Church Membership in an Evil Age
Rev. Steven R. Key
This booklet addresses two great tragedies that are
prevalent in our day.
The one tragedy is a rejection of church membership.
Many have separated themselves entirely from the instituted church, from
the oversight of elders, and from the faithful preaching of the gospel.
Some have done so because they insist that membership
in God's church does not necessarily mean membership in a church
institute. One can belong to the body of Christ regardless of whether or
not he has anything to do with a local congregation. Church
Membership in an Evil Age addresses that confusion.
Some have separated themselves from any instituted
church, because they stumbled at the sin seen in every church they
attended. In every church they have seen many sins and sinful people. It
"turned them off" to church membership. In such cases Church
Membership in an Evil Age calls for a return to a biblical
perspective of church membership.
Scripture gives us three marks by which we are to
evaluate the churches to which we belong. Recognizing the imperfection
of the church on this earth, there are three marks that must be evident
in the church where we must be a member. Not for the sins of its members
do we separate ourselves from a church. Not for friendly members and
interesting programs do we join a church.
Church Membership in an Evil Age maintains
that only when a church lacks these three marks must we separate
ourselves. And if it is necessary that we separate from a church, we are
called to join another congregation where these marks are found.
The other great tragedy addressed in this booklet is
that thousands upon thousands of well-meaning Christians continue their
membership in churches where the three marks have been lost. For various
reasons they remain in churches that have departed from the Scriptures
to such a degree that the biblical marks that characterize Christ's
church are no longer found, or are corrupted to a significant degree.
Although they are in danger of losing their generations, they remain
where they are, content to "put up with" the errors that they see. To
such comes the call: "Come out from among them and be ye separate!"
In this evil age, believers and their children must
find a home in a faithful congregation where they may be strengthened in
the most holy faith, where they may enjoy the fellowship of God in the
gospel and unity in the truth of the Scriptures. That is our calling,
the calling of church membership in an evil age.
Church Membership in an Evil Age
The truth of the Scriptures and the love of Christ's
church is the passion of my heart and the burden God has placed upon my
soul. From that point of view, I would long for everyone to come and see
the truth of Scripture as we Protestant Reformed Churches have been
given to understand and rejoice in it. And then I would also long to
fellowship with all our readers in the unity of church membership.
However, I want to state clearly from the start that
it is not my intention by this article to proselytise members and to add
to the growing numbers in the Protestant Reformed Churches. To write
with the purpose of persuading you to join the PRC would not be to the
benefit of anyone. The simple fact is, if you do not know us, you need
to ask many questions about our churches before even considering such
membership. And the motivation for joining another church or
denomination of churches ought never be merely to escape the problems in
one's own congregation or churches.
Church membership must always be positive, with the
seeking of God's glory as its basis. And it must always be based upon
your own convictions of the truth of God's holy inspired Scriptures, as
they line up with the confessions of the particular church to which you
would join yourself.
So I am content to open the Scriptures and call your
attention to a few scriptural principles, leaving the outcome to the
Spirit of Christ, and praying only that you will be built up in the most
holy faith and exercise your calling as faithful members of Christ's
In connection with the theme, "Church Membership in
an Evil Age," it is my intention to call your attention first to the
scriptural idea and calling of church membership. Secondly, I will call
your attention to the corporate responsibility in which that church
membership involves us. In the third place, we shall consider the
difficulty God's people have faced, in years past, with respect to their
membership in apostatising churches. And finally, I will call your
attention to the marks of the church by which we must determine where we
are called to serve God as members of His church.
The Scriptural Idea and Calling of Church Membership
Church membership is something that the Christian
church has always taken seriously, because the concept is so thoroughly
scriptural. But along with the departure from the teaching of the
Scriptures in recent years, there has also been a steady decline in the
understanding of the importance of church membership.
Many believe that to be a member of a local
congregation is not so important, and that individual believers are at
liberty to do as they please. If they want to join, that is fine; and if
not, that is fine too. After all, they say, church membership does not
make you a Christian. But while we indeed grant that having your name on
a church roll will not make you a Christian, there is confusion in that
argument that must be addressed by Scripture.
The Bible speaks of the church from two perspectives,
as does also the Belgic Confession, one of the creeds or
confessions of the Reformed churches.
In the first place, there is the one holy catholic
church. And by that word "catholic" we have no reference whatsoever to
the Roman Catholic Church. "Catholic" refers to the universal aspect of
the church, the one holy universal church of true believers in many
denominations and countries, gathered throughout the ages. The truth of
Scripture concerning that holy catholic or universal church is
summarized concisely in our Heidelberg Catechism, Question and
believest thou concerning the holy catholic church of Christ?
Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers,
defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the
whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in
true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member
Essentially, therefore, the church is the body of
Christ, invisible, an object of faith, not sight.
But besides that truth of the church, Scripture also
makes clear that the one holy, universal church comes to manifestation
in individual congregations under the leadership of God-appointed office
bearers who serve that local body of believers. That is the aspect of
church membership and our calling to church membership that we consider
here. There is a clear relationship between the one who is taken into
the church organism, that invisible body of Christ, by regeneration and
the bond of faith, and membership in a local church.
The invisible body of Christ and the visible
congregation are not two separate entities, but two important aspects of
the one church. Although one can distinguish them, they are inseparably
related. So inseparably related are they, that one expresses personal
unity with the body of Christ when he joins a faithful congregation, and
one forsakes the body of Christ when he leaves or stands outside of a
faithful congregation. The believer must find fellowship with the other
members of Christ's body. He is compelled to do such by the
Spirit of Christ.
That truth is well attested to scripturally. To the
New Testament believer, faith in Christ and participation in His church
Matthew 18:15ff., Jesus teaches us the order to follow in calling an
erring brother or sister to repentance and restoring fellowship when a
breach has developed between individual members of the church. If the
guilty person refuses to listen, Jesus instructs us to bring the matter
to the church. That clearly points to believers being recognized as
members of a local congregation.
In Acts, chapters 2-5, for example, many were brought
to faith through the preaching of the apostles. However, they were not
left hanging on their own. Instead, they are spoken of as being added to
that number who were already a part of the church at Jerusalem.
Acts 20:28, Paul instructs the elders in the church at Ephesus to
take heed to themselves and to all the flock over which God has made
them overseers. Those elders were not in doubt as to who were members in
their congregation. Taking heed to the flock would be impossible, if
there were no recognizable membership. To that same church at Ephesus
Paul wrote a letter in which he gave instruction as to the importance of
congregational life. Christ blesses His elect through the congregation,
to which He gives His Word and Spirit. Out of Christ, that whole body,
having been fitly joined together and compacted by that which every
joint supplieth—see how intimate is that fellowship—according to the
effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the
body unto the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians
From those references, which are only a few, it ought
to be clear that we may not think of the church institute, that which is
visible, as something disassociated from the one invisible body of
Christ. You may not put asunder what God has joined together!
Dr. Abraham Kuyper used a fitting illustration, when
he spoke of the peas in a pod. If you raise peas in a garden, it is
impossible that you tend the peas, but ignore the pod.
True, when the peas are ripe, and picking time
has come, you shell the peas and throw the pod away. Similarly, you
remove a scaffolding when once the building has been completed
within it. Just so, the Lord God will sometime come to throw away
the visible Church. But the present is not yet the season of
harvest. The scaffolding is necessary still, and the pod must needs
be. Hence, you may not be indifferent about the visible Church,
wrongly supposing that the invisible, spiritual Church can mature
For that reason, the one who is indifferent to church
membership or who remains outside the membership of the local church,
gives expression to the sin of supposing to be wiser than God. Such a
person acts in rebellion against the ordinances of God. For the love of
his soul we call him to repentance. Every child of God, by his
confession of being a Christian, is obligated to join the true church of
God as it comes to expression in a local congregation.
But church membership involves more than being on the
membership list of some church and attending the worship services on
There are responsibilities connected with that church
membership. Those responsibilities are spelled out throughout the Bible;
and the Word of God that I preach comes to me and to His people every
Lord's Day with a "thus saith the Lord," that places before us
responsibilities that are inescapable. Those responsibilities that are
yours as a member of Christ's church in whatever place, may all be
summed up by the calling to glorify the Lord your God by loving Him with
all your heart and mind and soul, and loving your neighbour as yourself.
That sums it all.
That implies many things, of course.
In the first place, the necessity of church
membership, and the calling to glorify God in your church membership,
immediately places you under the calling to evaluate today's churches,
including the one in which you currently have your membership. Only a
true church is a proper body to join and in which to remain. As a member
of that church, i.e., of a local congregation of believers and their
children, you have the calling before the face of God to submit to the
teaching ministry and to the discipline of that church.
You are obligated, according to Scripture (I
Galatians 6:6ff., and many other passages), to care for the poor and
to support the ministry of the Word, in its broadest sense, with your
money, reflective of what God has given you. You are obligated to
support the work of Christ with the various gifts and talents God has
given you (Romans
Ephesians 4, and many, many other passages)—with your time and
prayers, your fellowship and upbuilding words, even your admonitions for
the love of the brother or sister who is departing from the way of the
And for the glory of God, we are also obligated to
live lives of separation and holiness. That means that we find no
fellowship with the ungodly and unbelievers and, as in times of
apostasy and reformation, that we come out from among those who manifest
themselves as belonging to the false church.
Exercising that responsibility of church membership
becomes increasingly difficult in the advancing apostasy in the church
today. What a disastrous departure from the truth of God's Word is seen
in most denominations today! We live in an evil age. I am assuming, and
I hope my assumption is not incorrect, that you have enough spiritual
sensitivity to sin to see the evil that has engulfed also the church
world today. I only call your attention to the inspired words Paul wrote
to Timothy in
II Timothy 3, and ask you: Don't you see this today?
"This know also, that in the last days perilous times
shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous,
boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful,
unholy, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, ... ever learning,
and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." Those sins do not
merely characterize the world! Paul speaks about the church!
For they are also characterized by this: "Having a form of
godliness, but denying the power thereof." The ungodly are not concerned
with having a form of godliness. Paul speaks of those who call
themselves Christian, who are church members, who may even be ministers
and elders and deacons, who may teach in the schools, and so on. But for
all their form of godliness, they deny the power thereof. And as
Paul goes on to point out in that chapter, that power of godliness is
the power of the Scriptures.
Where there is a departure from the truth of the
Scriptures in the pulpit ministry or in the teaching of the church, in
the evangelistic outreach of the church or in the lives of its members,
there is the increase of apostasy and all the evil characteristics
against which Paul warns us.
And then he writes these profound words: "Having a
form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn
away!" Now, he does not mean by this exhortation that we immediately
run away from those problems as they arise in the church. The church on
this earth is filled with sin and imperfections. To our shame some of
these sins and imperfections are evident also in our own churches. We
may not run away from our problems. Under the inspiration of the same
Holy Spirit, Paul writes clearly and explicitly about the church's
calling and the calling of you as an individual member to follow the
God-honouring way of exercising Christian discipline—both for love of
the church and for the love of those who have departed from the faith.
We must seek their salvation. The church must exercise the key power of
But, having followed the scriptural way and the
church orderly way of the exercise of Christian discipline, when we have
followed the scriptural, God-ordained way in attempting to defend the
faith once delivered to the saints; and when it becomes evident that the
scriptural, God-ordained way works not salvation in those who have
departed; it is not our calling to play politics in the church, in the
attempt to wrest control from those heretics and evil men and women!
Christ says, "From such turn away!" There is a reason for that
exhortation and calling. That reason is for your own spiritual welfare
and salvation, as well as the salvation of your children and
Corporate Responsibility and Church Membership
We have considered the scriptural idea and calling of
church membership. Intricately connected with that calling are the
responsibilities we bear within the membership of our own church
The scriptural truth of the unity of the church
weighs heavily upon our church membership. One of the truths most
overlooked or denied in connection with church membership is the
inescapable corporate responsibility that stands inseparably
connected with the unity of the body of Christ as expressed in any given
church institute. Because of the unity of the church and the body of
Christ as it comes to expression in a local congregation and the
denomination with which one affiliates, the responsibility of church
membership is a corporate responsibility.
Your membership in a particular congregation, and
your membership in a particular denomination, marks you as responsible
for the doctrines taught and for that which goes on where you have your
membership. That is a serious matter for all of us. But that truth of
corporate responsibility is clearly taught in Scripture. It is a truth
rooted in God's creation of Adam as the head of the human race. It is
corporate responsibility which marks us as guilty in Adam, according to
Romans 5, for example. You and I and all men are responsible before
God for what Adam did in paradise. We were not there; we did not know
anything about it; we had no say in the matter. It makes no difference.
You and I are guilty before God for Adam's sin.
It was because of their corporate responsibility that
the whole nation of Israel stood guilty before God for the sin of Achan,
as we read in
Joshua 7. So long as that sin remained in the nation, they could not
expect the favour and love and mercy of God. And what was true in the
Old Testament manifestation of God's church is true today.
When sin manifests itself in the church, it is not
for us to look down our noses in self-righteousness. It is a time of
grief and sorrow and confession of sin. The anger of the Lord comes not
only upon the heretics and those who walk ungodly, but it comes upon the
whole church so long as that sin is not dealt with. And God Himself says
in the second commandment of
Exodus 20, "I will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the
children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me."
That is corporate responsibility.
There is today a growing independentism or
congregationalism and individualism which historically has been anathema
to Reformed churches, and which is in direct conflict with the
scriptural truth concerning the church and her unity, as well as with
this truth concerning our corporate responsibility. That has come to
expression in various ways.
There are many, for example, who take the position,
"The pulpit in my congregation holds to the truth; my
congregation does not go along with this departure and that error; my
congregation submits to the truth of Scripture's infallibility and
authority. Therefore, so long as the congregation is pure where I
have my membership, the denomination can go to hell." That is blunt; but
that is the attitude of many.
There are others, whom I commend for their concern
for the departures of their denominations, but who also turn their backs
on the scriptural teaching of corporate responsibility. There is a
growing movement within various apostatising churches to have a sort of
church-within-a-church, an alliance or fellowship of some sort which
supposedly will absolve its members of the sins of the denomination. By
such an organization within the church, there is the feeling that
something positive is being done in opposition to the forces of evil and
heresy—though in a way political and outside the bounds of Scripture—and
there is a separation that makes one free from any responsibility for
the sins of the congregation or denomination.
We do well to consider in this connection the prayer
of Daniel, recorded in
Daniel 9:13-19. The entire prayer is a moving, humbling confession
of guilt, coming from the lips of an Israelite in whom there was no
guile. The beautiful thing about this prayer of Daniel is that the issue
before his mind was entirely the name of Jehovah and the cause of God.
There is a great deal we can learn from this prayer
of Daniel. But the element of this prayer that I find most amazing is
this: The holy servant of God—Daniel, who said "no" to Satan in the
palace of Nebuchadnezzar, who went to the lions' den rather than cease
fellowship with his God—this righteous man includes himself
with the wicked and rebellious children of Israel!
The church institute, which is what Israel was, was
corrupt to its core. The remnant according to the election of grace was
very small, as it is at any given time in history. And when you consider
the setting, Daniel's prayer is almost incomprehensible, especially in
this day of individualism and the denial of corporate responsibility and
corporate guilt. Sometimes when there is sin in the church, we like to
sit back and take a wait-and-see attitude. When Daniel lays before God
the guilt of Israel, he includes himself as a member of that
wicked generation of unbelieving Israelites who need to have their guilt
and sin taken away!
What more evidence do we need of the truth of
corporate responsibility and corporate guilt than this inspired prayer
of this servant of God? And should we dare to deny this truth or neglect
to apply it in our given situations? God forbid! Let us not sit in the
fellowship of wickedness and point the finger at the guilty ones around
us. If we are to join with this prayer of Daniel, we must be willing to
humble ourselves before God and to see ourselves as guilty
before Him and to confess our sins.
And then the Lord would teach us something here. Our
greatest need is not external, but internal. We dare not ask for God's
mercy and deliverance, unless we do so from our knees before Him in true
repentance and in faith. All our desire must be for God's glory
and the honour of His holy name. That is why we pray not, "Have
mercy upon us in the misery of our exile," but, "Have mercy upon
us, O my God, in the misery of our guilt."
I am convinced that one of the reasons God has sent
unrest in the church in our time is to drive us to increased fervency in
our prayers for His glory, instead of for our own safety. We need to be
brought to a God-consciousness once again. And when we are
God-conscious, then we also confess our sins before Him, laying hold of
the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we strive to walk according to
His will and according to His Word.
The Lord saved us. The Lord instituted us a church to
represent Him in the midst of this world. And in verse 19, when we pray
with God's servant, we pray, "Thy city and thy people are called by thy
name." That means that when the church is corrupt and in captivity and
in confusion, the name of Jehovah God will not be properly honoured
until His church is restored.
We are His possession. His reputation is at stake,
and has been dishonoured by us. The true church is the only body on
earth that confesses its sin. Will you do that with her? Where the
confession of sin dies out, the church is no longer a church of Jesus
Christ. When we are given once again to see the importance of His name
and His glory, when we are led to repentance by the powerful Word of
Christ, and pray this prayer out of true reverence for the name of our
God, then He will hear and forgive.
But it follows from this truth of corporate
responsibility that we may not remain in a church that has departed from
the truth of God's Holy Word. It is the truth of corporate
responsibility and corporate guilt which lies at the basis of the call,
"Come out from among them, and be ye separate" (II
Corinthians 6:17). We must not continue in conflict with the
holiness of God. In the case of some that may mean separation now
from the body where you have your church membership. That is a move that
is extremely difficult. I know.
Membership in Apostatising Churches
Having considered the scriptural principles and
responsibilities of church membership, we noted the inescapable truth of
corporate responsibility. Though many in this age of ecclesiastical
departure and apostasy would like to ignore that truth, it is exactly
the truth of corporate responsibility and corporate guilt that lies at
the basis of the call, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate."
We must not continue in conflict with the holiness of God. I pointed out
that in some cases that may mean separation now
from the body where you currently have your church membership. That is a
move that is extremely difficult. I know that—as a matter of experience.
But when I point out that exercising the
responsibility of church membership becomes increasingly difficult in
the advancing apostasy in the church today, I would remind you that
God's people have often faced the same difficulties in centuries past.
That was the difficulty that our Reformation fathers
faced in the bondage of Roman Catholicism. Do not think for a moment
that they left that church on a whim! Do not think that they left the
Roman Catholic Church without a struggle! And I refer here not to the
fact that in many cases they faced physical persecution. Rather, I point
out that the Reformers finally came to the decision to leave the Roman
Catholic Church only after tremendous spiritual struggle of soul. It
ought to be clear that love for God's church and for His people should
prevent any Christian from making separation without going
through that struggle of soul. But once men like Martin Luther and John
Calvin made that separation, they forcefully called God's people to
In 1537, John Calvin wrote a very pointed letter of
considerable length. That letter was entitled: On Shunning the
Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly and Preserving the Purity of the Christian
Religion. You will find it in the third volume of his Tracts and
Treatises. This letter was written to those who professed the
Reformation gospel, but for various practical reasons remained within
the Roman Catholic Church. In no uncertain terms Calvin pointed them to
their sin of turning their eyes away from God's Word and demanding
nothing more of themselves than could be performed without endangering
either their safety or their conditions. But he also pointed to the
truth that there is no difficulty too great to be surmounted by him who
strengthens himself with the consideration that, though all men should
threaten, their menaces cannot outweigh those which the Lord denounces
against the deserters of His camp.
Calvin's view of the necessity of belonging to a
church that manifests the marks of the true church is not only
historically significant, but is also of great practical importance for
Protestants in departing churches today.
Some 300 years later, in the face of rampant
departure from the truth of Scripture in the Church of England, and the
influx of a mentality that sought reunion with Rome in many areas,
Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote a review of two papers by the Reverend
J.C. Ryle, the prominent and soundly Reformed pastor and bishop, whose
writings many of us continue to read with pleasure.
The papers Spurgeon was reviewing were titled "Church
Principles" and "Church Comprehensiveness." Spurgeon wrote:
There is no party within the Church of England
with whom we are more nearly agreed than the Evangelical [i.e., the
party to which Ryle belonged—SK], and yet they excite far more our
wonder and pity than our sympathy. We wonder they are not ashamed of
being connected with men who openly defy the law and preach the
worst form of Popery. We pity them because, while they remain in the
Establishment, their protests against its errors have but little
power ... Congresses in which Christ and antichrist are brought
together cannot but exercise a very unhealthy influence even upon
the most decided followers of the truth. We wish Mr. Ryle could
review his own position in the light of the Scriptures rather than
in the darkness of ecclesiasticism; then would he come out from
among them, and no more touch the unclean thing.2
In 1864 Spurgeon addressed an issue that plagues many
churches today, including the historic Reformed churches. There were
professors in various colleges connected with the Church of England, as
well as ministers and bishops, who questioned the divine inspiration of
Scripture and limited its authority to a religious sphere, if they
recognized any authority in it at all. This is how Spurgeon described
the times, and I ask you: Do you see the likeness in the church today?
God's Word, in this age, is a small affair; some
do not even believe it to be inspired; and those who profess to
revere it set up other books in a sort of rivalry with it. Why,
there are great Church dignitaries now-a-days who write against the
Bible, and yet find bishops to defend them. [They tell us,] "Do not,
for a moment, think of condemning their books or them; they are our
dear brethren, and must not be fettered in thought.3
Do you not see the application? Miserable heretics
have permeated churches with their swords of higher criticism, hacking
the whole of the Scriptures to pieces. Spurgeon also called attention in
writing to the consequences of the new teaching which had permeated the
churches: "Attendance at places of worship is declining, and reverence
for holy things is vanishing ..."4
And in closing he raised the issue which others had
declined to face:
It now becomes a serious question how far those
who abide by the faith once delivered to the saints should
fraternize with those who have turned aside to another gospel.
Christian love has lost its claims, and divisions are to be shunned
as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in
confederacy with those who are departing from the truth? ...
A chasm is opening between the men who believe
their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon
Scripture ... The house is being robbed, its very walls are being
digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the
warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go
downstairs and meet the burglars ... Inspiration and speculation
cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot
hold the inspiration of the Word, and yet reject it; we cannot
believe in the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of
the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human
nature; we cannot recognize the punishment of the impenitent and yet
indulge the "larger hope." One way or the other we must go. Decision
is the virtue of the hour ...
Believers in Christ's atonement are now in
declared union with those who make light of it; believers in Holy
Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny plenary
inspiration; those who hold evangelical doctrine are in open
alliance with those who call the fall a fable, who deny the
personality of the Holy Ghost, who call justification by faith
immoral, and hold that there is another probation after death ...
Yes, we have before us the wretched spectacle of professedly
orthodox Christians publicly avowing their union with those who deny
the faith, and scarcely concealing their contempt for those who
cannot be guilty of such gross disloyalty to Christ. To be very
plain, we are unable to call these things Christian Unions, they
begin to look like Confederacies in Evil ...
It is our solemn conviction that where there can
be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretence of
fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is
participation in sin.5
May God forbid that we lose our children and
children's children because of our own paralysis of indecision!
The Marks of a True Church in Relation to Church
Our Belgic Confession, on the basis of
Scripture, calls everyone to join himself or herself to the true church.
But when I say that only a true church is a proper
body to join, that statement does not in itself clarify the matter of
It is not as easy as saying this one church is true
and all others are false. What an enormous entity is the church world
today! What a bewildering array of denominations and congregations! And
in the face of that baffling diversity and the overwhelming apostasy, we
must fight against the error seen in the life of God's servant Elijah.
You recall from
I Kings 19 that in the face of all the apostasy that Elijah observed
in Israel, he despaired of God's church, supposing that he alone was the
only survivor of the faith: "I, even I only, am left." God rebuked
Elijah for this notion when He said, "I have left me seven thousand in
Israel." We must recognize the truth that God preserves His church even
in the midst of vast departures from His truth.
In that connection there has been a rather persistent
charge levelled at our Protestant Reformed Churches in past years that
has presented us as teaching that there is only one true church from a
denominational point of view—and we are it! The accusation has been
flung at us from time to time, "You PRs think you are the only ones
going to heaven."
That teaching is not ours. I would not say that there
have not been those individuals in years past who may have presented
themselves that way. Just about any church has had such zealous souls. I
know of those in years past who thought such of the church in which I
was a member—and it was not Protestant Reformed. Their particular church
or denomination was the true church and all others were false.
But if there were those who thought that way, they
were in error. That has never been the teaching of the Protestant
Reformed Churches, nor does such a teaching stand in the light of
Scripture and the confessions. If, for example, Martin Luther or John
Calvin took such a position, even with respect to the Roman Catholic
Church at the time of the Reformation, there would have been no
The Belgic Confession gives us some clear
direction and counsel in this regard. I encourage you to read Articles
27-29 of that Confession.6 The principle set forth
in Article 28 is that I must be joined in the midst of the world to the
holy catholic church.
The Belgic Confession considers the subject of
true and false church from the viewpoint of the question: "Where must I
join myself?" That is an entirely different approach, you see, than
identifying that true church by its members. We have no doubt that even
within denominations that are falling away from the Word of God, or that
have already departed a long way from the standards of biblical truth,
there are yet faithful individuals, faithful pastors and office bearers,
and even faithful congregations. But that has nothing to do with the
question before us, nor with the direction of the Belgic Confession.
God has set before us the calling to glorify Him in the truth.
Therefore, the question becomes, "Where is that
church in which I must worship and live in active membership?" And in
Article 29 the answer is given us: "Here are the distinguishing marks."
The determining factor of church membership must not
be family and relatives. The words of Jesus are clear and must be
applied by us to our own situation: "He that loveth father or mother
more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter
more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew
10:37). The only thing you must consider in that connection is the
spiritual welfare of your loved ones. But your calling is to glorify God
in the truth. And in glorifying God in the truth He assures you that
your testimony to your family will not go unheard.
The determining factor of where I must worship as a
member of Christ's body comes down to this: Where is the truth of God's
holy Word maintained from a practical point of view? That is, do I in
this church and its fellowship of churches hear the pure preaching of
the gospel, preaching which trumpets forth the voice of Christ, the
clear, fearless blast of "thus saith the Lord," and the unadulterated
truth of the Scriptures? Secondly, do I find here the proper
administration of the sacraments again, with the truth of God's Word the
determining factor? And finally, is there the scriptural exercise of the
love of Christian discipline, without which neither the sacraments nor
the pure preaching of the Word can be maintained?
Where any of those marks are gone, removed from an
instituted church, your calling is to remove yourself for membership in
a church where those marks are maintained. For church history teaches us
that where the marks of the church are removed, so is its candlestick.
Reformation in that case comes only by way of separation and renewal, to
the glory of God.
In conclusion, there is a matter that deserves great
emphasis: Church membership means nothing unless your heart is right
with God. There are thousands of people whose religion consists of
little more than social interaction. The glory of God and the worship of
Jehovah is far from them. They know nothing of experiential
Christianity. They do not separate themselves from the fellowship of the
ungodly, they show no interest in the doctrines of the gospel, and they
appear totally indifferent to what is preached, so long as it does not
offend. We hear Jesus saying of the church of our day as He did of the
church of His own day: "This people draweth nigh unto me with their
mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.
But in vain do they worship me" (Matthew
The outward things of Christianity—baptism, the
Lord's Supper, public worship, church membership, and the like—will
never take a man to heaven, unless his heart is right with God. So Paul
Galatians 5:6: "For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth
any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love." That
love is the love of God. If that love lives in your heart, you are
called to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
If God in His mercy has placed you in a church and
denomination faithful to His Word, fervent in the faith, sound in
preaching, sacraments, and Christian discipline, give Him thanks. Take
it not for granted. Pray fervently for your pastors and office bearers
and for the continued signs of God's grace in your midst. Live in active
dedication to your calling as a member of His church.
If in His providence the Lord is trying you, if you
find yourself in a church which is departing or has departed from God's
Word and its calling as a church, I urge you in the love of Christ not
to linger. Neglect not your responsibility toward the church in which
you are. Follow the way of Christian discipline. But if that way is gone
or not open to you, flee for your life and the lives of your children!
For evil men "shall wax worse and worse," says the Apostle, "deceiving
and being deceived" (II
Timothy 3:13). Don't play with fire.
Consider the biblical example of the righteous but
weak Christian named Lot, and the sorrow which was his even in being
19). God saved Lot. But Lot lost his family, also in their
generations. Would you feel the testimony of the Spirit with your
spirit, know whom you have believed, and walk in the joy of faith? Then
do not linger. Hear the Word of God.
Kuyper, The Implications
of Public Confession (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1934), p. 84.
in Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon (London: Banner, 1973), p.
Appendix A. Note: The Belgic Confession is not alone in its
treatment of the distinguishing marks of a true church. This was a
common theme among the Protestant Reformers and the Reformed Confessions
of the sixteenth century. Cf. French Confession of 1559, articles
26-28 (Appendix B); Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva
(1556-1557); Scots Confession of 1560, chapters 16, 18 and 25.
Presbyterian Heritage Publications (P. O. Box 180922, Dallas, TX
75218) has published both the Scottish Confession
of 1560 and the Book of Order (including the Confession) used by
the English Congregation at Geneva.
Catholic Christian Church
We believe and profess one catholic or universal
Church,1 which is a holy congregation of true
Christian believers, expecting all their salvation in Jesus Christ,
being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost.
This Church hath been from the beginning of the
world, and will be to the end thereof;2 which is
evident from this, that Christ is an external king, which without
subjects He can not be3 And this holy Church is
preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world;4
though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and, in the eyes
of men, to be reduced to nothing:5 as during the
perilous reign of Ahab, when nevertheless the Lord reserved unto him
seven thousand who had not bowed their knees to Baal.6
Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound,
or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and
dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart
and will,7 by the power of faith, in one and the same
is Bound to Join Himself to the True Church
We believe, since this holy congregation is an
assemblage of those who are saved, and out of it there is no salvation,1 that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to
withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it;2
but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it;
maintaining the unity of the Church;3 submitting
themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks
under the yoke of Jesus Christ;4 and as mutual members
of the same body,5 serving to the edification of the
brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may
be better observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the
Word of God, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the
Church,6 and to join themselves to this congregation,
wheresoever God hath established it,7 even though the
magistrates and edicts of princes be against it; yea, though they should
suffer death or bodily punishment.8
Therefore all those who separate themselves from the
same or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of
Marks of the True Church, and Wherein She Differs from the False Church
We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly
to 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
But we speak here not of the company of
hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet
are not of the Church, though externally in it;1
but we say that the body and communion of the true Church
must be distinguished from all sects who call themselves the
The marks by which the true Church
is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is
if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments
as instituted by Christ;3 if church
discipline is exercised in punishing of sin;4
in short, if all things are managed according to the pure
Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected,5
and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the
Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no
man has a right to separate himself. With respect to those
who are members of the Church, they may be known by the
marks of Christians, namely, by faith;7
and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Saviour,8
they avoid sin, follow after righteousness9
love the true God and their neighbour, neither turn aside to
the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works
thereof.10 But this is not to be
understood as if there did not remain in them great
infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit
all the days of their life,11
continually taking their refuge in the blood, death,
passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom
they have remission of sins through faith in him.12
As for the false Church, she ascribes more power and
authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God,13
and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ.14
Neither does she administer the Sacraments, as appointed by Christ in
His Word, but adds to and takes from them as she thinks proper; she
relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live
holily according to the Word of God,15 and rebuke her
for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.16 These
two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.
The French Confession
We believe that no one ought to seclude himself and
be contented to be alone; but that all jointly should keep and maintain
the union of the Church, and submit to the public teaching, and to the
yoke of Jesus Christ,1 wherever God shall have
established a true order of the Church, even if the magistrates and
their edicts are contrary to it. For if they do not take part in it, or
if they separate themselves from it, they do contrary to the Word of
Nevertheless we believe that it is important to
discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title
has been much abused.3 We say, then, according to the
Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow
his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who advance in it all
their lives, growing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God
according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward.4
Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the
remission of their sins.5 Nevertheless we do not deny
that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but
their wickedness cannot destroy the title of the Church.6
In this belief we declare that, properly speaking,
there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor
profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments.1
Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is
banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or
destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold,
then, that all who take part in these acts, and commune in that Church,
separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ2