In this series of editorials, we are examining the distinction between a true church and a false church. The first few editorials are devoted to setting forth a right understanding of that distinction, and then a few other articles will make application of the distinction to the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC).

In the previous article, we looked at how the Belgic Confession and the Scriptures set forth this distinction. The conclusion we reached was that it is in keeping with the Belgic Confession and the Scriptures to be careful not to imply that one’s own church is the only true church, to be slow to label another church as false, and to distinguish between a false church and an apostatizing church.

In this article, I want to survey how this biblical, Reformed distinction has been applied throughout the history of Reformed churches, with particular emphasis on how it has been applied in the history of the PRC.

In the Reformation

At the time of the Reformation, the Reformed were unanimous in their denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church as a false church. She did not bear the three marks of a true church, but rather their opposite. She had wholly corrupted the gospel of grace with her doctrine of justification by faith and works, which false teaching was reflected in her teaching on purgatory, indulgences, prayers to saints, the mass, and more. She had wholly corrupted the two sacraments instituted by Christ, not only by adding five other sacraments to them, but also by corrupting the right doctrine of the sacraments, teaching an inherent power and grace in the elements. She had wholly corrupted the proper system of church government by maintaining an unbiblical system of hierarchy, by allowing the grossest immoralities to go unchecked, and by her persecution of faithful saints. While the Reformed generally agreed that there could still be found some of God’s people scattered here and there in Rome, they taught that Christ was not presently savingly there. Therefore, they called those of God’s people left in her to come out. They minced no words in describing Rome: she was the whore, and the pope was the Antichrist.

In keeping with this view, the Reformed also did not hesitate to use the strongest language in their polemics against the Roman Catholic theologians. Calvin, for example, calls Pighius “this ape of Euclid” who “puffs himself off in the titles of all his chapters as a first-rate reasoner.” He writes with respect to Georghius, “All things connected with this miserable creature are so insipid, vain, and disgusting, that I really am ashamed to spend any time or labour in his refutation.” Calvin called the two of them “a pair of unclean beasts by no means badly matched.”1

While the Reformed employed strong language against a thoroughly corrupt false church, they were much more careful in the language they employed in addressing the Lutherans. As we noted last time, the Reformed viewed the Lutherans as true churches, in spite of the fact that the Lutherans maintained a wrong view of the Lord’s Supper and of the ascension of Christ.

This was not reciprocated by Luther and his followers. Luther railed against the “sacramentarians,” as he referred to the Reformed. But, according to one author, this was Luther “in his most fiery, and least attractive, moments.”2

Despite the railings of the Lutherans, the Reformed did not respond in kind. Especially was this not the approach of Calvin. According to one author, “No one urged the unity of all evangelical Protestant churches with greater consistency and conviction than John Calvin. All who embraced the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether in Germany or Switzerland or France or England, constituted the one true church.”3 Another writer has said, “While Calvin agreed with Luther that the defense of the truth required theologians to engage in polemical discussions…he could not agree with the ferocity of Luther’s attacks on other Protestant reformers… or overlook the self-indulgent character of Luther’s piques and rages.”4 Calvin himself wrote, “Often have I been wont to declare, that even although he [Luther] were to call me a devil, I should still not the less hold him in such honour that I must acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God. But while he is endued with rare and excellent virtues, he labours at the same time under serious faults.”5

In the years that followed, Reformed theologians followed the lead of Calvin. Herman Bavinck summarizes the position of the Reformers:

Furthermore, at least the Reformers soon were or became conscious that the pure administration of Word and sacrament cannot be considered an absolute mark. Calvin vigorously warned against all arbitrary separation. Even though something is lacking in the purity of doctrine or of the sacraments, even though the holiness of the life and the faithfulness of the ministers leaves much to be desired, one may not for that reason immediately leave the church. One has the duty to leave only when the “high points of necessary doctrine” or “the foremost doctrines of religion” have been exchanged for a lie.

Bavinck goes on to describe how the Reformed in later years followed the lead of Calvin:

When in later years degeneration increased in the state churches and many people felt pressure to leave, the majority of ministers were led to oppose separatism on the same grounds. They all saw themselves compelled, with Calvin, to recognize that in the true church much that is unsound can occur in doctrine and life without this giving people the right to separate from it…. [O]ne had to admit that a true church in an absolute sense is impossible here on earth; there is not a single church that completely and in all its parts, in doctrine and in life, in the ministry of the Word and sacrament, meets the demand of God.

Bavinck concludes,

There was a difference, therefore, between a true church and a pure church. “True church” became the term, not for one church to the exclusion of all others, but for an array of churches that still upheld the fundamental articles of Christian faith but for the rest differed a great deal from each other in degrees of purity.6

In the Dutch Secession

The history of the Reformed in the Netherlands in the 1800s is also worth noting. The leaders of the Afscheiding (Secession), which began in 1834, labeled the state church they were leaving a false church. Hendrik de Cock and his congregation stated in their “Act of Secession”: “Taking all of this together, it has now become more than plain that the Netherlands Reformed Church is not the true but the false church, according to God’s word and article 29 of our Confession.”7

But what was the condition of that false church? Doctrinally she was corrupt. The Reformed creeds were scuttled. Officebearers were not required to subscribe to the creeds, and many had little knowledge of them. Basic, biblical doctrines were denied by ministers, including the Trinity, total depravity, the perfect sinlessness and humanity of Christ, and the atonement. Church politically she was corrupt. The biblical church government set forth in the Church Order of Dordt was replaced by a hierarchical system of boards appointed by the king. Her worship was corrupted by the enforced singing of Arminian hymns. This church the seceders judged to be false. And this judgment was made after the church had been in decline for 100 years or more.

It is worth pointing out as well that the churches of the Secession were not themselves wholly pure in their doctrine and polity. There were many errors and weaknesses found in those churches. And, yet, no Reformed man or woman would dare to call them false churches.

In the Protestant Reformed Churches

How did Herman Hoeksema, the man used by God to form the PRC, apply the true/false distinction? Though he has often been depicted as a harsh, unbending man, Hoeksema was no fanatic when it came to his use of that distinction.

After having been shamefully treated by the CRC in 1924, Hoeksema did not respond with a radical judgment of the CRC. In a remarkable speech given in 1939 at a conference to discuss the reunion of the CRC and the PRC, Hoeksema said,

But also that which in a broad sense of the word must be considered as belonging to the true Church, because the Word of God is known and proclaimed there in a greater or lesser degree, is characterized by various degrees of pureness. There is difference in pureness of confession, difference with respect to the administration of the sacraments, difference in church-government and in the form of Divine worship. Irrespective even of the false church it will not do to bring under one ecclesiastical roof whatever may have any claim to the name of Church.

Later he said, “According as a church maintains the reformed truth it is purer; according as it departs from that confession it is in that measure less pure.”8 The application was clear: Hoeksema viewed the CRC as a true church, albeit one that had seriously erred in her adoption of the false teaching of common grace and the well-meant offer of the gospel. For this she must be warned and, without rejection of it, no reunion of the two denominations could be possible; but still he was not ready to label her a false church.

Hoeksema’s dealings with Dr. Klaas Schilder and the Liberated Churches in the 1940s and 1950s is also enlightening. Hoeksema maintained throughout the controversy that Schilder was his amice (Latin for friend), although they differed greatly in their views of the covenant of grace. The Liberated were inclined to hold the position that there is only one true church in the world. But Hoeksema rejected this idea out of hand. In a reply to a letter from a Liberated man named K. C. Van Spronsen, in which the man urged Hoeksema and the PRC to adopt the Liberated position on the church, Hoeksema explained, “And he [Van Spronsen] wants us to reach the conclusion that we, the Protestant Reformed Churches, are the true church and that all the rest are false churches.” He concluded that adopting the Liberated position would mean “that here in Grand Rapids we must have the courage to say that anyone that belongs to a different church than ours or that goes away from our fellowship is lost.” But Hoeksema responded by calling this an “untenable position.” He explained, “Instead, I still prefer our conception of the true church as including all true believers in Christ, and then maintain that we, as Protestant Reformed churches, are the purest manifestation of that church in the world.” He grounded this in the teaching of the Belgic Confession: “I think this is quite in harmony with the confession [Belgic Confession]….”9

Elsewhere, Hoeksema wrote, “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] imagines that no one is saved outside of the particular church in which he has his membership.” Another man, in evaluating this quotation and Hoeksema’s position as a whole, wrote, “Herman Hoeksema warns against a fanatical application of the true Church-false Church distinction.”10

Hoeksema’s biographer says of him:

Often he used forceful language in his editorializing. But a prevailing misconception should be disproved. A careful examination of his editorials and miscellanea will show that he was not harsh nor ruthless, nor did he deal vicious blows to the personalities of his theologian opponents.… Only a very small percentage of his writings held this sharp tone, and he reserved these editorials only for certain men whom he deemed pompous and a bit too self-important. These he lampooned with delight and adroitness.11

In summary

This brief survey of church history is significant because it further establishes the Reformed position on the true/ false church distinction. Reformed men like Calvin, Bavinck, and Hoeksema understood the distinction in the same way laid out in the previous editorial in this series: There is a spectrum of purity among true churches, and a true church does not become false over night, but apostasy is a gradual process that takes place over many years. This means practically that one is careful not to imply that one’s own church is the only true church, and slow to label another church as false.

Some might attempt to make an absolute distinction between true and false, labeling any church other than their own as false, and argue that this is the Reformed position. However, this is not the tradition of men like Calvin, Bavinck, and Hoeksema, but is rather a sharp departure from that orthodox, Reformed tradition.

Perhaps a person claims that this absolute distinction is a new insight and development of doctrine. But one must reckon with the fact that this is not in harmony with the Scriptures, nor is it the spirit and intention of the Reformed confessions. One must also reckon with the reality that this is a substantial shift from 400 years of Reformed orthodoxy.


1 Quoted in Gertrude Hoeksema, Therefore Have I Spoken: A Biography of Herman Hoeksema (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969), 191.
2 David Engelsma, “The Marks of the False Church,” Standard Bearer 58, no. 11 (March 1, 1982): 258.
3 P. Y. De Jong, The Church’s Witness to the World (St. Catharines, ON: Paideia Press, 1980), 2:268-9.
4 David Steinmetz, as quoted in David Engelsma, “Luther’s Only Truly Congenial Disciple,” in The Sixteenth-Century Reformation of the Church, ed. David Engelsma (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2007), 19.
5 Quoted in David Engelsma, “Luther’s Only Truly Congenial Disciple,” 19.
6 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 4:315-6.
7 Quoted in Marvin Kamps, 1834: Hendrik De Cock’s Return to the True Church (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2014), 246.
8 Herman Hoeksema, “The Reunion of the Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed Churches,” Standard Bearer 15, no. 14 (April 15, 1939): 328-9.
9 Herman Hoeksema, “True and False Church,” Standard Bearer 27, no. 6 (Dec. 15, 1950), 128-9.
10 D. Engelsma, “The Marks of the False Church,” 258.
11 G. Hoeksema, Therefore Have I Spoken, 185-6.