For many today who claim to be Christians, the church is optional. Many today view the church as something you can do without. But that perspective is far removed from what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that the church of Jesus Christ is his beloved bride for whom he died (Eph. 5:25). How can any Bible-believing Christian claim that the church Christ loves is unimportant? Our churches confess in line with the Word of God that the church is crucially important for Christians. With that in mind, let’s review the basics of the doctrine of the church (also known as “ecclesiology”).
The Belgic Confession says in article 27 that the church “is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers…” When it says this, it’s speaking of the church in the broadest sense: the “catholic” church. However, it’s also true of local manifestations. Every local church is a holy congregation and assembly of believers. In its essence that’s what a church is. This definition is derived from the main word used in the New Testament for the church: ekklesia (from whence we get our English word ‘ecclesiastical’). Ekklesia refers to those who have been assembled or called together. God has gathered us together into this congregation or assembly. In so doing, he has set us apart from sin and the world – which is why it’s described as a holy congregation and assembly.
We also confess that the church of Christ in its broadest sense also has four attributes or characteristics. These four are found together in the Nicene Creed:
- Unity – the church is one in Jesus Christ and in his teaching.
- Holiness – the church has been set apart by God from sin and the world
- Catholicity – the church is universal. This is true in three senses:
- Geographical catholicity – the church is found all over the physical world
- Ethnic catholicity – the church is found in all sorts of different cultures
- Temporal catholicity – the church has been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end.
- Apostolicity – the church is built on the doctrine of the apostles as revealed in the New Testament
Thus we confess that we believe “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
We confess that there are true churches and false churches, as well as sects (see BC art. 29). All this is referring primarily to local churches. So, how you can you discern what is a true church? That’s where the marks of a true church come into play. There are three:
- The pure preaching of the gospel (the most important mark!)
- The pure administration of the sacraments
- The exercise of church discipline
For a church to be true, all three of these marks must be present. However, if one or all of the marks is missing that doesn’t automatically mean it is a false church – it could instead be a sect. According to what we confess from the Bible in Belgic Confession art. 29, a false church must have all five of these marks:
- 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.
In the original historical context of the Belgic Confession, that was referring to the Roman Catholic Church. However, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that there could still be other false churches in our day.
The Government of the Church
The rule of the church has been a hotly debated issue for centuries. Some have said that Christ rules the church on earth through a papal system of hierarchy. Others have said that Christ rules the church on earth through a monarch. Still others have argued for congregational rule. We, however, confess that Christ rules his church through a consistory. The local consistory (minister and elders) is the only permanent body in Reformed church government – it is also the “highest” body.
Local churches voluntarily covenant together into a church federation – the document which governs this relationship is the Church Order. In the Church Order, local churches agree as to how they’ll live together in a federation.
In the context of a federation, the churches of a certain region meet together in a classis, and the churches of a national federation together meet in a synod. These assemblies only exist when they’re meeting – they are not permanent. Moreover, the decisions of classes (plural of ‘classis’) and synods are reviewed by local consistories to ensure they are in agreement with Scripture and the confessions. The buck always stops at the consistory.
Your Profession of Faith and the Church
When you make public profession of faith, you “firmly resolve to commit your whole life to the Lord’s service as a living member of his church.” You profess your faith in God, but along with it comes a commitment to his church. Now that commitment shouldn’t be understood to mean that you swear unconditional allegiance to the Free Reformed Churches. It could happen that our church here (or another FRCA if you move) becomes unfaithful. Then, for the sake of Christ and the gospel, you must leave and find a faithful church elsewhere. Yet, so long as the church is faithful to God’s Word, your calling is to love her and do what you can to build her up with your time and spiritual gifts.