What Makes a Legitimate Church? Part 1

In every town I’ve lived in there has been an invisible, yet tangible, sense among the people about which churches in the area were cool, dominant, and legit, and which ones were passe, insignificant, and illegitimate.  For instance, I grew up in a heavily Lutheran area in Iowa where non-Lutherans were often seen as deficient.  Later I lived in a very Roman Catholic city (Dubuque, Iowa) where non-Catholics were culturally sidelined.  Then I lived in South Carolina for a brief spell, which is spiritually dominated by Baptists and Pentecostals, and where Roman Catholics seem to hide in the woodwork.  If you lived in western Pennsylvania, you might conclude that Presbyterians were the greatest, and likewise western Michigan with Reformed Christians.

But as I reflect on what influences people’s perceptions of those churches and what seems to legitimate them, however, most of the reasons are pretty flimsy.

Over the next few posts, I want to discuss–and dismiss–what makes a church legitimate, that is, a true church of Jesus Christ, and separate truth from myth.

For Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians (and many Protestants, too), the marks of the true church are pretty much cut and dry: the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (Nicene Creed).

Even Reformed Protestants have a pretty clear statement of what constitutes the true church:

The notes of the true Kirk [that is, Church], therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst. (Scots’ Confession, Chapter XVIII)

But when a local church is seen as “legitimate,” these theological distinctions are rarely cited.  Being Americans, we are usually concerned with other, less important reasons that we think churches are true and false.  In the next few posts, I want to deal with those reasons.

So tune in next time!


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