The truth which the Church has developed out of God’s Word makes up an organic unity. Each separate, individual doctrine takes its place within that body of truth. This organic body of truth as it is developed in time is always developed and apprehended by the Church as the Body of Christ. For an individual to apprehend that body of truth he must be a member of the Church as it manifests itself on earth in institutional form. That institutional form of the Body of Christ is the object of our attention in this article. In our examination of the True Church let us consider four things: First, What is the Church? What are the marks of the true Church? How is the true Church easily discernible from the false? And finally, what is our calling with respect to the true Church?
In order to understand the meaning of the true Church it is necessary that we make the distinction which the Belgic Confession makes, in articles 27-29, between the Church as an organism and the Church as an institute. (Because we cannot quote those articles here due to their length, please read them and keep them before you as you read this article.)
The organic Church is not a society of people, nor is it a mass mob. Rather it is a spiritual body of which Christ is the Head and the elect are the members. The fundamental idea of the Church in Scripture is that it is one living organism in Christ, made up of elect individuals who form a harmonious unity and entity in Christ. That Church as an organism is realized principally before the creation of the world, when God elected His people in His counsel. After the Judgment Day that Church will be completely realized in its glorified state. That Church is the gathering of the elect into the spiritual Body of Christ out of the whole human race and throughout the ages. But in time that living organism cannot be seen or perceived with our human senses. Although the Church is gathered in the world, it is not of the world. It is not physical, but spiritual. This organic Church possesses the attributes of catholicity, unity, holiness and apostolicity. As such, this Church is an object of faith, not of our experience or of human perception.
But this Church does become manifest physically in institutional form as the gathering of believers and their seed. Therefore, we have the distinction between the Church visible and invisible, between the Church institute and organism. The organic Church, which consists of the elect, as the spiritual, heavenly Body of Christ, is essentially invisible. But wherever a group of believers and their seed are gathered in the name of Christ and confess their faith in Him and seal their confession with a godly walk, there the Church invisible and organic becomes visible in institutional form. The visible Church is then the gathering of believers and their seed organized into an individual congregation, functioning through the offices of elder, deacon, and minister. Article 28 of the Belgic Confession speaks of our duty to join this church as she manifests herself historically. That this admonition refers to joining the Church as institute is plain from the fact that it is impossible for man to join the organism of the Church, for that is the work exclusively of God. Also, when the Confession speaks of the marks of the true Church, then it refers to the Church as it is instituted by Christ in a local congregation.
There is at the basis of our subject the truth that it is the sacred duty of all to join themselves to the true Church. It is the will of Christ that the believer submit himself to the Church of Christ as it is instituted in the world, wherever that may be. The true member of the pure, organic Body of Christ seeks the Church in this world because he knows that he is not saved as a mere individual, but as a member of Christ’s Body and that therefore he cannot live apart from it, in separation from the rest of the body of the elect. The new life of Christ within him seeks the fellowship of the other members of the Body.
On the other hand, those who cut themselves off from the pure proclamation of the Word of God suffer a lack and commit spiritual suicide. When an arm is cut off from the human body, it dies. He who cuts himself off from the body of believers will die spiritually in his generations. That individual may be a believer, but when he separates from the true Church, he inevitably leads his children to spiritual death.
It would be very easy to obey the command to join the true Church, if all that there was upon this earth was the true Church. But the mandate and the calling to join the true Church is complicated by the presence of the false church. This development of the false church is due to the imperfection of the Church while she exists in this world. That imperfection is twofold. First, it is the presence of the carnal seed within the Church. Secondly, that imperfection arises from the fact that the believers themselves are not perfect, but have only a small beginning of the new obedience. Therefore the Church is open to all kinds of evil influences from within and from without. As a result, as the true Church manifests herself in the midst of the world, there is always at the same time a movement away from the truth. This movement away from the truth gives rise to the false church. Therefore there are today many different denominations and congregations. Though Christ prays for the unity of the Church in John 17, such unity hardly seems present. Yet each child of God has the clear calling to belong to the manifestation of the true Church on this earth. But to which church must one belong? Is it a matter of little or no concern to which church one belongs on this earth? Does not each church simply represent just another path to the same destination: heaven? Does one not have a certain obligation to remain in that church to which his fathers belonged, no matter in what spiritual direction it is headed? The answer to each of these questions is an unequivocal “NO.” It does make a difference. It is the calling of the child of God to worship his God in the best possible way. God can require nothing less. God is not pleased when one is willing to compromise His Word for the sake of a marriage, a job, or for one’s own convenience. It is then the calling of the Christian to worship God in that Church where God is most highly esteemed.
So that the child of God can judge in which Church God is best worshipped, there are certain marks which belong to the true Church and which therefore distinguish it from the false church. “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin: in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” (Belgic Conf., art. 29) These marks are not in denominations as such, but in individual congregations. The Body of Christ as the organism is not manifested in denominations, but in individual congregations. The autonomous congregation is the manifestation of the Body of Christ. It is in the congregation, not the denomination, that the Word is preached, the sacraments are administered, and discipline is exercised. However, unless a congregation is independent, it stands as part of a denomination. Therefore any decision made on a denominational level must and always does apply to the individual congregation which willingly makes itself a member of that denomination.
To find where the true Church is, the child of God must examine the preaching and the dogmas or doctrines which that congregation holds. Because of constant deformation which results from the presence of sin in the world, there are all sorts of congregations that assume the name “Church.” Within these many different congregations there are differences in the way in which God is hallowed and worshipped. All of these congregations to different degrees either manifest or fail to manifest the three marks of the true Church. Therefore the marks are the distinguishing characteristics of the Church institute by which the true Church may be recognized in the midst of and in distinction from all aberrations and deformations.
However, there are some who would deny this. The ecumenicist wants to forget all ecclesiastical and denominational differences. The traditionalist, on the other hand, holds to the church or congregation in which he was born and raised. To cling to “my church—right or wrong” is idolatry. Personal and social ties may never obscure our loyalty to Christ and His Word. cf. Matt. 10:33-38, especially vs. 37. The fathers in the Belgic Confession give the correct answer when they say, “Hereby the true Church may be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” It is a question whether members today will wholeheartedly subscribe to those words of the fathers. Many insist today that they cannot make out which is the true Church. Do they earnestly and eagerly submit themselves and their congregation to the scrutiny of God’s Word? It is so much easier and comfortable to follow the line of least resistance. But every child of God has the obligation to discern “diligently and circumspectly” in the light of the Scriptures which is the true Church.
Scripture’s requirement to come out of the dead or dying church is not a matter of minor importance. First, the sovereign God requires” that He be worshipped in Spirit and in truth. Can or dare mere creatures of the dust say to the Sovereign, “It does not matter how I worship, I can worship any way I want.” God justly demands whole-hearted, holy worship of His name. Those concerned: with their calling will worship their God in the best possible way. Secondly, such proper worship of Jehovah is more easily possible in the Church which is faithful to God’s Word, for God’s Word is the food essential for the spiritual welfare of the child of God. The Word of God purely preached is the food which feeds the spiritual soul of the child of God. It nourishes it and causes its growth. To eat poisoned, adulterated, or watered-down food does not feed the soul. Rather, such spiritual food either kills the soul or leaves it malnourished. As man worries about his physical body; making sure to have three square meals a day, so must he care for his spiritual soul. Thirdly, this is a matter of no little importance because of one’s children. An individual may be able to live and exist spiritually outside of that Church which purely preaches the Word of God. But what about his children? They grow up not knowing any better. They hear the adulterated Word preached and it effects their spiritual life. Finally, this calling becomes more serious as we near the end of time. This Paul brings out in II Timothy 3:1, 5; II Timothy 4:3, 4. We want; therefore, to join ourselves to that Church, which faithfully adheres to God’s Word, with no carnal consideration prohibiting us from joining it, nor causing us to separate from it.
Let us now examine very carefully the three individual marks of the true Church. First of all, there is the pure preaching of God’s Word. The preaching is the proclamation of the gospel, authorized by Christ, according to Scripture, performed by a minister and standing in the service of Christ. The Church alone can and may preach. It fulfills this calling through the ministry of the Word. The preacher as he is called and sent by the Church is strictly bound to the Word of Christ as it is contained in the Scriptures. The pure proclamation of God’s Word is wholly, dependent upon and subservient to the Word which Christ speaks. Therefore the preaching is powerful and efficacious only because it is God through Christ who speaks to the children of God, so that when they sit under the pure preaching, they do not hear a minister, but they hear Christ speaking to them. Therefore, it is only when, and in as far as the Church proclaims the Word of God, and only the Word of God, that Christ will use the preaching to bring His own Word to His people. The second mark is the pure administration of the sacraments. In the administration of the sacraments; also, Christ is the chief subject. Therefore for them also to be purely administered they must be in harmony with and subservient to the Word of God. They must be observed by the Church according to that Word of God and according to the institution of Christ. Only then and in as far as the Church is obedient to the Word of Christ, will Christ speak His Word through the signs of the sacraments.
This same idea comes to the fore in the third mark of the true Church: the exercise of Christian discipline. The keys of the kingdom are the power bestowed on the Church by Christ to open and to shut the kingdom of heaven. The keys represent actual power over the consciences of men. It is an opening and shutting of the kingdom of heaven within the consciences of men, so that they either rejoice to be within or are convinced of their being outside the kingdom of Christ. This power is possible only when Christ Himself speaks and employs the keys of the kingdom. Therefore, also with this mark of the true Church, it is only when and in as far as the Church applies those keys of the kingdom according to the Word of Christ in Scripture, that Christ Himself will work through the action of the Church and speak His own Word of power.
Essentially, the preaching is the chief distinguishing mark for the other two marks which depend upon and derive their power and efficaciousness from the Word of Christ, which He speaks to His people. Therefore, although all three are distinguishing marks of the true Church, it is safe to say that where there is pure preaching, there must also be proper administration of the sacraments and the correct exercise of discipline. Where the Word is not preached, there Christ is not present and where Christ is not present there is no Church. Therefore the pure preaching of the Word is an infallible distinguishing mark of the true Church. Where the preaching of the Word is corrupted, there the Church is corrupted and is moving in the direction of the false Church. The child of God must seek that Church where the heart of the preaching is the cross of Christ. For where there is cross-preaching, there will be an emphasis on total depravity, on the complete deliverance in Christ, on the sanctified walk which is the fruit of Christ’s work within His people, etc. How do we determine where among the gatherings of this world Christ is? Christ is where the truth of His Word is proclaimed. Christ speaks where that pure Word is preached. The pure preaching is the all-important mark whereby we may distinguish the true church in the world.
The fathers in the Belgic Confession say that this true Church is easily known and distinguished from the false church. There are some who say that a Church is either completely true or it is completely false. This is not true. We must remember that in the many Church institutes there are varying degrees of the manifestation of the three marks. An individual congregation does not become false suddenly, overnight, but only by stages in a process. We do not mean to minimize the sinfulness of the first departure, however insignificant it may seem, for a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. This is especially true today as we near the end of time when any deformation is accentuated greatly. Gradually the Holy Spirit withdraws from the erring congregation, taking with Him all the benefits of the true Church, so that in the end all of the truth is gone and all that is left is false. That a congregation is not completely false or completely true is seen from the fact that in the evaluation of the various churches of their time the fathers in the Belgic Confession did not apply the verdict of sect to the churches existent at that time, eg. Lutheranism. Even though the language of the article of faith indicates a strong aversion to Roman Catholic congregations, yet the baptism of those congregations has been and still is recognized as valid by Reformed congregations. Look at what John Calvin said of Rome under the leadership of the pope. “Hence it appears that we by no means deny that Churches may exist, even under his (the pope’s—RVO) tyranny; but he has profaned them by sacrilegious impiety, afflicted them by cruel despotism, corrupted and almost terminated their existence by false and pernicious doctrines, like poisonous potions; in such Churches, Christ lies half buried, the gospel is suppressed, piety exterminated and the worship of God almost abolished; in a word, they are altogether in such a state of confusion, that they exhibit a picture of Babylon, rather than of the holy city of God. To conclude, I affirm that they are Churches, in as much as God has wonderfully preserved among them a remnant of His people, though miserably despised and dejected, and as there still remain some marks of the Church, especially those, the efficacy of which neither the craft of the devil, nor the malice of men can ever destroy.” (Institutes, IV, 2)
Would it then be better to speak of one true Church and all kinds of false churches, i.e., to the extent that they have forsaken the marks of the true Church? The manifestation of the Body of Christ, in this world, in institutional form, cannot be equated with any ONE congregation or denomination. Nor can it be equated with ALL congregations or ALL denominations. From the beginning of time until the end, there is a line which runs through history: the line of the true Church. Always in history there is the true Church, which bears the three marks. A congregation which exists on that line upholds the three marks, and has for its doctrine all the truth of God’s Word which has been developed up to that time. But that congregation, though it be on the line of the true Church, is not a perfect Church as far as its members are concerned. There are sinners, as well as hypocrites, within that true congregation. But yet, that congregation stands four-square on the truth of God’s Word. At the same time that there is the line of the true Church, historically there is another line: a line which runs parallel with it, representing the false church. Always historically this false church, as it is manifested in individual congregations, has been present right along with the true Church. The false church has her own marks or distinguishing characteristics, cf. Belgic Confession, art. 29. A false congregation does not have the word of Christ there, and therefore because Christ is not there, it has no believer within it. In a false congregation it can justly be said that there are NO believers, but it canNOT be said that in a true Church there are no UNbelievers.
Now then, between the two lines of the true and false church, as they exist historically, there are many other congregations and denominations. Those congregations which are neither completely true nor completely false are on the road of apostasy, for once they stood in the line of the true Church, but as soon as they adopted one single doctrine apart from the Word of God, they left the line of that true Church. And once they leave that line, they are on an inevitable road which leads down to the false. It is always a down-hill road because of the presence of sin. It may take a long time to reach the end of the road of apostasy, which is the false church, but nevertheless it is inevitable. It is always a down-hill road because the leaven of false doctrine permeates the whole lump of the truth slowly, but surely. Those drifting to the false church are true only in so far as they manifest the three marks of the true Church.* In the light of Scripture, we cannot say that there is one true Church and all kinds of false churches. First of all, we have the word of Christ in Revelation 2 and Revelation 3, where Christ is speaking to the seven congregations in Asia-Minor. Christ calls them Churches, true Churches, which have defects from which they must repent or die. Thus Christ shows that those true Churches which have defects are on the road of apostasy to destruction because they have those defects within them. Secondly, consider also the nation of Israel during the time of the reign of Ahab. Several times in the Scriptural narrative of the history of that nation from Jeroboam until Ahab, we read that each succeeding king did that which was evil in the sight of God, more than all that were before him. Therefore things steadily progressed downhill for Israel from a spiritual viewpoint. But yet, when Elijah was ready to throw up his hands in despair, God tells him that there is a remnant of 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal. That remnant to which God referred was in the nation of Israel, not in Judah.
Because of this constant downhill road from the true to the false the command for continual reformation is always in order. Even he who says that he is a member of the best manifestation of the pure marks has the calling continually to examine the truth and compare his congregation with that truth.
Now then, how can the fathers in the Belgic Confession say that the true Church is easily known and distinguished from the false? First, because God has given us a clear and infallible standard by which the true Church can be known and distinguished. That standard is His holy Word. Secondly, every believer, as a member of the body of Christ, has the Spirit as the Spirit of truth abiding within his heart. Thus he can discern what is true and what is false.
What is our calling with respect to the true Church? The Church in its organized form, both congregational and denominational, must always engage in testing its doctrine and life in the light of the marks of the true Church. There is always the command to continual reformation, which must be obeyed.
Our calling as individuals is to join that congregation which is the best manifestation of the body of Christ. Let no one say that, it is not important; that it is only a difference of degree. To depart from the truth to any degree is a sin that, unless repented of, will be visited by punishment. This punishment in time is the gradual withdrawal of the Holy Spirit. Each individual child of God must be able to say that the Church of which he is a member best manifests the three marks of the true Church. This is exactly the meaning of the first question which is asked of those who make public confession of their faith. Everyone must be, in his own consciousness, convinced that he belongs to the best manifestation of the pure marks of the true Church. If he is able to join a better manifestation of those marks, he must do so or become guilty of cooperating in evil and helping the false church.
Nor does he who is a member of the Church which he believes to be the best manifestation of the marks imagine that no one will be saved outside of the particular church or congregation in which he has his membership. Heaven is larger than any congregation or denomination. Nevertheless he abhors all departures from the truth and refuses to go along with any individual congregation or denomination that is moving in the direction of apostasy and falsehood. We all have the calling to bind ourselves to that Church in which we “diligently and circumspectly discern from the Word of God” to be the true Church, i.e., that congregation which best manifests the pure marks of the true Church.
* I do not think that it is really correct to speak of the true Church as the PUREST manifestation of the marks. If something is pure, it is pure. There is no comparative or superlative for the word “pure.” Notice that the Belgic Confession does not use the term “pure” in application to the manifestation of the three marks of the true Church. It speaks of the Church as being either true or false. But the confession does speak of the marks of the preaching of the Word and of the administration of the sacraments as being pure. Then, to distinguish between the various congregations which exist it would be more correct to speak of them as manifestations or revelations, better or worse, more or less, of the pure marks. There are, then, different degrees of the manifestation of the pure marks of the true Church.