7 Marks of a Church

From the apostolic model at Antioch, we learn seven marks of a church.

7 Marks of a Church
Image Courtesy of IMB.

Marks of a good church is a discussion that has a long history in Christian thinking. The desire has always been to understand the irreducible and non-negotiable traits of the true church of Lord Jesus Christ. While various marks have been historically identified, nothing compares to learning from the apostolic example as recorded in the book of Acts. In Acts 11 and 13, we read about the church in Antioch. From the planting and subsequent growth of the church in Antioch, we can note seven crucial traits the apostolic church modeled in her corporate life and ministry. Let's briefly consider them one by one.  

  1. A Proclaiming Church (Acts 11:19-20)

Luke begins the description of the planting of this church by pointing out how those who were scattered from Jerusalem due to the persecution arising after Stephen's martyrdom were going around spreading the word about Christ. The two interesting things to note are who they were and what they were doing. Regarding the identity of these people, it is clear from Acts 8:1 that all but the apostles were scattered from Jerusalem. Hence these are clearly not any apostles. Luke, further does not identify them specifically as any sort of leaders either. This is especially evident when one looks at what they did. Luke uses a Greek word - λαλέω (laleō)- twice to refer to the activity of these men, whether to the Jews only or as the second group which started doing to the Gentiles also. Now, this Greek word often refers to everyday conversational speech, although it is used for utterances, both divine and human, in the New Testament. But it is important to keep in mind that Luke uses it slightly distinct from εὐαγγελίζω (euangelizō) which he often associates with authoritative spokespersons or leaders of the church. In the parallel passage in Acts 8:4, where he describes Philip's evangelistic ministry in Samaria, he uses εὐαγγελίζω (euangelizō) rather than λαλέω (laleō). In the fifty-four passages in which εὐαγγελίζω (euangelizō) occurs in the New Testament, the word "preach" is used forty-eight times in most English translations.  The point to be taken here is that Luke with his choice of words is hinting that the church planting in Antioch came about through simple believers who engaged their unbelieving friends in everyday conversations and shared the gospel. Thus it was a proclaiming church from its inception where every member, not just leaders, shared and spoke about Christ to others. In other words, here we have the priesthood of all believers in action. Here every member of the body of Christ was free to serve the Lord according to their gifting for the same goal of making Christ known to this lost world and thereby building up the church. The amazing thing to note here is that Antioch, later on, becomes the missionary hub of Paul and all his missionary endeavours. In other words, this church in Antioch that was planted by some nameless and ordinary believers eventually became the sending church of Paul, the apostle. The missionary impact of this church through Paul's missions is incalculable across the nations and time. What an encouragement it is to ordinary believers that a church that came into being through everyday witness of ordinary believers became the missionary headquarters of Paul. Let every Christian, therefore, take courage and witness Christ in his everyday conversations. Let us also be a proclaiming church.

2.  A Growing Church (Acts 11:21-24)

We find in both v.21 and v.24 that "a great number" of people turned to the Lord because the hand of the Lord was with them. Hence it was a growing church. Here we have to keep in mind the historic nature of this movement of the Spirit of God. For the first time in history, we have a congregation of predominantly Gentile believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This novelty also explains why the leaders in Jerusalem had to send Barnabas, a man also from Cyprus to go and investigate the news of this great work. Possibly, there was some sort of legalistic suspicion in Jerusalem, whether this work among the Gentiles without any direct involvement of any apostle was truly a genuine work of God. So Barnabas came and he observed the grace of God at work in this new church. In other words, he saw that lives were truly changed by the grace of God and quite contrary to Jewish suspicion, this was a genuine work of God in raising the first Gentile congregation. So Barnabas exhorts them to continue yielding to the Lord and this leads to even further addition of souls to the church (v.24).

We are told specifically that the source of all this growth in the church was the grace of God. So it was a growing church precisely because it emphasized, depended,  and majored on the grace of God, not legalism. This lesson is taught everywhere in the New Testament that the church truly grows not through legalism, but by the pure grace of God. When arrogant and ignorant men were taking the Law and teaching things contrary to the grace of God in Ephesus, Paul gave his apostolic command to Timothy to silence such men (1 Tim.1:3-7). For, legalism would bring no growth in genuine love and sincere faith. Rather, Paul says it is the grace of God that trains us to lead sober and godly lives without yielding to the passions of this world (Tit.2:11-14). In other words, the grace of God is not a license to sin, but one that truly trains us to say no to ungodliness (Tit.2:11). Whereas, our Lord Jesus taught us that legalism would only yield an appearance of godliness while being inwardly hollow. Hence He warned us to beware of the teachings of the Pharisees which he summarized as nothing but hypocrisy (Lk.12:1). While the Pharisees were externally the most strict in their adherence to the Law, the Lord identified that they were really just hypocrites.  Legalists are always externally strict, but they are inevitably hypocrites. As Paul says, legalistic rules only have an appearance of wisdom, but they are useless in overcoming the flesh (Col.2:21-23). We overcome the world, as John says, not by the Law, but by our faith in the Lord Jesus (1Jn.5:4-5).

So in Antioch, they taught the true and pure grace of God, and hence it was a growing church, both numerically and spiritually.

3. A Teaching Church (Acts 11:25-26)

After many people were added to the church, Barnabas sensed they need a good teacher to ground them in their discipleship. Hence he goes and brings Paul to Antioch. This results in an amazing teaching ministry at Antioch.  Teaching, many say, is the great omission when it comes to the Great Commission. The Lord Jesus wants his church to not only preach and reach lost souls but also that they be taught to observe all the commands He has given us. Teaching with a view to deepen obedience in the hearers is equally a crucial part of the Great Commission. We read in Paul's farewell address to the Ephesians, how he did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God to them (Acts 20:27). Paul again summarized his whole ministry as one that aims to present everyone mature or complete in Christ (Col.1:28). So a biblical teaching ministry is not one that merely exposits all the books of the Bible and fills the heads of the hearers with mere Bible-knowledge. Such a "teaching" ministry only produces proud and bigoted Pharisees who go around parading one's supposed knowledge of doctrine with contempt for other "inferior" Christians. Rather, a biblical teaching ministry, as we find here in Acts 11, is one that emphasizes doctrine to produce Christ-likeness in its hearers.

Here in Acts 11, we can observe four aspects of this teaching ministry led by Paul and Barnabas. First, we are told of its duration in that it lasted for a whole year. Keep in mind these were new believers and to train new believers, they had a year-long teaching, which is so unlike today's churches where if at all they have any teaching for new believers, it would be a few weeks long. So here we see how thorough this teaching ministry was at Antioch. Secondly, we note the location of this ministry is in the church. In other words, this teaching was not done by some seminary or para-church ministry specifically devoted to teaching believers, as we find many today.  In the Great Commission, it is the church that the Lord has ordained as the agency through which all the reaching and teaching should be done. Every local church ought to be a center of teaching and training new believers in the sound doctrine and holy living of the Bible. All para-church ministries should only be an aid, not a substitute, to this ministry of the local church. Thirdly, we have the scope of this ministry as inclusive of all in the church. In other words, this was not some small group run by Paul and Barnabas with some hand-picked men with leadership potential. While there is a place for such training groups, which we find in the ministry of our Lord and the apostles, here in Acts 11, we have a teaching ministry that was aimed at making every believer instructed in the word of God. Luke repeats the same phrase "a great number" from v.24, here in v.25 also to specify the comprehensive nature of this ministry. Fourthly, we are told the effect of this ministry is causing the world to call these disciples "Christians".  The church did not invent the title "Christians". It was the world who coined this term as they observed some genuine disciples in Antioch. As the unbelieving world observed the lives of these disciples in Antioch, they noted that the Christ that these people proclaim can also be witnessed in their lives. They were truly little Christs or Christians who did not merely preach about forgiveness in Christ but also practiced costly forgiveness to their enemies. Even today, this is the effect of a genuinely biblical teaching ministry, that it transforms men and women to be godly, humble, meek, and obedient Christians.

4. A Giving Church (Acts 11:27-30)

Antioch was not only a church that cared for spiritual needs like evangelizing the lost and discipling the saved, as we saw so far, but was also a church that cared deeply for the physical needs of the people. Here, the church learns through prophecy that a famine is going to come soon all over the known world. So when it happens, they raise support for the poor brethren of Judea affected by this famine. So it was a giving church marked with generosity. We are told that this was a purely voluntary act of the believers, with each one determining how much they want to give according to their ability.  But all gave something out of their love for the brethren. There are two principles here that are of didactic significance. First, we should note the fact that here is a Gentile congregation sending material support for their suffering Jewish brethren. Paul teaches us that this material support is a debt that Gentiles owe to Jews since Jews have been the cause of spiritually blessing the Gentiles (Rom.15:25-27). Second, we can generalize this particular principle and learn that those who have been spiritually blessed should in return materially bless those ministers (Gal. 6:6; 1 Cor.9:11). Antioch is an example of how generous we must be to help those who are poor and needy, especially those who have spiritually blessed us.

5. A Loving Church (Acts 13:1)

Luke begins chapter 13 with a description of the prophets and teachers who were at Antioch. This team of men probably were the leaders of this church with Lucius of Cyrene being one of the "men of Cyprus and Cyrene" (Acts 11:20) who planted this church. Lucius could be the pastor of this congregation while the others were involved in the prophetic and teaching ministry of the church. Now, notice the makeup of this team in terms of ethnicity, race, and geography. We will quickly learn then that Antioch was truly a loving church. We have Jews from the land like Manaen, diasporic Jews like Barnabas and Lucius, Niger who is probably a Black Gentile, Saul who used to persecute the church, and Manaen who was brought up with Herod, the tetrarch, the man who killed John the Baptist. Despite their ethnic, racial, and geographic diversity, they were one in the Lord. Unlike many churches today where racial, regional, or worse, caste-based chauvinism reigns supreme, Antioch truly believed that if one is in Christ, he is a new creation and that we should no longer see anyone in the flesh (2Cor.5:16-17).  This is a hard lesson to learn, but one that is highly needed in the church across the globe. In the West, racial differences have been elevated within the church to produce racially segregated congregations even within the same denomination. In India, we are yet to crucify the demonic institution of caste and regionalism within the church. Whether it is in the makeup of the congregation, the choice of a potential spouse, or the ordination of pastors, the Indian church still plays by caste and regionalism. Even among the Indian diaspora the church is divided as Malayali church, Telugu church, Tamil church, etc. If it was a linguistic preference, it is understandable as the vernacular ministry is highly needed and to be emphasized more than English churches among Indians. But there is more at play here than a mere choice of language. In the name of regional languages, we have also become tribalistic and bigoted. We need to learn afresh from Paul that along with 2 Corinthians 5:17 which is often quoted by us in our churches, we need to learn 2 Corinthians 5:16 that since we are all new creation, the old creation is no longer seen by us - whether it is their personal past, like Paul was a murderer or, their ethnic, racial, regional, or linguistic background. While the background of a person never changes, we treat all those who are a new creation in Christ with the same love, respect, and care. There is no place for discrimination based on who they were before coming to Christ - be it their skin colour, caste, language, etc.  When we love each other with such a heavenly love that transcends all fleshly differences, the world will know we are the disciples of Christ (Jn. 13:35).

6. A Praying Church (Acts 13:2)

We read that the leaders of the church in Antioch were together ministering to the Lord with fasting. In verse 3, we also read that after hearing from the Holy Spirit, they fasted and prayed.  So as ministers, they dedicated time for spending in the presence of the Lord with worship, prayer, and fasting. They were not just students of the Word, but men who knew the power of prayer. As the apostles had already declared they were to give themselves for prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Here we are not talking of private and personal prayer, but as a group of leaders in the church, they waited on the Lord to listen for guidance from the Spirit with much fasting and prayer. The way Luke mentions it in verse 2 makes it clear that this was not some extraordinary practice, but one that was part of their usual practice. In the West, many churches do not have any practice of personal or corporate fasting unless constrained by some extraordinary providence. However, at Antioch, the leaders regularly and habitually sought the Lord in fasting and prayer. In India, thankfully among evangelical churches, there is a healthy practice of fasting and prayer, many doing it weekly. However, we also need to be careful to do it in the apostolic manner. This was far from a mere ritual and it was certainly not for personal gain. It is clear the leaders were waiting on the Lord with sincere worship and fasting, when the Holy Spirit spoke to them regarding the future ministry and mission of the church. We need such fasting prayers where we have no personal agenda and come simply to wait and hear from the Lord, if He has anything to instruct us regarding the ministry and mission of the church. New ministries, vision, missional strategies etc., are birthed by the Spirit when the church, especially her leaders, set aside time and humbly seek Him. When was the last time you came across a church that routinely fasted in intercession for our nation, the revival of our churches, and for the future of our mission in this world? Antioch was such a praying church.

7. A Sending Church (Acts 13:3)

As the ministers fasted and waited on the Lord, we read in verse 2 that the Holy Spirit issued a commission to set apart Barnabas and Paul for their real ministry. In response, they fasted and prayed more which led them to lay hands on Barnabas and Paul and send them as missionaries. Notice here that the calling comes from the Spirit, but the commendation and confirmation come from the church. Thus the church in obedience to the Spirit should set apart men called by God for ministry and send them. Thus Antioch was a sending church.

The amazing thing in this passage is that between verses 2 and 3, we do not read of any deliberation on the part of the leaders to send Barnabas and Paul who were so crucial to the growth of their church. In some ways, as far as we are told about the history of this church, these two men were the best of all men in this church and the leaders had no hesitation in sending them from the church. They were obedient to the Spirit rather than loving themselves. They were men who loved the mission of spreading the gospel everywhere more than just enjoying good ministry in their home church alone. By this act of obedience, we can also infer that they were men who truly believed it is Christ alone who builds His church with the power and gifts of His Holy Spirit and, therefore, every man, even an apostle, is dispensable. Anyone can be sent and still the church will grow for its growth rests securely on the shoulders of the only Lord of the church, her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. In other words, they were a sending church because they were a Christ-centered and not man-centered church. What an irony it is to observe then the many theologically conservative churches today that pride themselves as more God-centered than others are some of the poorest participants in the cause of global missions. Simply claiming to be God-centered because one claims to have plumbed the depths of abstract theology is deceitful. The mark that we have become truly God-centered is that we can part with any human agency that has so far been so instrumental in the growth and joy of the church, like here in Antioch, they were willing to send beloved apostles, Barnabas and Paul.

We should also take note of the fact that the great missionary labours of apostle Paul and his team came about through some ordinary leaders in Antioch, and not through the laying of hands by some apostles. While it is true, Paul had apostolic confirmation from Jerusalem apostles, it is noteworthy here that the elders in Antioch did not feel any need to seek the confirmation or even involvement of Jerusalem apostles in setting apart Barnabas and Paul for this ministry. Two truths are worth learning here. First, as we have seen earlier, the call comes from God alone, the church can only confirm. No apostle made Paul an apostle, for no apostle can do so. In fact, no pastor or preacher or evangelist can issue a call to someone. We can only confirm, train, commend, and send, but the call has to issue from God. Second, it matters very little whether the men who lay their hands are small or great. Paul's missionary labours are indeed the greatest in Christian history, but we know precious little about these men who obeyed the Lord and send him. We should, therefore, avoid all pride by association that deems the men who lay their hands as more important and crucial in the success of our ministry than the God who calls us. This is the foundational lie of all celebrity culture in Christianity. Antioch's example calls us away from all such exaltation of men. Paul, an apostle humbled himself before the leadership of Antioch as they laid hands on him, while humble leaders, not some celebrity apostle, sent Paul and Barnabas for their great missionary work. Humility is written all over this incident.

Finally, when we consider the rest of Christian history recorded within the book of Acts, as well as in the annals of church history, we realize the incalculable impact of this one act of obedience from the church in Antioch. For, the missionary labours of Paul and Barnabas lead to the great growth of Christianity all across the Roman world, which then paved the way for the further Christianization of the West. All these churches that the apostles planted among the Gentiles became the means through which all the Pauline epistles were then written. The impact those epistles have had as part of Scripture in regenerating, reviving, and instructing Christians all across the world and time is still an ongoing effect. In other words, the whole world was changed by this one act of obedience. Even today, as faithful churches obey the Spirit and send their best men to reach the unreached, the impact is incalculable as nations rise to the glory of the risen Christ, and countless lives are redeemed for all eternity.


Having seen the seven marks of the corporate life and ministry of the church in Antioch, let us conclude by noting the spiritual impetus behind all these marks. When we meditate on this record of Luke concerning Antioch, two truths emerge regarding the spirituality of this congregation. First of all, the exhortation Barnabas gave them as new believers was to cleave to the Lord with resolute hearts. It is clear that the church received this instruction wholeheartedly and hence more were added to their church. The men and women of Antioch were wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. It was their settled disposition to always join their hearts with the Lord. Unless we emulate this spirituality of the heart, no amount of outward activity will bring forth a church as effective as Antioch was in these seven areas of corporate life and ministry. Second, it is evident that here in Antioch every believer was obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Whether it is in their personal witness to others as a proclaiming church, their cleaving to the Lord in obedience to the exhortation of the apostle, putting to practice the taught word for growing in Christlikeness, taking heed to the prophetic word about famine and subsequent giving, waiting on the Spirit with fasting and praying, and sending in obedience to the guidance of the Spirit, it is clear that this was a church that was obedient to the Holy Spirit. Be it the prodding to share the gospel, the apostolic exhortation to obey, doctrinal instruction to ground them, a prophetic word to forewarn them or guide them, whatever be the means the Spirit used to reveal His will, the church in Antioch was open and obedient. Unless we also are a church that is open to the gifts of the Spirit and obedient to His will, we cannot become an effective church like Antioch. In many churches, sadly there is no concern for listening to the Spirit's guidance. There are churches where the Holy Spirit is mentioned only during the Trinitarian benediction. No wonder such churches are so devoid of life and hardly anyone gets converted or convicted by the Spirit in their supposedly theologically pristine and orderly services. Let us follow the example of Antioch and yield ourselves fully to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

It is this combination of heart holiness unto Christ and faithful surrender to the Holy Spirit that would make any church an obedient and effective church like Antioch. Oh, may pastors, elders, and every believer take hold of this example and let us pray earnestly, prepare our hearts diligently, and persevere wholeheartedly in our obedience to see the Lord build such beautiful churches around the world.