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Joining a True Church

Rev. Angus Stewart


I. The Nature of Church Unity

Jesus Christ is the sole head of His church. Since the church is His body, it is ruled by Him and animated by His Spirit.

Christ is one, not two or more; therefore the church is one. Christ is totally consecrated to God; therefore the church is holy. Christ is a catholic Christ (cf. John 19:19-20); therefore the church is not narrow and regional but universal. Christ is none other than the One revealed in the inspired writings of the apostles (who were used to complete the one Word of God first given in the Old Testament); therefore the church is apostolic.

The church organic possesses all these attributes perfectly in Christ, according to God's eternal decree and ultimate purpose. The church institute, which consists of all true Christian congregations, therefore must seek to preserve and keep the unity she has in Christ (Eph. 4:3). In other words, the unity of the church organic demands the unity of institute churches.

The nature of the unity of the institute church must be explained from a consideration of it in the light of the other three attributes. The unity of the institute church is a holy unity, one that binds congregations to the one, true God and separates them from false churches and unbelievers. It is a unity that is based not on gender, age, nationality, social status or personality types for it is a catholic unity. This unity is apostolic for it is a unity in apostolic doctrine.

Therefore the holiness, the catholicity and the apostolicity of the unity of the institute church are spiritual. Separation from the wicked world and consecration to God (holiness) can only be spiritual. Only spiritual criteria for membership—not the standards of the world (II Cor. 5:16)—can insure a catholic church. Apostolic doctrine, consisting of the truth of Jesus Christ, is spiritual.

The nature of the unity in the institute church can also be explained in the light of the biblical imagery of the "body" that is applied both to the church organic (e.g., Eph. 1:23) and the church institute (e.g., I Cor. 12:27). The Holy Spirit is the life of Christ's body. Therefore the unity of the institute church is spiritual.

Having determined, from a consideration both of the other three attributes of the church and of the scriptural presentation of the church as a "body," that the unity of particular, institute congregations is spiritual, we are now ready to consider how God works unity in true churches.


II. How God Works Church Unity

Since each true congregation is a manifestation of Christ's body, Christ works unity. The congregation is Christ's spiritual body so He works unity by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Christ works unity by His Spirit through the offices He has ordained in the church.

The spiritual unity that Christ works is the unity of faith that receives as truth "all that God has revealed to us in his Word" (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 21). Through the office of pastor, by sound preaching, the body is edified "till we all come in the unity of the faith" (Eph. 4:11-13). Unity is preserved and fostered by Christ's work through the office of elder in the oversight of the preaching and the sacraments, the maintenance of order in the church and the exercise of Christian discipline. Christ's work through the office of deacon expresses the unity of the church by the sharing of the church's material offerings in love.

Ephesians 4:1-16, which is a detailed treatment of church unity, has a lot to say about Christ's work through the office of believer (vv. 1-3, 7, 12-16). In the way of "speaking the truth in love," the members promote the church's growth into Christ the head (v. 15) so that the body builds itself up in love (v. 16). The risen Christ gives teachers to the church (vv. 8-11) for equipping the saints in order that the members are able to edify one another (vv. 12-16).

Since unity is spiritual and since it is promoted through office-bearers (both the special offices and the office of believer), unity is promoted by "speaking the truth in love" (v. 15). Faithful denominations, congregations and believers serve Christian unity in the world by witnessing to the truth of Christ graciously and uncompromisingly. By growing in their understanding of, and obedience to, the Word of God, churches and individuals experience a greater unity with Christ and His body.


III. Apostasy in the Churches

Sadly, our day is one of widespread departure from God’s revealed truth in Christ. Prevalent sins against the Lord Jesus and the unity of His church include the following:

Many office-bearers (ministers, elders and deacons) swear in the name of Almighty God to maintain the church’s Reformed confession (as a faithful statement and summary of the Bible’s teachings), while they are ignorant of its doctrines, for they have not read the confession or even own a copy. Yet the Westminster Confession rightly declares, "Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is firmly persuaded is the truth" (22:3). Others know what their creed contains but vow with their fingers crossed, so to speak. However, "An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation" (Westminster Confession 22:4). These evils prevail in countless churches. The third commandment warns, "the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain" (Ex. 20:7). 

Higher criticism in the theological seminaries and Bible colleges attacks the absolute authority and inerrancy of the Bible (Isa. 8:20; John 10:35; II Tim. 3:16-17), "the scripture of truth" (Dan. 10:21; cf. Covenant Reformed News articles on Scripture). Since faith receives "for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word" (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 21), higher criticism further corrupts unbelieving seminarians and weakens any Christian students who train at such institutions. This, in turn, adversely affects the congregations and members who later hear such ministers. Moreover, theological seminaries and Bible colleges that teach a heretical doctrine of Scripture invariably promote other false doctrines, again to the detriment of those training for the ministry and those who will sit under their instruction.

The "another spirit" of Charismaticism (II Cor. 11:4), with its absurd tongue speaking, false revelations, prophecies, interpretations, "words of knowledge," etc., supplements, and hence detracts from and denigrates, the written and sufficient Word of God (Eph. 2:20; II Peter 1:16-21; Rev. 22:18-19; cf. Cessationism Resources).

Biblical creation in six days is rejected by many for the foolishness of the big bang, uniformitarian geology and evolutionism, and so various compromise theories are accepted, such as the gap theory, theistic evolutionism, progressive creationism and the framework hypothesis (Gen. 1; Ex. 20:11; Heb. 11:3; cf. Creation Resources).

Contrary to Jehovah's sovereign grace faithfully presented in the Canons of Dordt, including its "Rejection of Errors," rampant free-will Arminianism robs the Triune God of His glory. God's unconditional reprobation, Christ's particular and effectual redemption and the Spirit's irresistible grace are denied by ministers telling everyone that Christ died for them (John 10:15, 26; Eph. 5:25; Canons II:8-9; Westminster Confession 3:6; 8) and that God loves them (Ps. 5:5-6; 11:5; Rom. 9:13; Canons I:10) and wants to save them (Matt. 11:25-27; Rom. 9:17-18; 11:7-10; Canons I:15; Westminster Confession 3:3-4, 7; cf. Calvinism Resources).

Especially amongst many fundamentalist and evangelical churches, lay preaching is not only tolerated but endorsed, contrary to Scripture's teaching on church office (e.g., Eph. 4:11; I Tim. 3; 4:12-16; 5:17), the express declaration of Westminster Larger Catechism, A. 158 ("The word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office") and the testimony of Reformed theologians (cf. "Against Lay Preaching").

Sadly, women office-bearers (ministers, elders and deacons) have been installed in many denominations and congregations or sent to preach in foreign lands as women missionaries. The Bible tells us that we can be absolutely certain that these women are not called by Jesus Christ and that He does not speak or govern through them (I Cor. 14:34; I Tim. 2:12; cf. Church Office & Feminism Resources). To professing people of God who have "women rule over them," Jehovah declares, "they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths" (Isa. 3:12). "The Lord," the next verse continues, "standeth to judge the people" (v. 13)!

The sacraments are profaned by allowing those who do not make a credible profession of faith to come to the Lord's table and/or to have their children baptized. Also many churches refuse to require the baptism of the children of their members and some of them substitute for this an "infant dedication ceremony." All of this is contrary to the Word of God summed in the Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession 33-35; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Days 25-31; Westminster Confession 27-30).

In many churches, the Lord's Day worship services are corrupted by shallow and/or frivolous, non-expository preaching, often consisting largely of social commentary, political activism, man-centred Arminianism or "wee stories;" children's church; testimonies; singing uninspired, Arminian hymns and choruses; bands, choirs, special numbers, liturgical dance and plays; worldly Charismatic worship, "healing services," etc. This is "will worship" (Col. 2:23) and is contrary to the second commandment (Ex. 20:4-6), which forbids us to "worship [the Lord] in any other way than he has commanded in his Word" (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 96), for "the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession 21:1; cf. "Will Worship," an audio sermon by Rev. Stewart).

As the fornicating world influences and infiltrates many churches, they defile the life-long, unbreakable bond of marriage (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5-6; I Cor. 7:39), the earthly symbol of the union of Christ and His church (Eph. 5:22-33), by allowing remarriage while one’s spouse is living. God's Word denounces these relationships as "adulterous" (Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3; cf. Marriage Resources)! Moreover, under pressure from the homosexual lobby and the politically-correct establishment, congregations and denominations are even admitting impenitent sodomites and lesbians, first, to church membership and, increasingly, to special offices in the church. Yet the holy God denounces homosexuality as an "abomination" (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), involving "vile affections" and "unnatural" "lusts" (Rom. 1:26-27). "Be not deceived"—no matter what the world or the false churches say—"neither fornicators ... nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind ... shall inherit the kingdom of God" (I Cor. 6:9-10).

Faithful church discipline has been lost in many congregations and denominations such that merely nominal Christians, heretics, Masons, etc., and those who live worldly lives are tolerated as members and (eventually) leaven the whole body (Gal. 5:9; I Cor. 5:6). Thus "conservative" ministers and elders sit with liberals, Arminians, theistic evolutionists, women office-bearers, etc., at consistories or sessions, classes or presbyteries and synods or general assemblies. When those with beliefs and/or lifestyles that contradict God's Word are not effectively disciplined and they are allowed to come to and/or administer the Lord's Supper, "the covenant of God [is] profaned and his wrath kindled against the whole congregation" (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 82; cf. Ron Cammenga, "Zeal for God's House: The Motivation for Christian Discipline").

False ecumenism is widespread, not only between "conservatives" and liberals within a departing denomination but also between denominations, whereby churches with orthodox Reformed creeds fellowship and worship with Arminians, Roman Catholics, Charismatics, etc. (Ps. 16:4; II Cor. 6:14-18). Increasingly, liberal denominations are blatantly breaking the first commandment (Ex. 20:3), by syncretistic announcements regarding, and activities with, followers of other religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.), holding that they will be saved in their (pagan) religions (John 4:22; 14:6; Acts 4:12). Holy Scripture asks a rhetorical question and issues the divine judgment: "Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? therefore is wrath upon thee from before the Lord" (II Chron. 19:2).

Sadly, many church members praise this state of affairs as "progress." "The church," they say, "must be 'relevant' in the twenty-first century," by which they mean that the church must reject God’s truth for the ungodly spirit of the age lest it suffer reproach for the Word of Christ. As Jeremiah proclaimed, "A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophecy falsely … and my people love to have it so" (Jer. 5:30-31). God warns, "Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?" (v. 29).

Others do not like the present situation in their congregation and/or denomination, but do not care enough to protest or depart to join a faithful church. Sadly, they have been lulled to sleep by faithless shepherds saying, "Peace, peace; when there is no peace" (6:14).

John Owen writes of the necessity of a church's unity in the truth: "An agreement without truth is no peace, but a covenant with death, a league with hell, a conspiracy against the kingdom of Christ, a stout rebellion against the God of heaven" (Works, vol. 10, p. 6). He continues, "All conformity to anything else [but the truth] is but the agreement of Herod and Pilate to destroy Christ and his kingdom. Neither is it this or that particular truth, but the whole counsel of God revealed unto us, without adding or detracting, whose embracement is required to make our peace firm and stable. No halting betwixt Jehovah and Baal, Christ and Antichrist; as good be all Philistine, and worshippers of Dagon, as to speak part the language of Ashdod and part the language of the Jews" (p. 6; italics mine). 

Next, Owen specifically warns against Arminians with their free-willism: "Neither let any deceive your wisdoms, by affirming that they are differences of an inferior nature that are at this day agitated between the Arminians and the orthodox divines of the reformed church ... One church cannot wrap in her communion Austin [i.e., Augustine] and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius" (p. 7). Those who hold to the truth of God's sovereign, particular grace in Christ must not seek a carnal peace with Arminians: "The sacred bond of peace compasseth only the unity of that Spirit which leadeth into all truth. We must not offer the right hand of fellowship, but rather proclaim ... 'a holy war,' to such enemies of God’s providence, Christ’s merit, and the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit" (p. 7).

II Timothy 2:16-18 commands all Christians to shun profane babblings and false teachers, like Hymenaeus and Philetus (evidently two excommunicated heretics), for false doctrine will spread like cancer if not steadfastly rejected. Repeatedly, the apostle Paul warned, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (I Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9). We see this happening in our land and in many places around the world before our very eyes. The Scriptures identify apostasy as one of the signs of Christ's return (Matt. 24:11-12; II Thess. 2:1-4).

R. L. Dabney's analysis applies to the development of error in departing and apostate churches of our day:

False principles, like the leaven in the meal, always tend to work out their logical consequences, and to lead their votaries to all their results. These may be very unexpected; they may be very unpopular; they may be bitterly repudiated, even by those who are unconsciously tending towards them. But in due time they come, and are at last boldly avowed. Unless the seminal errors are purged out, this must be so; because the human mind must reason connectedly from its postulates (Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 2, p. 444).


IV. The Marks of the True Church

Belgic Confession 29, summarizing scriptural teaching, declares that the marks of the true church are faithful biblical preaching, administration of the sacraments and exercise of discipline.

We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly 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 not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the church with the good, yet are not of the church, though externally in it; 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 pure doctrine is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the church. Hereby the true church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.

Note that the Belgic Confession (1561) states that "the true church may certainly be known." Thus the marks of the church are clearly identifiable, as indeed they must be in order to be marks. This is also the case because the marks of the church are the manifestation of Christ. Christ speaks in the true preaching of the gospel; Christ is spiritually present in sacraments that are properly administered; Christ opens and shuts the kingdom of God through discipline that enforces the preached Word and maintains the purity of the sacraments. Moreover, Christ's presence is powerful and unmistakable. When judged in the light of the Word, it is not doubtful where Christ is. 

"How much of Christ do you want?" This is the question that the believer must face when he considers joining a church or remaining in a church when there are several, more or less pure churches already in existence in his area. The three marks are the criteria for recognizing a faithful church, and not wealth, size, "friendliness," antiquity, ecclesiastical lineage, etc. (cf. H. C. Hoeksema, "The Marks of the True Church;" Steven Key, "Church Membership in an Evil Age").

Since the grace of Christ that effects spiritual unity comes through faithful preaching, proper administration of the sacraments and godly exercise of Christian discipline, we can say,

The more a church is committed to biblical unity, the more it will be committed to the three marks.

The more a church is committed to the three marks, the more it will be committed to biblical unity.

The second commandment also provides another perspective on this crucial issue. God promises that His judgment runs in the generations of those who corrupt His worship: "for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Ex. 20:5). Notice the reference to God’s fierce jealousy! On the other hand, His covenant mercy is promised to believers and their seed in the way of maintaining true worship: "shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:6). Clearly, membership in a faithful Reformed church is a vital matter for us and for our children.


V. Joining the True or Purest Church

When Belgic Confession 29 speaks of the marks of the true church (especially over against Roman Catholicism), we must understand that the true church, which we must join, is the Reformed church and not the Lutheran or Anabaptist assemblies, which also existed at that time. Belgic Confession 28 issues a call to join that church which is most in conformity with the Word of God: "it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God."

The Confession of Bohemia (1573) in chapter 8 refers to these "signs" of the "least defiled or most pure" churches: "wheresoever Christ is taught in holy assemblies, the doctrine of the holy gospel is purely and fully preached, the sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution, commandment, meaning and will, and the faithful people of Christ doth receive and use them." The same chapter of this Czech creed goes on to state, "Every Christian is also bound with diligent care to seek after this, and such a true part of the holy church, and, after he hath found it, to join and maintain holy communion and fellowship therewith; as the other part of the church in our Christian creed doth declare, where we profess that 'we believe the communion of saints.'"

Heinrich Heppe presents the position of the historic Reformed churches: "it is God's will that we should connect ourselves as living members with the church fellowship which we recognize as the true or the purest church" (Reformed Dogmatics, p. 671; italics mine). In proof, Heppe quotes from Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587) and Peter Van Mastricht (1630-1706) (pp. 671-672). 

Abraham Kuyper commends parents who baptized their children "in the specific church which they thought the best and purest revelation of the body of the Lord" (The Implications of Public Confession, p. 65; italics mine). Similarly, R. L. Dabney speaks of his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States, as "the purest of creed and membership on earth" (Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 2, p. 441; italics mine). "It is proper," states G. I. Williamson, "to leave a true church that is much less pure to join a true church that is much more pure, provided the motive is the glory of God, the welfare of one's spiritual concerns (and that of his children), and a testimony against error" (The Westminster Confession of Faith For Study Classes, p. 192). 

Herman Hoeksema taught that believers ought to join that church which most clearly manifests the three marks, where the preaching, sacraments and church discipline are faithful to God's Word. He added that those who leave a faithful church for a less faithful church to that extent leave Christ, for Christ's spiritual presence in a church is marked by faithfulness in its preaching, sacraments and discipline. Hoeksema writes,

... it is my conviction that everyone is conscience-bound to join himself to the purest manifestation of the church of God ...

Is it a great sin to unite oneself with a church other than that which is, according to one's conviction, the purest manifestation of the true church?

It is; for, by doing so one knowingly cooperates with those forces that always tend to the development of the false church. A church need not be wholly false and corrupt to justify separation from its fellowship. Every church is false in the measure that it departs from the Word of God, corrupts the sacraments, and becomes lax or perverse in the exercise of Christian discipline (Ready to Give an Answer, pp. 37-38).

Moreover, if one considers remaining in, or joining, a "good" congregation in a (departing) denomination, he has already admitted that that denomination does not properly know and enjoy the unity of the church, because it is not united in the faith, since it has, for example, liberal and more "conservative" wings. Think of the biblical truth of corporate responsibility (Josh. 7; cf. Herman Hanko, "Achan's Sin and Punishment"). Remember too that to whom much is given much will be required (Luke 12:48)!

As G. I. Williamson observes, "There are those who have remained in false churches on the grounds that they are in a 'conservative' congregation or presbytery, while admitting that the denomination as a whole is apostate. This violates the biblical doctrine of the unity of the churches and the scriptural concept of corporate responsibility (I Cor. 11:14-27)" (The Westminster Confession of Faith For Study Classes, p. 191).


VI. Answers to Some Objections

1. Is this not donatistic?

The call to the believer to join himself to that church which most purely maintains God's truth in its preaching, sacraments and discipline is not donatistic. This is Reformed! This is the creedal requirement of the Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession 28-29; Confession of Bohemia 8; Westminster Confession 25:4-5), this is the historic position of the Reformed tradition (cf. Heppe) and this is the faithful teaching of Reformed theologians (e.g., Olevianus, Van Mastricht, Dabney, Kuyper, Hoeksema and Williamson).

The Donatists did not charge the early Catholic church of their day with doctrinal error. In doctrine, the Donatists and the Catholics were agreed. The Donatists accused the Catholic church of disciplinary sins, especially in permitting the restoration of those who confessed their iniquity and weakness in handing over manuscripts of the Bible to the civil authorities during the Diocletian persecution of the early fourth century. Thus the Donatists claimed that the Catholic church had departed from the holiness of the church and not from Christian doctrine, the apostolicity of the church. Christians today (like the sixteenth-century Reformers) must be most concerned with doctrinal purity.

2. Does not the example of the Old Testament saints in the Northern Kingdom favour remaining in a "broad" church?

It is true that believers remained in the Northern Kingdom after the wicked departure of the ten tribes under Jeroboam, who stationed idolatrous golden calves in Dan and Bethel, but this did not make the godly into idolaters. Two points need to be made here. First, the Word of God commanded all adult males among God's people to go to the three great feasts and to offer sacrifices and thank offerings in the place that God appointed (Ex. 23:14-17; Deut. 12:5-7, 11), namely Jerusalem (Ps. 48:1-3; 76:1-2). Doubtless, the saints in the Northern Kingdom, such as Naboth (I Kings 21) and Hosea, obeyed this command. Second, the first and second commandments forcefully forbid idolatry. As John Calvin writes, "Let anyone show me one prophet or any godly man who once worshipped or sacrificed in Bethel" (Institutes 4.9.9). Thus the believing remnant in the Northern Kingdom could remain good members of the Jewish church by detesting the idolatry of Dan and Bethel and by making holy pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.

Remember that in the Old Testament there was no provision for reformation in the way of seceding from a corrupt body. For those days, God ordained one external church organization in Palestine for His people. The church had not yet received the office of believer, something necessary for the formation of individual churches with their own office-bearers. The Spirit, as the Spirit of truth who would lead the church into all truth (John 15:26), had not yet come (7:39). Thus heresy, which operates in opposition to the Spirit of truth, was not yet an ecclesiastical phenomenon. Therefore, this Old Testament example does not speak in favour of remaining in or joining a "broad" church which tolerates heresy. Christ warns us of the "broad" way, for it leads to "destruction" (Matt. 7:13). The calling of New Testament saints is summarised in the Reformed confessions: join a church which faithfully manifests the three marks of the church (Belgic Confession 29; Confession of Bohemia 8; Westminster Confession 25:4-5)!

3. Christ attended Jewish assembles, so why can we not remain in departing churches?

The answer to this objection is similar to the previous response. Christ, as One born under the law (Gal. 4:4), was dedicated in the temple and He attended the feasts. He and every other believer at that time, including His disciples, were kept from pollution from the departing Jewish assemblies because they were obeying the Word of God which required attendance upon the Old Testament church’s worship.

Ecclesiastical separation came in the Jewish synagogues after Christ's ascension and Pentecost, when Jewish synagogues rejected the gospel and fell away from the faith. Then it was obedience to the Word of God to separate from these synagogues to form true Christian congregations (e.g., Acts 18:4-6; cf. 7-11). Remember Amos' penetrating question: "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3).