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In the Reformed tradition we have the marks of the true church which include preaching and teaching of the Word of God, the sacraments and church discipline or the pastoral care of wandering sheep (Belgic Confess# 29). The Reformers stated that when these marks were evident in a church then by definition it was to be distinguished from a counterfeit or false church. Today we have the challenge of defining the marks of a couple — let us say that they are married or about to be married — and ask if they are truly Christian, because we recall the words of Jesus who said, "Not everyone who says, Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

A few definitions first.

My former neighbor had three wives and married each of them legally according to the laws of his country. It might be hard to define a “couple” in that situation. Someone has a family member or an acquaintance who has married someone legally according to the laws of their own country and yet falls out of the CRC [and Biblical] definition of marriage as occurring between one woman and one man in covenant faithfulness. In both cases, the law of the country affirmed a certain definition marriage and its legality. That does not necessarily imply that the church should recognize these as marriages with the stated blessings of the Triune God.

So for the purposes of this paper, we will assume that the couple could be any couple and that they either are being told that they are Christians or think they are. This leads us to the question at hand, “What are the marks of a true Christian couple?” The question is hugely important, because if I as a pastor tell a couple they are by definition Christian, and in actual fact they are not, this will serve to weaken the faith of all of my church members, potentially cause the couple to fall  or not to even "enter the Kingdom of heaven" and more so, dishonor the Lord of the church. We also assume that growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ is a process and that growth in personal and corporate holiness is also a process. Space does not permit a discussion of a Christian being married to a non-Christian (see a recent post here). 

The Belgic Confession Article 29 on the marks of a true Christian:

... Those who are of the [true] church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour, flee from sin and pursue righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works.  Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life.  They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him.

Then the same article defines a false church, and we could by extension say that this would characterize those who would want to identify with such a church, and thus would be called "false Christians."

The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.  It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases. It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

Thus we could change the statement to read:

The members and leadership of the false church assign more authority to themselves and their ordinances than to the Word of God. They do not want to submit themselves to the yoke of Christ. They do not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word, but add to them and subtract from them as they please [think of having open communion for those who live in direct contradiction to the clear teachings of Scripture.] They base themselves more on humans than on Jesus Christ. They persecute those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed and idolatries.

Seven marks of…

  1.  A true Christian couple are disciples as Jesus defined them. Jesus instructed his disciples to “make disciples” and to teach them to obey everything that he had commanded them (Matthew 28). Jesus as the master disciple maker was passing on the torch, and gave instructions that were not optional pieces of advice, but orders to be followed. The Apostle Paul mentioned that he had communicated the ‘whole counsel of God’ to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20). Thus it would seem to follow that one of the marks of the true Christian couple is that they are being formed as disciples of Jesus and who obey even the hard things that he said. His sexual standards, for instance were far more difficult than the surrounding culture as he even addressed matters from the heart. [It is also noteworthy that this disciple making would occur in the context of a true church where the word of God is preached in its entirety and in the power of the Holy Spirit.]
  2. A true Christian couple are cross-bearers and cross-embracers. Jesus said that one of the criterion for being called a disciple is that they would be known as “taking up their cross and following him” (Matthew 16:24). Again they are following in the footsteps of the Ultimate cross-bearer and ultimate example of someone willing to lay down his creature comforts, his desires for fulfillment, and his desires for fame and to submit them all to the will of His Heavenly Father. By definition, then the members of a true Christian couple must be cross-bearers, and this includes every area of life. [It is noteworthy that the sacrament of baptism celebrates death to the old nature].
  3. A true Christian couple finds its identity in Christ. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians told his audience “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (3:3). The Apostle Paul was distinguishing true and false circumcision, namely that one celebrated what humans could do, and the other celebrated a spiritual act of cutting off the old nature, which God could do. Then he mentioned that such people would worship by the Sprit of God, who is by definition the Holy Spirit and by definition this worship would be motivated by and characterized by holiness and purity — even extending to definitions of holiness and purity in the moral law of the Old Testament. Secondly, such a person or group of persons does not give any weightiness to their righteous acts — even being nice and committed people — or in their social standing, or in their choices in life, but they live and breathe to give glory to Christ Jesus. At the end of the day, he determines their identity and nothing else.    
  4. A true Christian couple would be defined by the creation story. In Genesis 2, which is referred to by both Jesus (Matthew 19:5) and the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:31),  couples are defined. That is to say, a couple is not self-referential, or that it defines itself. For this reason the Apostle Paul spoke so strongly about a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife (I Corinthians 5:1) and so strongly about the scandalous nature of a church that would close a blind eye to it. He saw this “coupling” — even though it could be defended by some as fulfilling a relational and sexual need and be very committed — as wholly illegitimate in the view of Genesis 2, where a man and a woman were designed to need each other, to complement each other physically, emotionally, mentally and to leave their father and mother, to become one flesh and to be able to reproduce under the blessing of God. In the final analysis it is God's Word which has been entrusted to His church to uphold "the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Tim 6:3) which will define if a couple is a true Christian couple.
  5. A true Christian couple does not live for itself or celebrate the old nature.  In the church, no one lives for themselves, and especially not their old selves. It is a company of those who have and are crucifying “the old nature and walking in a Godly life” by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the terms of the covenant. That is to say, one cannot have the benefits of the covenant people of God and disregard its terms. [Interestingly the mark of the true church, namely the restoration of wandering sheep or the sanctions if they persist in disobedience is about valuing the honor of God’s covenant community which represents Him on earth.]
  6. A true Christian couple loves the people of God. The epistle of I Peter spells out a logical path from obedience to truth to love for the people of God. There we read “Now that you have obeyed the truth and have purified your souls to love your brothers [and sisters] sincerely, you must love one another intensely and with a pure heart” (I Peter 1:22 cf. I John 3:14). There is no lack of passion here, but it is properly directed passion, but it begins with obedience to truth and subsequent purification.
  7. A true Christian couple would submit to the correction of the church. This assumes that the church is walking the talk and has standards of historical orthodoxy at work. If an elder would ask a young unmarried couple of a so-called Christian male and female not to live together anymore, until they were married, this could be an acid test about their core commitments. That is to say, if they only wore a superficial title of “Christian” and were more committed to instant pleasure than the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ and his covenant community, then the term “true Christian couple” might be called into question by their actions. After all, isn’t there a proverbial saying “actions speak louder than words?”

Application questions:

  • A couple comes to you as a pastor or an elder and tells you that they are Christians. Should you take their word at face value, or ask them what they mean by that? Is it fair to ask them about their core commitments and activities? Perhaps what they are or are not doing with their bodies is actually an indicator.
  • In the final analysis who are what defines whether or not they are true Christians? Is it the church? Other?
  • At what point do emotional arguments such as “it would be very mean of the Apostle Paul to come down hard on a man who is expressing himself sexually and is in need of the emotional support of a relationship” or “that elder is so self-righteous and mean-spirited to ask that couple not to live together” collapse under the greater consideration of the honor due to the Lord of the Church and to avoid even the appearance of evil?
  • What if you as a pastor or elder or church have accepted the current spirit of the age in which we must be accepting to all, and thus will not even consider the question of “what are the marks of a true Christian couple?” Is it possible that under the rubric of being gracious, you are actually sliding away from the marks of the true church? Could you be moving towards what the Belgic Confession defined as "the false church?"
  • By definition disciples make disciples who make disciples. What kind of disciples would the “Christian couple” in front of you make?

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