Another Look at the True Church
What is the true church? Why does the Belgic Confession, Article 29, speak of both the true Church and the false Church? According to Guido de Bres, author of this document, we “ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church.” And at least for de Bres, discernment between the true and the false church did not present significant difficulty: “These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.” So there you have it. Simple really. Or is it? Can we speak in these terms today? The Protestant “Church” is so divided institutionally that we are accustomed to speaking of various denominations. This is quite an interesting term, when you stop to think about it. To denominate means to give a name to something. When used as a religious term, “denomination” means “a religious sect or body designated by a distinctive name.” According to my Shorter Oxford Dictionary, this usage goes back to 1716. Since then, this term has been applied to “Anglicans” and “Presbyterians,” “Methodists” and “Baptists”. There are “Churches of Christ” and “Assemblies of God,” there are “Brethren,” both “open” and “closed,” “Apostolic,” “Elim,” “New Life,” “Churches of the Nazarene,” “Union” or “Cooperating Churches”. The list goes on and on. How do the categories “true” and “false” of the Belgic Confession apply today given this proliferation of denominations, i.e. “bodies designated by distinctive names”?
Well, let’s first go back to the Confession itself. If we begin with Article 29, we have gotten a little ahead of ourselves. We have ‘jumped the gun’, as they say. We really have to go back to Article 27. Using the language of the Apostles’ Creed, this article declares that “we believe and profess one catholic and universal Church,” which is then defined as “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 Spirit.” We are then informed that this “Church has been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof.” This is important, because it shows that the Reformers, and de Bres himself, were not thinking in terms of “denominations” at all, when they used the term “Church”. They thought of one, holy, catholic (i.e. worldwide) Church resulting from the saving and sanctifying work of God.
De Bres goes further. At times this Church appeared very small, as during the days of Ahab, when the Lord reserved 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. But again, because this preservation of the Church is a work of God, there has never been a time when believers have not been present in the world. The terms used to designate or describe the church in Scripture imply this. The word “church” in Greek, is the word “ekklesia”, which literally means “called out”. God’s people are called out by God Himself. The sheep hear the voice of Jesus Christ and they respond to it, becoming part of the flock, under His shepherding rule and guidance (John 10:14-16). The “flock” is also “the body of Christ”, and according to Paul, as we are part of the body, we are “built up”, attaining “unity in the faith in the knowledge of the Son of God”. We “become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” In this way, “we grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” From him, “the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:9-16).
The saved are within
Because the gathering and nurturing of the Church is a work of God, it follows that outside of this work, there can be no salvation. Listen to the Confession:
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. Article 28
Again, when de Bres wrote this, reflecting the view of the Reformers, he was not thinking in terms of “denominations”. He was thinking of the one, universal Church of God, the flock of Christ, the body of Christ in which we grow to maturity. The idea of separating oneself from the Church was unthinkable. It would be acting “contrary to the ordinance of God” and would cut the person off from the spiritual life and nourishment that is vital to his survival as a Christian. Calvin, whose theology significantly influenced de Bres, has a striking passage on this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Speaking of the church as “mother” (cf. Galatians 4:26), he says:
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt. 22:30). Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah (Is. 37:32) and Joel (Joel 2:32) testify.1
How you know it’s the church you’re within
How, then can we recognize this most gracious of ladies? According to de Bres, again following the Reformers, there are three marks by which the true Church is known:
If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin ... hereby the true church may certainly be known. 2
And the false Church? Well, it “ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in his Word, but adds to and takes from them, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness and idolatry.”
It is clear, especially when reading Calvin on this, that the Reformers were thinking of the Roman Catholic church of their day when they defined the marks of the false church. However, according to Calvin
...when we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them. Rather, we are only contending about the true and lawful constitution of the church, required in the communion not only of the sacraments (which are signs of profession) but also especially of doctrine ... To sum up, I call them churches to the extent that the Lord wonderfully preserves in them a remnant of his people, however woefully dispersed and scattered, and to the extent that some marks of the church remain ... But on the other hand, because in them those marks have been erased to which we should pay particular regard in this discourse, I say that every one of their congregations and their whole body lack the lawful form of the church.3
Notice how Calvin was prepared to speak of congregations within the Roman church as “churches”, while at the same time pointing out that they lacked the lawful form of the Church. There were still some marks of the church present, but the crucial marks, (the pure preaching of the Word and the pure administration of the sacraments) could no longer be discerned in Calvin’s day. Elsewhere, the Reformer warns against making hasty judgments about churches and being too quick to pronounce them as false because they display errors – even errors in doctrine and in the administration of the sacraments. For example, citing the cases of the Corinthian and Galatian congregations, he writes:
Who, then, would dare snatch the title “church” from these who cannot be charged with even a tenth part of such misdeeds? What, I ask, would those who rage with such churlishness against present-day churches have done with the Galatians, all but deserters of the gospel, among whom this same apostle still recognized churches?4
Thus, although there were differences of opinion among the Reformers themselves on some points, as P. Y. de Jong points out, “no one urged the unity of all evangelical Protestant churches with greater consistency and conviction than John Calvin.” 5
The true church today
What does all this mean for us? Should we still speak of “true church” today? Yes, as long as we realize that we are speaking of the one, catholic and universal Church that is a gathering work of God from the time of the Fall. This is the flock for whom Jesus laid down His life. Should we be part of it? Absolutely! How can we claim to hear the voice of Jesus and not wish to be part of His flock, where He nourishes and feeds us and brings us to maturity? In fact, this is the whole point of articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession: God has been gathering His Church since the Fall (Art. 27); we are obligated to join and unite ourselves with this Church (Art. 28); and so we must be able to find it (Art. 29)!
What about the various “denominations”? Well, we are not called to make judgments about these – whether they are true or false over against our own local congregation. The Reformers’ warning against hasty and uncharitable assessments serves us well here. It will also serve us well as we view our own local congregations. Are the marks of the true Church present? They should be.
Will they be there perfectly? Not this side of heaven. People who make hasty judgments and go off to find greener pastures elsewhere soon discover that all local congregations have challenges and are “more or less true and faithful”. We should be more concerned to build up and strengthen the body, not tear it down. And in the process, we ourselves might grow to become more wise and more mature as Christians in the body of Christ.