In the book Hitting the Marks: Restoring the Essential Identity of the Church, I present the historic, Reformed understanding that the three key identification marks of a true church are the faithful preaching of God's Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of discipline. In response, I am often asked the question above. Why is love not among the marks of the church? After all, Jesus Himself said,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
With such a clear indication by the Lord that love identifies us as His followers, then how can it not be included as a mark of the church? Why, with the emphasis placed upon it here, is love not THE mark of the church?
Though I do address this question more fully in the ninth chapter of the book, let me give my short answer followed by a brief explanation. My answer to the question "Why is love not the mark of the church?" is simply this: "It is!" Now let me explain.
How is love to others in the church shown? Certainly there are many, varied expressions of it, such as showing hospitality, speaking encouraging words, or visiting a brother or sister when they are ill or suffering. Yet in the church where the Lord Jesus Christ is head of the body, what are the primary, objective, essential characteristics of this love? They are those actions that most represent who Christ is and what He has done for us. Indeed, we can answer the question of "Why is love not the mark of the church?" with questions of our own:
Is not Christian love preaching to others of the love of God for sinners demonstrated in the gospel (Rom. 5:8)?
Is not Christian love welcoming repentant sinners into the family of God through administering baptism and bearing in love with one another under that one baptism of the Spirit (Eph. 4:1-6)?
Is not Christian love seen in the church coming around the Lord's Supper in holiness and concern for one another? (Recall that the quote from Jesus above on loving one another was given in the context of the Lord's Supper.)
Is not Christian love caring enough about our fellow church member that if we see him falling prey to the deadly enemy of sin that we discipline him to restore him to Christ, knowing that the Father "disciplines those He loves"? (Heb. 12:6)
Far from love being excluded from the marks of the church, these marks rather reveal and emphasize its presence. For as Francis Turretin, in his classic work The Institutes of Elenctic Theology, shows, love and holiness flourish where the marks of the church are most evident.
For where the truth obtains publicly, there also love and holiness flourish in their own way; nor can the pure word of God be preached anywhere without the sacraments being also administered lawfully in the same place and the discipline prescribed by the word of God being observed and thriving, since these two flow from the word of God and are appendages of it.