Why Love Is Not A Mark Of The True Church

ice_house_colour1I was listening to a podcast recently in which someone remarked that Reformed churches can be “cold.” In my first pastorate I had an elder who used to joke that, in the days before refrigeration, “they used to build the Reformed church next to the ice house.” Corrie Mitchell writes about her concern that Reformed folk are perceived as “cold.” As I mentioned a decade ago, I once took a female friend to a Reformed church for worship, after which she cried and explained that the congregation seemed “cold.” Reformed and Presbyterian Pastors report that visitors to their congregations sometimes complain that their congregations seem cold or loveless. In response to this perception some have argued that Reformed theology needs a dose of (neo) Pentecostal warmth and Reformed theology should be changed. It is argued that we should make love a mark of the church.

As I argued in the “Jerks” article, a big part of this problem is competing cultural paradigms. When people come to Reformed churches from broadly evangelical (usually in the Pietist tradition) congregations, they bring with them cultural assumptions shaped by their experience. That is how they define “warm” and “love.” When they come to Reformed congregations they expect to see and experience the same culture. When they do not, at least not always, they conclude that Reformed churches must be cold, indifferent, et cetera.

The Reformed have long spoken of “the marks of the true church.” Belgic Confession art. 29 gives three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. This is an eminently practical question and answer. Christians are always asking where they should go to church. To answer this question they need criteria but we too often use the wrong standards of measurement. We too often look for congregations that make us feel a certain way (which can be no more than the right chord progression or the right sequence of praise songs), that offer certain programs, or that meet a certain (highly subjective) aesthetic standard. In contrast, the Reformed said to evangelicals who were leaving Rome that there are three marks given in Scripture whereby we can know if a congregation really is a part of the true church. Does it preach purely the gospel, that Christ has accomplished salvation once for all for his people and that he gives it freely (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) or does it make salvation partly by grace and partly by works? Does it administer only the two sacraments instituted by Christ or does it add to the sacraments or corrupt them in some other way? Does the congregation practice discipline to correct wandering brothers and sisters and to lead them back to Christ? These are excellent tests. They are objective. Either they exist or they do not. It really is not a matter of subjective perception or degree. Either the gospel is preached purely or it is not. If there is any doubt, that itself may be an indicator of a problem. The gospel is not complicated. The gospel is not obscure.

Perhaps the sacraments are more complicated but from the perspective of the Reformed Churches, the teaching of Scripture about the sacraments is relatively straightforward. Christ instituted Baptism, in the name of the Triune God, for believers and their children as a sign of admission to the congregation and a seal of what is true of those who believe. He instituted the Lord’s Supper as a sacred meal, in which, by the mysterious operation of his Spirit he feeds us on his true body and blood. It is a sign and seal for believers that what the gospel says is true for them and for all who believe.

Love is not a mark of the true church but it is a mark of the believer. We confess (Belgic art. 29):

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

This is also a good illustration of why we need to define love biblically. In our post-revivalist setting, i.e., in the wake of the two great awakenings that have shaped American evangelical theology, piety, and practice, the virtues have been redefined in subjective terms, by our emotional experience. Scripture, however, defines love objectively. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Love is not defined by how God feels about us but by what he did for us. Jesus defined love not on the basis of our feelings but according to our actions. To love one’s neighbor is not to feel things about him but to help him when he needs it. If one should see his neighbor lying bleeding in the street, love means that we bandage his wounds and help him. Pity is not love. Empathy is not love. Bandaging his wounds, that is love.  Jesus said:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

How do we know that the Samaritan in the parable had compassion? He did something. He acted. That is love. Young, Restless, and Reforming evangelicals who find their way to confessional Reformed congregations need to understand that they will likely find a different culture than that with which they are familiar. Those things that once triggered certain familiar emotions may not be present but those emotions are not love and it is not love that makes a true church. What makes a true church is the presence of the pure gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and discipline. In that context you have a right to expect to find Christians who are growing in love. Your former congregation was not perfectly sanctified, however, nor will your new, Reformed congregation be entirely sanctified.

Unlike the marks of the true church, the marks of the Christian may be more difficult to quantify. How much virtue (e.g., love) is enough? The confession does not say. In that case, to evaluate a congregation fairly perhaps it is help to ask other diagnostic questions: do these people believe? Well, only God knows the heart but they are making a profession and confession of the faith. Are they repenting of sin? Again, only God knows the heart but over time you will get a sense of whether a congregation takes sin seriously and addresses it appropriately. Are there gross sins, which are known to the congregation but unaddressed by the elders and minister(s)?

Some questions are obviously difficult to answer but there are other diagnostic questions that help us to see if love is present. Are the members seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ? An objective way to evaluate this is to ask what is being preached and taught. Are the pastors and elders visiting the members to encourage them in the gospel and in their walk? Are people attending to the means of grace or are they indifferent?

Welcome to the Reformed understanding of the Christian life: fellow sinners, redeemed by the grace of Christ struggling together, repenting together, confessing together, and receiving together the free grace of Christ in the gospel preached and in the gospel made visible in the sacraments.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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20 comments

  1. I attend an OPC. Very plain. Some would say boring and cold…but the focus is always on Christ. After church when we meet for coffee and cookies, the people are loving,warm,compassionate and transparent. When I return the secular world for my secular job I must wear my armor to protect my heart,spirit and mind. When I am at my church I don’t need my armor

  2. I recall Schaeffer saying that love is a mark of the Christian and not of the church if I’m not mistaken. People do look for church communities that are welcoming. In a “perfect” world people would evaluate in a more profound way, but people are sinful and so don’t always care about confessional fidelity – that includes most Christians. A church that is welcoming, which has to in some sense be a manifestation of love, opens the door to the confessional church for all those Heinz 57 Christians.

    • Keith,

      Good to hear from you!

      Yes, we must be welcoming. It can be easy, especially for smaller congregations, to become comfortable with each other and unintentionally cliquish. It helps to be intentional, to expect guests and to plan for them. I have joined congregations for worship who clearly did not plan for me to be there. It is evident in small ways (not enough bulletins, no place to sit etc).

  3. I’ve always had a question about this part…”Does it administer only the two sacraments instituted by Christ or does it add to the sacraments or corrupt them in some other way?” Wouldn’t we say that not baptizing the infant children of believers is a corruption of the sacrament of baptism? Which would make Baptist denominations a false church? I guess my question is how much must a congregation corrupt a sacrament to no longer be considered a true church?

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Johannes Oecolampadius., an associate of Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, urge that love should be seen as one of the marks of the church?

  5. Excellent, thought-provoking post. Good point that the marks of the church are objective (word, sacraments, discipline), not based upon subjective perception. And that love must be defined by the standard of Scripture and manifested by action, not by post-revivalist subjective pietism.

    At the same time, confessional churches which feast upon the gospel week-in and week-out ought to be welcoming toward outsiders, as Christ has welcomed us in grace. I have a friend from another Christian tradition who visited a Reformed church five times with his wife. On three of those five occasions they were ignored, as not one congregant bothered to greet them. That ought not to be so.

    One need not be oozing with pietistic gregariousness in order to be friendly and welcoming. And one need not “love bomb” church visitors in order to defy the stereotype of Reformed churches being filled with “the frozen chosen.”

  6. Love is not a mark of the true church (Belgic art. 29)

    seem ridiculous; but appreciate your elaborations, clarifications

  7. 1 Corinthians 13:1–8a–If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails

  8. What is the church? If the church is all true believers, how is the church not called to have the mark of love? Almost seems like an attempt is being made downplay the importance of love. I’m reminded of the two greatest commandments calling us to love.
    The word “love” is uncomfortably absent in this description of the Christian life:
    “Welcome to the Reformed understanding of the Christian life: fellow sinners, redeemed by the grace of Christ struggling together, repenting together, confessing together, and receiving together the free grace of Christ in the gospel preached and in the gospel made visible in the sacraments.”

  9. Thanks Dr. Clark-

    Appreciate the post. The Lord bless your labors.

    Would it be accurate to say that ‘Love’ is not a mark of a church but it is a signifier of the health of the church? I am somewhat confused. I read the NT and love seems to be a predominant theme, including all the ‘one another’ verses.

    You said, “Love is not a mark of the true church but it is a mark of the believer.”

    The Lord Jesus tells the church at Ephesus, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Rev. 2:4) They seemed to have much right. Probably, the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. Yet Christ charges them with lack of love.

    How should we understand that verse? Was he speaking to the church or individuals?

    How do we understand love being taught as the great ethic in the NT, as the fulfilling of the law, and commanded to a corporate body of people?

    every blessing,
    John

    • John,

      1. We should distinguish between the love of God and the love of one another. I take Rev 2:4 to refer to the love of the Savior. I do not think it is the intent of the confession to deny that believers must love God. Read the confession, read article 28. That much is clear.

      2. When people talk about love has a mark of the church they are usually talking about the love of neighbor. The problem with making this a mark of the church is that, as I wrote, it is extremely difficult to judge. Who is to say? How much love counts as a enough love? The marks as confessed by the Reformed Church are objective, they either exist or they do not.

      3. I would not assume, as you seem to do, that the church at Ephesus was “dead orthodox” as the expression goes. I do not mean to put words in your mouth. The condemnations in chapter 2 are cryptic. We should resist the temptation to fill in the blanks.

      4.You are asking a different question than the Belgic is answering. You ask about the health of the church and the Belgic is asking about the truth of the church. Those are distinct things. The question facing the Reformed churches in the 16th century was how to communicate to, e.g., Romanists who said that they sympathized with the Evangelical/Reformed cause but who asked for leave to remain in Roman congregations. The question was also coming, “how do we know with which church we should affiliate when we leave Rome?” The confession seeks to answer these questions.

      Of course, a healthy church is a church full of love of God and of neighbor. That begins with new life and true faith, and through that true faith, Spirit-wrought union with Christ. In order for these conditions to exist it is essential for the ministry of the church to be soundly grounded in the truth of the law and the Gospel. We need not— Indeed we must not! —set these things (truth and love) against each other. They are entirely complementary.

      Love is the chief fruit and evidence of new life and true faith.

  10. Thank you for this article.

    I am having a hard time understanding love for others as being a mark of the genuine christian but not the mark of a genuine church simply because it’s difficult to judge. You wrote, “When people talk about love has a mark of the church they are usually talking about the love of neighbor. The problem with making this a mark of the church is that, as I wrote, it is extremely difficult to judge.”

    Although love maybe difficult for some to judge, it is not difficult for God to judge. Therefore, love for neighbour should be a mark of the church with examples of what this love looks like (ie.sacrifice, forgiveness, hospitality, giving) and feels (warmth, joy in friendship) as noted in scripture.

    The church is a group of believers, or more narrowly local members. These individuals, who practice love towards the stranger or a fellow sojourner in the faith, represent their covenant community and thus represent Christ.

    I’m afraid this perception of reformed churches lacking love or warmth may be justified in some or maybe many situations since love for neighbours does not get the attention it deserves because it is not a “mark” of the church.

    • Jay,

      Nothing is difficult for God to judge, but you and I aren’t God. One major goal of Belgic art. 29 is to help Christians determine which congregations, each claiming to be churches, really are true churches.

      If we make love a mark of the true church, how much love makes a congregation a true church? It’s inherently subjective. This is why the confession has two sets of marks, one for churches and another for believers.

      The pure preaching of the gospel and the pure administration of the sacraments is more objective. Either salvation sola gratia, sola fide is preached or it isn’t. Either the sacraments are administered as Christ instituted them, or they aren’t. Does a congregation observe 7? Then they aren’t being purely administered. Are infants excluded from baptism? Is discipline used? In the mainline churches (unless one is a conservative, in which case he can expect the full weight of the bureaucracy upon his head)? No.

      Congregations must love those who come to her but that love is a fruit of new life, true faith, and of union with Christ. If there is no love, then we must start there.

    • Thank you for this comment,it cleared my confusion,what’s a church of body of Christ without Love?what’s the essence of Religion without Love?

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