Perhaps there’s no part of our confession that causes as much controversy as the part about the church. Yet our confession is very clear: “I believe a holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” We further confess that this church can easily be identified by her three marks and that everyone is called to join her and not withdraw from her. We confess this because that’s what God teaches us in His Word. By faith we accept as true all God’s Word teaches us—not only about the Trinity and creation and all the other events, but also the teachings including what it teaches about the church.
The trouble is that so often people forget this. Instead of seeing the church as a matter of faith they use their experiences and feelings to reinterpret what we confess. For example, some meet sincere Christians from elsewhere who believe in Jesus as their Saviour and so they conclude, based on their experiences, that there is an invisible church made up of believers from different Christian ‘denominations’.
Others, in their travels, attend different ‘churches’ where there appears to be emphasis on obedience to Scripture. They may admit to some peculiarities, such as women in office, or a relaxed attitude to nonessential Sunday work, or no infant baptism. But the people are sincere, and the preaching seems good.
Based on suchlike experiences and some reasoning, they tend to embrace the idea that there are various churches of the Lord but that some are purer than others. It is a conclusion that is further fueled by the Westminster Confession which speaks about churches being more or less pure and which has led to notions about the pluriformity of the church.
Such conclusions, however, are at odds with how God’s Word speaks about the church, and hence they are at odds with our confessions. For what we confess about the church is not based on our feelings or experiences but on God’s Word; and God’s Word—also in what it teaches about the church—is something we believe through faith.
This is a point Tonnis Bruinius recently emphasised in a series of articles about the church being a matter of faith.[i] Bruinius says the word ‘church’ literally means ‘of the Lord’. Therefore, he adds, we must be careful when speaking about the church. Moreover, we must be governed by what we confess based on God’s covenant Word and not by what we feel or experience.
When it comes to what we confess God’s Word says about the church we get the most detail in our Belgic Confession, articles 27-32. But our confession about the church is already evident in the age old Apostles’ Creed: “I believe a holy catholic church”. I believe it because God says so in His Word. Just as I confess “I believe in God the Creator of heaven and earth” and “I believe the forgiveness of sins”, so too the words “I believe a holy catholic church” indicate that the church is a matter of faith.
That’s also shown in LD 21: “I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life….” Hence we see, says Bruinius, that the church is inextricably tied to our faith, a faith based on the perfectly reliable Word of God.
Throughout the ages, and never so strongly as in our time, there have been attempts to detach the church from the faith. There are ongoing attempts to obscure the clarity of God’s Word on the issue of the church, and to turn it into something general, vague and indistinct so that it is difficult to be concrete in our speaking about it. Indeed, adds Bruinius, it is becoming offensive to say that you are a member of Christ’s church, that you believe “your” church is the church to which Christ calls His believers.
The same applies when you dare to label other religious bodies as “false”, when you say that they cannot legitimately be called churches of Christ. Such speaking is condemned as proud and arrogant, even scary and stupid. People will agree that there is one faith, of course, but will then say that this faith translates into many shades of colour and into many different churches. Or, if that is going a bit too far, faith is at least visible in some ‘denominations’ which, they add, are very close to us. We get to hear this time and again—sometimes loud and clear, at other times wrapped in elaborate theories.
However, such views in effect embrace the doctrine of church-pluriformity, says Bruinius; a practice popularised in America as denominationalism. Its proponents reason that although we are unfortunately not one church, we are at least one in faith. People live that faith differently and so sometimes some feel more at home in another church. But this is terribly dangerous reasoning, adds Bruinius, despite it sounding so good and appealing and sensible.
What happens then, in fact, is that the confession “I believe one holy catholic church” is no longer a matter of faith but is based on observation and reasoning. Yet, we are continually being pushed in the direction of establishing a view of the church that’s based on reasoning and feelings rather than on God’s Word.
Bruinius illustrates this with references to recent church history in The Netherlands. The background to the Church Liberation of 1944 involved a struggle for the truth of what we confess about the church. So did the struggle in the 1960s about the “Open Letter”. Later again this struggle for the truth of what we confess about the church was fought when the GPV (Reformed Political League) and the ND (reformed family newspaper) showed ‘interdenominational’ tendencies. It also played an important role in the Church Liberation of 2003 when faithful believers left the GKV and instituted the DGK.
You see, the notion of church unity even at the cost of truth, is so appealing. After all, which church wants to be small and isolated? Our awareness that the devil constantly exploits that desire for unity with others at the cost of the truth should stimulate us to be vigilant and to remain in the truth. “Stand therefore, having girded your waist with the truth …” (Eph. 6:14).
Yes, the church is a matter of faith, of personal faith: “I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it” (LD 21). It’s something we confess when we do Public Profession of Faith, and each time there is a baptism, and when we attend Holy Supper. We’re saying that we’re living members of Christ’s church to which He calls me and all believers to belong. And if we don’t, but are members of some other religious body, we disobey Christ’s calling voice.
That is what it means to say: “I believe a holy, catholic Christian church”.
From all this it is clear that we must be very careful in how we speak about the church. We can’t speak flippantly or disparagingly about being a member of it. Belonging to Christ’s church is not a matter of personal preference, a matter of where I feel more at home. Moreover, when we’re talking about unity with other churches, utmost caution is required.
We believe one holy catholic church on the basis of God’s Word, the Truth to which we must always humbly subject ourselves and which we may not leave. Bruinius illustrates this in his third article with a long quote from Calvin.[ii] Calvin shows that where the Word of God is faithfully preached, and the sacraments are faithfully administered in accordance with Christ’s command, there you have the church.
You may not leave that church, says Calvin, even if the holiness of the congregation is still imperfect, for the church is still in the process of being sanctified and the faithful preaching and use of sacraments will bear fruits. Provided the true doctrine and true worship are maintained uprightly, one may not withdraw oneself but should honour her and respect her instruction and admonitions. To leave Christ’s church, says Calvin, would constitute revolt from the church and “a denial of God and Christ”. She is “the house of God” and “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the guardian of pure preaching whereby His congregation is fed and nourished. She has been set apart by Christ as His spouse, “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). Hence to disregard her authority is to hinder Christ’s authority and incur His anger.
It is imperative to remain faithful to what we confess, a confession based not on what we see or experience or reason out but on God’s Word which we accept through faith. For “faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed in His Word” (HC 7). And that Word says such beautiful, such wonderful, things about the church which faithfully proclaims God’s Word, administers the sacraments and applies discipline. That is Christ’s bride, which He purchased with His precious blood and sanctifies by the Holy Spirit to eternal life and to which we are so undeservedly privileged to belong.
[i] T L Bruinius, “De Kerk – Zaak van Geloof” (The Church – Matter of Faith), Bouwen en Bewaren, Artikel van de week – Bouwen en Bewaren (bouwen-en-bewaren.nl). The article draws on the first three of a series under this title.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4:10.