well, it’s a trustworthy statement, it’s axiomatic, spiritually axiomatic. If a man aspires or desires the office of overseer, that’s elder, pastor, overseer, whatever term you use, it’s axiomatic that men will desire it. So this is a very important principle.

Let me just lay this one in your mind. How do you know you’re called to this? Do you have some kind of esoteric, supernatural experience? No. Why am I a pastor? Why do I do what I do? Why have I done what I’ve done all these years? It’s pretty simple. This was my desire. This is what I aspired to do. People used to say to me, “What would you be if you weren’t a pastor?” And my answer was, “I have no idea. I have no second thought. This is a short list. I want to be a pastor, and I do not want to be anything else, nothing else.”

People say, “Well you’re pretty good at presenting a case and arguing, do you want to be a lawyer?” Never had the thought, not for two seconds. “Well, you know, you can lead people, have you ever thought about, you know, being in the corporate world?” Never, never had a thought about that; never. I’ve never had a thought about anything. This is all I ever desired to do. That’s all I’ve ever desired to do. Oh yeah, when I was a kid, of course, I wanted to be a baseball player like all kinds of little kids do, but beyond that in the adult life, this is that to which I aspired. What was going on in me? I have to believe was the work of God driving me in the desire that He had for my life. This isn’t some kind of mystical calling. And I tell young men that all the time. If you would be content to do something else, do something else because there’s going to be a lot of days when you wish you weren’t doing this. It’s a heavy burden to bear. And if it isn’t the passion of your heart, and you have no second choice, maybe you should try something else.

And this is axiomatic. I mean, this is…it is just obvious. You do this because you aspire to do this, and if you aspire to the office of an overseer, it’s a fine work; it’s a noble work; it’s a glorious aspiration. However, that in itself is not enough. That’s not enough. There are lots of people who would say I desire to do that, but you have to be qualified. And here come the qualifications in verse 2.

“An overseer then must be above reproach.” What does that mean? That you have nothing in your life that calls your integrity into question. That you’ve done nothing in your life to bring reproach on the name of Christ or scandalize the church. And it starts with the husband of one wife, which literally means a one-woman man. You say, “Well, I could be a pastor then ’cause I only have one wife.” No, that’s not the point. The point is that the one who is a pastor, the one who is a pastor/teacher, the one who is a leader in the church, must be a one-woman man. That is, he must be a man fully devoted to the woman who is his wife, it’s a moral qualification. Why is that at the head of the list? You tell me why. How many scandals do we know about at that level?

“Must be temperate, wise or prudent, respectable, hospitable.” And here’s the one…the one skill, just one skill. Everything else is a character qualification, a moral qualification. There’s only one skill, didaktikos, “skilled in teaching.” Why? Because that’s the only thing that separates me from you. The rest of you men, are you supposed to be faithful to your wife? Yes. Why is it sorted out for me as a pastor that I have to be faithful to the woman who is my wife? Because that sets the example for all of you. That’s no different than anybody. Aren’t you supposed to be temperate, wise or prudent, respectable, hospitable?

Pastors are not to be “addicted to wine or pugnacious,” meaning people with bad tempers who get mad and angry, but “gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.” They must be able to manage their own household well, keep their children under control with all dignity, because if a man doesn’t know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God? He can’t be a new convert, or he’ll become conceited, fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must “have a good reputation with those outside the church so that he doesn’t fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

Let me ask you a question, Should that be true of all of you? Of course. The only thing that sets me apart from you is the one skill, the one gift that is given to the elder, and that is skill in teaching. That word also implies teachableness because the most effective teachers are the most teachable people.

I will tell you this, the greatest teachers are the greatest students. If I have been at all used in your life to teach you, it is because I have submitted myself to others to teach me. An unteachable is the least effective teacher because he thinks he knows everything. The most effective teacher is the most teachable man. Teachable is even inherent in that term didaskalos. Some commentators would say that’s the primary strength of that term.

So this is how the church is led, by a plurality of godly leaders. And since the church, listen, is to be dominated by the Word of God, the more skilled the teachers, the more strong the church. And the more teachers, the more strong the church. You could never have enough teachers. One of the great riches of this church is the amazing number of skilled teachers of the Word of God, and more coming all the time as they come through the wonderful ministry of the Master’s Seminary and become a part of our church and churches all over the world, and how grateful we are.

And by the way, leadership comes down to service, not about authority. I don’t have any authority because I’m the pastor; I don’t have any. I don’t have any ecclesiastical authority; there’s no church hierarchy. I don’t have any educational authority; I can’t throw my degree around. I don’t have any experiential authority because I’ve been around a long time. I only speak with authority when I speak the Word of God. That’s the only time I speak with authority.

When I go to an elders’ meeting, and many of you have been there, and I sit in an elders’ meeting with the rest of the elders, I don’t lead the meeting. I hope I don’t dominate the meeting. I give a brief report or sometimes not so brief report to the elders. But I sit like every other elder and I listen and I try to understand and I try to give some direction. I have no personal authority. I have no educational authority. I have no authority by virtue of the fact that I stand in this pulpit. The only authority I have is the authority of the Word of God. And at that point, I am equal to every other person who has the Word of God in his hand and teaches it accurately.

Next month we will conclude this series with part 8

Pulpit Magazine – October 2013

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