What makes you a church of Jesus Christ?
Christ and His church
We believe in Christ as our Savior and the Head of His Church. We also believe a holy catholic Christian Church, the communion of saints. However, we do not believe in the church itself but in Christ. This means we do not place our trust in the church but only in Christ. He gathers His church and He desires us to follow His calling to be gathered. He calls and demands that we assemble at the place where He calls.
The church does not belong to us but to Christ. The purpose of the church is not primarily for our salvation but for the glory of God. That is why it is stated in Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism: ‘Christ gathers a Church for Himself.’ He is the Builder, He is the Head, He is the Shepherd, and He is the Bridegroom.
Characteristics of the true church
We are called to places where He is truly and spiritually served; in other words: where His Word and Spirit reign. To put it in another way, we are called where the true church meets the scriptural criteria, the marks of the church.
Unfortunately, it is necessary and of utmost importance that we distinguish the true church from other churches that cannot be called the true church. This means that in these other churches, Christ does not gather His church together.
In Article 29 of the Belgic Confession (BC), we are first instructed to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what and where the true church is. There the confession points to the marks of the true church, which include the following:
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.
Our confession then adds: 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.
Every sincere believer is thus called to conduct this very careful and diligent examination, whether they are a member of the church or not.
Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda
Even the members of a church, which in the past may have been joyfully established as meeting the marks and therefore considered to be the true church of Christ, must continuously examine the church. We will always need to determine anew if the church has remained faithful to God’s Word. Errors can creep in, unsound tolerance may arise. In such cases, warnings need to be sounded. This includes raising objections in the church-orderly way.
Church history teaches us that reformation remains necessary, time and again. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda: The Reformed church must always be reformed. When it comes to fundamental matters, where the marks are at stake, and objections are rejected, ultimately there must be a separation and liberation in order to continue the true church. In the Netherlands, this happened in 1944 and 2003.
Legitimacy and catholicity
There is another aspect to being the true church: we must also consider other churches. The Head of the church desires unity with all those who truly love God and show it in their church attendance. After all, the church is a holy catholic Christian church. Catholic means being united in truth with a unity with heart and soul. A church is not a true church but a schismatic, illegitimate church if it unjustly separates from an existing true church and then establishes a new church alongside it. According to Article 29 BC, it becomes a sect.
It can also happen that after a rightful separation, a new church is established alongside an existing local true church or true church federation. Whether such a church or church federation exists must be assessed immediately after a separation or liberation. If such a true church indeed exists according to the marks of Article 29 BC, we must join or unite with it. Then we are obedient to Christ and participate in His ongoing dynamic work of gathering His church.
If we establish a church alongside an existing true church, we are also acting in opposition to Christ. This is illegitimate and schismatic. In that case, too, according to Article 29 BC, we are a sect. Instead, we should join an existing church or remain connected to it. This is the reason why members of the liberated reformed churches in the Netherlands, after emigration to Canada in the previous century, were first advised to connect with the existing churches in Canada. When it was found that these churches could not be considered true churches due to deviations in doctrine, the CanRCs (Canadian Reformed Churches) were established.
(to be continued)
This is the first of a four-part of a speech Rev. S. de Marie held in Abbotsford, Canada, in October 2023.