You and I gather as Christians to have coffee: Is that the church? You and I and five others gather to read the Bible: Is that the church? You and I gather to hear a pastor preach and we sing some: Is that the church? What does it take to move a “gathering” into a “church”?
The Protestant Reformers seemed to conclude that the three marks of the church are when the Word is preached, when the Sacraments are “communicated” and when church disciplines shapes the people so gathered. It is not unfair to say this list is the marks of Protestant pastors more than marks of the church because their focus is on what pastors do or the authority they exercise. There is very little here about congregational life.
Ron Heine, in Classical Christian Doctrine, sorts out both five marks of the New Testament churches and the marks of the earliest Christian thinking that led to the classical four marks of the church in the Nicene Creed. When I’m done with those I want to mention the marks of the church in the Anabaptist tradition.
First, Heine finds these five marks in the earliest churches:
1. Faith, but as the act of trust in Christ and faith as the content of what the Christians believed, and here he refers to proto-creeds in the NT, and I would see the most important one to be 1 Cor 15:3-5 (though he does not list the references).
2. Holy Spirit — living indwelling and reality.
3. A particular, acceptable way of living.
4. Ministry of pastors, teachers, etc.
5. Sacraments in baptism and eucharist.
Second, he sketches the importance of the appeal to apostolicity in the 2d and 3d centuries in Irenaeus, Ignatius and Tertullian. The press from the gnostic tendencies led to the appeal to the apostles.
Third, then we get the four marks in the Creed: one (a unity no longer visible was present at that time), holy (here he sees intensified presence of God as the meaning), catholic (universal), and then apostolic (back to the themes of the 2d century).
Fourth, the Anabaptists saw the “marks” in more congregational senses:
1. Holy living.
2. Brotherly love.
3. Unreserved testimony.
Rachel Held Evans, in a recent CNN piece, gives the following reasons for millennials to go to church: baptism, confession, healing, leadership, communion, confirmation, and union with Christ.