Notae Verae Ecclesiae

`Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology In today’s world, where the customer is king, most people look for a church that meets their subjective needs.  They look for a church that has the music they like, the youth group they like, the location they like, and the people they like.  These things aren’t necessarily bad; it’s OK to think about music, youth group, location, and the people when looking for a church.  However, if one is looking for a biblical church, these things should be low on the list of things for which to look.

So what things should one look for in search of a biblical church?  Simply put, one that has the notae verae ecclesia – the marks of a true church.  Scripture does gives us objective identification marks of a true Christian church.  In Reformation theology, here’s how the discussion goes:

“[The notae verae ecclesia (marks of the true church) are] the distinguishing features by which the church can be identified: 1) The preaching of the word or profession of true doctrine; 2) the valid administration of the sacraments; and 3) disciplined Christian life in obedience to Word and sacrament.  The Reformers and the Lutheran orthodox generally argue the first two notae, Word and sacrament, and assume the third as a by-product or effect.  The Reformed scholastics generally argue Word, sacrament, and discipline as the notae” (Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, s.v. notae ecclesiae).

The Belgic Confession of Faith puts it this way:

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: the church engages in 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” (Art. 29).

Scripture references include Matthew 18:17, John 8:31, 10:37, Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 10:14-17, 11:23ff, Galatians 1:8-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Timothy 5:20, and 2 John 9:11, among others.  The point is, when looking for a church the first priority should be to find a solid Christian church, one that displays the biblical marks of a biblical church: preaching of the gospel, administration of the sacraments, and Christian discipline.  These marks aren’t arbitrary, they’re in Scripture, and are a biblical help in finding a true church of Christ.  There may be other things to think about, but these three are the first and far most important three.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

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2 comments on “Notae Verae Ecclesiae

  1. Larry Wilson says:

    Thank you for this helpful post. Re the 3rd mark, “discipline”, I personally think that in our day and age, it may be more helpful to us if we nickname it “pastoral care”. It seems to me that we can too easily deceive ourselves into thinking that if we merely maintain a membership list, to which we add names, and from which we subtract names, then for sure we are manifesting that 3rd mark. But surely “discipline” means much more than that! Muller spoke of “disciplined Christian life in obedience to Word and sacrament”, and the Belgic Confession spoke of “correcting faults”. Does that not evoke an image of Christ’s undershepherds offering themselves as a living sacrifice to serve as his instruments to care for his sheep, to protect his sheep from wolves or their own folly, to keep his sheep on the right path, etc. In other words, does not the way the Reformers and the Confession used the term “discipline” imply an ongoing activity like what we would call “pastoral care”?

    • Larry: thanks for the comments. You make a good point. I think sometimes we try to summarize things for the sake of memory, so when we explain them it’s good to flesh it out a bit (as you did nicely in your comments). I suppose it’s like the term “Limited Atonement.” It needs to be explained rightly!

      Speaking of “pastoral care,” I’ve heard the third mark of the church explained as being related to discipleship – discipline is part of it, but so is leading and encouraging and so forth. So yes, “pastoral care” is a good way to describe the third mark.

      Thanks again!
      Shane

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