(Kuyper is discussing in some detail the deterioration of the church. He has discussed this deterioration in various aspects of the church’s life. In the last paragraph which appeared in the Standard Bearer, he discussed this deterioration in the government of the church.)
Sects almost always originate because of the fault of the church. This happens in a three-fold way. It happens, first, if the church permits a part of the truth to be obscured; this obscured truth seeks an outlet in a sect. Secondly, this happens when the church does not satisfy the need of the communion of the saints—a lack which in a sect finds satisfaction in a different way. Finally, this happens when the church lets the reins of discipline slip and by this lets false doctrine reign. The church permits its roots to shoot out for its own benefit, so that the church lives almost exclusively for itself. This is one of the most dangerous deformations of the Church of Christ which usually manifests itself in the milder form of a tendencytowards sectarianism. Sectarianism compels each group which is already in the church of Christ to form a separate circle, and in this way to choose another rallying point than that of the church itself. The rallying point of the church is the whole truth as it lives in Him Who said, “I am the truth.” A group formed around another rallying point in the church, even though it might temporarily oppose the church, always in fact remains a church and can never be called sectarian. But if a group forms a narrow circle which lifts out of the body of the truth a single point of doctrine and sets that up for its rallying point; or if that group finds its common basis in a certain person who is either still living or already dead; or if that group seeks its real communion of the saints outside the means of grace; then this group is sectarian in nature and essence and must pass over by inevitable development into the formation of an individual sect.
Mention must briefly be made of schismatic groups which mostly originate from grumbling dissatisfaction over ecclesiastical administration of justice or which originate by exaggerated attachment to ecclesiastical externals. This kind of shoot has no root, quickly withers, and dies out. In the estimation of the church, a schismatic becomes a dissatisfied person when he works in a carnal way and indulges in unholy anger; while sectarian persons and the sects which come forth out of their unrest are almost always misled individuals who depart in good faith. They are serious persons who are heavenly-minded, but who, partly by the fault of the church, partly by their own carelessness and stubbornness, do not listen to admonition. Thus, e.g., at the present time, perfectionism, just as the Ethicists,¹ is only a sectarian movement in the church, while Darbyism, Irvingism, etc., are sects which already attempt to organize themselves independently and now live as parasites on the ecclesiastical stem.
If one adds up all these departures in members and in ministers, in the Confessions and in the means of grace, in discipline and works of mercy, in the worship service and in church government., by sectarian groups and by sects, then everyone feels how these varied illnesses at last can affect the life of the church in such a way that deformation takes over completely and the church dies. There is then nothing more in the church to be deformed because all life is gone. Thus the sham church comes into existence; i.e., the absolutely deformed church which is leprous from the top of the head to the sole of the foot; entirely white deep into the skin; all the living color gone without a trace of healthy flesh upon which the poison of sickness can still work in a destructive way. In such a sham church is peace, rest, quiet; but it is the quiet of the cemetery. It is like a burned-out harp which is reduced to white ash and grey cinders. It is a corpse though not yet decomposed. Such a sham church would be unthinkable if the church existed by itself. But it is sustained in that form for a long time, either by connections with other churches or by connections with the state or by its property, possessions, rights, or titles. If it existed independently of these things, then it would simply disappear after her candlestick is taken away and would pass into a state of decay. But now through such church connection, state connections, or legal connections, this sinking away and decay is restrained; and such an institution, which is nor longer (in any respect) a church, can yet maintain the appearance of a church. One finds a skeleton, but a skeleton still neatly clothed, although with torn and soiled ecclesiastical clothing. Such a sham church one finds, e.g., in our East Indies colonies where governmental authority and state money keeps the churches going. One finds them in North Brabant² where they, artificially cultivated, can never shoot out roots of their own, but by the means of state salaries remain hanging like a withered flower on a nearby supporting stick. Finally, one finds them also in North Holland, in Groningen and Drenthe, perhaps also elsewhere in those places where there is no longer any person who confesses the truth, no ecclesiastical ministration which still brings the means of grace, and where each morning the sun rises and each evening the sun sets without a single knee bowing before King Jesus or a single tongue confessing Him.
It is proper to distinguish, finally, between this sham church and that most appalling of all deformations which ends in the appearance of the false church or the church of antichrist. Still always the doctrine of antichrist is little developed in the church and most people suppose that antichrist is of the same tenor as Satan. This is most positively not so. Satan sets himself over against God and imitates, in the desperation of his impotence, all that God does, to see if he is able to succeed in destroying God’s kingdom with God’s own instruments. The antichrist, on the other hand, refers to such a person in whom Satan allows something similar to appear as the Lord God allowed to appear on earth when He sent us the Mediator. Such antichrists are many in number and rise throughout all ages in so far as the unsuccessful and weak attempts of Satan to create an antichrist are called by the apostles with that name. But also the real antichrist is he in whom Satan shall be successful for awhile in carrying out his deceitful appearance and criminal performance. Even as Christ has His church and King Jesus His subjects, so Satan also attempts, always imitating the work of God, to form a church for his antichrist and subjects for his false king. From this proceeds a continuous effort of Satan to reveal an antichurch and an antichristian or false church. Now Satan cannot do this by new institutions. He is too powerless for this. And so it happens that Satan again and again lies in wait to sneak into an existing church and to set up that church under a false appearance into its opposite. Just as in a naval war the enemy is sometimes on the lookout to board a defenseless ship of the enemy, to throw the crew on this ship into irons, and to set its own people on it; and then with the battering ram or the artillery of the enemy’s own ship, under a false and deceitful flag, to sink the remaining ship, so also is the design of Satan. For this reason he does not destroy the church but rather makes it powerful. He does not take away its holiness but misuses it. They are indeed devouring wolves which he lets in, but these devouring wolves appear from outside to be lambs; thus apparently in innocence they walk around in lambs’ clothing. This false church is then operated by devils, but nothing of its devilish character appears because they present themselves as angels of light. This church is, to take an example of a sick person, not like the one suffering from consumption, who sinks into exhaustion, but much more like one possessed, who strongly and maliciously, while you try to help him, flies at you, grabs you by the throat, and kills you if God does not prevent it.
Therefore there must be a sharp distinction made between real churches of Christ who become deformed; between sham churches who cease to be churches of Christ because deformation has run its course; and between false churches in whom deformation only serves to call into existence a Satanic counter-reformation.
Our fathers confessed concerning this false church that, “She ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from, as she thinks proper. She relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those, who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”
In the meantime this false church has also distinct degrees of falsity. Just as a possessed person can be possessed by one or by one million demons, so also a church can be diverted by greater or lesser subtleties of Satan. And in the same way, just as there were possessed people who could still call to Jesus and whom Jesus loosed from their demons at their prayer, so there can be churches which can be in part and for a time instruments of Satan and which the Lord can yet set free from Satan’s work at a humble prayer.
We must also on this point be on our guard against hasty judgment. Undoubtedly the church of Christ, in the day when Luther arose, lay almost entirely bound in the chains of Satan, and when Rome drank the blood of God’s saints, there was very positively an antichristian power in her church organism. It would be cowardly and unspiritual not to dare to express this. On the other hand, whether the Romish church as such was so entirely and lastingly forsaken by the Holy Spirit, whether the Pope was actually the antichrist, was a question which was answered in 1603 by the French Church at her Synod in the affirmative; but the Reformed churches, here and elsewhere, would not incorporate this idea into her confession at Dordrecht, even though they knew what the French Church had done. Clearly our fathers did not want this absolute expression even though they were inclined to it; and, on the contrary, continued to recognize the baptism administered in the Romish church as a valid sacrament; and because the sacrament is nothing without the working of grace, they therefore confessed that also in these entirely degenerate churches the grace of the Lord was still working.
If we take the position of our fathers then it follows from this that there are partly falsified and to this extent, false churches; but the absolutely false church, i.e., the complete manifestation of the church in which Satan shall attempt to celebrate his final triumph over Christ, has thus far tarried.
May God Almighty preserve us that our churches never serve as an instrument of Satan and that Satan never animates our churches with his demonic influence. Never become yourselves confessors of the Lord, possessed by the evil one, but may our heavenly Teacher and sweet Comforter, God the Holy Spirit, live, work, and pray in us as in His lawful temple!
¹ The ethical movement in the Netherlands was a movement in the last part of the Nineteenth Century which stressed obedience to the law almost to the exclusion of grace.
² A province in the Netherlands.