Tag Archives: marks of a true church

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.


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!