Article 29 - The Marks of the True and False Church
THE MARKS OF THE TRUE AND THE FALSE CHURCH
We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of church. We are not speaking here of the hypocrites, who are mixed in the church along with the good and yet are not part of the church, although they are outwardly in it. We are speaking of the body and the communion of the true church which must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the church.
The true church is to be recognized by the following marks: It practises the pure preaching of the gospel. It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them. It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head. Hereby the true church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it.
Those who are of the church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour, flee from sin and pursue righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works. Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life. They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him.
The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ. It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases. It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.
These two churches are easily recognized and distinguished from each other.
THE NEED FOR DISCERNING WHAT THE TRUE CHURCH IS
As with so many other articles of the Belgic Confession, Article 29 begins with the words “we believe.” With these two words deBres acknowledges that the material confessed in Article 29 reflects not what the eye sees in this broken world, but echoes instead what the Lord has revealed in Holy Scripture. The article is a statement of faith.
The church in faith echoes God’s revelation that “we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true Church.” Back in Article 28 deBres (and we with him) had confessed that “all and everyone are obliged to join [the church] and unite with it.” We supported that obligation with two reasons drawn from the Scripture:
- “this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed,” and
- “there is no salvation outside of it.”
In the brokenness of this sinful life, however, there are many people who do not join the church. In fact, in this world there are numerous gatherings that call themselves churches while in fact they have no right to the term – and they call Christians to join them. We see it in our local community. One finds, for example, the Presbyterian Church, the Anglican Church, The Church of Christ, the Free Reformed Church, the Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church, and more. Which of these churches am I to join? Will any church of town do? If not, why not? If the Lord God determines which church I’m to join, has He given me criteria to follow? The point of Article 29 is that Yes, God Himself specifies what criteria must be satisfied before I may join a given church.
We could, of course, say that we are members of a church already. So many of us were born into the churches of which we are currently members, were baptized in this church as infants, received our Christian education in the circle of the Church, and so eventually made profession of faith in this church. We’ve become very comfortable with this church; it’s ‘our’ church.
Yet Article 29 obviously does not think that such a reason for church membership is valid. According to this article, Scripture insists that “we ought to discern very diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true Church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of Church” – and ‘my’ church could be among those who hold that claim! So I have homework to do; I must be convinced that the marks God says identify His church are present in the church to which I belong.
Another concern arises. May I not claim that God Himself has joined me, through circumstance of birth, baptism and upbringing, to ‘my’ church? If God has done so, must I not for that reason alone remain a member? In answer to this question, we need to acknowledge that indeed the Lord God Himself placed me in ‘my’ church – for nothing happens by chance (Lord’s Day 10). But the same point needs to be said, then, of the neighbor born and raised in the local Baptist Church or Roman Catholic Church; God’s providence is true for his life too. Yet God’s hand in the neighbor’s life does not relieve him of responsibility and justify his membership in ‘his’ church. As we confessed in Article 28, “it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the Church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it.” Inasmuch as this point is true for the neighbor is it also true for me: I have a responsibility before God to see to it that I, in the circumstance God in wisdom has led my life, make a point of obeying His command – also on the point of joining His church in my town.
So we are driven back to our original question. In the face of a smorgasbord of churches in town, each of which claims for itself the name ‘church, every Christian believer has the responsibility before God to “discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God” which church God wants him to join. What does His Word say? What criteria does He give for deciding which church He wishes His people to join?
‘TRUE’ AND ‘FALSE’
The church of town we are to join is, in the words of Article 29, the “true church”. In seeking to understand that phrase, it is helpful to observe that when deBres originally wrote his confession he used two adjectives to describe the church. He spoke of “the right and true church”. The word ‘right’ carried in it the concept of genuine. Though the term ‘right’ was dropped in later editions of the Belgic Confession, it does provide us with the flavor deBres intended with the word ‘true’ and the word ‘false’. We need to think in terms of genuine versus counterfeit, and legal versus illegal. The one is the real thing, while the other is Satan’s imitation effort (see 2 Corinthians 11:14,15). Like counterfeit, illegal money, the imitation church may look much like the real thing, but it is and remains fake, illegal-before-God, counterfeit; it does not have the right of existence.
In normal conversation, we do not commonly talk about ‘real’ money as opposed to ‘counterfeit money’, or ‘true’ money versus ‘false’. Instead, we simply talk about ‘money’, and take the genuineness of the money in our wallets for granted. We all understand that the word ‘real’ does not add anything to the word ‘money’ – unless we’re confronted with counterfeit money. Only then, in distinction from the counterfeit money circulating in our community, will we speak of our money as ‘real money’, ‘true money’.
The same is true in relation to the church. Setting the word ‘true’ beside the word ‘church’ does not add anything to the word ‘church’. Instead, the word ‘true’ has a place only when there’s a counterfeit church around, and we want to distinguish the real thing from the fake. That observation helps us to understand that the true church spoken of in Article 29 is not a different church from the one confessed in Articles 27 and 28. It is the same church, be it that it is now contrasted with an imitation church. The (true) church of Article 29, then, is the “one catholic or universal Church” of Article 27, “which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.” This is the church from which no one may withdraw, “but all and everyone are obliged to join it,” as Article 28 puts it.
EXAMPLES IN SCRIPTURE
Are there examples in Scripture of a counterfeit church, a false church that had no right of existence? A couple of examples spring to mind.
Israel in the desert was the people of God, which assembled around the tabernacle under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Numbers 16, however, tells us of a second assembly, under the self-appointed leadership of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. “And Korah gathered all the congregation against [Moses and Aaron] at the door of the tabernacle of meeting” (vs 19). This second assembly stood over against the first; it was a second qahal (as the Hebrew has it; see Article 27), a second gathering, a second ‘church’. That this second gathering of (some of) the people of God was illegitimate in God’s eyes became so very evident from the words the Lord told Moses to say to Israel, “Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” (vs 23). The extent of God’s displeasure with this counter assembly is evident from God’s punishment; the ground opened to swallow them up (16:31f).
A second passage to consider is 1 Kings 12:25-33. After the death of Solomon and the unwise words of his son Rehoboam, the ten northern tribes anointed Jeroboam as their king. God’s instruction to all Israel –all twelve tribes was that they were to worship Him in the place where God had chosen “to put His name for His dwelling place” (Deuteronomy 12:3), and in the days of 1 Kings 12 that was Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 6:6). There stood His ark of the covenant, in the Holy of Holies in the back of the temple (1 Kings 8:6). Jeroboam, however, considered it political suicide to permit his subjects to cross the border into Judah to serve the Lord, and so established sanctuaries of worship in Dan and Bethel. He made two golden calves and said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). Or, as can equally be translated (for the word ‘god’ is always in plural form in the Hebrew language): “Here is your God, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” In fact, the reference to being brought up from the land of Egypt indicates that Jeroboam was very much thinking of the LORD God of Israel. Jeroboam did not want to serve other gods (which would be sin against the first commandment), but encouraged Israel to continue to serve the LORD – be it through the use of idols (which is sin against the second commandment).
The result of Jeroboam’s action was that the people of Israel assembled in more places than one; there was an assembly in Jerusalem, another in Bethel, and a third in Dan. All three assemblies were gatherings of the people of God, persons God claimed for Himself in the blood of the coming Christ. But only the assembly of God’s people in Jerusalem was legitimate in God’s eyes; the assemblies of Dan and Bethel were counterfeit assemblies, illegitimate before God, false. God Himself pointed up the illegitimacy of the Bethel sanctuary and hence the illegitimacy of His people congregating there, for He sent a prophet from Judah to Bethel to admonish the king and destroy Bethel’s altar (1 Kings 13:1-5).
EXAMPLES IN HISTORY
After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, those who believed in Jesus Christ assembled together; there was no division (Acts 2:40-47; 4:32-35). But in the course of years savage wolves entered the sheepfold of Jesus Christ, and did not spare the flock (to use Paul’s words in Acts 20:29). These savage wolves “drew away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). We find partial fulfillment of this word in John’s first letter, when he writes about those who “went out from us” (1 John 2:19). Here were people who used to gather with the people of God, who used to belong to the church of Jesus Christ, but they departed. Did they throw away every vestige of the Christian faith, and return to their heathendom? From the rest of what John writes it appears that they forcefully continued to embrace and to preach Jesus Christ, but it was a mutated ‘gospel’ that was gospel no longer, insisting that Jesus was not the Messiah sent from God (1 John 2:22; 4:3). They surely considered themselves Christians still, but their meeting-together-away-from-the-Christians-they-deserted was illegitimate in the eyes of God, their church false.
In the course of centuries there have been so many who formed their own church. In deBres’ day there were in his corner of Europe at least three churches, if not four. The Roman Catholics of Doornik (where deBres labored while he wrote the Belgic Confession) formed one assembly that met in the cathedral on Main Street (one may assume), while those who embraced the gospel of Scripture met in small groups in secret due to persecution. Given how deBres writes against the Anabaptists in his confession, we are safe to assume that Anabaptists existed in town as well. And Lutherans too were known to be about. Were all these churches legitimate in God’s eyes? Were they all real, true and genuine? To deBres and the people of town this question was so very important because –as deBres had laid out in Article 28 the Lord obliges all and everyone in town to join the church of God for the sake of their very salvation. How, then, could the believer of deBres’ day know which assembly to join? For that matter, how could the people of Israel in the days of Moses and Jeroboam know which assembly to join?
THE THREE MARKS OF THE TRUE CHURCH
From Holy Scripture deBres learned to examine three criteria in determining which assembly of Christians in town the people of God ought to join. In deBres’ words: “The true Church is to be recognized by the following marks:
- It practices the pure preaching of the gospel;
- It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them;
- It exercises Church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.”
1) The pure preaching of the gospel
The first mark characterizing a legitimate assembly of God’s people is the preaching of the gospel. Given that the Holy Spirit works faith through the preaching (Romans 10:17; see Article 28), it is self-evident that this mark receives priority of place in any list characterizing the Lord’s church.
Strictly speaking, the adjective ‘pure’ ought not to be necessary with the word ‘preaching’. But in this sin-filled world, so much of what passes as preaching of the gospel is in fact not preaching of the gospel. As preaching so obviously characterizes the church of God, Satan’s imitation church will also, invariably, have preaching. But Satan will certainly not have the gospel of redemption purely proclaimed in a counterfeit church – for he hates God’s gospel of grace with a hellish passion. So the preaching in an illegitimate assembly will be twisted and warped, and hence not ‘pure’. Jeroboam built a sanctuary in Dan and in Bethel, including an altar where sacrifices for sin were made – and so the gospel of Jesus Christ portrayed. Yet the message was perverted, for the God Jeroboam’s priests taught Israel about was not the God who had revealed Himself in Scripture – one too glorious and holy to be portrayed by calves. The Lord Jesus Christ too spoke about “a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep” (John 10:12). A hireling speaks, calls the sheep to follow him, but does not give the sheep the leadership and protection they require. The hireling “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them” (John 10:12).
In the church of God, though, the preaching will be ‘pure’. No, the term does not mean that the preaching will be perfect. As long as the Lord God is pleased to use sinful men to preach the gospel of redemption, there will be impurities in the preaching. Rather, with the term ‘pure’ deBres seeks to catch what the Good Shepherd calls “My voice” (John 10:27). Those who hear Biblically faithful preaching will recognize in the words of the preacher (sinful man though he is) the Voice of the Good Shepherd. Such preaching will not twist the Word of God, and will not take from or add to what is written in the Bible. If Christ speaks, one hears what is found in the Bible.
When, therefore, the people of deBres’ town went to look for the church they were to join, they were to consider first the preaching. In the message I hear from the pulpit, do I recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd? This is the vital question that saints of every generation must ask anew. And, implied in recognizing the voice of the Shepherd is the need to know that voice. That’s what makes Bible knowledge, and living close to the Lord, so imperative. Here is the responsibility of God’s people: see to it that you are able to discern the Voice of the Shepherd (“pure preaching”) from the sounds a hireling makes! Your own growth in the Lord and the salvation of your family is at stake! Then make a point of joining that assembly of believers Sunday after Sunday where the Voice of the Shepherd is faithfully heard. For the Shepherd is where His voice is heard!
2) The pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them
The sacraments are the visible preaching of the Word of God. More will be said of the sacraments in Articles 33 to 35. For now it is sufficient to say that sacraments function to the preaching as illustrations in a book do to the written text. As the illustration in a good book will not contradict the message of the written text, so the administration of the sacraments cannot contradict the message of the preaching. The Voice of the Shepherd will always speak about “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), and therefore the sacraments must always be about “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (see also Lord’s Day 25.66). Where the sacraments have a different message, something is amiss – and the child of God does not belong in that church.
3) Church discipline is exercised for correcting and punishing sins
The church is “a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who … are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit,” Article 27 had said. That being so, it follows that no church can truly be ‘church’ if it welcomes or tolerates amongst its members those who live lives obviously not renewed by the Holy Spirit. Such persons must be disciplined (a point to which the confession returns in Article 32). As one considers which church to join, one must recall what the church is, and see evidence of its holy identity in the way the congregation deals with sin in her midst. This is the more necessary when we recall that each of us remains inclined to evil, and therefore we do well to surround ourselves with brothers and sisters who will actually dare to correct us and/or help us in the ongoing fight against our weaknesses.
Altogether, then, the three marks speak of Christ’s pastoral care for His people. Article 29 summarizes these three marks of the true Church as follows, “In short, [the true Church] governs itself according to the Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.” Though the Lord God had stipulated Jerusalem as the place His people were to assemble, Jeroboam changed the place to Bethel – where God did not live. Though the Lord had stipulated that only descendents of Aaron could serve as priests (Exodus 29:9), Jeroboam “made priests from every class of people, who were not of the sons of Levi” (1 Kings 12:31). Though the Lord had decreed that “the fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the LORD” (Leviticus 23:33), “Jeroboam ordained a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the feast that was in Judah” (1 Kings 12:32). You see, the Word of God did not govern Jeroboam’s assembly, and Jesus Christ –though sacrifices were made in His name– was not acknowledged as the only Head. So Jeroboam’s assembly of God’s covenant people was not God’s assembly, was not Christ’s church. Conversely, the presence of these three marks in a church testifies to the fact that Christ is the acknowledged Head of that Church and so His whole Word is the final authority in every question.
This conclusion leaves no room for using people as the criterion for determining which church to join. Though it is tempting to join a church where one feels socially comfortable, people’s friendliness may never, in the final analysis, be the reason why one joins a church. In fact, the better one comes to know the members of a given church, the more sin and weaknesses one will find – and that can be distinctly off-putting.
There is no such thing as a perfect church on this earth. Churches are invariably made up of sinners – and that is why the gospel of redemption through Christ’s blood must continue to be preached also to church members. It is the presence of the gospel of redemption –the Voice of the Shepherd that points up which church is legitimate in God’s eyes, and hence which church I must join.
Back in Article 27 deBres had echoed what he heard the Lord say in Scripture about what the church is. The church, he’d confessed, “is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.” In Article 29 deBres returns to this point. “Those who are of the Church,” he says, “may be recognized by the marks of Christians.” Persons “washed by [Jesus’] blood and …sanctified by the Holy Spirit” display particular characteristics.
‘Of’ and ‘In’
DeBres speaks about “those who are of the Church”. There is a difference between those who are ‘of’ and those who are ‘in’ the church. John writes about persons who “went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). John’s reference is to people who once were ‘in’ but they were not ‘of’ – and that’s why they left. One may think of a tumor in a body; it is ‘in’ the body but not ‘of’ the body, and in the long run may very well kill the body. In relation to the church, these are the hypocrites of whom deBres had already spoken in the first paragraph of Article 29: hypocrites “are mixed in the Church along with the good and yet are not part of the Church, although they are outwardly in it.”
But the distinction between ‘in’ and ‘of’ cuts the other way too. Not only can people be ‘in’ the church who are not ‘of’ the church (hypocrites), there can also be persons ‘of’ the church who are not ‘in’. These are people who belong in the church, but who have not yet joined the church. These are the people deBres spoke of in Article 28, when he wrote, “it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the Church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it.” Believers outside the church belong to the church (they are ‘of’) and therefore must join.
What, now, do the people ‘of’ the church look like? Are they persons whom the community knows as thieves and adulterers, drunkards and liars? Or are they perhaps people who have put sin so far behind them that the community knows them as perfect?
According to Scripture, neither extreme is true. In his description of the Christian, deBres uses very categorical terminology. He says:
- “They believe in Jesus Christ the only Savior.” The point is first of all that every Christian admits, with Peter, that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we may be saved” (Acts 4:12). Yet this is not just verbiage, but a conviction of the heart that reaches into every facet of life. Persons who boast of Christ even while they insist that their own works or the works of another are necessary for salvation and well-being-before-God in this life and the next are actually not Christians (see Lord’s Day 11.30). To the Christian Jesus Christ is “the only Savior” for this life and the life to come.
- Christians “flee from sin.” The Christ in whom Christians believe has delivered His people from bondage to sin. In gratitude for this redemption, Christians do not dabble a little with sin, nor do they take a laidback approach to sin, but they flee from it. The Christian has come to see something of the holiness of God, of His radical hatred for sin, and is taken by how much God has done to deliver His people from sin; He even sent His only, well-beloved Son into the world to pay for my iniquity! So a Christian is not blasé about sin in his life or home, he does not consider a bit of sin acceptable, but strenuously and categorically flees from sin – as if there were a mad dog behind him.
- Christians “pursue righteousness.” The Christian does not reach for an upright lifestyle in a half-hearted fashion. Pursuit speaks of exertion. With strong and even forceful determination the Christian strives to reach the goal of righteousness, a manner of living that cannot be faulted in the community.
- Christians also “love God and their neighbor without turning to the right or left.” The formulation of this characteristic of a Christian comes from God’s instruction to Israel after He gave them His commandments, “you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Deuteronomy 5:32). Keeping God’s commandments, Jesus taught, was evidence that one actually loved Him (John 14:15; cf 15:10; 1 John 5:3). Love for the God who gave His most precious Son for our redemption cannot be sporadic or half-hearted. The Christian is particular in his service to God and neighbor, exerting himself to act just as his God and Savior has commanded. God’s holy identity leaves no place for mediocre Christianity.
- Christians “crucify their flesh and its works.” Crucifixion is not a small measure of self-denial. Whoever is hung on a cross suffers greatly and most certainly dies. Christians have been crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20) and now need to make a point of being crucified – cutting off one’s hand and plucking out one’s eye if that is what it takes to cut sin out of one’s life (Matthew 5:29,30).
- Christians acknowledge that “great weakness remains in them”, as Paul wrote: “what I will to do, that I do not practice” and “the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Romans 7:15,19). At the same time the Christian is deeply frustrated by his continuing weaknesses, and he cries out with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). His hatred of sin and his frustration with his evil inclinations makes the Christian “fight against it by the Spirit all the days of [his] life.” And ‘fight’, we understand, speaks again of determination and exertion.
- Yet Christians do not get despondent about the brokenness that continues to hound their best efforts. Paul in his brokenness delighted in the redemption there was in Jesus Christ (Romans 7:25), and every Christian does the same. “They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of sins through faith in Him.” The focus of the Christian is not on his failures and his sins; his focus in the midst of sin is on Christ and the redemption He accomplished.
Such persons show evidence that they “are washed by [Jesus’] blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit” (Article 27). These people are “of the church”. Those outside who demonstrate these marks of the Christian need to be encouraged to join “the assembly of the redeemed” (Article 28). Those inside who do not demonstrate these marks of the Christian need to be urged to repent, lest they lose the salvation they think is theirs.
It is not that hard to speak about the church. It happens repeatedly over a cup of coffee or in our Bible study societies, and so often with a sense of smugness: we are the true church. The flip side of the coin gets talked up and down as well; they are illegitimate, a false church…. There is certainly place to speak about the church and its marks, and to dare to acknowledge, too, which is the true church and which is not (but without smugness; see below) – for one needs to obey God’s command to join. But when one fails to display the marks of the Christian, one surely loses all moral right to speak with smugness of belonging to the true church and condemning those who belong elsewhere. Not for nothing did deBres list the marks of the Christian in the paragraph immediately following the one about the marks of the church. Let those who would speak about the church –and we must!– see to it that he first display the marks of the Christian. Nothing is as offensive to an outsider as the arrogance that’s displayed when one pontificates about church but fails to show the marks of the Christian. And that’s so understandable: if ‘my’ church is legitimate in God’s eyes, if the Voice of the Shepherd is indeed heard and honored in ‘my’ church, then the fruits of His shepherding must be evident in the devout lifestyle and the Godly talk of the Lord’s sheep. Jesus’ flock is certainly not spiritually malnourished and lethargic but well fed, thriving and active in doing good works.
THE FALSE CHURCH
What, now, characterizes a church not legitimate in God’s eyes? What does a counterfeit assembly of Christians look like? DeBres puts it like this: “The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ. It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word, but adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases. It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.” What, we wonder, is the Biblical evidence for this confession?
We paused earlier at Jeroboam’s illegitimate assemblies in Dan and in Bethel, as we found it in 1 Kings 12:25-33. The next chapter tells us that the Lord God sent a prophet from Judah to reprimand Jeroboam’s apostasy at his self-styled center of worship, and announce the destruction of Jeroboam’s altar. The king’s response was instant: “Arrest him!” (1 Kings 13:4). This leader of this counterfeit assembly did “not want to submit [him]self to the yoke of Christ.” Instead, he very blatantly persecuted those “who rebuke[d] the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.”
But it is not always so blatant. An old prophet living in Bethel heard about the words of the prophet from Judah. He knew also that this Judean prophet had declined the king’s invitation to stay for dinner on grounds that God had commanded he return forthwith to his own country (1 Kings 13:7-10). Yet this old prophet pursued the man of God from Judah, and said to him, “I too am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the LORD, saying, ‘Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water’” (vs 18). The Holy Spirit adds, “He was lying to him” – as the man of God from Judah should have perceived, for God cannot contradict Himself. The prophet from Judah fell for the deceit of the old prophet, and it cost him his life (vs 24). Here is an example where (leaders in) an illegitimate assembly refused to bow before the Word of God, and assigned more authority to itself than to the Word. By enticing the Judean prophet through false appeal to God’s revelation, this old prophet of Bethel in fact persecuted the faithful – be it that he did so very subtly.
The book of Acts also lays out the characteristics of the false church. A great number of the people of God in Jerusalem continued to follow the chief priests who had earlier demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. “The priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon” Peter and John as they proclaimed Christ crucified, and “put them in custody” (Acts 4:1-3). They laid a ban of silence upon Jesus’ preachers (vs 18) before they let them go. Shortly thereafter the high priests and those with them arrested the apostles once more. This time they beat them with the traditional forty-stripes-minus-one before releasing them with the command no longer to speak in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:40).
Scriptural testimony as this led deBres to summarize the teaching of the Lord on the characteristics of the false church in the manner he did. The dominant feature of the false church is the opening line of deBres’ characterization: it does not want to listen but goes its own way.
In two of His seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, Jesus Christ makes mention of “the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). The reference is to a gathering of persons in the name of God that is obviously so degenerate as to be unmistakably the work of Satan. Not every false church is equally corrupt (as also not every true church is equally ‘pure’). However, it is not the amount of perversion in a church that determines whether it is false. A church is false, illegitimate before God, when it does not want to bow before the Word of God. This refusal to bow may range anywhere from subtle to blatant, even becoming diabolic in its treatment of those who act in a godly fashion and admonish its evils. In its extreme form such a church may very unmistakably be a synagogue of Satan.
TRUE AND FALSE CHURCHES: EASILY DISTINGUISHABLE
The true church verses the false, the genuine verses the counterfeit, the legitimate versus the illegitimate are, concludes deBres, “easily recognized and distinguished from each other.” As with everything else deBres has written about the church, this conclusion is not the consequence of observation; it is instead a statement of faith. Was it clear to the people of Israel whether they should remain with the assembly of Moses and Aaron or join that of Korah, Dathan and Abiram? Was it clear in the days of Jeroboam that the assemblies to which he summoned the people in Dan and in Bethel were illegitimate in God’s eyes? Is it so clear to us whether we should join this church or the one up the road? Due to our depravity and its resulting near-sightedness, we –like Israel of old may well have difficulty in seeing clearly which gathering of Christians God wants us to join. Personal histories, emotional longings, family ties and so many other factors cloud the issue for us, as it surely did for Israel of old. Yet from the vantage point of God’s Word and commands, His evaluation of Moses’ assembly verses Korah’s assembly was very evident, and so was His evaluation of the Jerusalem gathering verses the Bethel gathering. Looking at those respective gatherings without the fog of personal emotion or preference, and only through the glasses of God’s Word, makes it easy to recognize and distinguish which was true and which was false.
I refer here once more to Jesus’ word in John 10 about Himself being the Good Shepherd. Jesus mentions that the “sheep hear [the shepherd’s] voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. …The sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (vs 3 & 4). Surely the people of God today are able to recognize whether the sound they hear from their pulpit is the Voice of the Good Shepherd or the voice of a stranger.
THE CHALLENGE POSED BY ARTICLE 29
Article 29 challenges me to ask myself where I might find the true Church in my local community. In which of the several churches of town do I belong? That is: where does God want me to be? Am I convinced that in the Church where I am currently a member the Word of God is the final authority? If I am not convinced, I have a task ahead of myself. That is: I need to call the brethren to repentance. If they refuse to submit to the Word of God, it is for me to leave, to find and join myself to the true church.
However, if I am convinced that I am joined to the Church to which God calls me, if by the grace of God His Word is indeed the final authority in ‘my’ church (be it with so many imperfections remaining), then I must ensure that it remains that way. I cannot assume that what is a legitimate gathering of God’s people today will automatically be a legitimate assembly of God’s people tomorrow. There are dynamics in Christ’s church gathering work, and man’s responsibility to be faithful to Him is part of that dynamic. So I need to keep asking myself whether the sound I hear from ‘my’ pulpit is in fact the Voice of the Good Shepherd. I need to keep evaluating whether the church I’ve joined continues to “govern itself according to the pure Word of God.” That takes Bible knowledge, study, and involvement. Of course, while I do so I need to ensure that I personally continue to display, unambiguously, the marks of the Christian.
If the church to which I belong is the true Church, then all other Christians of town are also to join themselves to this Church (see Article 28). Such a sentence has the ring of arrogance to it, and comes across to other people as judgmental.
What really is arrogance, haughtiness? Is arrogance not that one speaks against God, acts contrary to Scripture, fails to submit to it – is that not arrogance over against God? If the Lord in His wisdom and mercy gathers in town an assembly of those chosen to life, and if He in kindness sees to it that in this church His Voice is clearly heard, and if He in compassion joins me (of all people, O wonder of wonders!) to this congregation of believers – shall I then refuse to admit that I belong to the true church? Is refusing to recognize Christ’s work for what it is not arrogance, and an affront to God?? Should I not in profound thankfulness delight in what God is doing in my town and in my life, draw the attention of others to God’s wonderful work in our midst, and encourage them to see it, too, and accept the consequences?
To people it may sound arrogant to suggest that ‘my’ church is the true church, the legitimate assembly of God’s people in town. It sounds arrogant because we are used to thinking in human terms. As we speak of ‘church’, though, we are to think in terms of the Lord’s work. We need to dare to see His work as He does it in our midst, and challenge our neighbor to see it too. The focus must not be primarily on people’s activity, but on Christ’s activity amongst people. When the eye is on the Shepherd, one can only follow in thankfulness, and obey in humility.
Points for Discussion:
- What significance is attached to the fact that Art 29 begins with the words “we believe”?
- Why is it necessary to discern “diligently and very carefully” what the true Church is? Give two reasons.
- Is the fact that you were born into the church of which you are a member sufficient reason to justify being a member of this church today? Why or why not?
- Why is the pure preaching of the gospel a mark of the true church? Why is hearing the pure preaching so important?
- Why is the pure administration of the sacraments a mark of the true church? Why is receiving the sacraments purely so important?
- Why is the correct administration of church discipline a mark of the true church? Why is participating in and succumbing to pure administration of church discipline so important?
- Why am one not to look at the people when one tries to find a church to join?
- What are the five marks of the Christian? What characterizes these five marks?
- Where are Christians found? Why?
- What is meant by a ‘false’ church? Give another word that means the same as ‘false’.
- Are there Christians in a false church? What obligation do they have? What consequence follows if they do not submit to the obligation?
- Discuss in what way one is to speak of Christians in other churches. See Canons of Dort III/IV.15 for guidance.
- Is a true church easily distinguished from a false church? Why or why not?
- Is it arrogance to consider one’s own church the true church in town? Why or why not?