This article was written by Rev. David J. Engelsma and published in the March 1, 1982 issue of the Standard Bearer.
The identifying mark of the false church is that she lacks the marks of the true church, i.e., the pure doctrine of holy scripture, a pure administration of the sacraments; and the exercise of church discipline in the correcting of sin. Rich in the incidentals of size, ecclesiastical reputation, earthly influence, religious ritual and busyness, and pomp (which, alas, fascinate many professing Christians in every age); she is destitute of the essentials of the body of Jesus Christ in the world.
Still, she makes something of preaching, sacraments, and discipline. What she makes of them gives her away. She preaches another gospel than the gospel of salvation from sin by grace alone. She corrupts the administration of the sacraments by adding to the sacraments ordained by Christ, both as regards number and ritual; by taking away from the administration elements prescribed by Christ; by administering them to persons whom Christ judges unworthy; and, not least, by corrupting the meaning and truth of the sacraments in her teaching. She perverts the key power of discipline, for not only does she refuse to excommunicate those who live impenitently in grossest disobedience to the Law of God, but she also turns in fury upon those who, in their zeal for holiness, rebuke her for her wicked doctrines and evil practices. In short, she is not founded on, subject to, or upholding the truth of God's word, sacred scripture. Not submitting, thus, to the yoke of Christ, she is not Christ's bride, but a whore.
Since every believer knows the word of God, it is easy for him to know and distinguish the false church from the true church.
It is a mistake to identify one particular institute as the true church in distinction from all others which are then regarded as false. This is the position of Rome. Rome is the true church; all other churches are false. There might seem to be a softening of this hard line today. Rome calls the Protestants "separated brothers." The Second Vatican Council went so far as to refer to Protestant congregations as "Churches or ecclesial communities" and to say that "in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit" ("Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," Chapter II, 15). But Vatican II also insisted that Rome is "the Church," "Mother Church," and made clear that the "separated brothers" (read: "prodigal sons"!) must return to Rome.
With the exception of Luther in his most fiery, and least attractive, moments, the Reformers did not take the position that all churches except one were false. At the time of our Confession, Protestantism had divided into Lutheran churches and Reformed churches. Calvin, Farel, Beza, De Bres, and other Reformed leaders recognized the Lutheran churches as true churches, as well as the Reformed churches (cf. A. D. R. Polman,Onze Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis, III, pp. 351ff.).
Herman Hoeksema warns against a fanatical application of the "true Church-false Church" distinction: "This does not mean that the believer who takes this calling seriously (the calling to join himself to the purest manifestation of the church in the world—D.E.) imagines that no one is saved outside of the particular church in which he has his membership" (Abundant Mercy, p. 78).
The Roman Catholic Church is the false church. This was the intent of the description of the false church in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, along with the Anabaptist sects. In a corresponding article, Article 28, the French Confession of Faith of 1559 expressly names "the papal assemblies," condemning them as "properly speaking. . .no Church," since the pure word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them." It does, however, see "some trace of the Church. . .left in the papacy," so that Roman Baptism is recognized as valid Baptism. (Cf. Calvin, Institutes, IV, II, 11.) The Reformed agree with Luther's judgment of Rome:
. . .it is evident that as the arch-whore of the devil they have abandoned the ancient church and its ancient bridegroom and have not only become apostate and heretical (for that word is too light and too honorable for such a hussy), but Antichrist and 'antigod,' indeed, the last and most shameless bride of the devil, setting herself up even above God (just as her bridegroom in heaven wanted to do)" ("Against Hanswurst," Luther's Works, Vol. 41, p. 205).
Rome preaches another gospel of righteousness by works, wreaks havoc with the sacraments, and is stained red with the blood of countless thousands of Waldensian, Huguenot, Dutch Reformed, and other saints. Although some treacherous Reformed congregations may pray for Rome as was done when the Roman idol came to Chicago not long ago, the souls of the martyred saints under the altar pray against Rome, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" (Rev. 6:10); and we do still pray, with heartfelt sincerity, the petition once found in the Anglican liturgy: "From the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities, good Lord deliver us."
Apostate, modernist Protestant churches are the false church. These are the churches that deny the Godhead of Jesus and the blood-theology of the cross; proclaim humanism and social improvement for a gospel; and, while nourishing in their bosom (and at the holy table of the Lord) every kind of heretic, revolutionary, and scoundrel, bar from their ministry those men who cannot but submit to the commandment of God prohibiting the ordination of women, and harass, persecute, and drive out the godly.
Like the Anabaptist sects at the Reformation, the churches of our day which are founded on spiritual experiences rather than the word of God and which proclaim their "baptism with the Holy Spirit" rather than the cross of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins are the false church.
The marks of the false church become horrifyingly visible in Reformed churches in Europe and in our land. There is the basic denial of the authority of the word of God, holy scripture, not only in practice, but also in official declaration. By virtue of this fact, Jesus Christ is renounced as head of the church and his yoke cast off. Instead of the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached worldly liberation (of females, blacks, the poor, homosexuals, and what not), or universalism, or salvation dependent on man's works and will. Instead of the things which Jesus has commanded are preached the commandments of men, as the rule of a Christian life. Churches profane the sacraments by admitting to them members who maintain doctrines and practices inconsistent with the name of Christians. The powers in the church, an arrogant hierarchy, puffed up by and jealous of their own authority, if unable to excommunicate the pastors and people who rebuke the church for her errors, persecute them with ridicule and various pressures; and govern the church, not according to the word, but by pulling strings and shameful political maneuverings, so that their will is done.
This is not to say that they have become the false church, much less that there are not true churches among them; but it is to say that the apostasy from the word of God in Reformed churches is the deadly serious matter of losing the marks of the true church and becoming the false church.
No one may join the false church for any reason. All those who are in a false church must leave, regardless of the consequences. And for one to leave the true church for a church which apostatizes is not only inexcusable carelessness and folly, but is also contrary to the ordinance of God. From the true church, "no man has a right to separate himself."
Coming May 2019!
Prof. Engelsma's volume 2 of The Belgic Confession commentary.