In a day when it is a scandal to say anything is “false,” I got a breath of fresh air from a Reformed confession of faith. The typical sentiment you hear is, “Oh, we shouldn’t judge.” Well, Scripture tells us otherwise. And the Church has recognized this fact since the beginning. Here is just one more example of that.
The False Church
Church #2, all sects that call themselves “the church.” Notice the label in the first phrase of this part of article 29, of the Belgic Confession of Faith:
As for the false church,
it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances
than to the Word of God;
it does not want to subject itself
to the yoke of Christ;
it does not administer the sacraments
as Christ commanded in his Word;
it rather adds to them or subtracts from them
as it pleases;
it bases itself on humans,
more than on Jesus Christ;
it persecutes those
who live holy lives according to the Word of God
and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.
Here we have the marks of a false church. Usurping authority over the Word, not subjected to Christ, altering the sacraments, based on humans, and persecuting those who obey the Word and rebuke the false church. That’s a lot.
Now, a quick question: which big “church” in the world does this description fit? One that places more authority in itself and its sacraments than the Word of God? Hhmmm, perhaps that “church” that alone has the authority to decide what the “Word of God” is, in the first place? It is that church that operates by sola ecclesia: the church is the only authority of faith and life. Yes, it’s obvious that the Belgic Confession is speaking of the Church of Rome. What does this mean? Can we really say that such a large, old, and revered institution, that claims to be the (only!) church, is not? Yes. The Belgic Confession unambiguously says that a “church” that has these marks is a false church. I wonder how many Christians today would be willing to say (or even think) those words. Despite having the clear teaching of Scripture, believers are too timid to discern what is false and then to call it false.
Not only does the Church of Rome bear the marks of a false church, but other groups that claim to be “the church.” That’s part of the beauty of this chapter in the Belgic Confession: instead of labeling one sect as false, it instead provides the marks that can be applied to any sect. So any that fit this description can be labeled. Run some of the cults through this grid, and see the result. One thing they all have in common is giving “more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” Such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iglesia ni Cristo, Moonies, all clearly state an authority higher than the Word of God. They have no problem with adding to Scripture (continuing revelation in some form is characteristic). Ironically, Rome does the exact same thing. The “church” will always overrule the Word of God.
A further mark of a false church is: “it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases.” Once again, the Church of Rome is the perfect example, with the “popish mass.” Indeed, Calvin stated that Rome in fact does not administer the Lord’s Supper at all! Because of all the extra ceremony added to it, but also subtracting that the sacrament is a sign. Rome asserts that the bread and wine become the thing they were supposed to represent. On top of that, only the wafer is given to the people; they are denied the cup. The priest drinks the wine, but doesn’t receive the wafer. Even more, the Church of Rome adds five more sacraments, which are not commanded by Christ in his Word. To the opposite extreme, the Quakers refuse to observe the sacraments at all. And I think that any “church” that administers baptism, believing you cannot be saved without it, also fails to administer the sacraments as Christ commanded. Many cults add to baptism, in that way.
The Belgic Confession also said of the false church: “it bases itself on humans, more than on Jesus Christ.” That’s a brilliant statement. Christ the head and founder has been replaced. Naturally, instead of being ruled by the pure Word of God, the false church will be according to mere human authority. And as Jesus said, you can’t have two masters, it’s one or the other. Here’s where we look at liberal Protestantism. Just because a church is not Roman Catholic, or a cult, and calls itself “Protestant”, does not mean it’s a true church. Check the marks, always. What is the mark of liberalism? It’s exactly what the Belgic Confession says: “it bases itself on humans, more than on Jesus Christ.” The whole liberal enterprise was to make Christianity agreeable to autonomous man. Human reason is the highest authority, so that the Bible in it’s entirety cannot be accepted. Anything in Scripture that does not meet man’s standard is tossed. They have reduced themselves to a mere human organization. The cultural and historical situation, human traditions, human values, human reason, “scientific” consensus, are the basis for liberal faith and practice. If you would like an example of this, go to the website of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and read their commentaries on their statement of faith (they’re free to download). Liberal Protestantism may call itself Christian, or “the church”, but they are in fact a totally different religion, and undoubtedly a false church.
Finally, a false church will persecute those who rebuke it. We’ve seen a bit of this recently, following the formal debate between Dr. James White and Joe Ventilacion of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC).
The Belgic Confession expounds: “it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.” Look at the Reformation in Scotland and England for plenty of evidence for this statement. Those who resisted and refused to submit to the usurpation of authority by the Church of Rome, or the king or queen, over Christ and his Word were burned at the stake. I think this statement on persecution carries even greater significance considering its chief author, Guido de Bräs, was martyred.
Notice what the Belgic Confession has joined together: “those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it [the false church] for its faults, greed, and idolatry.” What is implicit, is those who live holy lives, according to the Word of God, will be rebuking the false church! Interesting, no? How could they do that, by what authority? What the Belgic Confession said previously: it is based on the Word of God. Possessing and living by the truth, they recognize error. Furthermore, they say something. I think what is implied is that those who live holy lives according to the Word of God are obligated to rebuke the false church. Indeed, how would the true church be persecuted unless it spoke the truth in opposition to the false church.
Who is willing to call out “faults, greed, and idolatry” in our day? Even in comfortable contexts, where you definitely won’t be burned at the stake! The only negative consequence is that people won’t like you, and might slander you on Twitter or Facebook. Yet, that’s enough for the timid person to keep his mouth shut.
Oh, and there’s this unwritten law that you’re not allowed to disagree or say someone is wrong. That’s considered hate. Common sentiments that come from this culture of niceness include: “Oh, let’s not focus on the negative. Let’s just focus on the positive.” Sadly, many Christians have unwittingly absorbed this way of thinking. But, it is not doing justice to Scripture. If there is such a thing as truth, then by necessity (logical consequence) there is falsehood. And the Bible labels sin! We are to identify what is wrong. How can there be repentance? Or how can we keep ourselves from these things, if we turn a blind eye? How can we exhort others to separate themselves from a sinful, greedy, and idolatrous “church”, if we stay silent? How can the elect within false churches be called out to repentance and faith, unless the Gospel is preached and error condemned? Is sin not to be repented of? Doesn’t that include the sins of usurping authority over the Word, not submitting to Christ, altering the sacraments, being based on humans, and persecuting Christians? Did Jesus not atone for those sins?
“Oh, but they are sincere. They are worshiping in their way. That’s their practice.” I’ll apply the words of Dr. Greg Bahnsen: “Oh barf.” What a petty, unbiblical justification, and downplaying of sin. Christians, even pastors, have spoken this way! Excuse me, but who is the authority? Christ, speaking in his Word. Christ, the head of the church, gets to decide what way we worship, and what our practice should be. It’s non-negotiable. This is a no “agree-to-disagree” zone. But in this relativistic time, sincerity covers a multitude of sins. Perhaps sincerity is justification in the court of public opinion, but not in the real court before the Supreme Judge.
Another familiar sentiment is “let’s just focus on what we have in common.” Oh, how ecumenical. The implication is, we should never focus on our differences. Well, I beg to differ. Let us indeed give credit where it is due, it would be unjust to ignore what is right and true, no matter who does it. But to only do that is half the job. We ought to distinguish.
An illustration may be helpful. Jollibee and McDonald’s are not the same. Am I “judgmental” for saying so? We openly talk about the differences. McDo’s fries are different (as in better) than Jollibee fries. But nobody beats Jollibee’s spicy fried chicken. We openly distinguish. There’s McDo and then there’s not-McDo. McDo has a clear menu, so you can automatically tell when your eating not-McDo. If someone gives you a burger from Jollibee, but tells you it’s from McDo, you would be right to label it “false McDo.” What’s the point? In a matters of so much more gravity, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, within which we can offer acceptable worship to our King, and receive Christ and his benefits, should we not practice the same level of discernment that we do in every other area of life? We discriminate every day. Should we not do the same about the most important matters?
I especially love the closing sentence of this article of the Belgic Confession: “These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.” Yes indeed, it’s not difficult to tell. There’s no use claiming ignorance. None can pretend to not recognize the true church and the false church, according to the Word of God. It requires knowing the standard: God’s Word. It requires us to be diligent and careful. But it can be done, and should be done. Every believer in Jesus Christ must discern what is the true church, in contrast with the false church.