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The Marks of a Church (Blogging the Belgic: Article 29)

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We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.

Article 28 of the Belgic Confession highlighted the importance of joining the church and also of the great danger it is to separate from it. I realize that some might think this sounds a bit hypocritical, as the writer of the confession and his community were those who had separated from the Roman Catholic Church to become the known as the Reformed Church (that statement is a big simplification of the Reformation, of course). How and why did they think that they could separate from the church (note – they formed a new church, so they didn’t become lone rangers)? In some ways, Article 29 points to the reasons, as it describes the Marks of the Church, a discussion that includes what false churches look like as well as the marks of a Christian.

This article begins by noting that one needs to turn to the Word of God to think through what is the true church and also the fact that there are many groups out there that label themselves as churches – because there are counterfeits, we need to go to the Word to see how we can determine truth from falsehood: “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.’” The need for discernment of truth from falsehood is something we find in Scripture, as the Bible often speaks about the fact that there will be false prophets and false leaders (see Matthew 7:15; 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1-4); we can’t just accept that anything or anyone that labels itself, himself, or herself Christian really is that in truth.

The confession then lays out 3 marks of the true church: “The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: 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.” The first mark is the preaching of the gospel — it is not that the church just has the Bible in it, but that it lays out the message of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, that Jesus is the way to God. Those that preach something else, such as salvation by our works, is not a true church – and you need to get out of it! The second mark is the use of the sacraments, which the confession will later define as baptism and the Lord’s Supper (articles 33-35) that are meant to be signs and seals of salvation, showing us and assuring us that we are saved by the work of Jesus but not giving us this salvation. The administration of church discipline, that is calling Christians to live holy lives and encouraging them to do so, is the third element (one that is distinctive in this confession and the family of churches that looks to it). These three marks help us know what is a church versus a group of Christians; groups will have Bible study and might even sing songs and the like, but it is not a church if there are no sacraments and there is no discipline. In sum, these three marks show a church that is governed by the word of God, as the confession further notes: “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.”

According to the confession, one should not separate from a church if it is a true church; what determines one’s commitment to a church is whether it has the marks of the church, not whether we like the music or preacher or if it has the ministries that our family wants. New churches and new denominations should not be formed over minor issues; there should be room for differences of opinions on more minor issues. The leaders of the Reformed Church, however, felt like the Roman Catholic Church of the time no longer reflected these marks and had moved into the category of false church because it had obscured the gospel, placed too much emphasis on tradition, and also failed to maintain proper discipline in the church, as reflected in the words that they use to describe how you can spot the false church: “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.” This was not the first or the last time that there was a separation tied to a group believing its church had left these marks; one leader of a movement in the 20th century described these splits as acts of reverse discipline, as when the church can’t reform itself or discipline itself, a group leaves as an act and picture of discipline, seeking to say that its mother church has left its first love with the ultimate hope that it will return. Unfortunately, there have not been a ton of times that there has been change or reunification based upon the principles of Scripture.

In talking about the true and false church, the confession does not say that everyone in a true church is truly a Christian or that there cannot be Christians in what they considered a false church, as its notes that there is a mixture of good and bad (as Jesus himself discussed in parables like the wheat and the tares): “We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites
who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves the church.’”

In light of that, one cannot simply look at the church he or she is a part of and think that he is in good shape – one must examine his or her life. That is why the confession also includes these marks of a true Christian, as it notes, “As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.” It is not perfection, but a passion for Jesus and seeking to follow him that shows that someone is a Christian; weakness remains but there is a clinging to Christ in the midst of those things (with those struggles pointing us back to Christ). We do see change – loving God and neighbor and turning from sin. I love how the confession includes this section on what a true Christian looks like, inviting us to ask not just the question of whether we are in a true church but also are we a true Christian. After reading this article, what is your answer to those questions?

Questions about Bible or theology? E-mail them to Pastor Brian at Theology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe to get weekly e-mails with our blog posts by filling out the info on the right side.

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