My first two years living at Calvin College have forced me to engage deeply with the topic of the true church of Christ. I have been blessed with the opportunity to learn from Christian professors and to learn alongside Christian students. Furthermore, attending a Christian college rooted in Christian Reformed Church traditions has required me to define my own faith and commitment to the Protestant Reformed Church. By becoming more exposed to other true believers from churches with differing doctrines and positions, I have had to determine how God was calling me to view other believers and interact with them.
My roommate this past year has forced me to enact on this calling, and as a result, she has helped me grow as a Christian believer. My roommate has grown up in a Christian Reformed Church and has always been involved with her church community. I have visited her church and seen evidences of a true church – being faithful to scripture and administering the sacraments. Additionally she has been a great Christian friend to me, praying with me and encouraging me in my faith. She has helped me grow in my relationship with God, and she has shown her own true faith and relationship with him. However, we have also had more difficult conversations discussing differences between our doctrines. Our definitions of God’s grace are different; our positions on divorce and remarriage contradict; and our understandings of predestination differ. So, what now? We don’t see eye to eye on all things—some of them doctrinal truths that I firmly believe in. What does God want from us both within this relationship? Through prayer, scripture, and doctrine, God has brought me answers to these questions regarding how to interact with other believers outside of the Protestant Reformed Churches. I have found these answers to be quite beautiful, reflecting God’s love and grace. I would like to share and further develop the thoughts I experienced while searching for answers to these questions.
First and foremost, we need to understand God’s meaning of the “true church” in order to form our position on interacting with other believers. As stated in the Apostles’ Creed, we believe “an holy catholic church” (The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches 9).The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 54, further develops the meaning of this statement and explains that this church is chosen by God “out of the whole human race” and agrees in “true faith” (The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches 104). Similarly, the Belgic Confession argues that the true church of God is not “confined, bound, or limited to certain place or to certain persons,” but rather is spread throughout all countries and peoples (The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches 59–60). The true church of God does not lie within only one denomination or congregation. In Doctrine according to Godliness, Ronald Hanko states that “there is a wide range of churches, more or less pure and true, that represent, at least to some degree, the church of Jesus Christ” (Hanko 245). Therefore, members of God’s true church can be found within a wide variety of churches: Protestant Reformed, Christian Reformed, Baptist, Presbyterian, and so on.
If a true church can be found amongst diverse people and places, how does one determine whether a church is true or not? The Confession of Faith lists the three essential characteristics of a true church:
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; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary to rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the church. (The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches 62-63)
If a church shows these three marks, we can be assured that the members belong to a true church of God. A true church is devoted to God and the truths of his gospel. This is evident when Peter declares to Jesus, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and this statement becomes the “rock” that Christ will build his church upon (Matthew 16:16–18). A church devoted to the truths of scriptures is faithful to Christ, making this evident through its preaching and faithfulness to sacraments and church discipline.
With this definition of a true church in mind, we can determine God’s will for us in relating to these fellow members of a true church. Primarily, God calls us to form relationships with one another. God requires members of His true church “to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the true church, and to join themselves to this congregation wheresoever God hath established it” (The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches 62-63). If another church, outside of the Protestant Reformed denomination is showing marks of the true church, God calls us “join” together, to form relationships with one another. He desires united relationships between members of his true church, wherever they are found.
Moreover, God outlines what he desires for relationships among churches in scripture. He is calling us to reach out in love and support for the other members of his true church. In Ephesians 2:18–22, Paul encourages Gentiles and Jews to share in their faith together as one church, “an holy temple in the Lord” (v. 22). Paul promotes this because Gentiles and Jews are “fellow citizens” (v. 19) who are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (v. 20) with Christ at the center of their faith. Despite differences between Gentile and Jewish believers, Paul encourages unity between members who share in the Spirit of God. If two congregations display a true faith and devotion to Christ, God encourages us to join together as “fellow citizens” despite differences we may have.
This same message is also given by God through Paul to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul reminds the church that both Jews and Gentiles have been baptized by the Holy Spirit to form one body (v. 13) and that there should be no divisions within the body (v. 25). Paul demands “that the members should have the same care for one another” (v. 25). The true church is to encourage love and care between all true members, regardless of denomination or congregation, because we all confess the same faith.
Additionally we are called to hold each other accountable and encourage one another in remaining faithful to scriptures. The true church is rooted in scripture, preaches that scripture, and administers the truths of scripture through sacraments and discipline. If a church is straying from scripture, they are straying from the truth and being a true church. In 2 Timothy 4:2–3, Paul warns Timothy of the necessity of preaching the gospel and encouraging members in studying doctrine to prevent church members from turning from the faith. When rooted in scriptures and sound doctrine, the church can thrive together, as the scene is describe in Acts:
And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:44–47)
True churches commune within their congregations and between other congregations, in joint unity and praise to our Lord.
This is the beautiful answer as to how we are called to interact with members of other true churches: to interact with one another in love, encouragement, and praise to our great God. God desires us to join together, to form relationships together that are based in our shared faith and confession in “Christ, the Son of the living God.” As a future educator, I desire to encourage my students to embrace other true believers in love and support and allow themselves to grow in faith through these relationships. I will encourage my future students to discuss their faith with other believers, to evaluate differences between congregations and denominations, and to value and promote the importance of scripture within a true church. My prayer for them is that they may stand together praising God and singing the familiar words of Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant is the sight when brethren make it their delight to dwell in blest accord.”
Hanko, Ronald. Doctrine According to Godliness: A Primer of Reformed Doctrine. Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004. 244-45. Print.
Holy Bible: King James Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Corporation, n.d. Web. 28 May 2015. <https://www.biblegateway.com/>.
The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005. Web. 28 May 2015.