How does one identify a true church? There are many groups of people today who refer to themselves as the ekklesia, the church (literally "called out"). For those who are new in the faith, or for those who get confused about the many factions that exist, there are ways to identify which is the true church and which is the false church.
Those things that are NOT Marks of a True Church
1.) CHURCH NAME - Some feel that the name "church" makes one a true church. Calling an organization a "church" does not make one a church. The church at Sardis had a name that they were alive, though they were dead (Revelation 3:1). Therefore, nothing in the "name" of a church can be considered the mark of a true church.
2.) AGE AND DURABILITY - Some suggest that that a true church is one who can establish a long history for its specific organization. However, the Devil's kingdom has been on earth since the fall. At the beginning of the "Reformation" of the church in New Testament times, age and durability were of no benefit to the false church of Judaism, who were agents of the Devil (John 8:44). Therefore, age and durability are no marks of a true church.
3.) NUMBER OF PROFESSING CONVERTS - This is especially apropos in light of today's church growth movement. A church that is growing rapidly in numbers doesn't necessarily correspond to a true church. In fact, more often than not, the reverse is true. In the first Century, Judaists and Pagans both outnumbered the true church. In Noah's Day, the true church failed to grow at all. In contrast, we read that the whole world followed after the Beast (Revelation 13:3). The New Testament Church is addressed as a "little flock" (Luke 12:32), as we are warned in Scripture that "the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few". (Matthew 7:14). Therefore, a large number of professing converts is no mark of a true church.
4.) APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION - Some have suggested that a line of succession for bishops and clergy is a mark of a true church. However, the Apostles themselves warned of false prophets and teachers in their own time (Matthew 7:15; 2 Peter 2:1), and proclaimed that they would grow abundant in latter days, "having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power". (2 Timothy 3:1-5). We have seen a multitude of churches in our own day, with a good succession, degenerate into heresy. Judas Iscariot was first in line in terms of Apostolic Succession, yet was a Devil (John 6:70). Therefore apostolic succession, even if it could be proven, is no mark of a true church.
5.) EXTERNAL LUSTER AND PROSPERITY - Some have suggested that fame, riches, and prosperity are a sign of approval from God, and therefore are marks of a godly faith and a true church. What a deceitful scheme that the Devil has laid at the feet of the simple! The church at Laodicea was rich, prospered, and in need of nothing in terms of temporal blessings, but did not realize that it was "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked". (Revelation 3:17). Asaph was envious when he saw the wicked prosper (Psalm 73:3), until he saw their end (Psalm 73:17-19). In contrast, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58), and the apostles were lacking in silver and gold (Acts 3:6). Therefore prosperity is not a mark of a true church.
Those things that are the Marks of a True Church
The Nicene Creed espouses belief "in one holy catholic and apostolic Church". The true meaning of these words have been misrepresented by false churches who, just by importing these words into their name, market themselves as rightful heirs to the kingdom. Therefore, we must gain a right understanding of what it means to be a holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
1.) HOLY - The term "Holy" is most accurately defined as "set apart". The true church consists only of Christians, those who are set apart from the world in Covenant with God. Those who are unbelievers are not of the church, although they may be in the church (1 John 2:19). The church is holy in the eyes of God, not by its own works, but because of the work of Christ, who is its sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:2). Those to whom Christ has joined himself were chosen “in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him” (Ephesians 1:4). As a result, Christians are commanded to be holy (1 Peter 1:16), and to constantly pursue and grow in holiness (Ephesians 4:24, 2 Corinthians 7:1). The church uses of the Word to Instruct in Holiness (John 17:17, Ephesians 5:26), the sacraments to discern the Lord's Body (1 Corinthians 11:29), and Keys of the Kingdom to discipline those who are unholy (Matthew 16:19).
2.) CATHOLIC - This term is the cause of great confusion in modern times, and is used by papists to promote their organization as well as the accompanying fables as truth. The term means "universal" and was used long before Romanism began to ostracize those of the Apostolic Faith. The church is universal (Ephesians 2:12-13) in that it includes not only Israel, as was the case in the Old Covenant, but "the children of God that were scattered abroad". (John 11:52). The Roman Church, however, is not "catholic" in spite of its use of the term, nor ever has been.
3.) APOSTOLIC - Some have used this term to promote the myth of Apostolic Succession as being the mark of a true church. However, true meaning of the term "Apostolic" refers to adherence to Apostolic Doctrine, which is the Word of God as contained in the Holy Scriptures. Note that it is not merely the “use” of the Word that identifies the true church, for even the Devil uses the Word in corrupt ways to suit his own ends. (Matthew 4:6). Rather the true church rightly handles the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15), for that Word is the only standard for life and practice. The true church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 2:20), and cannot depart from "the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ;" (Jude 1:17). Even the verbal preaching of the Apostle Paul was subject to testing by way of the Holy Scriptures (Acts 17:11), so that anyone who preached another gospel, including apostles or angels, was anathema (Galatians 1:8). Hence the church is Apostolic in terms of doctrine, not by "fables and endless genealogies" (1 Timothy 1:3-4). No pope or archbishop can claim Apostolic authority while shunning Apostolic Doctrine, for "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work". (2 Timothy 3:16-17)