Identifying Marks Of The Church

By Mike Willis

The church which Jesus built was unique in the first century; it was different from the various Jewish seas and pagan religions. The things which made it unique in the first century also make it unique today. The church of the New Testament is different from the sectarian denominations, the cults, and the pagan religions. Let us consider some of its identifying marks.

The Early Church Followed Apostolic Doctrine

When the early church began, Luke recorded that “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). The early church recognized that Jesus had selected the apostles to be special men through whom He revealed His will to mankind (Mt. 16:18; 18:18). He gave to them the Holy Spirit who, He said, “will guide you into a truth” (Jn. 16:8). The Holy Spirit brought to the apostles’ remembrance what Jesus did (Jn. 14:26). Hence, the early church recognized this special role of the apostles as the agents through whom Jesus revealed His will and abided in apostolic doctrine.

This made them unique in the first century. The various Jewish sects confined themselves to the study of the Old Testament; they rejected the revelation which was given to the apostles by the Holy Spirit. The various heathen religions also rejected apostolic doctrine, claiming to have received revelations of their own.

Today the Lord’s church is unique in that it abides in apostolic doctrine. The Catholic Church recognizes the authority of the ex cathedra statements of the pope, the decisions of the various Catholic councils, and the apocrypha (additional books of the Old Testament). Most Protestant churches appoint synods and councils which have legislative authority over their various groups. Hence, they meet to determine whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to serve as ministers, as if the word of God had not already determined the issue. Even among those religious groups which have no synod or council, many churches feel at liberty to do anything which the Bible does not condemn. Hence, they have introduced choirs and mechanical instruments of music into the worship of the church, church supported institutions (hospitals, orphan homes, old folks homes, colleges, etc.) into the work of the church, and perverted the mission of the church from the divinely-revealed mission of saving souls to recreational activities.

Hence, one of the identifying characteristics of the church of the New Testament is that it abides in apostolic doctrine. It does not go beyond the word of God (2 Jn. 9:11) or recognize any other authority than the revealed word of God.

The Day Of Worship Was Unique To The Early Church

The early church assembled on the first day of every week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). This day of worship became known as the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1: 10). Several important events pertaining to the Lord and His church occurred on this day, including the following: (a) the Lord was raised from the dead on this day (Matt. 28:1); (b) He appeared to the disciples in His resurrected body on this day (Jn. 20:19,26); (c) the church was established on this day (Acts 2:1,47); (d) the first gospel sermon was preached on this day (Acts 2: 1). Hence, the first day of the week was the authorized day of worship for the New Testament church.

This distinguished the first century church from Judaism which “remembered the Sabbath” (Ex. 20:8). The pagans had no distinctive day of worship. As Christianity spread, the influence of the church caused Sunday to become known as the Lord’s day, the day of worship for Christians. The congregational assembly upon the first day of the week is still one of the distinctive marks of the New Testament church.

The Worship Of The Early Church Was Unique

The worship of the early church also set it apart as unique. The early church’s worship consisted of the following items:

1. Apostolic preaching. The early church worship assembly featured someone addressing the assembly from the revelation of God’s word (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 14).

2. The Lord’s supper. The early church assembled upon the first day of every week (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20; 16:12) to remember the death of Jesus. They partook of unleavened bread in remembrance of Jesus’ body and fruit of the vine in remembrance of His blood.

3. Prayer. Prayer was a part of the worship of the church (1 Cor. 14:15). Their prayers were unique in that mankind approached God through the mediatorship of Jesus Christ (Jn. 16:23-24).

4. Congregational Singing. The early church sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in their worship (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). They sang to one another; hence, they did not have specially trained choirs to do their singing for them. Although mechanical instruments of music were available for use (they were used in the Old Testament worship), there is no evidence that they were used in New Testament worship.

5. Contribution. When the early church came together, the Lord commanded that a collection be taken (1 Cor. 16:1-3). This contribution was used for benevolent purposes (1 Cor. 16:1-3) and evangelism (2 Cor. 11:8).

This worship was distinctive. The Jewish people assembled in their worship around an altar where animal sacrifices were offered to God. They studied the law of Moses. They had a separate priesthood. Sometimes their devotional meals became drunken orgies in which every kind of immorality was commonplace. Their worship differed from that of the New Testament church.

The worship of the New Testament church still differs from that of denominationalism and makes the New Testament church unique’. Most denominations have forsaken apostolic doctrine to hear a preacher tell some heartwarming stories; they have rejected the weekly observance of the Lord’s supper for a yearly, quarterly, or monthly observance (some have even changed the items to be used). They have rejected prayer through Jesus’ name for prayer though the name of “the holy blessed virgin Mary” or without recognition of any need for mediatorship. They have rejected congregational singing for singing by choirs or other special singing groups; they have supplemented singing with mechanical instruments of music. They have replaced freewill offerings with tithes.

Indeed, the church which worships in keeping with the divine pattern revealed in God’s word is still distinctive and unique. Such worship does not attract the worldly who expect to be entertained by the worship assembly; only the spiritually minded are attracted to services which are confined to the five acts of worship listed above. This should not be understood to imply that worship services should be gloomy and sad. Rather, they should be spiritual and biblical.


As men have departed from apostolic doctrine in various areas, those who confine themselves to the Bible become distinctive in those areas. Areas in which God’s people are distinctive include such things as the names by which they are known (both in their congregational and individual relationships), the organization of the local church and its autonomy, terms of membership, etc. The church which abides by the doctrine of Christ will always be distinctive.

Unfortunately, preaching sermons on the identifying marks of the New Testament church is going out of style. Some preachers no longer want to call names from the pulpit to contrast the departures from the word by modem denominations with the word of God and practice of His church. They are afraid that this will offend people. Rather, they want to emphasize the positive without mentioning such negative things which might turn people away. While none of us will accept abusive speech and conduct, we should know that every generation must learn what makes the Lord’s church unique. This must be so clearly learned and understood that men can distinguish it from the denominations around them. Unless our preaching accomplishes this, it is worthless and contributes to the denominationalizing of the church.

Elders, deacons, and members need to insist that the pulpit be used for this kind of preaching. Those men who do not preach distinctive sermons will produce a membership which views the Lord’s church as just another denomination. Where such views become predominant, the Lord’s church loses its identity and quickly moves into the mainstream of Protestant denominationalism. Our existence as the Lord’s church depends upon distinctive preaching which emphasizes the distinctive identifying marks of the New Testament church.

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 5, pp. 130, 152
March 7, 1985