The distinction between true and false churches


What follows is the first part of a sermon on LD 21 by Rev. Mendel Retief.[i]

The way in which Satan attacks the church is mainly through deception. He is the father of lies. He is a murderer from the beginning, and his deadly weapon is the lie. He attacks the church by twisting the gospel; he slays his tens of thousands with false doctrine. Twist the Word of God, and all of life becomes corrupted.

Therefore the apostle John writes to the church and says:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4: 1).

There are many false prophets, and as a result many false churches that have grown from their teaching.

‘True and false’ OR ‘pure and less pure’?

But, congregation, you will be aware of the fact that it has become very unpopular in our day to speak of true and false churches. It happens more and more, even in Reformed churches, that people avoid speaking of true and false churches, and prefer to speak instead of pure churches and less pure churches.  

Then it does not matter so much anymore whether you belong to a Baptist church, or a Pentecostal church, or an Anglican church, or maybe even to the Roman Catholics. In the end all the different churches are then viewed as true churches – the one just a bit more or less pure than the other. 

To choose the right church becomes then a matter of taste. You choose a church where you feel comfortable. That is then the best church for you. But your brother in Christ may have a different taste, or may come from a different background, and therefore he chooses a different church. And that is then good for him!

It becomes like choosing a restaurant. The one likes Sizzlers, another likes Miss Maud’s, yet another prefers something cheaper at McDonalds – but in the end everyone gets his food according to taste and personal choice.  

There are indeed people who think the same about all the different churches. They reckon that the one church likes to clap their hands while they sing and prefer happy hymns, while another church prefers the Psalms; the one baptise children, the other church not; the one celebrates the Roman Mass, the other sit down at a Lord’s Supper table; the one church is a bit more faithful or closer to Scripture than the other – but, in the end, “they all believe in Jesus, and they are all Christians, so don’t make any issue about their choice of church!”   

When that is the way one views all the different churches, putting them all on one line as pure and less pure, then joining a church becomes very much a matter of personal taste.

Sometimes those who think this way will tell you that the church is not uniform, but pluriform. The churches may then all hold to different doctrines, and the confession of the one church may contradict the confession of the other church, but these are then all just different expressions, different manifestations of the one church of Christ. Christ’s church on earth is then made up of many denominations each with its own doctrine and teaching, while each denomination is a branch of the same tree.

The same people who have this view may also speak of the invisible church and say: while we gather in different churches, we all belong to the same invisible body of Christ. To which visible church you belong does not matter all that much then, as long as you believe in Jesus, and thus belong to His invisible church.

However, Scripture, and also our confession, does not put all the different churches on one horizontal line of pure and less pure, but draws, first of all, a vertical line separating the true church from false churches.

In Revelation 2: 9 the Lord refers to the Jewish synagogue as the synagogue of Satan. The Lord no longer recognises them as His church. He does not call them a less pure church, but a gathering of Satan!

Join Christ’s church – the pillar and ground of the truth

The apostle Paul, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares that there is only one gospel, and that the twisting of the gospel – which was happening in their midst – does not produce a less pure gospel, but no gospel at all. If anyone comes with a different version of the gospel, then it is not a different gospel, but no gospel at all.  And if anyone preaches another gospel, let him be accursed! (Gal. 1: 6 – 9)

The church is called the pillar and ground of the truth – 1 Tim. 3: 15. If a church is no longer a pillar and buttress of the truth – if a church does not defend and uphold the truth – it is no longer a church of Christ.

Scripture also clearly teaches that we have to separate ourselves from those who twist the gospel. John, in his second epistle, exhorts the church to walk in the truth, and not to receive anyone who proclaims false doctrine:

“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John: 10, 11).

We may not exercise the communion of saints with those who proclaim false doctrine. Therefore we need to separate ourselves from a false church where the Word of God is twisted and distorted according to the pleasure of man. And we are duty-bound to join the true church.

But, the moment we say this, people will raise their objections and ask:

“Are you maybe the true church? Who gives you the right to judge other churches, or to call them false?”

First, we have to realise that it is wrong to speak of “our church” and “their church”. There is no “our church” and “their church”; there is only the one church of Christ. The church belongs to Christ; not to us. We don’t have a church; we only belong to the church. And thus the choice of a church is not a matter of us over against them, of Free Reformed over against Baptist, or Free Reformed over against Charismatic. No, we must simply ask: where is Christ gathering His church? Where does He call me to join?

How can we discern true church from false church?

How then will we ever know this? How will we know the difference between true and false? We confess in Art. 29 that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true church.  

When you ask catechism students what are the marks of the true church, they will promptly answer that the marks of the true church are the pure preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them, and that the true church exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

That is correct. But note also the summary that follows these three marks in BCF:29. “In short, the true church governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejects all things contrary to the Word, and regards Jesus Christ as the only Head of the church.”

In other words: the Word of Christ – all of Scripture, and Scripture alone – is the only authority and norm. The pure preaching is only pure if it is according to the Word. Also the sacraments and church discipline are only correctly administered if done according to Christ’s Word. In other words, all three marks of the church boil down to one: the pure administration of the Word, and obedience to that Word alone – in the preaching, in the administration of the sacraments and in church discipline. There is the true church.

The true church is where the Word of Christ is preached and obeyed, and where everything contrary to His Word is rejected. 

That does not mean that we will ever find a perfect church on this side of the grave, but it does mean that the true church lives by the Word of God as her only norm and rule, and fights against all heresies.

Are only members of the true church saved?

Does it mean that no one in a false church can be saved? No, when a church becomes false it does not mean that all its members are automatically lost. There may be true believers who, because of ignorance, gather with the Roman Catholics. There are true believers who, because of ignorance, gather with the Baptists. There are true believers who, because of ignorance and a lack of knowledge, gather with the Charismatics. Yes, there are many true believers in churches which cannot be called true churches. God is able to save them in spite of their weakness and their lack of knowledge.  

But the fact that there are true believers found in false churches does not make a false church true. Neither may you remain in a false church if you know it to be false, for then it will be wilful stubbornness and sin that keeps you there.  

The presence of true believers in a false church is no excuse to remain in a false church. The presence of true believers in a false church does not make it a true church. For the marks of the true church is not the presence of some true Christians, but whether it administers the pure preaching of the gospel and, as a body together, rejects everything contrary to the Word of God.

On the other hand, membership in a true church is no guarantee of salvation. There are also hypocrites and false brethren found in true churches. And a true church does not always remain a true church. Therefore you may never think that you and your children must always remain members of a Free Reformed church. For there may come a day – and may God forbid it – but there may come a day in which you will have to separate yourself from a Free Reformed church, because it became a false church.

Christ’s gathering work is not bound to our name or to the name of the bond of churches to which we belong; we should make sure that we are bound to Him and to His Word only.

The call to join the true church means war

We do not possess the church. We are called to join and unite ourselves to the church there where Christ is calling us to join. And then I indeed find and recognise Christ’s gathering here in this Free Reformed church. And for that reason I am obliged and thankful to join and to unite myself with this gathering – a true church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To remain a true church, we need to continue to cling to Christ and His Word only. It means a constant struggle. It means war. For we, the church, have to uphold the truth in the midst of much deception, and need to reject all deviation while so many are pushing for a false unity.

In this spiritual war we look up to our mighty Saviour at the right hand of God, that He may continue to gather us to be His church, and that He may continue to defend us according to His promise, and that He, by His Word and Spirit, may preserve us in the unity of the true faith, in order that I may remain a living member of His church (LD 21: A. 54). 


[i] The full sermon was preached by Rev Retief in the FRC Kelmscott, was recently read in the FRC Mt Nasura, and is available on The Seed sermons website. Minor cosmetic changes have been made to change the format from sermon to article.