Two Churches, pt. 3

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.

Because of length, my thoughts on this will be divided into separate posts. See part 1 and part 2. Now, part 3.

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.

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Two Churches, pt. 2

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.

Because of length, my thoughts on this have been divided into separate posts. See part 1. Now, part 2.

The True Church

Church #1, the body and fellowship of the true church. The Belgic Confession of Faith, article 29, continues:

The church engages in the pure preaching

of the gospel;

it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments

as Christ instituted them;

it practices church discipline

for correcting faults.

In short, it governs itself
according to the pure Word of God,

rejecting all things contrary to it
and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.

By these marks one can be assured
of recognizing the true church—

and no one ought to be separated from it.

Recall that this article of the Belgic Confession is titled, “The Marks of the True Church.” The three marks of the true church, handed down since the Protestant Reformation, are: 1. The pure preaching of the Gospel; 2. The pure administration of the sacraments; 3. The practice of church discipline. Easy to remember: Word, Sacraments, Discipline.

And it would take a book, or even three volumes, to expound on these marks of the true church.

To be a true church, all three of these must be present. This is the “minimal complexity” of the church. As we’ll see, they are interdependent. If one is lacking, the other two will suffer and soon disappear. That is why all three marks are essential to the church.

The controlling mark is the pure preaching of the gospel. The gospel is made visible in the sacraments. The gospel is the basis for growth in grace and holiness, and rejection of sin. The Word defines the sacraments, which is why you cannot administer the sacraments without the preaching of the Word. The Word is not properly preached if there is no church discipline to correct rejection of it, and to encourage obedience to it. Without discipline, the door is open to profane the sacraments, because heresy or scandalous living has been tolerated.

The Belgic Confession summarize it well: “In short, it [the church] governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.” The Word determines, defines, and regulates the church. Not only the positive element, but the negative is stated. The true church rejects all things contrary to the pure Word of God.

The Belgic Confession brilliantly includes the headship over the church. This is a must. Jesus Christ is the only Head of the church. Christ the King reigns in his Church. There is no other head, whether ecclesiastical (a pope) or civil (the state). Why is the head of the church necessary, at this point? Because, we need to know who has authority to define the church. Who has the authority to define the church by these marks? Only the founder, instituter, and ruler of the church: Jesus Christ.

I must makes explicit what is implied, here. When the exclusive headship of Jesus Christ is forgotten, the three marks of the church will vanish. When the authority of Christ is replaced, the marks will suffer. For example, when the pastor would rather please man than the Lord Jesus, his preaching of the pure Gospel will necessarily be compromised; for it will offend the natural man. The sacraments will be profaned, because you can’t tell people “no.” Discipline will be non-existent, obviously; you’ll never correct faults.

When authority is usurped by church officers or councils, the result will be the same. If they contradict the pure preaching of the Word, how can that be maintained in the local congregations? When the denomination becomes “inclusive” (in the bad way), what of church discipline? Indeed, this relationship between the exclusive headship of Christ over his church will take a post (or a book) of itself.

When the Head of the church is replaced, so will the marks of his church. The preaching of the pure gospel and church discipline (the keys of the kingdom) will be replaced with some other device to bring people in. The preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments (the means of grace) will be overshadowed by some other method for “growth.” If the church is no longer governed by the pure Word of God, rejecting anything contrary to it, then Christ’s headship has been replaced. Christ is King, and his Word is the law! Reject the law, and you’ve rejected the law-giver. Programs and fads will replace the divinely instituted means for growing the church in numbers, and growing the church in maturity.

The Belgic Confession then said, “By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church.” The Lord Jesus, founder and head of his Church, is not ambiguous in his Word about that Church. How do you identify a true church? Look for the marks, and Christ will be there. Where a church is governed by the pure Word of God, then Jesus Christ is the head, and these three marks will be there.

An obligation comes from all that has been said: “and no one ought to be separated from it.” Here again is the mandate to discern, or (*deep breath*) judge a church. Why must we diligently and carefully discern whether a church is a true church? Because Christians must be part of the true church! Not just the invisible church (by virtue of union with Christ), but the visible church (by baptism). There is no such thing as an isolated Christian. Check the Bible. We have a corporate identity. The visible church is the consequence of the Gospel. But, autonomy is greatly valued in our time (every time?), so that will be hard to swallow. Regardless, the command is there to not neglect the meeting together.

How can you possibly obey God in this way if you have not discerned where the true church is?

Now, on the flip-side, how would you know when to separate from a church? Based on the marks! Are the three marks of the true church no longer present? Once again, we are obligated to use discernment. Look for the marks of the true church. Churches can degenerate. Just look at church history. Some fall so far as to become no church at all. They can have their lamp stands removed. Remember, Christ in his Word requires you to be joined to his true church, not just any “church.” That was the point of article 29, because all sects call themselves “the church.” So don’t feel guilty for leaving a “church” that doesn’t have the marks. You are obligated to be a part of Christ’s visible church, where he is head. That means you cannot be joined to a “church” that is not. Neither tradition, nor your family, nor the church’s history, obligates your membership to them. Christ, in his Word, obligates membership in a true church. And what it says is the pure preaching of the Word, pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline is how you decide.

Examine your church. Are all three marks present? Is the pure preaching of the Gospel there? Now, as a mark of the church, do you think this means once or twice? As in, “a couple times a year, I hear the Gospel.” No, that would be ridiculous. You could hardly say Gospel-preaching marks that church. That mark would be unidentifiable if it was infrequent. Rather, is it a characteristic of the church? Is it a distinguishing mark of your church, that the Gospel is purely preached? If it’s not, then that’s a serious problem. If this mark is missing, the other two are already in jeopardy.

What about the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them? I guess the first question would be: does your church administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper at all? Does your church baptize only those adults who have made a credible profession of faith? Secondly, does it add or take away from them, as instituted by Christ? Are the elements changed? Like, for example, replacing wine (which Christ did institute) with some other beverage (which Christ did not institute). That is no different, in principle, than the church adding oil or some other substance to the baptismal water (which has been done). Further, does your church admit believers to the Lord’s Table, but prohibit unbelievers? And yes, I think frequency of the Lord’s Supper is an issue, here. In the same way that preaching the Gospel twice or four times per year is not satisfactory, neither should administering the means of nourishment for the believer. Simply put, annual or even quarterly observation of the Lord’s Supper is inconsistent with the nature of the sacrament. Notice, you would have to understand the sacraments first, before you could discern whether the administration of them is according to Christ’s institution.

Finally, does your church practice church discipline for correcting faults? If no one is rebuked, about any sin, ever, then there’s a problem. Church discipline includes all three levels. Correction among believers, then the including of witnesses, and lastly bringing it before the elders. So, don’t conclude that your church is missing the third mark because you’ve never witnessed excommunication! Ideally, that shouldn’t have to happen! But, is sin being dealt with in the church? Is false teaching being corrected? Church discipline is not only corrective, but also formative. It’s probably better known as discipleship. Who is supposed to be shepherding the families in the church? The elders. Discipline isn’t just negative, but positive: teaching, training, catechizing, meeting together, etc. Is there accountability between the members and elders? Are the people at that church in a relationship with the elders? Not an assumed relationship, but a formal, stated relationship. Has a verbal commitment been made? Have membership vows been taken? Where would the responsibility and authority to correct somebody come from, if nobody has agreed to that kind of relationship. You see, church discipline and formal church membership are two sides of the same coin. So I would argue (and I’m not alone) that if your church does not have formal membership, then it consequently does not have church discipline; and to be lacking the third mark of the church means it is not a church.

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Two Churches, pt. 1

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.

I don’t presume to do justice to this article of faith. I think a book should be written about it, because it could take that much to expound and give examples and application. A Tale of Two Churches should be the title (dibs, it’s mine!).

Because of length, my thoughts on this will be divided into separate posts. This is part 1.

We Ought to Discern

The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) Article 29, “The Marks of the True Church” says:

We believe that we ought to discern

diligently and very carefully,
by the Word of God,

what is the true church—

for all sects in the world today
claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

How refreshing is that? We ought to discern . . . what is the true church. We ought to distinguish, tell the difference. In short, we should make a judgment.

How can we do that? Is it arbitrary? Is it based on personal opinion? No, that would be wrong. And here we get to the the problems with the “don’t judge” crowd. They simply don’t recognize what is going on.

The standard by which we judge is not ourselves, not our personal preference, not some man-made criteria, but “the Word of God.” It’s the rule that is above us all, external, and authoritative. Ironically, those who say “don’t judge” can only ever judge by an arbitrary standard. They have zero authority to judge anything, at all. Including the moral judgment that judging is wrong, and the ethical mandate that we should not judge!

Secondly, this is not a hasty snap-judgment. We are to discern “diligently and very carefully.” Those are excellent words. Due diligence is called for. It’s not to be careless. What we are making a judgment about is a weighty matter, after all.

Thirdly, Scripture tells us things so that we can in fact discern, tell the differences. It is possible to recognize the true from the false. Scripture is clear, which is another thing that contradicts our relativistic culture. Those who disagree with our judging according to Scripture often argue that the Bible is ambiguous on a matter. No, it’s not. The data is there. Not everything is equally clear in the Bible, but it is understandable. One of the things it is very clear about is what a true church looks like, and thus we can recognize what a false church is, as well. Thus, God has provided what we need in his Word so we can diligently and very carefully discern what is the true church.

Why must we discern what is the true church? Not only because Scripture commands us to develop discernment, distinguishing between true and false, and because we are commanded to be a part of the Church and to worship God corporately, but also out of necessity of our situation in the fallen world. Why must we discern what is the true church? As article 29 said, because many groups call themselves “the church.” Are we to simply take their word for it? That would be irresponsible, in light of Scripture’s defining of the church. These other “churches” disagree amongst themselves. That means they can’t all actually be “the church.” Someone is wrong, some of them are false. So, because there are a multitude of sects that claim to be “the church”, we of necessity must diligently and carefully discern what is the true church, according to the Word of God.

But we are speaking of distinguishing
the body and fellowship of the true church
from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

Based on the Word of God, diligently and very carefully, what are we to distinguish? Two churches: the true church and the false “church.”

I must point out, that this article shows that the Reformed creeds are not cold, abstract statements of doctrine. They are eminently practical and pastoral. This article of the Belgic Confession tells you what to look for, and what to look-out for. It not only tells you how to identify a true church, but how to identify a false church. That is useful to everyone.

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