Mailbag #56: What Makes a “True” Church?


Would you say churches that don’t practice membership or discipline are not true churches? »

Dear 9Marks,

Pastor Leeman,

I have a church member who has read 9Marks books and now judges every church on whether they are a “true church” (a church at all) based on whether they practice church membership and discipline, how they run their elder board, and so forth. This man won’t call other gospel-believing churches “churches” unless they line up with the “nine marks of a healthy church.” In addition, this man makes comments about who should and who shouldn’t be taking communion after passing the elements.

From my understanding, after listening to a podcast by you and Mark Dever, you both believe a church is one which preaches the gospel and observes the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Would you say churches that don’t practice membership or discipline, or that have a different polity than yours, are not true churches? This man would say these gospel churches don’t preach a “true gospel” if they don’t agree with 9Marks’ teaching on the church.

But I don’t hear you stating this. Can you help?


Dear Teej,

First, don’t make this man an elder.

Second, perhaps encourage him to read “Don’t Be a 9Marxist” and “Love Your Church More than Its Health.”

Third, forgive us for anything we said that led to these conclusions. We work to model a spirit of grace and joy at everyone who partners with us in the gospel, even if they disagree with us in matters of membership, discipline, and polity generally. I trust we could to a better job at that.

Fourth, instruct him to stop commenting on who should and should not receive the Supper. He does not bear within his own person the authority of the whole congregation. Only congregations can ex-communion someone.

Fifth, Protestants historically have referred to one another across denomination lines using the language of true or false as well as the language of regular or irregular. If a church preaches the gospel, it’s a true church. If it doesn’t, it’s a false church.

If a church preaches the gospel, but does not structure itself according to Scripture, you might say it’s true, but irregular, as in, not structured according to the regula or rule of Scripture. So Baptists would refer to Presbyterian churches as true, but irregular. And Presbyterians would refer to Baptist churches in the same way.

I’d say the same about any matter of church structure: practices of membership, discipline, elders, and so forth. Don’t condemn them as false churches. Praise God they have the gospel. And pray and encourage them toward greater health.

Let me conclude with a prooftext. Paul tells Timothy that he left him in Crete to “put what remained into order” in the churches in Crete by appointing elders. So, you had churches in Crete with no elders. They were true churches. But they were dis-order-ly—not according to the biblical order. In other words, they were irregular.

Hope this helps.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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