What Are the Marks of the True Church?

This past weekend, a Calvinist explained to me that she left the Methodists after concluding that they weren’t a church, since they didn’t preach the pure word of God. To Catholic ears, this sort of claim can sound pretty strange, so I wanted to explain what Calvinists mean by this, and why it’s wrong.

I. What’s Meant

In the Sixteenth Century, the Reformers faced a serious problem.  They believed, as John Calvin wrote in Book IV, Chapter I of Institutes of the Christian Religion, that “beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for.”  Since Calvin and others were breaking away from the visible Church, this doctrine posed a serious hurdle.  After all, they appeared to be condemning themselves with their own words.

So what they did is redefine what “Church” means. The clearest example of this is from the Dutch Calvinist Belgic Confession (1567):

The Belgic Confession

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the 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. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

So it’s only the true Church if the preaching of the Gospel and administration of sacraments are pure, and church discipline is used for correcting faults.  Calvin only believed in two marks of the Church: “the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments.”  He argued that to lose these two marks would “destroy the true and genuine distinction of the Church”:

There is nothing on which Satan is more intent than to destroy and efface one or both of them – at one time to delete and abolish these marks, and thereby destroy the true and genuine distinction of the Church; at another, to bring them into contempt, and so hurry us into open revolt from the Church. To his wiles it was owing that for several ages the pure preaching of the word disappeared, and now, with the same dishonest aim, he labours to overthrow the ministry, which, however, Christ has so ordered in his Church, that if it is removed the whole edifice must fall.

Thus, he argued, Catholicism wasn’t the true Church, because the Sacraments and preaching were all wrong. In the 1559 French Confession of Faith (PDF), he put it like this:

Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them.

Thus, schism from the visible Church was not only permissible, but necessary, since the Church had (according to Calvin) stopped being part of the true Church.

II. Why It’s Wrong

Catholics will readily agree that good preaching, the proper administration of the Sacraments, and Church discipline are important parts of the life of the Church.  A church that fails to do these things fails the flock in important ways.  But here’s the important caveat: a church that fails in these ways doesn’t cease to be part of the Church.  We can see this clearly from Scripture.  In Revelation 2-3, Jesus delivers a message through St. John to the seven churches of Asia Minor (see Rev. 1:17-20).  In Revelation 2:12-17, we hear this message to the Church in Pergamum:

“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. 

 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”

In other words, the Church in Pergamum both (1) failed to enforce Church discipline (as did the Church in Thyatira — see Rev. 2:20), and (2) apparently permitted heretical (Nicolatan) teachings.

That is, it failed to meet two of the standards that the Belgic confession claims are basic marks of the Church.  And yet Jesus still calls it a church.  He even says that despite these problems, the local church (as a whole) has remained “true to My Name. (Rev. 2:13).

So plainly, while the failure to enforce Church discipline, and to ensure that heresy isn’t preached are important tasks of the Church (Jesus is rebuking them for these failures, after all), they don’t render the Church not the Church.  And if that’s true on the local level, it’s certainly true on the global.

III. The True Marks of the Church, And Why They Matter

The (Calvinist) Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) acknowledges that:

Since the fourth century, Christians, including the Reformers, have used the Nicene Creed as a confession of faith. Worshippers confess that they believe one holy catholic and apostolic church. However, since many sects claim the name “church,” the Reformers asked what scripturally defined marks distinguish true and false churches? How can we identify where the true church of God is present?  The Reformers are clear: Where the word of God is truly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline faithfully exercised, there the one true holy and apostolic church is present.

There are three important points to be made here.

  1. There are distinctive marks that the true Church must hold to, laid out by the Nicene Creed.  The Creed, at the heart of orthodox Christianity, proclaims a belief in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”  These are the Four Marks of the Church, and the Fathers point to them constantly.  The True Church is a single Institution, is Holy, is Catholic, and has Apostolic Succession.  Historically, there’s no real question that the Nicene Fathers were referring to the visible Church, the very Church Calvin and the other Reformers broke away from and denied.
  2. The Reformers are the source of these new “Marks”: solid preaching, proper administration of the sacraments, and Church discipline faithfully exercised.  And the Calvinists are divided over what these new Marks are, and how many there are.  The Belgic Confession and the Orthodox Presbterian Church list these three, while Calvin himself listed only two (excluding Church discipline).  Some Reformed Evangelicals now claim that there are nine marks (none of which are the four identified by the Nicene Creed).  Yet we’ve already seen from Scripture that the Church remains the Church even where She fails to deliver on one of these two (or three, or nine) categories.
  3. The new “Marks” are divisive and unhelpful:  The OPC notes that “many sects claim the name “church,”” but as an excuse for using the new “Marks.”  But these sects can’t credibly claim Apostolic Succession or Catholicity or Oneness.  But every sect can (and does) claim proper preaching, sacraments, and Church discipline.  We think Presbyterians have too few sacraments.  They think we have too many.  So the new “Marks” provide no serious basis for distinguishing between the Church and schismatics or heretics.  It quickly devolves into “they disagree with me, so they’re not really the Church.” 

In fact, the new “Marks” were made for precisely that purpose.  Calvin and the Reformers wanted to break away from the visible Church, and by creating heightened standards (including vague and impossible to prove or disprove criteria), they were able to justify it.

Let’s use divorce as a parallel.  There’s no question that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and totally forbids it (Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18).  But if you really wanted to divorce your husband, all you’d have to do is create a new checklist, claiming that a true husband gives his life up for his wife (Ephesians 5:25).  So unless your husband has risked martyrdom for you, he’s not really your husband, so you’re free to leave.

Do you see the error there?  A husband should do x, y, and z.  But that doesn’t mean he ceases to be your husband if he doesn’t, or that you get to divorce him if he doesn’t.  There is such a thing as a lousy husband.  By adding more and more things to the list of what it takes to be a true husband, you may sound pious, but you’re really just adding more and more excuses for divorce.

Likewise, the Church has some lousy ministers.   There are bad homilies, there are times when heresy has sprung up, and the Church has been slow in cracking down.  And there are times when there are even invalid Sacraments: a heretical priest who refuses to use the Trinitarian formula, or changes the words of consecration.  But those people are, short of excommunication, still a part of the Church.  Judas was a bad Apostle.  But he was still an Apostle, according to Scripture (Acts 1:20; Matthew 10:1-4).

And of course, even Reformed churches suffer from bad homilies, lax ministers, and the like.  For example, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has complained that Church discipline is “the missing Mark,” in that it’s so rarely exercised in the modern world.  In other words, even most Reformed churches don’t meet the Reformed definition of Church.  So this vague and heightened definition destroys the Church, rather than building it up, or locating it.

IV. Conclusion

Hopefully, this basic outline establishes a few things.

  1. The Church, from the beginning, has believed that there are four essential Marks by which we can know the true Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.  
  2. The Catholic Church possesses all four, in the sense understood by the Fathers of the Council.  
  3. Protestant churches don’t, since the Reformers deliberately broke the Oneness of the Church, and end Apostolic Succession.
  4. To justify these schisms, the Reformers invented new criteria that the Church must hold to, but they contradicted one another and the Church Fathers in so doing. 
  5. These new standards are contrary to the Bible, are subjective, and have helped destroy the Oneness that the Nicene Creed calls for, and that Christ calls for (John 17:20-23).
So if you’re looking to find the fullness of the Church established by Christ, look for the One that can credibly claim to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.


  1. i admit my question is naive but on what basis did Calvin reach the conclusion that these are the true marks of the true Church of God? isn’t the potentially-Catholic reformed protestant really submitting to Calvin’s and his disciples’ interpretation of Scripture? Doesn’t this just lead us back to square one: the question of interpretive authority?

    this is where i find myself now in my spiritual journey, questioning what authority I have truly submitted to all these years. The Scriptures at times seem clear enough, but i can’t ignore the reality that these churches disagree over their interpretations of verses that “seem clear enough” to whatever faction claims to be right.

    anyhow, i think this is a great post, Joe. I’m tempted to speak with my pastors about some of these points, but I suspect he’s not going to have a clear answer.

  2. JP,

    As far as I can tell, these are the things that the Reformed saw as setting their churches / ecclesial communities apart from Catholicism on the one hand, and the Radical Reformation on the other.

    And of course, their “marks” really are things that churches should be doing. So it’s easy to find Scriptural support that the Church needs to do x, y, and z. It’s that implicit leap to “…and therefore, a church that fails to do these things is no longer a church” that they had no Scriptural support for. And that’s where I think the Reformed were guilty of some pretty brazen eisegesis.

    In Christ,


  3. The problem with the Protestant marks is that they beg the question: who has the authority to decide what constitutes ‘true preaching’ and ‘rightly administered sacraments’?

    The true Church, of course. But that’s precisely what we’re trying to find.

    The Protestant marks are inherently circular.

  4. I don’t know that they are circular. They feel the individual Christians can discern these things. That is why elders play such an important role in Calvinist churches. They believe in governing from the grass roots up.

    The trouble is that it has proven unworkable. The papacy and the successors of the apostles have arrived at one consistent truth. Bodies of elders have not. They have proven much better at reflecting the fashionable ideas of the time and culture rather than the transcendent truth of God.

  5. Joe, as always interesting post. In II. Why It’s Wrong, I found that enlightening and very informative. And I agree with you that stretching the marks past the word of God is incorrect.

    @comments about “protestant” marks. I guess it’s the circle of Christians that I run in, but I am not familiar with what you guys are generalizing “protestant” teaching to be. I do think there are some generalizations being made. Most of the “protestant” Christians I know do not believe that they can discern the Bible individually, they believe in the Truth of the Word provided by Christ, and Christ alone. The Word of God is just that, God’s Word.

    As to the four marks of the church, I would argue that being a Christian makes you a member of the catholic church, the definition of one universal church belonging to Christ, not to men, not to singular body of men, etc., the wholeness that comes from being a member of Christ’s family, believing in His word and following His teachings. The church becomes holy only because it belongs to God, not because of its bylaws, structure or any of that nonsense. It is my understanding that apostolic refers to the teachings of the apostles, which again, within my experience, “protestant” Christians subscribe to.

    So because I’m not Roman Catholic, I’m not a member of a true church? Interesting point. Because technically I didn’t personally break the oneness of the church, and as far as I can tell, I find myself in unity with Catholics a lot! It brings up a lot of questions, almost too many to put into a blog comment, but generally I don’t see a lot of Biblical evidence that the Christian community I worship in is not within those four marks.

  6. “…who has the authority to decide what constitutes ‘true preaching’ and ‘rightly administered sacraments’?”

    That’s precisely what I was thinking!

    “…a Calvinist explained to me that she left the Methodists after concluding that they weren’t a church, since they didn’t preach the pure word of God.”

    Who in the world is this individual to determine what is and is not “The Pure Word of God”?

    That’s a incredible prideful position to take..

  7. Erin,

    Great comment (as usual). I suspect that when Brandon referred to the “Protestant marks,” he was just distinguishing from the Four Marks recognized by the Catholic Church and by the Nicene Creed. These additional (and we would say incorrect) marks are Protestant in origin, but that doesn’t mean all Protestants believe in them.

    As for membership in the Church, I’d put it like this. The saved Jews in the Old Testament
    were saved by Jesus Christ, whether they knew it or not. They were, in a particular and sort of mysterious sense, pre-Christian Christians.

    Likewise, all of the saved (whether visibly Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) are in some way a part of the Roman Catholic Church, whether they know it or not. They are invisibly connected to the visible Church.

    A helpful analogy I’ve found is the idea of an American in Paris. America is a visible place: you can find it on a map, etc. But (1) not everyone in America is truly American, and (2) some people outside the visible bounds of America are Americans. The truth is known only to the State Department.

    The reasoning is something like this. Everyone who is saved by Christ is part of His Church, and Baptism (any valid Trinitarian Baptism) is entrance into the Church. But we think Christ left the Church with a specific “body of men,” as you put it: the Apostles. And that those Apostles expanded that visible body, by ordaining bishops, presbyters, and deacons to carry on the visibly governance of the Church and to carry the Apostolic Christian message into the next generation. These individuals, and those in spiritual union with them, form the Church.

    It’s this that, more than anything else, keeps Christianity from just becoming whatever you or I might dream up. Through the Church, we see the transition from Christianity as a formless Idea to the living Body of Christ. It’s fitting that the religion that starts with a belief in an Incarnate Man, Christ, continues through visible men and women.

    In Christ,


    P.S. I understand that the visible, institutional Church can seem unnecessary. But remember that Christ, God Incarnate, took the trouble to found such a Church (Mt. 16:17-19), and to hand its governance over to Eleven hand-picked Apostles, none of who was prepared for the task at hand. So although it may not be how we would do things, it’s how God did them.

    P.P.S. Congrats on your engagement – so happy for you!

  8. Hi Joe! I love this dialogue, I love your blog! Again, I find myself in line with the Catholic Church accidentally 🙂 Love it. I guess it’s not much of an accident since I went to Catholic school.

    Anyway, yes I struggle with the institutional church. And you are so right. How selfish of me to think that I may know better than God. YIKES. But that’s my biggest faith struggle, searching for that perfect institutional community…which probably doesn’t exist. Every week can’t be a great homily, every week’s music can’t move my spirit…maybe the task at hand now is to reframe my expectations for worship, or should I have them? All rhetorical and conversational points just listed, not hard opinions 🙂

    Thanks on the engagement! I feel so blessed to have been given Kyle. It’s really exciting. The more time that has gone on I really do feel called by God to this relationship. Can’t wait to be a good mom and wife!

    Hope everything is well with you!!

    <3 Erin

  9. Great post, Joe! I think you are spot on with this. I would be interested to see you develop this a little more. In other words, take it to its next theological conclusion.

    You said, “And there are times when there are even invalid Sacraments: a heretical priest who refuses to use the Trinitarian formula, or changes the words of consecration.  But those people are, short of excommunication, still a part of the Church.”

    Actually, they have excommunicated themselves essentially. They have placed themselves outside of the Church by doing so. Take Bishop Marcel Lefebvre. He ordained priests Bishops without the dispensation of the Holy Father, placing himself outside of the Church (excommunicating himself). He was excommunicated by the Church which does not mean he is banished for ever. Excommunication is meant to bring them back into the Church. The Church makes public or official, what the individual has already declared. Of course, reconciliation can be restored after some sort of restitution has been made.

  10. I enjoy reading these comments and the original post. It is interesting that this is coming up now because we are about to celebrate “Reformation Day” on October 31. I agree a lot with what you wrote to Erin. We hold firm to the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed, and I have grown to trust these human words to describe the church. We, in the Lutheran Church, say “catholic” intentionally with a lower case “C” for the exact reason that you stated above. We celebrate Reformation Day because that was the start of the reform movement within the church, but the leaders of the day did not care for the reform. I have never thought about excommunication as a way to get Luther back to the church. I know that I would not respond well to such a Papal Bull. I do feel that we are still a reform movement of the Catholic church, even though we are only officially part of the catholic church. It might be interesting if the Catholic Church wants our reform movement back.

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