A few months ago, I published an article in Una Sancta (1 July 2023) titled “Blurring the Boundaries”. In it I said that while our confessions clearly reject pluriformity of the church thinking, in practice there are things happening in our Free Reformed Churches of Australia that work to promote it. I gave some practical examples. In response to that article a minister sent me the following questions to which I have provided answers in italics, drawing on what we confess. Since others may have the same questions, I’m publishing the Q&A here.
- What (or how), in your consideration, would you define as a false church?
I cannot do better than to quote what we all confess: “The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ. It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases. It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries” (BCF 29).
- What (or how), in your consideration, would you define a true church?
Again, to quote our confession: “The true church is to be recognised by the following marks: It practices the pure preaching of the gospel. It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them. It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head. Hereby the true church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it” (BCF 29).
- Is the true/false church a binary distinction, or would you consider it to be a gradation (grey area) between true and false?
Scripture (e.g. Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Cor. 12:13; Rev. 12), and hence the Heidelberg Catechism (LD 21) and our Belgic Confession (Articles 27-34) show that it is binary. It is either Christ’s church or it’s not.
- Is there, in your mind, a difference between a false church and a flawed church (i.e., is there a difference between a church that errs and a false church?
A false church is obviously a flawed church, but a flawed church is not necessarily a false church. The young church at Corinth was clearly flawed but was still Christ’s church. Five of the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 were also flawed. The difference between a (true) church that errs and a false church lies in how a church responds when the errors are pointed out to it. If the church at Corinth had not heeded Paul’s admonitions, it would thereby become a false church. Christ says to some of the churches in Asia Minor: repent or else I will remove the candlestick. In other words, if any church does not repent it will no longer be Christ’s church. It might still have Sunday services, office bearers, catechism instruction, etc., as the Dutch reformed (state) church did in 1834 and 1886 and the synodical churches did in 1944. But it has lost the right to be Christ’s church since it is no longer willing to be governed by the pure Word of God.
- Do you, in your opinion, consider some doctrinal (or ecclesiastical) matters to be of secondary importance?
We confess in LD 7 that we must “accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word” and that a Christian must believe “All that is promised us in the Gospel”. In BCF 32 we believe that church rulers “ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted…” (see also BCF 7). However, when it comes to ecclesiastical practices, we agree that “On non-essential points of ecclesiastical practice other churches shall not be rejected” (CO 46).
- On the issue of sister-church relations (ecclesiastical fellowship), what, in your opinion, is the purpose of this relationship (i.e., is the purpose of this relationship to identify which churches are true churches? Or does this relationship serve other purposes?)?
The purpose of sister-church relations has been spelled out in the FRCA’s Rules for exercising sister church relations. The first two rules are:
- Sister relations shall be used to mutually assist, encourage and exhort one another to live as churches of God in this world.
- The churches shall mutually care for each other that they do not depart from the reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline and liturgy.
These rules are most important because if sin or false doctrine in one congregation is tolerated it affects the whole body. When Achan sinned, 36 Israelites lost their lives. When, after the conquest of Canaan, the tribes east of the Jordan made an altar, the rest of Israel prepared to fight them because they knew that, if the eastern tribes were disobeying the Lord, all Israel would bring down upon themselves God’s judgement. Toleration of sin or false doctrine in one congregation in our FRCA affects the others. Hence the tremendous importance of taking church visitation very, very seriously. The same must be said for exercising overseas sister relations.
The present Rules do not include a rule about seeking to identify more true churches because these rules relate to exercising sister church relations.
- More specifically, would you expect that the FRCA federation should pursue sister-church relations with every true church anywhere they are found?
I would expect that, if a local church was made aware of another faithful church in its vicinity or elsewhere in Australia (e.g. by one of its members), it would make due enquiries and, if it found that such a church indeed had the marks of the true church, it would go the ecclesiastical route so that the synod would appoint deputies to further investigate and come with recommendations, based on their investigations, to a following synod. I don’t believe it can reasonably be expected that the FRCA should search out such churches throughout the world. One of our synods has already decided to limit ourselves to our own geographical area.
The reason for pursuing sister relations with other faithful churches is because we confess, on the basis of God’s Word, one catholic and apostolic church: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4-6).
I warned against pluriformity of the church because nowhere in the Bible do we find that idea (as espoused by Abraham Kuyper). There are Presbyterian churches which interpret the Westminster Confession (WC) that way because it speaks of churches as being “more or less pure”, makes a distinction between the visible and the invisible church, and says the latter consists of all the elect. Hence the PCEA, for example, allowed non-PCEA ministers into their pulpits and non-PCEA believers to attend their Lord’s Supper. It’s not what we confess in our Three Forms of Unity.
We’ve also seen a number of our members leave the FRCA; it’s as if it’s no big deal to them to do so. And it isn’t, if one embraces the pluriformity of the church. They attend other churches as though it is not a serious matter to turn away from Christ’s church because, in line with pluriformity of the church, they see these other churches as also being Christ’s church—the one merely somewhat purer than the other.
Such pluriformity also devalues church discipline. When churches apply the “rule of Matthew 18”, and the person under discipline refuses to repent, s/he is either excommunicated or, more likely, departs before the final step. Whilst Scripture treats it very seriously and says the person has no part in the kingdom of God, those who embrace pluriformity of the church see such discipline as no big deal. And one wonders to what extent FRCA members share that notion when we see how those who have turned their back to Christ’s church are welcomed into the committees of our organisations that purport to promote the kingdom of God, and to participate in festivities of FRCA members. Many of our members fail to see the seriousness of what the withdrawn person has done. After all, “aren’t they still Christians”?
Moreover, pluriformity smothers the call (BCF 28) for “all and everyone” to “join and unite” with the true church and leads to young people finding it quite acceptable to find a marriage partner in another church—be it evangelical, Pentecostal, Baptist, Anglican, etc.
We are so wonderfully, indeed awesomely and undeservedly privileged to belong to Christ’s (true) church, a church called to reform itself continually according to God’s Word through the weekly proclamation of that Word and through teaching at catechism and school, Bible study, reformed media, mutual discipline, etc. Hereby God manifests His kingdom as the church members, nurtured by the Word and Spirit, more and more exhibit love and submission to Him in all they do.
We are inexpressively fortunate to belong to that one history-long church from Genesis to Revelation, the church which God brought out of Egypt to be His special people, and which was cared for by Christ, the spiritual Rock that accompanied them. The psalmists sang their praises of the church (e.g. Psalms 48 and 122) and, while in exile, said “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps. 137). Paul calls her “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). It is the one flock of the Good Shepherd, for which He gave His life and which He gathers, defends and preserves through the ages (LD 21), notwithstanding the constant attacks of satan (Gen. 3:15 & Rev. 12). Daily we may rejoice in the incomparably great privilege of being a living member of that church which Christ has purchased with His blood and declared to be His bride forever (Hos. 2, Eph. 5, Rev. 21).