In an age where apostasy is so prevalent what kind of church should I join?
This booklet addresses two great tragedies that are prevalent in our day.
The one tragedy is a rejection of church membership. Many have separated themselves entirely from the instituted church, from the oversight of elders, and from the faithful preaching of the gospel.
Some have done so because they insist that membership in God's church does not necessarily mean membership in a church institute. One can belong to the body of Christ regardless of whether or not he has anything to do with a local congregation. Church Membership in an Evil Age addresses that confusion.
Some have separated themselves from any instituted church, because they stumbled at the sin seen in every church they attended. In every church they have seen many sins and sinful people. It 'turned them off' to church membership. In such cases Church Membership in an Evil Age calls for a return to a biblical perspective of church membership.
Scripture gives us three marks by which we are to evaluate the churches to which we belong. Recognizing the imperfection of the church on this earth, there are three marks that must be evident in the church where we must be a member. Not for the sins of its members do we separate ourselves from a church. Not for friendly members and interesting programs do we join a church.
Church Membership in an Evil Age maintains that only when a church lacks these three marks must we separate ourselves. And if it is necessary that we separate from a church, we are called to join another congregation where these marks are found.
The other great tragedy addressed in this booklet is that thousands upon thousands of well-meaning Christians continue their membership in churches where the three marks have been lost. For various reasons they remain in churches that have departed from the Scriptures to such a degree that the biblical marks that characterize Christ's church are no longer found, or are corrupted to a significant degree. Although they are in danger of losing their generations, they remain where they are, content to 'put up with' the errors that they see. To such comes the call: 'Come out from among them and be ye separate!'
In this evil age, believers and their children must find a home in a faithful congregation where they may be strengthened in the most holy faith, where they may enjoy the fellowship of God in the gospel and unity in the truth of the Scriptures. That is our calling, the calling of church membership in an evil age.
Church Membership in an Evil Age
The truth of the Scriptures and the love of Christ's church is the passion of my heart and the burden God has placed upon my soul. From that point of view, I would long for everyone to come and see the truth of Scripture as we Protestant Reformed Churches have been given to understand and rejoice in it. And then I would also long to fellowship with all our readers in the unity of church membership.
However, I want to state clearly from the start that it is not my intention by this article to proselytise members and to add to the growing numbers in the Protestant Reformed Churches. To write with the purpose of persuading you to join the PRC would not be to the benefit of anyone. The simple fact is, if you do not know us, you need to ask many questions about our churches before even considering such membership. And the motivation for joining another church or denomination of churches ought never be merely to escape the problems in one's own congregation or churches.
Church membership must always be positive, with the seeking of God's glory as its basis. And it must always be based upon your own convictions of the truth of God's holy inspired Scriptures, as they line up with the confessions of the particular church to which you would join yourself.
So I am content to open the Scriptures and call your attention to a few scriptural principles, leaving the outcome to the Spirit of Christ, and praying only that you will be built up in the most holy faith and exercise your calling as faithful members of Christ's church.
In connection with the theme, 'Church Membership in an Evil Age,' it is my intention to call your attention first to the scriptural idea and calling of church membership. Secondly, I will call your attention to the corporate responsibility in which that church membership involves us. In the third place, we shall consider the difficulty God's people have faced, in years past, with respect to their membership in apostatising churches. And finally, I will call your attention to the marks of the church by which we must determine where we are called to serve God as members of His church.
The Scriptural Idea and Calling of Church Membership
Church membership is something that the Christian church has always taken seriously, because the concept is so thoroughly scriptural. But along with the departure from the teaching of the Scriptures in recent years, there has also been a steady decline in the understanding of the importance of church membership.
Many believe that to be a member of a local congregation is not so important, and that individual believers are at liberty to do as they please. If they want to join, that is fine; and if not, that is fine too. After all, they say, church membership does not make you a Christian. But while we indeed grant that having your name on a church roll will not make you a Christian, there is confusion in that argument that must be addressed by Scripture.
The Bible speaks of the church from two perspectives, as does also the Belgic Confession, one of the creeds or confessions of the Reformed churches.
In the first place, there is the one holy catholic church. And by that word 'catholic' we have no reference whatsoever to the Roman Catholic Church. 'Catholic' refers to the universal aspect of the church, the one holy universal church of true believers in many denominations and countries, gathered throughout the ages. The truth of Scripture concerning that holy catholic or universal church is summarized concisely in our Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 54:
What believest thou concerning the holy catholic church of Christ?
That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.
Essentially, therefore, the church is the body of Christ, invisible, an object of faith, not sight.
But besides that truth of the church, Scripture also makes clear that the one holy, universal church comes to manifestation in individual congregations under the leadership of God-appointed office bearers who serve that local body of believers. That is the aspect of church membership and our calling to church membership that we consider here. There is a clear relationship between the one who is taken into the church organism, that invisible body of Christ, by regeneration and the bond of faith, and membership in a local church.
The invisible body of Christ and the visible congregation are not two separate entities, but two important aspects of the one church. Although one can distinguish them, they are inseparably related. So inseparably related are they, that one expresses personal unity with the body of Christ when he joins a faithful congregation, and one forsakes the body of Christ when he leaves or stands outside of a faithful congregation. The believer must find fellowship with the other members of Christ's body. He is compelled to do such by the Spirit of Christ.
That truth is well attested to scripturally. To the New Testament believer, faith in Christ and participation in His church are inseparable.
In Matthew 18:15ff., Jesus teaches us the order to follow in calling an erring brother or sister to repentance and restoring fellowship when a breach has developed between individual members of the church. If the guilty person refuses to listen, Jesus instructs us to bring the matter to the church. That clearly points to believers being recognized as members of a local congregation.
In Acts, chapters 2-5, for example, many were brought to faith through the preaching of the apostles. However, they were not left hanging on their own. Instead, they are spoken of as being added to that number who were already a part of the church at Jerusalem.
In Acts 20:28, Paul instructs the elders in the church at Ephesus to take heed to themselves and to all the flock over which God has made them overseers. Those elders were not in doubt as to who were members in their congregation. Taking heed to the flock would be impossible, if there were no recognizable membership. To that same church at Ephesus Paul wrote a letter in which he gave instruction as to the importance of congregational life. Christ blesses His elect through the congregation, to which He gives His Word and Spirit. Out of Christ, that whole body, having been fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth—see how intimate is that fellowship--according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4:16).
From those references, which are only a few, it ought to be clear that we may not think of the church institute, that which is visible, as something disassociated from the one invisible body of Christ. You may not put asunder what God has joined together!
Dr. Abraham Kuyper used a fitting illustration, when he spoke of the peas in a pod. If you raise peas in a garden, it is impossible that you tend the peas, but ignore the pod.
True, when the peas are ripe, and picking time has come, you shell the peas and throw the pod away. Similarly, you remove a scaffolding when once the building has been completed within it. Just so, the Lord God will sometime come to throw away the visible Church. But the present is not yet the season of harvest. The scaffolding is necessary still, and the pod must needs be. Hence, you may not be indifferent about the visible Church, wrongly supposing that the invisible, spiritual Church can mature without her.1
For that reason, the one who is indifferent to church membership or who remains outside the membership of the local church, gives expression to the sin of supposing to be wiser than God. Such a person acts in rebellion against the ordinances of God. For the love of his soul we call him to repentance. Every child of God, by his confession of being a Christian, is obligated to join the true church of God as it comes to expression in a local congregation.
But church membership involves more than being on the membership list of some church and attending the worship services on Sunday.
There are responsibilities connected with that church membership. Those responsibilities are spelled out throughout the Bible; and the Word of God that I preach comes to me and to His people every Lord's Day with a 'thus saith the Lord,' that places before us responsibilities that are inescapable. Those responsibilities that are yours as a member of Christ's church in whatever place, may all be summed up by the calling to glorify the Lord your God by loving Him with all your heart and mind and soul, and loving your neighbour as yourself. That sums it all.
That implies many things, of course.
In the first place, the necessity of church membership, and the calling to glorify God in your church membership, immediately places you under the calling to evaluate today's churches, including the one in which you currently have your membership. Only a true church is a proper body to join and in which to remain. As a member of that church, i.e., of a local congregation of believers and their children, you have the calling before the face of God to submit to the teaching ministry and to the discipline of that church.
You are obligated, according to Scripture (I Corinthians 9, Galatians 6:6ff., and many other passages), to care for the poor and to support the ministry of the Word, in its broadest sense, with your money, reflective of what God has given you. You are obligated to support the work of Christ with the various gifts and talents God has given you (Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and many, many other passages)—with your time and prayers, your fellowship and upbuilding words, even your admonitions for the love of the brother or sister who is departing from the way of the Lord.
And for the glory of God, we are also obligated to live lives of separation and holiness. That means that we find no fellowship with the ungodly and unbelievers and, as in times of apostasy and reformation, that we come out from among those who manifest themselves as belonging to the false church.
Exercising that responsibility of church membership becomes increasingly difficult in the advancing apostasy in the church today. What a disastrous departure from the truth of God's Word is seen in most denominations today! We live in an evil age. I am assuming, and I hope my assumption is not incorrect, that you have enough spiritual sensitivity to sin to see the evil that has engulfed also the church world today. I only call your attention to the inspired words Paul wrote to Timothy in II Timothy 3, and ask you: Don't you see this today?
'This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, ... ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.' Those sins do not merely characterize the world! Paul speaks about the church! For they are also characterized by this: 'Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.' The ungodly are not concerned with having a form of godliness. Paul speaks of those who call themselves Christian, who are church members, who may even be ministers and elders and deacons, who may teach in the schools, and so on. But for all their form of godliness, they deny the power thereof. And as Paul goes on to point out in that chapter, that power of godliness is the power of the Scriptures.
Where there is a departure from the truth of the Scriptures in the pulpit ministry or in the teaching of the church, in the evangelistic outreach of the church or in the lives of its members, there is the increase of apostasy and all the evil characteristics against which Paul warns us.
And then he writes these profound words: 'Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away!' Now, he does not mean by this exhortation that we immediately run away from those problems as they arise in the church. The church on this earth is filled with sin and imperfections. To our shame some of these sins and imperfections are evident also in our own churches. We may not run away from our problems. Under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, Paul writes clearly and explicitly about the church's calling and the calling of you as an individual member to follow the God-honouring way of exercising Christian discipline—both for love of the church and for the love of those who have departed from the faith. We must seek their salvation. The church must exercise the key power of Christian discipline.
But, having followed the scriptural way and the church orderly way of the exercise of Christian discipline, when we have followed the scriptural, God-ordained way in attempting to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; and when it becomes evident that the scriptural, God-ordained way works not salvation in those who have departed; it is not our calling to play politics in the church, in the attempt to wrest control from those heretics and evil men and women! Christ says, 'From such turn away!' There is a reason for that exhortation and calling. That reason is for your own spiritual welfare and salvation, as well as the salvation of your children and grandchildren.
Corporate Responsibility and Church Membership
We have considered the scriptural idea and calling of church membership. Intricately connected with that calling are the responsibilities we bear within the membership of our own church affiliation.
The scriptural truth of the unity of the church weighs heavily upon our church membership. One of the truths most overlooked or denied in connection with church membership is the inescapable corporate responsibility that stands inseparably connected with the unity of the body of Christ as expressed in any given church institute. Because of the unity of the church and the body of Christ as it comes to expression in a local congregation and the denomination with which one affiliates, the responsibility of church membership is a corporate responsibility.
Your membership in a particular congregation, and your membership in a particular denomination, marks you as responsible for the doctrines taught and for that which goes on where you have your membership. That is a serious matter for all of us. But that truth of corporate responsibility is clearly taught in Scripture. It is a truth rooted in God's creation of Adam as the head of the human race. It is corporate responsibility which marks us as guilty in Adam, according to Romans 5, for example. You and I and all men are responsible before God for what Adam did in paradise. We were not there; we did not know anything about it; we had no say in the matter. It makes no difference. You and I are guilty before God for Adam's sin.
It was because of their corporate responsibility that the whole nation of Israel stood guilty before God for the sin of Achan, as we read in Joshua 7. So long as that sin remained in the nation, they could not expect the favour and love and mercy of God. And what was true in the Old Testament manifestation of God's church is true today.
When sin manifests itself in the church, it is not for us to look down our noses in self-righteousness. It is a time of grief and sorrow and confession of sin. The anger of the Lord comes not only upon the heretics and those who walk ungodly, but it comes upon the whole church so long as that sin is not dealt with. And God Himself says in the second commandment of Exodus 20, 'I will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.' That is corporate responsibility.
There is today a growing independentism or congregationalism and individualism which historically has been anathema to Reformed churches, and which is in direct conflict with the scriptural truth concerning the church and her unity, as well as with this truth concerning our corporate responsibility. That has come to expression in various ways.
There are many, for example, who take the position, 'The pulpit in my congregation holds to the truth; my congregation does not go along with this departure and that error; my congregation submits to the truth of Scripture's infallibility and authority. Therefore, so long as the congregation is pure where I have my membership, the denomination can go to hell.' That is blunt; but that is the attitude of many.
There are others, whom I commend for their concern for the departures of their denominations, but who also turn their backs on the scriptural teaching of corporate responsibility. There is a growing movement within various apostatising churches to have a sort of church-within-a-church, an alliance or fellowship of some sort which supposedly will absolve its members of the sins of the denomination. By such an organization within the church, there is the feeling that something positive is being done in opposition to the forces of evil and heresy—though in a way political and outside the bounds of Scripture—and there is a separation that makes one free from any responsibility for the sins of the congregation or denomination.
We do well to consider in this connection the prayer of Daniel, recorded in Daniel 9:13-19. The entire prayer is a moving, humbling confession of guilt, coming from the lips of an Israelite in whom there was no guile. The beautiful thing about this prayer of Daniel is that the issue before his mind was entirely the name of Jehovah and the cause of God.
There is a great deal we can learn from this prayer of Daniel. But the element of this prayer that I find most amazing is this: The holy servant of God—Daniel, who said 'no' to Satan in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, who went to the lions' den rather than cease fellowship with his God—this righteous man includes himself with the wicked and rebellious children of Israel!
The church institute, which is what Israel was, was corrupt to its core. The remnant according to the election of grace was very small, as it is at any given time in history. And when you consider the setting, Daniel's prayer is almost incomprehensible, especially in this day of individualism and the denial of corporate responsibility and corporate guilt. Sometimes when there is sin in the church, we like to sit back and take a wait-and-see attitude. When Daniel lays before God the guilt of Israel, he includes himself as a member of that wicked generation of unbelieving Israelites who need to have their guilt and sin taken away!
What more evidence do we need of the truth of corporate responsibility and corporate guilt than this inspired prayer of this servant of God? And should we dare to deny this truth or neglect to apply it in our given situations? God forbid! Let us not sit in the fellowship of wickedness and point the finger at the guilty ones around us. If we are to join with this prayer of Daniel, we must be willing to humble ourselves before God and to see ourselves as guilty before Him and to confess our sins.
And then the Lord would teach us something here. Our greatest need is not external, but internal. We dare not ask for God's mercy and deliverance, unless we do so from our knees before Him in true repentance and in faith. All our desire must be for God's glory and the honour of His holy name. That is why we pray not, 'Have mercy upon us in the misery of our exile,' but, 'Have mercy upon us, O my God, in the misery of our guilt.'
I am convinced that one of the reasons God has sent unrest in the church in our time is to drive us to increased fervency in our prayers for His glory, instead of for our own safety. We need to be brought to a God-consciousness once again. And when we are God-conscious, then we also confess our sins before Him, laying hold of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we strive to walk according to His will and according to His Word.
The Lord saved us. The Lord instituted us a church to represent Him in the midst of this world. And in verse 19, when we pray with God's servant, we pray, 'Thy city and thy people are called by thy name.' That means that when the church is corrupt and in captivity and in confusion, the name of Jehovah God will not be properly honoured until His church is restored.
We are His possession. His reputation is at stake, and has been dishonoured by us. The true church is the only body on earth that confesses its sin. Will you do that with her? Where the confession of sin dies out, the church is no longer a church of Jesus Christ. When we are given once again to see the importance of His name and His glory, when we are led to repentance by the powerful Word of Christ, and pray this prayer out of true reverence for the name of our God, then He will hear and forgive.
But it follows from this truth of corporate responsibility that we may not remain in a church that has departed from the truth of God's Holy Word. It is the truth of corporate responsibility and corporate guilt which lies at the basis of the call, 'Come out from among them, and be ye separate' (II Corinthians 6:17). We must not continue in conflict with the holiness of God. In the case of some that may mean separation now from the body where you have your church membership. That is a move that is extremely difficult. I know.
Membership in Apostatising Churches
Having considered the scriptural principles and responsibilities of church membership, we noted the inescapable truth of corporate responsibility. Though many in this age of ecclesiastical departure and apostasy would like to ignore that truth, it is exactly the truth of corporate responsibility and corporate guilt that lies at the basis of the call, 'Come out from among them, and be ye separate.' We must not continue in conflict with the holiness of God. I pointed out that in some cases that may mean separation now from the body where you currently have your church membership. That is a move that is extremely difficult. I know that—as a matter of experience.
But when I point out that exercising the responsibility of church membership becomes increasingly difficult in the advancing apostasy in the church today, I would remind you that God's people have often faced the same difficulties in centuries past.
That was the difficulty that our Reformation fathers faced in the bondage of Roman Catholicism. Do not think for a moment that they left that church on a whim! Do not think that they left the Roman Catholic Church without a struggle! And I refer here not to the fact that in many cases they faced physical persecution. Rather, I point out that the Reformers finally came to the decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church only after tremendous spiritual struggle of soul. It ought to be clear that love for God's church and for His people should prevent any Christian from making separation without going through that struggle of soul. But once men like Martin Luther and John Calvin made that separation, they forcefully called God's people to follow them.
In 1537, John Calvin wrote a very pointed letter of considerable length. That letter was entitled: On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion. You will find it in the third volume of his Tracts and Treatises. This letter was written to those who professed the Reformation gospel, but for various practical reasons remained within the Roman Catholic Church. In no uncertain terms Calvin pointed them to their sin of turning their eyes away from God's Word and demanding nothing more of themselves than could be performed without endangering either their safety or their conditions. But he also pointed to the truth that there is no difficulty too great to be surmounted by him who strengthens himself with the consideration that, though all men should threaten, their menaces cannot outweigh those which the Lord denounces against the deserters of His camp.
Calvin's view of the necessity of belonging to a church that manifests the marks of the true church is not only historically significant, but is also of great practical importance for Protestants in departing churches today.
Some 300 years later, in the face of rampant departure from the truth of Scripture in the Church of England, and the influx of a mentality that sought reunion with Rome in many areas, Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote a review of two papers by the Reverend J.C. Ryle, the prominent and soundly Reformed pastor and bishop, whose writings many of us continue to read with pleasure.
The papers Spurgeon was reviewing were titled 'Church Principles' and 'Church Comprehensiveness.' Spurgeon wrote:
There is no party within the Church of England with whom we are more nearly agreed than the Evangelical [i.e., the party to which Ryle belonged—SK], and yet they excite far more our wonder and pity than our sympathy. We wonder they are not ashamed of being connected with men who openly defy the law and preach the worst form of Popery. We pity them because, while they remain in the Establishment, their protests against its errors have but little power ... Congresses in which Christ and antichrist are brought together cannot but exercise a very unhealthy influence even upon the most decided followers of the truth. We wish Mr. Ryle could review his own position in the light of the Scriptures rather than in the darkness of ecclesiasticism; then would he come out from among them, and no more touch the unclean thing.2
In 1864 Spurgeon addressed an issue that plagues many churches today, including the historic Reformed churches. There were professors in various colleges connected with the Church of England, as well as ministers and bishops, who questioned the divine inspiration of Scripture and limited its authority to a religious sphere, if they recognized any authority in it at all. This is how Spurgeon described the times, and I ask you: Do you see the likeness in the church today?
God's Word, in this age, is a small affair; some do not even believe it to be inspired; and those who profess to revere it set up other books in a sort of rivalry with it. Why, there are great Church dignitaries now-a-days who write against the Bible, and yet find bishops to defend them. [They tell us,] 'Do not, for a moment, think of condemning their books or them; they are our dear brethren, and must not be fettered in thought.3
Do you not see the application? Miserable heretics have permeated churches with their swords of higher criticism, hacking the whole of the Scriptures to pieces. Spurgeon also called attention in writing to the consequences of the new teaching which had permeated the churches: 'Attendance at places of worship is declining, and reverence for holy things is vanishing ...'4
And in closing he raised the issue which others had declined to face:
It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide by the faith once delivered to the saints should fraternize with those who have turned aside to another gospel. Christian love has lost its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth? ...
A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon Scripture ... The house is being robbed, its very walls are being digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars ... Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word, and yet reject it; we cannot believe in the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human nature; we cannot recognize the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the 'larger hope.' One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour ...
Believers in Christ's atonement are now in declared union with those who make light of it; believers in Holy Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny plenary inspiration; those who hold evangelical doctrine are in open alliance with those who call the fall a fable, who deny the personality of the Holy Ghost, who call justification by faith immoral, and hold that there is another probation after death ... Yes, we have before us the wretched spectacle of professedly orthodox Christians publicly avowing their union with those who deny the faith, and scarcely concealing their contempt for those who cannot be guilty of such gross disloyalty to Christ. To be very plain, we are unable to call these things Christian Unions, they begin to look like Confederacies in Evil ...
It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretence of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.5
May God forbid that we lose our children and children's children because of our own paralysis of indecision!
The Marks of a True Church in Relation to Church Membership
Our Belgic Confession, on the basis of Scripture, calls everyone to join himself or herself to the true church.
But when I say that only a true church is a proper body to join, that statement does not in itself clarify the matter of church membership.
It is not as easy as saying this one church is true and all others are false. What an enormous entity is the church world today! What a bewildering array of denominations and congregations! And in the face of that baffling diversity and the overwhelming apostasy, we must fight against the error seen in the life of God's servant Elijah. You recall from I Kings 19 that in the face of all the apostasy that Elijah observed in Israel, he despaired of God's church, supposing that he alone was the only survivor of the faith: 'I, even I only, am left.' God rebuked Elijah for this notion when He said, 'I have left me seven thousand in Israel.' We must recognize the truth that God preserves His church even in the midst of vast departures from His truth.
In that connection there has been a rather persistent charge levelled at our Protestant Reformed Churches in past years that has presented us as teaching that there is only one true church from a denominational point of view—and we are it! The accusation has been flung at us from time to time, 'You PRs think you are the only ones going to heaven.'
That teaching is not ours. I would not say that there have not been those individuals in years past who may have presented themselves that way. Just about any church has had such zealous souls. I know of those in years past who thought such of the church in which I was a member—and it was not Protestant Reformed. Their particular church or denomination was the true church and all others were false.
But if there were those who thought that way, they were in error. That has never been the teaching of the Protestant Reformed Churches, nor does such a teaching stand in the light of Scripture and the confessions. If, for example, Martin Luther or John Calvin took such a position, even with respect to the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation, there would have been no Reformation!
The Belgic Confession gives us some clear direction and counsel in this regard. I encourage you to read Articles 27-29 of that Confession.6 The principle set forth in Article 28 is that I must be joined in the midst of the world to the holy catholic church.
The Belgic Confession considers the subject of true and false church from the viewpoint of the question: 'Where must I join myself?' That is an entirely different approach, you see, than identifying that true church by its members. We have no doubt that even within denominations that are falling away from the Word of God, or that have already departed a long way from the standards of biblical truth, there are yet faithful individuals, faithful pastors and office bearers, and even faithful congregations. But that has nothing to do with the question before us, nor with the direction of the Belgic Confession. God has set before us the calling to glorify Him in the truth.
Therefore, the question becomes, 'Where is that church in which I must worship and live in active membership?' And in Article 29 the answer is given us: 'Here are the distinguishing marks.'
The determining factor of church membership must not be family and relatives. The words of Jesus are clear and must be applied by us to our own situation: 'He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me' (Matthew 10:37). The only thing you must consider in that connection is the spiritual welfare of your loved ones. But your calling is to glorify God in the truth. And in glorifying God in the truth He assures you that your testimony to your family will not go unheard.
The determining factor of where I must worship as a member of Christ's body comes down to this: Where is the truth of God's holy Word maintained from a practical point of view? That is, do I in this church and its fellowship of churches hear the pure preaching of the gospel, preaching which trumpets forth the voice of Christ, the clear, fearless blast of 'thus saith the Lord,' and the unadulterated truth of the Scriptures? Secondly, do I find here the proper administration of the sacraments again, with the truth of God's Word the determining factor? And finally, is there the scriptural exercise of the love of Christian discipline, without which neither the sacraments nor the pure preaching of the Word can be maintained?
Where any of those marks are gone, removed from an instituted church, your calling is to remove yourself for membership in a church where those marks are maintained. For church history teaches us that where the marks of the church are removed, so is its candlestick. Reformation in that case comes only by way of separation and renewal, to the glory of God.
In conclusion, there is a matter that deserves great emphasis: Church membership means nothing unless your heart is right with God. There are thousands of people whose religion consists of little more than social interaction. The glory of God and the worship of Jehovah is far from them. They know nothing of experiential Christianity. They do not separate themselves from the fellowship of the ungodly, they show no interest in the doctrines of the gospel, and they appear totally indifferent to what is preached, so long as it does not offend. We hear Jesus saying of the church of our day as He did of the church of His own day: 'This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me' (Matthew 15:8).
The outward things of Christianity—baptism, the Lord's Supper, public worship, church membership, and the like—will never take a man to heaven, unless his heart is right with God. So Paul writes in Galatians 5:6: 'For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.' That love is the love of God. If that love lives in your heart, you are called to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
If God in His mercy has placed you in a church and denomination faithful to His Word, fervent in the faith, sound in preaching, sacraments, and Christian discipline, give Him thanks. Take it not for granted. Pray fervently for your pastors and office bearers and for the continued signs of God's grace in your midst. Live in active dedication to your calling as a member of His church.
If in His providence the Lord is trying you, if you find yourself in a church which is departing or has departed from God's Word and its calling as a church, I urge you in the love of Christ not to linger. Neglect not your responsibility toward the church in which you are. Follow the way of Christian discipline. But if that way is gone or not open to you, flee for your life and the lives of your children! For evil men 'shall wax worse and worse,' says the Apostle, 'deceiving and being deceived' (II Timothy 3:13). Don't play with fire.
Consider the biblical example of the righteous but weak Christian named Lot, and the sorrow which was his even in being saved (Genesis 19). God saved Lot. But Lot lost his family, also in their generations. Would you feel the testimony of the Spirit with your spirit, know whom you have believed, and walk in the joy of faith? Then do not linger. Hear the Word of God.
1Abraham Kuyper, The Implications of Public Confession (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1934), p. 84.
6See Appendix A. Note: The Belgic Confession is not alone in its treatment of the distinguishing marks of a true church. This was a common theme among the Protestant Reformers and the Reformed Confessions of the sixteenth century. Cf. French Confession of 1559, articles 26-28 (Appendix B); Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556-1557); Scots Confession of 1560, chapters 16, 18 and 25. Presbyterian Heritage Publications (P. O. Box 180922, Dallas, TX 75218) has published both the Scottish Confession of 1560 and the Book of Order (including the Confession) used by the English Congregation at Geneva.
The Belgic Confession
Of the Catholic Christian Church
We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church,1 which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, expecting all their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost.
This Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof;2 which is evident from this, that Christ is an external king, which without subjects He can not be3 And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world;4 though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and, in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing:5 as during the perilous reign of Ahab, when nevertheless the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand who had not bowed their knees to Baal.6
Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will,7 by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.8
7. Acts 4:32.
8. Eph. 4:3-4.
Every One is Bound to Join Himself to the True Church
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assemblage of those who are saved, and out of it there is no salvation,1 that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it;2 but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church;3 submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ;4 and as mutual members of the same body,5 serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may be better observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the Church,6 and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it,7 even though the magistrates and edicts of princes be against it; yea, though they should suffer death or bodily punishment.8
Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.
2. Acts 2:40; Isa. 52:11.
Of the Marks of the True Church, and Wherein She Differs from the False Church
We believe that 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.
But we speak here not of the company of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it;1 but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects who call themselves the Church.
The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein;2 if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ;3 if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin;4 in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected,5 and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.6 Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself. With respect to those who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians, namely, by faith;7 and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Saviour,8 they avoid sin, follow after righteousness9 love the true God and their neighbour, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof.10 But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life,11 continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins through faith in him.12
As for the false Church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God,13 and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ.14 Neither does she administer the Sacraments, as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God,15 and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.16 These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.
8. I John 4:2.
9. I John 3:8-10.
12. Col. 1:14.
13. Col. 2:18-19.
14. Ps. 2:3.
16. Rev. 17:3-4, 6.
The French Confession
We believe that no one ought to seclude himself and be contented to be alone; but that all jointly should keep and maintain the union of the Church, and submit to the public teaching, and to the yoke of Jesus Christ,1 wherever God shall have established a true order of the Church, even if the magistrates and their edicts are contrary to it. For if they do not take part in it, or if they separate themselves from it, they do contrary to the Word of God.2
Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused.3 We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who advance in it all their lives, growing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward.4 Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the remission of their sins.5 Nevertheless we do not deny that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but their wickedness cannot destroy the title of the Church.6
5. Rom. 3:3.
In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments.1 Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in these acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ2 ...
Steven R. Key (Wife: Nancy)
Ordained: September 1986
Pastorates: Southeast, Grand Rapids, MI - 1986; Randolph, WI - 1991; Hull, IA - 2000; Loveland, CO - March 2010; Emeritus, Jan. 2023Website: https://sites.google.com/site/lovelandprctest1/home
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