Not every church that calls itself a church is worthy of the name.
What is the church? According to the Belgic Confession, the church is “a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost” (art. 27).
But drive down almost any busy street, and you will pass building after building with a sign out front that identifies it as a church. What gives? Are all of these churches “holy congregation[s] of true Christian believers”? Or are some of them unholy congregations of hypocrites and blasphemers?
May we even ask that question?
Not only may you ask that question, young person, you must ask that question.
Outside of that holy congregation, there is no salvation (Belgic Confession 28).
So how do we distinguish between the two? Is it something best left to the mighty, the wise, and the learned? Must we mount the ivory tower to learn what distinguishes the true from the false, the holy from the unholy? When you examine your church and I examine mine, how do we determine whether she is true or false?
Who is equipped to determine the true nature of a church? You are. Those who are united to Christ by faith are equipped by God to make a judgment, a righteous judgment, about the true or false nature of a church. Why? Because “we have the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (1 Cor. 2:12). You who are spiritual, judge all things (1 Cor. 2:15). And when someone accuses you of pride or arrogance for saying a church is holy or unholy, you must remember the last half of verse 15; “yet he himself is judged of no man,” and you disregard that evil charge against you.
You make that determination according to the marks of that church. A mark is a distinguishing feature. It is something that allows you to know what it is and what it isn’t. Don’t drink from that bottle of picric acid ((O₂N)₃C₆H₂OH) in your lab at school. The skull and crossbones is a mark that shows you what will happen if you do. In the last days, there will be a mark that will identify those who belong to the beast.
What are those marks that we use in our examination of the church? Remember, none of those churches that you drive past have the skull and crossbones on the sign out front.
The primary mark of a true church is what proceeds from its pulpit. A church is true “if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein” (Belgic Confession 29). The other marks (pure administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline) flow from this one mark, or sign, of a true church. This is taught in John 8:47: “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.” If the minister mounts the pulpit and says words that contradict what God himself has revealed in his word, then you are not hearing God’s words. The members that hear those words and continue to maintain membership in that church, then, are “not of God.” They don’t hear God’s words! And they are fine with it! The church may have a thriving prison ministry, or a really cool coffee bar, or a praise team that sets the hearts of the people afire, but they are not of God. This is described in Jeremiah in gripping language: “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?” (Jer. 5:30–31).
The 29th article of the Belgic Confession also gives us marks by which we can identify the false church.
“She ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God.”
This can happen to a church over the course of many years. Rome is an outstanding example, with its hierarchical structure of pope, cardinals, archbishops, priests, and deacons. But the danger is very real for Reformed churches also. This happens when a church has made a name for itself. It has glittering institutions and powerful figures that it turns to for help instead of turning to the word of God. It considers the writings of holy men, ecclesiastical assemblies, and church rules and statutes to be “of equal value with the truth of God.” Although it would never come out and say it, it considers those things, and not the truth, to be “above all.” Over the course of many years, a church forgets that “all men are of themselves liars and more vain than vanity itself” (Belgic Confession 7). The false church rejects Jesus Christ and his word and takes on itself the yoke of human authority, however that may manifest itself.
Another sin the false church commits, by which she identifies herself as false, is that she corrupts the sacraments (the Lord’s supper and baptism). Rome does this by inventing more sacraments than Christ, as King of the church, has instituted. But a Reformed church can and does violate this principle as well. To give an example from today, a Reformed church violates this principle when it takes the sacrament of the Lord’s supper and allows members to partake separately from their homes, instead of “in the assembly of the people of God” (Belgic Confession 35). A Reformed church’s motive may be pure: they want to keep their people safe from disease and still desire them to partake of the Lord’s supper. But God does not care about our motives. With this action, that Reformed church refuses to submit to the yoke of Christ, and she “adds to and takes from them as she thinks proper” (Belgic Confession 29). She has taken on a mark of the false church.
The final mark of the false church is that she “persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.” This is the clearest mark of a false or falling church because it involves public actions. It can be difficult to prove that a church is ascribing more authority to herself than to the word of God. But persecution is clear and unmistakable. It is especially grievous because it takes a mark of a true church (proper exercise of church discipline) and uses that God-ordained and holy instrument against righteous men and women.
I don’t like to be rebuked. And neither do you. Chastening is hard and is not joyous (Heb. 12:11). A falling church doesn’t like to be rebuked either. The difference between a falling church (a church taking on the marks of a false church) and you and I individually is that a church has tremendous power to bring to bear on the prophet or prophets rebuking her. Usually, there is just one prophet. Or two. Church history is filled with examples of this. It is impossible to read through the Old Testament and not see the example of a faithful prophet rebuking and then getting persecuted by “all Israel.” The falling church has groups of powerful men (called committees) who exert influence throughout the church, bringing tremendous pressure to bear on prophets who do not fall into line. “Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood” (Isa. 59:7). This is persecution, as real a persecution as stoning.
How does a church become false? It could be a number of different things. It could be a church that is “settled on [its] lees” (Zeph. 1:12). The image here is of a bottle of wine that has sat for so long that the sediment has settled at the bottom. Once there, it begins to harden. When a church has not been disturbed for a long time, it too can begin to harden. This usually happens in connection with great prosperity. Spiritual indifference is the rule because there are no problems, money is had in plenty, the institutions are all glittering and growing, and “peace” reigns all around. God will not do good or evil; all is well (12). Then a prophet appears. He “rebukes her for her errors” and the backlash (the persecution) is swift and fierce.
This idea is closely related to that of Amos 6:1: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria.” As Calvin points out in his commentary, the condemnation is not that people have their time of leisure. The great wickedness reveals itself when the rebukes appear. God, through his prophet, says, “Repent! Turn from your sin!” The response of people who are at ease in Zion is to yawn. “Repent? Don’t trouble me with that talk. I have a Michigan football game to watch.” Or, “Repent? For what? I have the mountain of Samaria.” Today, this wickedness would appear in the thought (and it only ever remains a thought, never spoken), “Repent? Why would I do that? I am Protestant Reformed!”
The marks of both the true church and the false church are clear. The article ends with this: “These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.” A church cannot manifest both marks and claim to continue as a true church. For example, when a church persecutes and then expels a faithful prophet, she cannot say, “We have the main mark, the pure preaching of the word!” No, she does not. When she takes on that false mark, she reveals that her preaching is not pure but corrupted. The minister that mounts the pulpit of such a church is not sent by God, and the message he brings will be “wormwood” and “gall” to the flock (Jer. 23:15).
Which doesn’t mean that church doesn’t continue as church. It will. In fact, it may very well thrive. From an outward perspective. But what is her standing in the eyes of Jehovah?
Who has that church become? She has become the woman spoken of in Revelation 17:6: “And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.”
Originally published January 2021, Vol 80 No 1