The following excerpt is from chapter 3 of The Beautiful Bride of Christ: The Doctrine of the Church in the Belgic Confession — you can order it here as a paperback and here as an e-book. All proceeds go to the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.
Have you been to the doctor lately? If you have, you can be thankful for the sound training that today’s medical professionals have received. Back in the early 1900s, things were a lot different. Medical schools were more motivated by money than by anything else. Men could become doctors after only studying for two years. A report from the Carnegie Foundation in 1910 changed all this and led to improved health care in the United States and Canada and many parts of the world. A crucial recommendation of this report had to do with medical school and the order of classes. There were to be at least four years of training. The first year would involve learning what a healthy human being looks like from the inside out. The second year would focus on pathology – the study of what’s abnormal, the study of disease. Today apparently many med schools still follow this basic structure. First you learn what is normal and healthy, and then you learn about what is abnormal and unhealthy.
The Belgic Confession applies the same method in article 29. Here we’re considering Christ’s church and where to find her. If the church is so important and necessary (as we discovered in the last chapter), then it’s crucial that we have some criteria to find where she is. It’s critical that we have some tools in place to discern what is a church of Christ and what isn’t. Faithfully summarizing the teaching of Scripture, the Confession gives us those tools. We learn about how to recognize the real thing and also how to detect counterfeits.
Confession from a Completely Different Era?
Let’s get something out of the way right at the very beginning. There are those who say that the Belgic Confession was written a long time ago when things were very different. They say that back in the days of Guido de Brès (the 1560s), things were simple. There were Reformed churches and there was the Roman Catholic Church. The difference was clear-cut. There was the true church and the false church and nobody could get them confused. It was black and white. But that was over 450 years ago now. Today things are much different, they say. Today we have so many other churches around us and it’s not always easy to discern. Article 29 is not all that helpful anymore in our situation, they say.
There is a sliver of truth in this, but it’s really a gross oversimplification. The historical reality is that Guido de Brès and the Reformed churches of his day were surrounded by far more than the Roman Catholic Church. Though there were not many, there were Lutheran churches in the Netherlands in the days the Belgic Confession was written. Guido de Brès even made efforts to unite with them. He was involved in high-level ecclesiastical and political discussions to bring the Reformed and Lutherans of this region together in a strategic merger. Then there were also the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were not a united group. There was not a single Anabaptist Church. Eventually the Mennonites came to be the dominant group, but in the days of the Confession there were dozens of Anabaptist groups. De Brès wrote a huge book of over 900 pages about the Anabaptists and he mentions many of them. He recognized that there was diversity among the Anabaptists. Some of them were the equivalent of today’s Pentecostals – they claimed to receive direct revelations from God. Others were closer to today’s Baptists. Some had little respect for the Word of God, others regarded Scripture as infallible truth. Among some Anabaptists you could hear the genuine preaching of the gospel, among others you would hear mostly moralism or maybe good advice. Some denied the Trinity and were outright heretics, others were comparatively orthodox on many points of Christian doctrine. The point is you cannot say that the ecclesiastical situation in Guido de Brès’ day was one of simply Rome versus the Reformed. It wasn’t like that. Yes, as I said, there is a sliver of truth here. The sliver is that today there is an even greater diversity in the number of those claiming to be churches of Jesus Christ. But to deny that there was any diversity in the sixteenth century is simply wrong. Thus I think you can agree that article 29 has not lost its relevance – it speaks out of a situation where there was diversity and it still speaks to our situation where the same kind of diversity still exists, but only now to a greater degree. This can be, and still is, the confession of Reformed churches for today.
How to Recognize the Real Thing
Now if we confess that the Bible teaches that the church is necessary, how can we discern what a true church of Christ looks like? For us maybe this isn’t such a pressing question. After all, I imagine that almost every reader would be a member of a church somewhere. But it can be helpful to approach this question with some self-examination in mind. It’s good that we think about this not to boast about what a good true church we are, but to examine our church and see how we’re doing in this regard. Can your local church credibly claim to be a true church of Jesus Christ? That’s not a question we can take for granted. One might reason: I’m a member of that church, therefore it is a true church. In logic we call that a non sequitur. It’s a fallacy. A non sequitur is an argument where the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Just because you are a member of this or that church, it does not automatically follow that it is a true church. Don’t you want to be confident that you are in a true church of Jesus Christ? We therefore need to learn the skill of discernment.
Furthermore, it’s also good to reflect on this because we may find ourselves in a situation where we need to find a true church in a given place. Perhaps your education or work will take you to some far off city where you don’t know anyone and you don’t know where to find a church at first. Then you need to have the skills in place to discern where you can find a church of Jesus Christ where you can either visit or, if it’s a long-term situation, become a member.
What is the most important thing in a church? The Belgic Confession puts “the pure preaching of the gospel” at the front of the list of the marks of a true church. When John Calvin and other theologians of the Reformation wrote about the marks, they always put this one first too. It’s not a random choice, as if this could be listed third and it wouldn’t make a difference. It was put first on purpose. It’s first because it’s the most important.
That reflects a biblical approach. That’s the approach of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1. Paul had preached the gospel of grace among the Galatians. But then others came along and preached something different and they gained traction among the Galatian churches. Paul was amazed at how quickly the Galatians bought into this perversion of the gospel. Then he says in verse 8 of Galatians 1, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” In other words, may God damn the person to hell who preaches something other than Paul’s gospel. Those are harsh words! But the harshness underlines the seriousness of what is at stake here. We can then ask the question: how can a church be true to Christ if it tolerates a situation where Christ’s gospel is not preached?