Members of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRCA) are thinking about and discussing doctrinal truths with renewed fervency. This is one of the good fruits of the controversy through which the Lord Jesus is bringing us.
God’s people have been focusing primarily on truths related to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), which has been the specific realm of the doctrinal controversy. But there has also been renewed interest in ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). Specifically, discussion has centered on the distinction between the true and the false church.
This distinction has garnered attention on account of statements made by those who have recently left the PRC. At first, they charged that the PRC were “apostatizing” and labeled them an “apostatizing church.” In departing, they took care not to call the denomination “apostate” or “false.” But, within a matter of only a few months, the language changed.
One leader began to claim that the PRC are in fact false, apostate churches, worthy of the labels of “whore” and “Babylon.” The PRC were explicitly likened to the Roman Catholic Church and Satanic cults. He argued that distinguishing between “apostatizing” and “apostate” is too confusing. The ministers of the PRC as a class were branded as “vipers,” “white-washed sepulchers,” and “murderers.” The leader presented this not only as his own personal estimation of the PRC, but insisted that all the members of his group “must go that far,” with the warning that “if we draw back, we become the whore.” He forbade his members from attending worship services in the PRC, for in doing so they would be “join[ing] themselves to the whore.” He was willing to admit that not all the members of the PRC are reprobate, but that some of God’s elect may be there in the same way that some of God’s elect may still be in Rome.
In a sermon on the mockery of the prophet Elisha by the children of Bethel (cf. II Kings 2), another leader described Bethel in terms of a false church: There was rejection of the Word of God and Christ-less worship; she was dead; there was no worship of God and no true doctrine of God; she was full of unbelief, carnality, and profanity; she was full of those who hate the Lord, His truth, His sovereignty, His grace, His Son; she does not know her sin and does not desire salvation. He went on to speak of such a church in terms of her children: “The appalling iniquity of Bethel’s departure from the living God, rejection of Christ, rejection of the true worship of God was revealed in the children. Bethel is no house of God at all—it’s a house of wickedness. That church is a dead church, its worship is Christ-less, displeasing to God. And its children are wicked. Bethel cannot produce believing children. It cannot because the judgment of God rests on Bethel.” He traced this to God’s hatred of such a church: “The Lord didn’t love Bethel. That explains Bethel’s children—the Lord didn’t love her. That explains Bethel’s curse—the Lord did not love her.” Then, he revealed that he had in view the PRC by saying: “I, as you, came out of Bethel. You came out. You were brought out because God loved you. He wouldn’t have you perish.” His understanding, therefore, is that the PRC are without Christ, a dead church, without the worship of God, devoid of the Word, full of unbelief and carnality, filled with hatred for God, incapable of producing believing children, and cursed and hated by God.
These statements at the very least imply an absolute distinction between the true church and the false, imply a denial of true churches being more or less pure, and imply that one’s own denomination is the only true church.
In light of these charges, it comes as no surprise that members of the PRC have a lively interest in the distinction between a true church and a false church. In the first few articles in this series I plan to set forth the proper understanding of that distinction, and then in a few other articles to see how this all applies to the PRC.
The Belgic Confession
To gain a proper understanding of the distinction between a local, instituted church that is true and one that is false, we must begin with the Belgic Confession, where this distinction is most clearly taught in Article 29.
Article 29 begins by describing the three identifying marks of a true church of Christ: “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 of sin.” The article then summarizes: “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.”
Then, Article 29 identifies the marks of 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.”
The apparent difficulty with this article is the seemingly absolute distinction that it makes between the true church and the false church. Article 29 concludes with these words: “These two churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.” The article says nothing of purer or less pure churches. Some have taken hold of that line as proof for an absolute distinction between true and false and for charging any church that one thinks has erred with being a false church.
Is that legitimate? Is it the case that, based on this article, one can say that any church that shows any weakness in respect to any of the marks of a true church must be labeled as a false church? Is it the case that, based on this article, one can say there is only one church or denomination that is true?
There are several reasons why this cannot be the meaning or proper interpretation of Article 29.
First, consider the language of the Belgic Confession. The Confession identifies a false church not merely as one in which there are certain lacks with respect to the marks of a true church, but it identifies the false church as one in which the marks of a true church are entirely absent. There may be preaching in a false church, but there is no gospel whatsoever. There may be sacraments, but those sacraments are wholly polluted. There is no exercise of discipline upon the impenitent whatsoever, but rather a sheltering of hardened sinners; instead, discipline is only ever exercised against those who live holy.
Because a false church is one in which the marks are wholly absent, the Belgic Confession can say that outside of a true church “there is no salvation” (Art. 28). A few of God’s elect may be found in a false church, but they are not saved there. They must (and will, by the grace of God) come out of the false church into a true church. But there is no salvation in a false church.
There is no salvation in a false church, because Jesus Christ the Savior is not present in a false church at all. He is not present in a false church in the preaching of the gospel, which is the power of God to salvation. Neither is He present in a false church in the sacraments or in the exercise of Christian discipline. Christ’s absence means that there is no salvation in a false church.
Based on the Confession’s identification of a false church, it is accurate to conclude that, if a church begins to depart from the marks of a true church, that church does not overnight become a false church where Christ is wholly absent with His salvation. Such a church is apostatizing, beginning to take on the marks of a false church, starting down the road to eventually becoming a false church, and worthy of correction and rebuke, but it is not yet a false church. No true church becomes a false church immediately; apostasy is a gradual process that takes place over many years, not months.
Second, what puts this understanding of the Belgic Confession beyond dispute is a consideration of the historical context in which it was written. The Belgic Confession was written in 1561, shortly after the beginning of the Reformation. The Reformed fathers obviously had in view the Roman Catholic Church when they described the false church. Rome was a false church and the whore of Babylon. In her Christ was not present with His salvation.
But the Reformers did not call every church that did not agree on every point with the Reformed a false church. The Reformed did not view the churches of Luther and his followers to be false churches. In spite of their serious errors regarding the Lord’s Supper and the nature of Christ after the ascension, the Reformed did not slap the label of “false church” and “whore” upon the Lutherans. The Reformed in the Netherlands did not do the same with the Church of England either.
To make an absolute distinction between the true church and the false church is simply not in keeping with the Belgic Confession.
This understanding of the Belgic Confession is grounded in the Scriptures.
In the church in Corinth trouble abounded. The congregation was filled with divisions (I Cor. 1:10), some claiming to follow Paul, others Apollos, others Peter, and others Christ (1:12). In the church was a man committing fornication with his father’s wife without being disciplined (chap. 5). Members were living in open pride and jealousy toward one another with respect to special, spiritual gifts (chap. 12). Some did not confess the truth with respect to the resurrection of the dead (chap. 15). Did the inspired apostle Paul label Corinth a false church? Did he call the members to leave? Paul rebukes the church, but he never stoops to labeling her a false church. Without excusing her sins, he begins by calling her “the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2). And his last word to them in that letter was: “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus” (16:24).
The same truth is found in Revelation 2-3 with respect to the seven churches of Asia Minor, which were actually existing churches at that time. Only two of the seven are addressed without rebuke. In the other five there were varying degrees of purity with respect to doctrine and practice, some who were close even to being dead. Yet, Christ is said to be present “in the midst of the seven candlesticks [churches]” (1:13).
It is clear from these passages that a church does not become a false church overnight. There are true churches of Christ that are less pure than others, and yet Christ is still present savingly there.
That this is the proper view of Article 29 is confirmed by the commentators. In his well regarded commentary on the Belgic Confession, P. Y. De Jong says that “we may rightly conclude that this article does not allow us to brand as false churches all denominations other than our own.” To brand in such a way is “narrow churchmanship” that “contradicts both the spirit and the letter of the Reformed faith.”1
Herman Hoeksema writes regarding Article 29 in his “Notes on the Belgic Confession,” “It is true, of course, that the true church may easily be distinguished from the false church. The false church is no church, and may easily be distinguished from the true church. But we must remember that there are always various degrees of truth and falsity in the manifestation of the church. A true church does not of a sudden become the false church, though she may begin to show the marks of the false church. Hence, rather than claiming that we as Protestant Reformed Churches are the only true church in the world, while all others are false churches, we would claim that we are the purest manifestation of the body of Christ in the world, and that it is our duty to join ourselves to it.”2
David Engelsma says in his commentary on the Belgic Confession: “The Confession employs absolutist language: true church/false church. Nevertheless, the meaning is not that there is one true institute in the world and that all the others are false. Neither is it the meaning that there is only one true institute—congregation or denomination—in a certain place and that all the others in the place are false.” He calls such a view “radical ecclesiology” and goes on to say that “the Reformed theologians and churches, De Bres [the author of the Confession] included, recognized the Lutheran churches of that day as true churches, despite the serious doctrinal errors of the Lutheran churches regarding the sacraments.”3
Elsewhere Engelsma has written: “A church does not become a false church overnight. Departure from sound doctrine, the corruption of the sacraments, and the failure to exercise discipline will eventually result in the false church. But the development is gradual.” And later he says, “This does not imply the judgment that the departing churches are already now the false church. But it does charge sin and unfaithfulness in their stubborn persistence in taking the way toward the false church….”4
There is no fundamental difference, therefore, between the Belgic Confession and what one reads in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.4-5:
This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.
It is clearly in keeping with the Scriptures and the Belgic Confession 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.
Next time, I want to look at how this understanding has been maintained throughout the history of Reformed churches.
1 P. Y. De Jong, The Church’s Witness to the World (St. Catharines, ON: Paideia Press, 1980), 2:270.
2 Herman Hoeksema, “Notes on the Belgic Confession,” 36. This is a syllabus printed by the Protestant Reformed Theological School (Wyoming, MI).
3 David Engelsma, The Belgic Confession: A Commentary (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2019), 2:158.
4 David Engelsma, Bound To Join: Letters on Church Membership (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2010), 140-42.