“. . .As for the false Church, 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 them, 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. These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.”
—Belgic Confession, Article 29
The “problem” of the article of our Confession of Faith quoted above is its absolute distinction between the true church and the false church. It does not speak of purer and less pure churches, of manifestations of Jesus’ Body that vary in degree of faithfulness and doctrinal purity; but of “two Churches,” the true and the false. Applied to the present situation of many, separated churches (denominations), the article might seem to teach that one particular institute is the only true church, while all the others are the false church. Such an interpretation of the article has been given by certain Reformed in the Netherlands; and, now and again, voices have been heard in the Protestant Reformed Churches expressing this position.
It is helpful for understanding the Confession’s teaching concerning the false church to have clearly in mind the reference of “true Church-false Church.” By the true church is not meant the invisible Body of Jesus Christ. If this were the reference, the article would be distinguishing between the one, invisible, true church of Christ and the one, invisible, false church of the Devil. Some have tried to escape the difficulty of the article’s “true Church-false Church” distinction by resorting to this explanation. That this is not meant is plain from the Confession’s admission that the true church has hypocrites mixed in with the good, which cannot be said of the invisible church of Christ. Also, the article makes plain that it refers to a church that has marks which we can see: preaching, sacraments, and discipline—a visible church, therefore.
Neither is this article primarily concerned with our duty to distinguish between believers and unbelievers. It is the case that true members of the church have a certain mark that sooner or later also distinguishes them from hypocrites, namely, a living faith. It is not, however, the point of this article to speak of the distinction between true and false members of the church, i.e., believers and unbelievers (“we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good. . .”).
The article refers to the true institute of the church and the false institute of the church. The purpose of this article is the practical one of calling believers to membership in a true congregation and denomination and warning believers against membership in a false congregation and denomination. In order that believers may discern the true and the false, the marks of both are set forth. That this is, in fact, the subject is evident, first, from the mention of “the body and communion of the true Church”; second, from the fact that it is the institute that preaches, administers sacraments, and exercises discipline; and, third, from the fact that it is the institute that always has hypocrites mixed in with the good.
In any discussion of the false church, it is important to note the clear teaching of our Confession that the true church is never pure in the sense that all members are true believers. In the New Testament church, as among the Old Testament congregation, “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Romans 9:6). It is also important to remember that the living members of the true church are not perfectly, or even nearly perfectly, holy. On the contrary, there “remain in them great infirmities.” (Cf. also the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 114) This is important to keep in mind because there always are sects which wickedly break with the true church, as though she were the false church, because they see hypocrites in the church and because they do not find the lives of the members of the church as holy as they would like them to be.
Calvin warns against this: “Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they, through hatred of wickedness, withdraw from a genuine church, while they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly” (Institutes, IV, I, 13). No one may despise, or leave, the church because wicked men appear in it; nor may anyone reject a church as false church because the members, including the officebearers, are sinful men. Calvin is correct when he analyzes this separatistic spirit and action as “excessive moroseness (which) is more the result of pride and a false idea of sanctity, than genuine sanctity itself, and true zeal for it. Accordingly, those who are the most forward, and, as it were, leaders in producing revolt from the Church, have, for the most part, no other motive than to display their own superiority by despising all other men” (Institutes, IV, I, 16).
The false church is an assembly that has the name and appearance of the church of Jesus Christ, but which has so apostatized from the Word of God, or corrupted it, that Christ is not present in her preaching, sacraments, and discipline as Head and Savior, so that His Spirit does not work faith, or give salvation, through these activities of the church. There may be children of God scattered among false churches, but this is in spite of the work of these churches; and these children of God must leave.
Mohammedanism is not a false church, but a pagan religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and the Unification Church of Moon are not false churches, but cults. But a Protestant church with an orthodox tradition; a smiling preacher with Christ always on his lips; and a congregation that bends over backward to show warmth and friendliness for Jesus’ sake (especially to new members) which denies the Godhead of Jesus and atonement of sin in the blood of the cross and which teaches social salvation by human works is a false church.
It is exactly the name and semblance of a Christian church that pose a threat to God’s people and that make the warning against the false church necessary.
Holy Scripture sounds this warning. Matthew 7:15 tells us to “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Where there is false prophecy, there is a false church. John 10:1 speaks of a pretender-shepherd of the flock of Christ “that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way.” Commenting on this text, Calvin explains: “For if they who are called shepherds attempt to lead us away from Christ, we ought to flee from them, at the command of Christ, as we would flee from wolves or thieves; and we ought not to form or maintain intercourse with any society but that which is agreed in the pure faith of the Gospel.” Before the second coming of Christ, Antichrist will sit as God “in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (II Thess. 2:4). This takes place through the diligent, seemingly Christian labor on his behalf of the “false prophet” (Rev. 13:11ff.; Rev. 19:20).
The identifying mark of the false church is that she lacks the marks of the true church, i.e., the pure doctrine of Holy Scripture, a pure administration of the sacraments; and the exercise of church discipline in the correcting of sin. Rich in the incidentals of size, ecclesiastical reputation, earthly influence, religious ritual and busyness, and pomp (which, alas, fascinate many professing Christians in every age); she is destitute of the essentials of the Body of Jesus Christ in the world.
Still, she makes something of preaching, sacraments, and discipline. What she makes of them gives her away. She preaches another gospel than the gospel of salvation from sin by grace alone. She corrupts the administration of the sacraments by adding to the sacraments ordained by Christ, both as regards number and ritual; by taking away from the administration elements prescribed by Christ; by administering them to persons whom Christ judges unworthy; and, not least, by corrupting the meaning and truth of the sacraments in her teaching. She perverts the key-power of ‘discipline, for not only does she refuse to excommunicate those who live impenitently in grossest disobedience to the Law of God, but she also turns in fury upon those who, in their zeal for holiness, rebuke her for her wicked doctrines and evil practices. In short, she is not founded on, subject to, or upholding the truth of God’s Word, sacred Scripture. Not submitting, thus, to the yoke of Christ, she is not Christ’s Bride, but a whore.
Since every believer knows the Word of God, it is easy for him to know and distinguish the false church from the true church.
It is a mistake to identify one particular institute as the true church in distinction from all others which are then regarded as false. This is the position of Rome. Rome is the true church; all other churches are false. There might seem to be a softening of this hard line today. Rome calls the Protestants “separated brothers.” The Second Vatican Council went so far as to refer to Protestant congregations as “Churches or ecclesial communities” and to say that “in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Chapter II, 15). But Vatican II also insisted that Rome is “the Church,” “Mother Church,” and made clear that the “separated brothers” (read: “prodigal sons”!) must return to Rome.
With the exception of Luther in his most fiery, and least attractive, moments, the Reformers did not take the position that all churches except one were false. At the time of our Confession, Protestantism had divided into Lutheran churches and Reformed churches. Calvin, Farel, Beza, De Bres, and other Reformed leaders recognized the Lutheran churches as true churches, as well as the Reformed churches (cf. A. D. R. Polman,Onze Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis, III, pp. 351ff.).
Herman Hoeksema warns against a fanatical application of the “true Church-false Church” distinction: “This does not mean that the believer who takes this calling seriously (the calling to join himself to the purest manifestation of the church in the world—D.E.) imagines that no one is saved outside of the particular church in which he has his membership” (Abundant Mercy, p. 78).
The Roman Catholic Church is the false church. This was the intent of the description of the false church in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, along with the Anabaptist sects. In a corresponding article, Article 28, the French Confession of Faith of 1559 expressly names “the papal assemblies,” condemning them as “properly speaking. . .no Church,” since the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them.” It does, however, see “some trace of the Church. . .left in the papacy,” so that Roman Baptism is recognized as valid Baptism. (Cf. Calvin, Institutes, IV, II, 11.) The Reformed agree with Luther’s judgment of Rome:
. . .it is evident that as the arch-whore of the devil they have abandoned the ancient church and its ancient bridegroom and have not only become apostate and heretical (for that word is too light and too honorable for such a hussy), but Antichrist and ‘antigod,’ indeed, the last and most shameless bride of the devil, setting herself up even above God (just as her bridegroom in heaven wanted to do)” (“Against Hanswurst,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 41, p. 205).
Rome preaches another gospel of righteousness by works, wreaks havoc withy the sacraments, and is stained red with the blood of countless thousands of Waldensian, Huguenot, Dutch Reformed, and other saints. Although some treacherous Reformed congregations may pray for Rome as was done when the Roman idol came to Chicago not long ago, the souls of the martyred saints under the altar pray against Rome, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10); and we do still pray, with heartfelt sincerity, the petition once found in the Anglican liturgy: “From the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities, good Lord deliver us.”
Apostate, modernist Protestant churches are the false church. These are the churches that deny the Godhead of Jesus and the blood-theology of the cross; proclaim humanism and social improvement for a gospel; and, while nourishing in their bosom (and at the holy Table of the Lord) every kind of heretic, revolutionary, and scoundrel, bar from their ministry those men who cannot but submit to the commandment of God prohibiting the ordination of women, and harass, persecute, and drive out the godly.
Like the Anabaptist sects at the Reformation, the churches of our day which are founded on spiritual experiences rather than the Word of God and which proclaim their “baptism with the Holy Spirit” rather than the cross of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins are the false church.
The marks of the false church become horrifyingly visible in Reformed churches in Europe and in our land. There is the basic denial of the authority of the Word of God, Holy Scripture, not only in practice, but also in official declaration. By virtue of this fact, Jesus Christ is renounced as Head of the church and His yoke cast off. Instead of the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached worldly liberation (of females, blacks, the poor, homosexuals, and what not), or universalism, or salvation dependent on man’s works and will. Instead of the things which Jesus has commanded are preached the commandments of men, as the rule of a Christian life. Churches profane the sacraments by admitting to them members who maintain doctrines and practices inconsistent with the name of Christians. The powers in the church, an arrogant hierarchy, puffed up by and jealous of their own authority, if unable to excommunicate the pastors and people who rebuke the church for her errors, persecute them with ridicule and various pressures; and govern the church, not according to the Word, but by pulling strings and shameful political maneuverings, so that their will is done.
This is not to say that they have become the false church, much less that there are not true churches among them; but it is to say that the apostasy from the Word of God in Reformed churches is the deadly serious matter of losing the marks of the true church and becoming the false church.
No one may join the false church for any reason. All those who are in a false church must leave, regardless of the consequences. And for one to leave the true church for a church which apostatizes is not only inexcusable carelessness and folly, but is also contrary to the ordinance of God. From the true church, “no man has a right to separate himself.”