Which mark of the church is most neglected today? Could it be expositional preaching or the practice of church discipline? Could it be training leaders who live up to the character qualities outlined in the pastoral epistles?
If we could ask Martin Luther, we might be surprised by his answer. In On the Councils and the Church (1539), he outlines seven marks of the church. The first six are what you’d expect: God’s church is recognized by (1) possession of God’s Word, (2) right administration of baptism, (3) right administration of communion, (4) exercise of church discipline, (5) qualified leadership, and (6) worship characterized by prayer and thanksgiving.
Luther’s seventh mark, however, may surprise you. He says that Christian lives must be shaped by the cross. “The holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross,” he writes. “They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh . . . in order to become like their head, Christ.”
Wear a cross and you signal you’re a Christian; bear the cross and you prove it. Believers today can feel surprised by trials or tempted to adopt a victim mentality when we encounter them. Luther, by contrast, believed that to know Christ, we must know him in his sufferings.
This is particularly the case for leaders. As early as 1518, in the “Heidelberg Disputation,” Luther wrote, “One deserves to be called a theologian . . . who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” While he echoed Paul’s description of his message and ministry in 1 Corinthians 1:18–25, Luther wasn’t merely imploring church leaders to preach “Christ and him crucified” (2:2). He also contrasts a “theologian of the cross” with a “theologian of glory.”
Christian ministry doesn’t conform to the patterns of performance, power, and pomp Luther saw in the medieval church. Rather, Christian leaders should both preach God’s gift of forgiveness through the cross and also be conformed to the cross by embracing suffering and trials. Cruciform preaching requires cruciform living.
Purpose in the Pain
In the 1539 preface to the Wittenberg edition of his German writings, Luther argues that the way to pursue healthy discipleship, the way to know God’s Word, is through meditation and prayer combined with trials and difficulty. He sees this in the Psalms.
David drew near to God when he was chased by enemies (Ps. 59), betrayed by friends (Ps. 41), and confronted with his own sin (Ps. 51). Whether we like it or not, says Luther, the same is true for every Christian under the word of the cross:
For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. I myself . . . am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have been otherwise.
God always has a purpose in our suffering. He may use it to kill our sin and train us in godly love. As James encouraged the church, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). We can be confident that in our pain, God is at work to grow us. When we participate in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death, he’s preparing us for resurrection (Phil. 3:10–11).
Mark, Not Benchmark
Luther certainly tapped into an important biblical theme. But should we think of suffering with Christ as a mark of a healthy church? Is a cruciform life a sign of faith, or is there a danger in thinking about trials this way?
Cruciform preaching requires cruciform living.
It’s dangerous to think of pain and suffering as a benchmark Christians must pursue. Even when Paul tells us to put to death our sin (Rom. 8:13), he doesn’t encourage asceticism or self-flagellation. We must fight our sinful nature, but pain isn’t something we need to seek out.
Nevertheless, when suffering comes—whether through pain, persecution, disability, or one day death—we must be prepared with a cross-shaped perspective. Lutheran children are taught to make the sign of the cross before they pray, and their churches celebrate the movements of the ancient church calendar that highlight key moments in Jesus’s earthly life; they see time as cross-shaped. For the most part, Reformed and evangelical churches have dropped these extrabiblical traditions. Even so, we need habits and practices like regularly celebrating communion or praying together on our knees to remind us of the Lord’s cruciform purpose.
Don’t Neglect Your Holy Call
When we forget Christ calls us to suffer for his sake, we’re tempted to embrace modern-day “theologies of glory” like finding more comfortable and accommodating ways to talk about the Bible’s sexual ethic, or pursuing rapid growth through the glitz and glam of attractional programming instead of slow discipleship.
When we forget Christ calls us to suffer for his sake, we’re tempted to embrace modern-day ‘theologies of glory.’
We may also be tempted to redefine our vision of a healthy church. We think that if the church bylaws reflect a more biblical polity church leaders will always get along, or we believe that if our doctrine and membership rolls are pure then the church will achieve not only a stronger witness but greater influence in the culture. This sort of pain-free vision of the church is a trap.
As Samuel James wrote recently,
Christianity is cruciform-shaped. It cannot be anything else. And the impulse we feel within us to try to contort that cruciform shape, to make it more effective, more viral, more powerful in a mass-media age, is an impulse that can only end in disaster.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11). “Wherever you see or hear this,” says Luther, “you may know that the holy Christian church is there.”
Jared Kennedy will participate in a microevent on “Pastoring School Choices” at TGC’s 2023 Conference, September 25–27, in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of topics and speakers. Register soon!