Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. 

Revelation 3:12

As we have noted several times, in the eyes of the Liberated Churches, when the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches adopted the Declaration of Principles it committed a fatal error. With that action the Declaration became “settled and binding” (according to Article 31 of the Church Order), and our churches became guilty—in their eyes—of assigning more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God” (in the words of Article 29 of the Belgic Confession). And so we became to them a “false church.”

This reasoning, however, is extremely strained. The fact is that, according to Article 31 of the Church Order, every action of every major ecclesiastical assembly is to be considered “settled and binding” within the limits of that for which it was adopted (which in the instance of the Declaration was to inform those with whom we were working as to what they could expect to hear from our pulpits concerning common grace and the doctrine of the covenant). In no sense was it adopted as another creed or confession. Nor, for that matter, is it essentially different from the decisions made by the Liberated Churches; and this their people seem to understand very well, as is particularly evident when it comes to their view of the true and false church. In fact, few things would seem more distinctly characteristic of the Liberated Churches than their conviction that they, and possibly those sympathetic to them, are the “true church,” and all others “false.”

This is not something new and original with them; behind it is a long history, going back at least to theAfscheiding movement of 1934. In fact, it may well have been in development all through the unique history of the Dutch Reformed Church. After the revolution in the late 1500s, it became evident that in the Netherlands alone was there a church which had both the loyalty of nearly a whole nation and official recognition by the government. There were others within the land, of course. A good number of Roman Catholics remained—but they were precisely those designated by the Belgic Confession to be the “false church”; and there were some Baptist extremists, and Arminians too—who were rather easily dismissed as “false church” as well. It was the Reformed (Hervormde) Church, recognized as it was by the state, which was generally accepted as that “true church” to which the Confession insisted everyone should be joined.

But God has His way of undermining shallow presumptions; and in the process of time it happened here too. In the course of Dutch history false teachings eventually arose within the church, but none that really disturbed its sense of validity until in the early nineteenth century (the early 1800s) practically the whole of the Reformed denomination was overwhelmed with a very non-scriptural kind of modernism. This strained the convictions of those sincere Christian people who remained, and presented them with a major problem. To leave and worship outside of the Reformed Church seemed almost unthinkable, and in fact illegal, since the government did not approve of religious assemblies not authorized by them. But this did not negate the fact that “the pure doctrine of the gospel” (Art. 29) was no longer being preached, so that the conviction gradually developed that the State church had become the “false church.” Untidily they declared this, and began to organize what we now know as the Afscheidingchurches. It was difficult, but based on a deep conviction. According, to the Confession of Faith they were required to join this new church, and others to do the same.

Nor did it stop with that. Within a half century another, larger group (the Doleantie under the leadership of Dr. Abraham Kuyper) felt compelled to leave the State Church for much the same reasons, with the result that these two groups rather naturally soon gave consideration to union with each other. There were differences, some of which were distinctly doctrinal with rather serious implications. But much more important, it soon became evident, was the manner in which they viewed the State Church which they had left Dr. Kuyper and his people were inclined to be far less condemnatory than were the Afscheiding; but, in the end, the decisive requirement for union was that the new church should officially declare the State Church to be “false.” Without that the Afscheiding churches would not enter into the union; and for the sake of the union this was accepted. The importance of doing so very evidently went deep in the hearts of the people of that tradition; they could not recognize the newly formed Gereformeerde churches to be the “true church” unless that which they had left was declared to be “false.”

It was from this tradition that Schilder and his followers arose. In fact, the separation of 1944 was basically over the very doctrinal differences which had existed already at the union of 1892. These were never really settled; and in 1942 they drove the two sides apart again. And so it was that, when Schilder and his people were put out of the Gereformeerde churches, they felt compelled to declare the Gereformeerdechurches to have become the “false church,” just as the fathers had done to the Hervormde church in their day. And, when our efforts to work with them failed, they felt the need to declare us “false” as well. It was but a continuation of their tradition, but also quite a misapplication of the Confession as well.

When Guido de Bres wrote the Confession in the early 1560s, he was not in Art. 29 writing anything new. What he set down as the marks of the true church was essentially nothing other than that which Calvin had set forth before in the last Book of his Institutes, and which was suggested in the 27th article of the Gallican Confession, which is thought to have been composed by Calvin’s students under his guidance—the confession upon which de Bres based his confession. Clearly what Calvin had in mind through the whole of his last Book of the Institutes was a delineation of the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches, and not as a means of identifying one of the various churches of the Reformation to be “true,” and all of the rest “false.” Perhaps the clearest statement, although not necessarily the most precise, on this principle is that which is set forth in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 25:46:

IV 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. V 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. VI There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof, but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

The point is that for any church to pronounce itself the “true” church and all others “false” is a presumption that is far removed from the mentality of the Reformation and its confessions, and a presumption that is fraught with great danger (I Cor. 10:12Phil. 2:3).

Nevertheless, in this day when there is such a proliferation of different churches, the principles involved are fraught with dangers on both sides.

To begin with, it is certainly not so that there is one “true” church in this world, so that all others can be called “false.” This is, of course, the position of the Roman Catholic Church; but it is also that which the Reformers uniformly rejected. And, insofar as the Liberated Churches have taken that position, they stand on very dangerous ground.

It is certainly also very unscriptural. In this regard, Rev. Hoeksema often pointed to the seven churches to which the book of Revelation was addressed. Very strikingly these churches vary considerably in their purity, from Smyrna and Philadelphia, for whom the Lord has nothing but commendation, to Sardis and Laodicea which are called dead, and that which the Lord is about to spew out of his mouth. Nevertheless, they are all still called churches of God, to whom He will come again if they repent.

On the other hand, neither does it mean that it does not matter how far a church has departed, as Abraham Kuyper sometimes seemed to suggest with his view of the pluriformity of the church. If there is one thing that the record of the seven churches teaches, along with the whole history of the Bible, it is that God is very much concerned with those who depart from the truth and from a holy way of life. Repeatedly, over and over again, the Scriptures admonish the church of God to depart from evil and hold to the truth. This is, after all, one of the marks of the church given in the Belgic Confession, and is brought out in its own way by the Westminster as well. As is pointed out, it is in purity of doctrine and life that the church becomes more clearly visible in distinction from the world. When the truth is not taught and the discipline of godly life is not maintained, the unity of the church with Christ set forth in the sacraments cannot be maintained.

And thus the principle, that one should leave the church which is departing in the way of falsehood and join himself to the true church where the truth is most purely found and most clearly evident, is certainly to be maintained—but only in the way of full Christian responsibility. One must be sure that the departing church has been pointed to its error, and is unwilling to repent and return to the truth. But, when that has been done without results, the time comes for one to seek a church where the marks are clearly evident and to join himself to it. The Confession certainly does not encourage a quick jumping from church to church; but it does recognize that there come times when the warning of God to Laodicea becomes very real, Rev. 3:16: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” When one’s spiritual life is maintained only by the Lord coming “in to him” who hears His voice, and not through the evident life of the church in which he is found, the time comes that the Christian must seriously consider the need to leave such a church and join himself to one in which the marks of a true church are clearly visible, and to which the Lord says, Rev. 3:12, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.”