Tag Archives: Belgic Confession article 29

The First Mark and Mission

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Of the Belgic Confession’s articles on the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst Reformed church members.  It describes the marks of the true and false church.  First among the marks of a true church is “the pure preaching of the gospel.”  What does this mean for mission?  What does this mean for our churches in relation to the lost around us in our own communities?

Historical Background   

In the early 1950s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was beginning to develop a deeper conviction about its responsibility to spread the gospel at home and overseas.  To be sure, missionary consciousness was part of the CRC’s fabric from its beginning in 1857.  Initially, prayerful and financial support were given to Dutch and South African mission works.  It took some time for the CRC to develop its own missionary efforts.  There were extensive discussions at early CRC Synods about whether mission should be a denominational, classis, or local affair.  Eventually, the CRC settled on a denominational approach to mission.  The CRC Synod of 1880 appointed their first missions committee, then called the “Board of Heathen Missions.” In 1888, the decision was made to begin mission work among the American Indians.  In 1896, the CRC finally began work among the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest.

The CRC began overseas work in Nigeria a few decades later.  It was one of the missionaries to Nigeria who really began to stir up discussions about mission in the CRC.  Unfortunately, Rev. Harry Boer would go on to become infamous for his objections to certain points in the Canons of Dort, but for our interests here, we can note his role in stimulating CRC interest in spreading the gospel in the mid-twentieth century.          

In 1952, a Christian Reformed consistory overtured the CRC Synod to “to draw up a creedal statement concerning missions.”  The CRC Synod declined to do so, on the grounds that “The work of Missions is included in the connotation of the first mark of the church, namely ‘the faithful preaching of the Word.'”  This was the earliest rumblings of dissatisfaction in the CRC with the Three Forms of Unity regarding mission — a history that I have traced and evaluated in one of the chapters of For the Cause of the Son of God.  Interestingly, the CRC Synod appealed to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Speaking through its Synod, the CRC in this era considered that the Belgic Confession spoke to the missionary task of the church. 

However, this was not a unanimously held position in the CRC.  Later in 1952, Harry Boer published his response to the Synod’s decision.  He pointed out that the CRC edition of the Belgic Confession then in use did not support the grounds for this decision.  The relevant part of article 29 of that edition reads, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these:  If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein…”  Boer built his case on the word “therein.”  He noted that the earlier Dutch and Latin translations did not have that word.  He did not mention the earliest French editions of 1561/62, but they do not have it either.  While Boer was wrong about the Belgic Confession in many respects, he did get this correct.  There was a problem here with the old CRC edition of the Confession.

When the CRC published a new edition in 1985, this problem was corrected.  The Canadian Reformed Churches also had “therein” in their first English edition.  I suspect that it originally came from the English text adopted by the CRC in 1912.  But when a new edition of the Confession was adopted by the CanRC in 1983, “therein” was gone. 

Several North American Reformed churches continue to use the English text that basically dates back to 1912 and includes “therein” in article 29.  Among these are the Heritage Reformed, the Free Reformed, the Protestant Reformed and the Reformed Church in the United States.  Until this is corrected, Boer’s point sticks among these brethren:  one cannot appeal to the first mark of the true church in article 29 as a place where the Belgic Confession speaks about mission.

Biblical and Reformed = Missional

One might also ask whether it is even biblical to restrict the mark of a true church to what goes on in established congregations in their public worship services.  This is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us.  Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, is one of the proof texts for this statement in the original confession as penned by Guido de Brès.  In that passage, our Lord Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  Through those disciples, our Lord was also sending out his church of all ages and places.  Clearly the original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.  A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church.

The Reformed churches in the days of de Brès understood this well.  Being Reformed meant being outward looking.  It meant looking outwards and seeing the vast numbers of lost people who needed the gospel because they did not have Christ and were heading for hell.  It meant that the pastors were compelled by love to take seriously the charge of Paul to Timothy:  “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).  And they did. 

But this outward looking orientation indicated by article 29 was not limited to pastors.  Martyrology is a genre of religious literature dedicated to the stories of those who have been martyred for their faith.  The most well-known in English is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  The first Reformed martyrology was written in French by Jean Crespin in 1554.  In that first edition, as well as in subsequent ones, Crespin described not only the martyrdoms of Reformed pastors, but of many Reformed church members.  They were often killed for sharing the biblical gospel with friends and neighbours.  Compelled by love, they could not keep silent.  Among them were believers who had been pastored by de Brès, including at least one entire family, the Ogviers of Lille.

According to our Belgic Confession, the navel-gazing, self-obsessed church places a question mark behind its status as a true church.  The ghetto mentality is not Reformed.  When we’re labelled “the frozen chosen” and we deserve it, we’re not being faithful to either our confessions or Scripture.  Instead, being Reformed means being missional, not only in terms of sending out missionaries to distant lands, but being outward looking and caring about the lost right in front of us who need the gospel.

Position Statements on Reformed Churches and Sexual Abuse

I wish I knew less about sexual abuse.  In my personal and pastoral life, I have learned far too much about the horrific reality of what some human beings will do to others for the sake of their own pleasure.  However, the knowledge God has providentially placed in my life has motivated me to advocate for the abused.  I have developed the following position statements with the purpose of creating awareness and provoking discussion in our Reformed communities.   Please note:  I do not claim that these statements are exhaustive, nor that they are necessarily the best and final way to frame the issues at hand.  If others wish to improve upon them, they are certainly welcome to do so.

Let me first say a few words about definitions.  In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person.  It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour.  In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical).  Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.”  These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.  Additionally, child sexual abuse occurs when age of consent laws are broken.  For example, in Canada, children under the age of 16 cannot legally give consent to any person more than 5 years their senior, or who is in any position of authority over them (a coach, or youth group leader of any age).

When I write below about “Reformed churches,” I am referring to the churches with which I am most familiar:  the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  This is not to say that other Reformed churches are not affected, nor is it to say that all individual CanRC and FRC congregations are affected equally.  I am simply commenting from the perspective of someone acquainted with these church federations.


  1. Reformed churches must unequivocally and publically condemn all forms of abuse

While we should always welcome truly repentant sinners, our churches must never give the impression of being a safe harbour for abusers.  Instead, we should reflect the compassionate heart of our God for those who are downtrodden and afflicted (Psalm 34:18).  Further, we should aim to create a safe and healing environment in our churches for those who have experienced abuse.  Finally, we ought to be churches where justice and righteousness are upheld, where victims are not further victimized and perpetrators are properly held accountable for their sins.  All this starts with clearly condemning abuse, when appropriate, in our sermons, articles, etc.

  1. Sexual abuse has occurred in our churches

While I am unaware of any official statistical data, certainly anecdotal evidence indicates many instances of sexual abuse.  Whether these instances are out of proportion to the broader population is unknown (yet certainly worthy of a responsible scientific study).  However, with sadness we ought to humbly admit that it has happened in the past.  One might hope that it would no longer be happening, but because churches are made up not only of sinful human beings, but also a mixture of believers and unbelievers (Belgic Confession art. 29), realistically we should expect continuing occurrences.  Nevertheless, we ought to do everything we can to eradicate this great evil from the church of Christ.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and unhealthy spirituality

Abuse victims often struggle in their relationship with God.  Because they have had horrible evil inflicted upon them (often when quite young), they may question God’s goodness, love, and providence.  If they were abused by a father or other authority figure, they may have difficulty relating to God as a loving Father.  They may also have difficulty understanding and appropriating biblical teaching about sexuality, family, and marriage authority structures.  The spiritual consequences of abuse can be far-reaching and add to the guilt carried by abusers.

  1. There is often a link between sexual abuse and mental health issues

Sexual abuse is a form of trauma.  It is an atrocity that may overwhelm the one who has experienced it.  Any type of trauma can have mental health implications.  Depression, anxiety, self-harm, multiple personality disorders, addictions, and other effects can result from sexual abuse, particularly if it is not addressed. These mental health issues can then also present challenges to a sexual abuse survivor’s spiritual health.

  1. There is a link between pornography and sexual abuse towards children and spouses

In general, pornography objectifies others as a means to sexual gratification.  In itself this predisposes an individual who uses pornography towards abuse.  This effect is exacerbated by the way pornography use often sinks to increasingly depraved levels.  The wide-spread availability of violent and abusive pornography is proven to increase the prevalence of sexual abuse.  Consequently, Reformed churches must be vocal about the dangers of pornography, as well as supplying resources for members to escape slavery to this sin.

  1. When preaching and teaching the Fifth Commandment, Reformed churches must also address the abuse of authority

Anecdotal evidence relates that abusers will sometimes invoke the Fifth Commandment (“Honour your father and your mother”) in order to justify and continue their abuse.  Reformed churches regularly preach on the Fifth Commandment (with Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism) and should take the opportunity to emphasize that this law does not condone abusive behaviour.  We should make it clear that all abuse is contrary to God’s will and abusers who appeal to God’s law to justify themselves are doubly condemned.

  1. Reformed churches ought to develop abuse policies to address past abuse and prevent future abuse

When things are put in writing, it indicates that we take them seriously.  A matter as weighty as sexual abuse ought not to be dealt with haphazardly.  While not every circumstance can be envisioned ahead of time, some general guidelines for church leaders and members can go a long way to dealing effectively with recent abuse in the church.  Moreover, policies to prevent future abuse ought also to be in place as a matter of due diligence in protecting the sheep and lambs of God’s flock.

  1. Any local church which facilitates abuse by covering it up or refusing to report it puts into question its status as a true church of Jesus Christ

One of the marks of a true church is the faithful exercise of church discipline.  If a local church allows abuse to continue by covering it up rather than dealing with it as the gross sin that it is, that church is dramatically falling short on this mark.  If the office bearers of a church refuse to report abuse to the proper authorities, they likewise show a significant failure to deal with sin appropriately.  A true church will take serious sins seriously and deal with them accordingly, both through the keys of the kingdom of heaven and by cooperation with the civil authorities where appropriate.

  1. There is hope for survivors and perpetrators in the gospel of Jesus Christ

For those who have experienced abuse, the wounds can heal.  They can heal as the balm of the gospel is applied and we learn to understand better the unfathomable grace of God towards us and others.  Perpetrators of past abuse can also find help and healing at the cross.  If they truly repent from their sins, if they are humble and honest, if they look to Jesus Christ alone as their righteousness, they can receive forgiveness from a gracious God and meaningful change in their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.  However, that in no way diminishes the personal, criminal, or ecclesiastical consequences of this sin.

Women in Office = False Church?

It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office.  I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there.  That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church?  That question needs to be answered carefully.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches.  Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it.  That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years.  A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.

I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia.  This would have been in the early 2000s.  Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as:  do you now view the CRC as a false church?  No URC person would say that.  It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church.  At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.

I think I can see why they said that.  Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church.  Let me explain.

Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church.  Let’s use that as our starting point.  What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?

  • It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
  • It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
  • It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
  • It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
  • It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five.  Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false.  In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church?  Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too.  However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom).  A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.

But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true.  Let’s review the marks of a true church:

  • It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
  • It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
  • It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?

“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general.  I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29.  I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.”  Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.

What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”?  Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them?  Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration?  We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.

Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true.  When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures.  When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place.  But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears.  So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.

All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office.  The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ.  This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.

That still leaves the question hanging:  if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what?  It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:  the sect.  The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either.  In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands.  Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists.  He never calls their groups “false churches.”  Instead, consistently, he calls them sects.  If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all.  I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word.  I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN.  I don’t want to see them become a sect.  I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches.  We must keep praying!

Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (3)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

Article 27 expresses the Reformed doctrine regarding the catholicity of the church. Catholicity has several facets. We speak of temporal catholicity—this refers to the fact that the church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end. We speak of cultural or social catholicity—this refers to the fact that the church is found among every tribe, tongue, and nation. Closely connected with cultural catholicity is geographical catholicity. The church exists all over the world. The two last facets of catholicity are mentioned in the concluding paragraph of article 27: “Moreover, this holy church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.  Yet, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”

This is an important statement because it acknowledges that there is broadness in God’s plan of salvation. The church is made up of diverse peoples living all over the globe. In his good pleasure, God has gathered these people into his church. From this, we can discern the truth that it is God’s will to gather people from all nations into his church. He has done it in the past, is doing it in the present, and there is every indication from Scripture that he desires to continue doing it in the future. The fact of catholicity reveals God’s intention that this church be a global church.  Being a global church necessarily implies outward looking missionary activity.

Of the articles that speak of the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst us. This article speaks of the marks of the true and false church. First among the marks of a true church is the pure preaching of the gospel. One might think that this too implies missionary activity. Certainly the gospel must be preached in established churches, but it should be a given that the gospel would also be preached to the lost at home and overseas.

However, as they say, there is a fly in the ointment. The difficulty arises from many modern editions of the Belgic Confession. Compare, for instance, the edition used by the United Reformed Churches of North America with the edition adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches:

URCNA:  “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein…”

CanRC:  “It practises the pure preaching of the gospel…”

The key difference is the word “therein.” That word also appears in the edition adopted by the Reformed Church in the United States, the Free Reformed Churches of North America and several others. It used to appear in the edition used by the Christian Reformed Church of North America, but no longer does, having been removed in 1985.

There are at least two problems with the word “therein” in article 29. The first problem is that the word did not appear in the original Belgic Confession of 1561. It also never appears in any subsequent French, Dutch, or Latin editions. “Therein” seems to appear out of thin air in the English edition adopted by the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (now known as the Reformed Church of America) in 1792.[1] It has remained with most English versions ever since.

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

The second issue is far more important: is it biblical to restrict this mark to what goes on in the church? Here is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us. As one of the proof-texts for this statement in the original Confession, we find Matthew 28:18–20, the so-called Great Commission.[2] In this passage, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  The original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.[3] A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel both inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church. Therefore, the word “therein” should be excised from all English editions of article 29. The way in which the Belgic Confession shapes outward looking churches is certainly enhanced if we remain with the original text.  [NOTE:  I’m told that the URCNA at its most recent Synod decided to adopt an edition of the BC which leaves out the word “therein.”]

Last of all, there’s an important statement in article 30 regarding the government of the church. Through the divinely-ordained offices of the churches, it is God’s intent that “the true religion may be preserved and the true doctrine everywhere propagated.” Here again, we encounter a problem with the text of the Belgic Confession. Not all editions agree on the exact wording here. The text I just quoted is what most editions follow and it is essentially a translation of a highly-respected Latin edition commissioned by the Synod of Dort in 1618–19. However, the Synod of Dort only adopted authoritative French and Dutch editions. These have a different wording that is reflected in our Canadian Reformed edition, “By these means they preserve the true religion; they see to it that the true doctrine takes its course…” Notice that there appears to be no mention of the true doctrine being propagated everywhere. Instead, “the true doctrine takes its course.” How do we resolve this?

1561 Belgic Confession -- article 30 included a proof-text reference for Galatians 2:8.

1561 Belgic Confession — article 30 included a proof-text reference for Galatians 2:8.

Once again it’s helpful to look back to the very first editions of the Confession. From the proof-texts used, we can get a sense of what de Brès and the Reformed churches intended with this statement. The text used with this statement is Galatians 2:8, “For he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles.”[4] Peter was entrusted with ministry to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. Both had their own calling in their own place. Both office bearers were called to propagate the true doctrine and between the apostles, this true doctrine was being propagated everywhere, inside and out. From this it appears that the Latin commissioned by the Synod of Dort is a slightly different, but still faithful rendering of what the Confession originally intended to say. The true doctrine taking its course is meant to be the same thing as the true doctrine being propagated everywhere.

So our Confession ties the outward, missionary calling of the church to the offices of the church. It is the responsibility of the office bearers of the church to ensure that the true doctrine of the gospel is proclaimed everywhere—all over the world. Therefore, mission must be an agenda item for Reformed consistories. They must send out, support, and oversee the work of mission in our own country and elsewhere. The Belgic Confession assigns this responsibility to the church’s leaders here in article 30. In this and more ways, the Belgic Confession drives Reformed churches to be outward looking.

Given what I’ve said so far, I think we can rule out the “current craze” possibility.  Being outward looking churches is embedded in our confessional heritage.  But is it biblical?  Can we also go the next step and say that being outward looking is Christ’s commission?

[1] The Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (New York: William Durell, 1793), 28.

[2] Guy de Brès, Confession de foy, faicte d’un commun accord par les fideles qui conversent ès pays bas (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1561), 24. From the very beginning, the Belgic Confession included proof-texts to indicate the biblical basis of its teachings. For some recent discussion of the history and role of these proof-texts, see Nicolaas Gootjes, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics (Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 2010), 298–300.

[3] Cf. Calvin Van Reken, “The Mission of a Local Church.” Calvin Theological Journal 32:2 (November 1997): 359.

[4] Guy de Brès, Confession de foy (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1561), 27.

Click here for part 4…

Excerpt from The Beautiful Bride of Christ

1561 Belgic Confession Cover Page

The following excerpt is from chapter 3 of The Beautiful Bride of Christ: The Doctrine of the Church in the Belgic Confession — you can order it here as a paperback and here as an e-book.  All proceeds go to the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.


Have you been to the doctor lately? If you have, you can be thankful for the sound training that today’s medical professionals have received. Back in the early 1900s, things were a lot different. Medical schools were more motivated by money than by anything else. Men could become doctors after only studying for two years. A report from the Carnegie Foundation in 1910 changed all this and led to improved health care in the United States and Canada and many parts of the world.[1]  A crucial recommendation of this report had to do with medical school and the order of classes. There were to be at least four years of training. The first year would involve learning what a healthy human being looks like from the inside out. The second year would focus on pathology – the study of what’s abnormal, the study of disease. Today apparently many med schools still follow this basic structure. First you learn what is normal and healthy, and then you learn about what is abnormal and unhealthy.

The Belgic Confession applies the same method in article 29. Here we’re considering Christ’s church and where to find her. If the church is so important and necessary (as we discovered in the last chapter), then it’s crucial that we have some criteria to find where she is. It’s critical that we have some tools in place to discern what is a church of Christ and what isn’t. Faithfully summarizing the teaching of Scripture, the Confession gives us those tools. We learn about how to recognize the real thing and also how to detect counterfeits.

Confession from a Completely Different Era?

Let’s get something out of the way right at the very beginning. There are those who say that the Belgic Confession was written a long time ago when things were very different. They say that back in the days of Guido de Brès (the 1560s), things were simple. There were Reformed churches and there was the Roman Catholic Church. The difference was clear-cut. There was the true church and the false church and nobody could get them confused. It was black and white. But that was over 450 years ago now. Today things are much different, they say. Today we have so many other churches around us and it’s not always easy to discern. Article 29 is not all that helpful anymore in our situation, they say.

There is a sliver of truth in this, but it’s really a gross oversimplification. The historical reality is that Guido de Brès and the Reformed churches of his day were surrounded by far more than the Roman Catholic Church. Though there were not many, there were Lutheran churches in the Netherlands in the days the Belgic Confession was written. Guido de Brès even made efforts to unite with them.  He was involved in high-level ecclesiastical and political discussions to bring the Reformed and Lutherans of this region together in a strategic merger.[2]  Then there were also the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were not a united group. There was not a single Anabaptist Church. Eventually the Mennonites came to be the dominant group, but in the days of the Confession there were dozens of Anabaptist groups. De Brès wrote a huge book of over 900 pages about the Anabaptists and he mentions many of them. He recognized that there was diversity among the Anabaptists. Some of them were the equivalent of today’s Pentecostals – they claimed to receive direct revelations from God. Others were closer to today’s Baptists. Some had little respect for the Word of God, others regarded Scripture as infallible truth. Among some Anabaptists you could hear the genuine preaching of the gospel, among others you would hear mostly moralism or maybe good advice. Some denied the Trinity and were outright heretics, others were comparatively orthodox on many points of Christian doctrine. The point is you cannot say that the ecclesiastical situation in Guido de Brès’ day was one of simply Rome versus the Reformed. It wasn’t like that. Yes, as I said, there is a sliver of truth here. The sliver is that today there is an even greater diversity in the number of those claiming to be churches of Jesus Christ. But to deny that there was any diversity in the sixteenth century is simply wrong. Thus I think you can agree that article 29 has not lost its relevance – it speaks out of a situation where there was diversity and it still speaks to our situation where the same kind of diversity still exists, but only now to a greater degree. This can be, and still is, the confession of Reformed churches for today.

How to Recognize the Real Thing

Now if we confess that the Bible teaches that the church is necessary, how can we discern what a true church of Christ looks like? For us maybe this isn’t such a pressing question. After all, I imagine that almost every reader would be a member of a church somewhere. But it can be helpful to approach this question with some self-examination in mind. It’s good that we think about this not to boast about what a good true church we are, but to examine our church and see how we’re doing in this regard. Can your local church credibly claim to be a true church of Jesus Christ? That’s not a question we can take for granted. One might reason:  I’m a member of that church, therefore it is a true church. In logic we call that a non sequitur. It’s a fallacy. A non sequitur is an argument where the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Just because you are a member of this or that church, it does not automatically follow that it is a true church. Don’t you want to be confident that you are in a true church of Jesus Christ? We therefore need to learn the skill of discernment.

Furthermore, it’s also good to reflect on this because we may find ourselves in a situation where we need to find a true church in a given place. Perhaps your education or work will take you to some far off city where you don’t know anyone and you don’t know where to find a church at first. Then you need to have the skills in place to discern where you can find a church of Jesus Christ where you can either visit or, if it’s a long-term situation, become a member.

What is the most important thing in a church? The Belgic Confession puts “the pure preaching of the gospel” at the front of the list of the marks of a true church. When John Calvin and other theologians of the Reformation wrote about the marks, they always put this one first too. It’s not a random choice, as if this could be listed third and it wouldn’t make a difference. It was put first on purpose. It’s first because it’s the most important.

That reflects a biblical approach. That’s the approach of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1. Paul had preached the gospel of grace among the Galatians. But then others came along and preached something different and they gained traction among the Galatian churches. Paul was amazed at how quickly the Galatians bought into this perversion of the gospel. Then he says in verse 8 of Galatians 1, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” In other words, may God damn the person to hell who preaches something other than Paul’s gospel. Those are harsh words!  But the harshness underlines the seriousness of what is at stake here. We can then ask the question:  how can a church be true to Christ if it tolerates a situation where Christ’s gospel is not preached?

[1] Tim Challies, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 100-102.

[2] The appendix features a translation of the letter of de Brès to the consistory of Antwerp on this point.