As an aspiring minister in the PRCA, I will inevitably face many questions from members within the congregation. Three questions face us presently. First, how do we treat other true churches of Jesus Christ that differ in doctrine? Second, how do we treat the members of those churches? Third, how can we teach those around us in the church to do that?
The first question assumes that we belong to a true church. Do we? Before we turn our spotlight of inspection on others, we ought to look at ourselves. We ought to examine the church that we belong to and verify that we are members of a true church. If we cannot say we belong to a true church, the first question really becomes a command to belong to a true church of Jesus Christ.
So what then is a true church of Jesus Christ? Many reading this article may immediately think of Question 83 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which answers that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are the preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline.1 To think of these as the definition of a true church would be correct, but there is more. To complete the explanation and define what a true church is, we need to read Belgic Confession Article 29, which gives us the marks of the true church.2 There are three.
First, is the pure doctrine of the gospel preached?
Second, does the church maintain the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Jesus Christ?
Third, is church discipline exercised in the punishing of sin?
Back to the question: are WE members of a true church? Each one of us should take a moment to reflect on his own congregation and think about the three marks just cited. Hopefully we can say, “Yes, I belong to a true church of Jesus Christ.”
Being able to say that we belong to a true church of Jesus Christ gives us confidence. We have no doubt about our position on the truth. We are assured that what we believe is in harmony with the Bible.
However, we must not let this confidence turn into pride. Our pride is checked when we consider our confidence in light of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession says that “the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error.”3 What is true for a church is true for an individual. As individuals we are not perfect. We are also subject to mixture and error. We haven’t cornered the market on truth. Sure, we are confident, yes, we confess the truth, but we need to acknowledge that there may be places where we are wrong. We know this to be our personal experience because we are always growing in the knowledge of the truth. We are always learning, correcting our misconceptions, and gaining a fuller understanding of the truth.
The Westminster quotation points to the attitude we must have while answering the question of whether or not we belong to a true church. Our attitude needs to be one of thankfulness and humility. The truth we have been given is a free gift of grace. We don’t deserve to have the truth, yet we have it. We must be profoundly thankful for it.
So we belong to a true church, but are we THE only true church? There is a difference between a single true church of Jesus Christ and THE church of Jesus Christ. The church of Jesus Christ is comprised of the elect, those who are called out, those who are found in every nation, tribe, and tongue.
The fact that the church is universal means there are many individual true churches of Jesus Christ. Who might those be? Two examples of other true churches of Jesus Christ come to mind.
First, churches that are overseas, ones not in the USA. Those true churches confess and practice all the marks of the true church, but they live out their confession in a different way. They have different cultures. They have different histories. They come out of different backgrounds. They hold to the same doctrines we do but emphasize different aspects.
Second, those churches that are less pure in doctrine. They still preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline; but with less purity. Who might be an example of this? How about a church that holds to common grace? Would this be a true church?
To answer this, let’s back up and consider what a false church is. According to Belgic Confession Article 29, a false church has marks as well. A false church will not submit to the word of God, does not administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ, relies more upon men than upon God, and persecutes those who live holy lives.4
There is a difference between a true and a false church. To use an analogy, on a scale of 1 to 10, a false church being a 1 and a true church being a 10, it is reasonable that there are churches in the middle. Our experience bears out that there are such churches. We intuitively know that there are all sorts of churches with all sorts of doctrinal positions.
Churches in the middle of the scale will be either apostatizing or reforming churches. Consider a church that is in the middle due to impure common-grace preaching. Is this church casting off the pure preaching of the word in favor of man’s ideas? Is the church apostatizing in the area of its preaching? Or is this church reforming in the area of its preaching?
So back to the question: can we use as an example of a true church one that is less pure in doctrine, one that holds to common grace? Without digging deeply into the particulars of the church in question, we can’t say whether the church in question would be apostatizing or reforming, but we can make a definitive statement about it. Quoting David Engelsma, “The Protestant Reformed Churches do not regard churches that hold the well-meant gospel offer and common grace as false churches.”5
Now we have a very clear case in mind to deal with. For the sake of argument, let’s consider a church that is almost the same as ours; one that preaches the word, administers the sacraments, and exercises discipline. Yet these things are not done quite so purely because this church holds to common grace. How are we to treat this church?
On the one hand, we would certainly want to support and affirm the positive. We would compliment and support this church for preaching every Sunday, for administering the sacraments, and for exercising discipline. On the other hand, we would be compelled to be firm and to condemn the error found in the doctrine of common grace. We would need to call the church to reform in this area and sound out the truth of God’s word citing how common grace is wrong, while vigorously defending and fighting for God’s honor in this area of doctrine.
The biblical example is found in Revelation 2 and 3. Here Jesus is speaking to the seven churches. He commands those churches with impure doctrine to repent. He is adamant; he warns of judgment to come if they do not.
So how should we treat a person in this common-grace church? We ought not to treat a member of a common-grace church the same as the church itself. A church member is not the same as a church. People often have different thoughts or are ignorant of official policies or doctrines. Churches have official doctrinal positions. A person may or may not agree with that position. So we need to have a conversation with the person. We need to talk to him or her. Primarily, we need to listen.
So when we listen to people, we do not treat them in an adversarial way. If we were to breath out threatenings like Saul did (Acts 9:1), we would cause them to run away from us. An adversarial tone will automatically trigger a negative response. Either they will respond in kind and fight back, or they will avoid us and be driven even further from the truth.
When we listen, we need to stop talking. This may seem obvious, but it needs to be stressed. If all we are doing is waiting for the other person to finish so we can get our point of rebuttal in, we do everyone a disservice. Implied in not talking is to be slow to judge. Casting immediate condemnation on another person will end the conversation. Conversations, done wrongly, will alienate others from us. Our experience tells us that this is so. No one wants to talk to a condescending know-it-all. What’s the point? He knows everything. No matter what is said to the know-it-all, he has a better answer, a better story, a better way of doing it.
When we listen, we need to seek to understand what the other person is saying and thinking, why that person is saying it, and the context of the situation. Listening is more than just hearing. Listening is comprehending. Listening involves complete, undivided attention. Listening is being able to articulate what the person just said to us. We need to listen in meekness and fear. Meekness is what 1 Peter 3:15 stresses. Meekness is speaking not with pride, arrogance, or self-justification, but with gentleness, kindness, and humility. Meekness should remind us of Moses, who was the meekest man (Num. 12:3). Moses listened and was very patient with the people.
We need to listen in a spirit of love. Consider Jesus’ treatment of the rich young ruler. Jesus was teaching. The rich young ruler barged right in and interrupted. So what did Jesus do? Jesus listened patiently to him. Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21). Jesus then instructed him on what he must do next.
This kind of listening creates trust and respect in the person we are talking with. This kind of listening shows that we are taking the other person seriously and placing value on his thoughts.
Having the trust of another person means that we will be approachable and gain credibility. Trust earns us the opportunity to speak. With that credibility we will have the right to ask questions—again done in a spirit of meekness. When we fully understand another person’s view, we will be able to present our alternate, correct view. We will have the opportunity to explain our position. We will have the opportunity to explain the truth. At this point we need to be ready to give the answer of 1 Peter 3:15, which in this case would be to articulate our position on common grace clearly and succinctly.
The result of all these things will be that by listening and teaching, by asking questions in a humble way, and by seeking to understand the other person, we will be creating a positive example. This positive example will serve us well. It will give instruction and guidance not only to this theoretical common-grace-believing person, but also our friends, family members, or anyone else we come into contact with. This positive example will allow us to explain the truth. A positive example, listening meekly, will allow us to explain the truth more often. Instead of being a hindrance to the advancement of God’s church and kingdom, we will be, by our witness, sounding out the truth and glorifying his name.
1 Heidelberg Catechism Q 83, in The Psalter with Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, Church Order, and added Chorale Section, reprinted and revised edition of the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1927; rev. ed 1995), 18.
2 Belgic Confession Article 29, in The Psalter with Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, Church Order, and added Chorale Section, 49.
3 The Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom with a History and Critical Notes, 6th ed., 3 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, 1931; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books 2007), 3:658.
4 Belgic Confession Article 29, in The Psalter with Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, Church Order, and added Chorale Section, 49.
5 David J. Engelsma, Bound to Join (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2010), 10.