What Are the 3 Marks of the Church? Distinguishing between Healthy and Dangerous Consumerism

Photo by  Rex Pickar  on  Unsplash

Photo by Rex Pickar on Unsplash

I love being a pastor. I love being able to preach God’s word and serve his people in so many ways. Yet, over the last ten years in ministry, I have seen an underlying issue in myself, as well as many of the people in the church (not just the one I serve). This is the issue of consumerism.

One of the greatest dangers to the local church today is consumerism.

Consumerism often shows itself when people share with me that they are overwhelmed with church life and need to take a step back. This often means forsaking the regular fellowship with God’s people to seek out some sort of self-realization. The heartbreaking part of watching this repeatedly over the years is the downward spiral that typically follows as people become distant from the worship service and living amongst the people of God.

Not only have I watched people become distant, I have seen them abandon the faith by “stepping back” or “figuring out what they believe.” This saddens me—and many other Christians as well—because it often shows that people aren’t actually consuming the good things God is graciously giving them. Instead, they become consumed by guilt, or worse, they go and consume what the world and the evil one offer. 

One of the greatest dangers to the local church today is consumerism. Our culture is heavily driven by a mutual understanding between ourselves and advertisement companies that we all want to want things. It’s as if we have been trained to redefine the word “want” as “need.” Whereas one hundred years ago, people needed food, shelter, and clothing, today we all “need” the latest iPhone, the right outfit, and even the perfect church.

If you have been in the church for even a couple of minutes, it doesn’t take long to identify what people believe the church “needs” to look like and function like. Even more telling is why people leave churches. Often times the perceived “needs” that aren’t being met are things like better music, a more dynamic preacher, more ministries, better coffee, and anything that somehow feeds the consumer’s desires.

Are we aware of the depth of consumerism we bring to the church?

The reality is, most of us are this way. We may have different perceived “needs” that we demand of the church, but the question is, Are we aware of the depth of consumerism we bring to the church? If we can start to compare our perceived needs with what Christ’s church is actually meant to be, we can start moving towards a healthier understanding of need and avoid destroying the local church for not meeting all our expectations.   

We all have this natural disposition to be consumers. The question we should really be asking is, Are we consuming things that lead to self-fulfillment and self-glory, or are we consuming the means of grace that God himself wants us to receive with glad hearts for his glory and our good?

This was one of the concerns of the Reformers and many who have followed in their footsteps. Returning to Scripture, many have tried to rightly see the Roman Catholic Church for what it was then—and is now—and move away from consumeristic tradition and return to the means of grace commanded by God in Scripture. These means of grace, also known as the marks of the church, are 1) the true preaching of the Word; 2) the right administration of the sacraments; and 3) the faithful exercise of discipline. [1]

1. True Preaching

The true preaching of the word of God is not perfect preaching. It is preaching that faithfully and honestly preaches the point of a passage the way God’s word explains it. It is preaching in such a way that people are confronted with their sin and need while also being shown Christ as the fulfillment of every passage. This is preaching in such a way that, if people would hear, by God’s grace they would believe in the gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:14-17). It is preaching the whole counsel of God and not just the preacher’s favorite topics.

In short, true preaching has such a high view of the word of God, that those preaching and those listening become convinced that as surely as the word is faithfully preached, it is as if Christ himself were preaching. We should readily consume the preaching of the word of God each Sunday. 

2. Administering the Sacraments

The right administration of the sacraments is served by the pastors and elders of the church and only to professing believers. These sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are meant to be the visible signs and seals attached to the preached Word of God. There is nothing magical to the sacraments, but they were commanded by Christ himself (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-30) as a means of grace. These are the visible reminders that we should be ready to consume joyfully, because in doing so, we are reminded of our union with Christ. 

3. Church Discipline

This third mark of a faithful church was once seen as welcome and necessary by believers. But in a consumeristic culture like ours, it is often frowned upon and seen as judgmental and unloving. Yet, Christ has given us church discipline as a means of grace that protects healthy doctrine and helps the church rightly represent him to other believers and the world.

It also purifies the church of all unrepentant sinners who prove not to be regenerate with no true love for Christ (Matt. 18:15-18; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; Tit. 3:10; Rev. 2:14-20). Even so, church discipline is meant to be restorative; its purpose is also to help members of the body of Christ by lovingly shepherding them back to faith and repentance. This accountability to continue walking with Christ is one that we should gladly welcome and consume. 

Christ loves his people and wants to feed them.

These three marks are meant to be reminders to us that Christ loves his people and wants to feed them. These are non-negotiable means of grace and growth in our lives. These are the things we should be encouraging our pastors in continuing to do, and lovingly correcting them if they are not. In these ordinary means of grace, God is coming down to us and saying, “Here I am—enjoy!”

After Peter denied the Lord Jesus three times, he came face-to-face with Peter after his resurrection. Jesus redeemed the three denials with three commands to feed his sheep (John 21:15-17). Paul, who once was consumed by self-righteousness and pride (Phil. 3:4-6), commanded the Corinthians to consume and feast on the body and blood of Jesus (1 Cor. 11:23-30). Likewise, Paul guided his churches through holiness and purity by protecting the sheep and rejecting the wolves. 

There is a healthy consumerism to be enjoyed.

The people of God today can reject worldly consumerism by pleading with the Lord to help them sit under these three marks with hunger and longing. In doing so, we are feasting on the Lord Jesus with our ears, our eyes, our taste, and our lives. To feast on the bread of life (John 6:35-39) is to trust in the Lord Jesus and the words, meals, and purity he gives us as we make our way home to our Trinitarian God.

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Wes Van Fleet is editor-at-large for Beautiful Christian Life.


Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb! (Teleios Academy) by Wes Van Fleet

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 577-578. 

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