When Is A Church Not A Church?

Editor’s Note: this essay first appeared on the HB in 2007. At that point the Federal Vision controversy was still in the process of being adjudicated by the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. In the summer of 2007 both the PCA and the URCs spoke against the Federal Vision. By 2010, the URCs and the OPC had received study committee reports rejecting the Federal Vision theology, i.e., the doctrine that there are two kinds of election, that grace can be resisted and election lost, that baptized persons are, by virtue of their baptism, conditionally elect, regenerated, given faith, union with Christ, and adoption, benefits which must be retained by cooperation with grace. Here is the HB resource page on the Federal Vision.

I was searching for something the other day and ran across chapter 18 of the Scots Confession (1560) which speaks to the “Notes” (from the Latin, nota or “mark” or “indicator”) of the True Kirk (church). I’ll return to the Scots Confession in a moment. Ordinarily, when I think of the “marks of a true church,” I think of Belgic Confession Art. 29 which gives three marks (indicators) of whether a congregation is a true church:

The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.

It is interesting that the Scots Confession chapter 18 uses virtually the same language as the Belgic Confession. Certainly the common language witnesses to a sort of Reformed catholicity of the idea of a “true church.” Sometimes it’s suggested that the idea of a “true church” is a distinctively Dutch Reformed idea (the URCNA is derived from the Dutch Reformed Churches), but the language of Scots Confession chapter 18 refutes such an notion. The structure of chapter 18 is similar to Belgic 29. The concerns are the same. The Scots Confession says, “Since Satan has labored from the beginning to adorn his pestilent synagogue with the title of the Kirk of God….” This is virtually identical to the language of Belgic Art 29. In fact, if anything it’s even more pointed when it appeals to Cain, Ishmael, Esau, and to the priestly authorities who persecuted Christ and the Apostles as examples of the existence of a false church claiming to be a true church.

The Scots continues, and the Belgic did much the same, to insist on the necessity of distinguishing “the true Kirk…from the filthy synagogues by clear and perfect notes….” Like the Belgic (and Dutch and German) Reformed, the Reformed Churches in Scotland confessed that there are true churches that can be known by these marks. There are also false churches that can be known. Our forefathers understood that no one ever says, “Oh, and by the way, we’re a false church. Just so you know.” The false churches always want to be regarded as true churches.

First, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst.

The only significant difference between the Scots and the Belgic is that Scots Confession says “true preaching of the Word” and the Belgic says the “pure doctrine of the gospel.” It seems reasonable to think that they meant the same thing. In context, the pure doctrine of the gospel or the pure preaching of the Word means the preaching and teaching of justification by grace alone, through faith alone [remembering that the nature of faith, in the act of justification, has been clearly defined in Belgic article 22 as “relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone,”] in Christ alone.

The pure administration of the sacraments means the Reformed administration of the sacraments (infant baptism, baptism of unbaptized converts and communion after profession of faith). Read in the light of the Reformed argument with the Anabaptists and Rome, this language was clearly intended to exclude both groups.

Both the Scots and the Belgic have three marks, the the final mark being church discipline. It’s not enough simply for congregations to preach Christ and administer the sacraments purely, if the elders and ministers (consistory or session) do not exercise supervision over the life of the congregation and are themselves not held to account by broader assemblies. These are the principal tasks of Christ’s Church.

In the history of the institutional church, she has often failed to fulfill one or more of these obligations. We should remember this when we start asking our congregations to do other things. It would be great if our churches could fulfill these three marks consistently, let alone any one of the dozen or so additions that people seem to want. At any one time, the chaos we see in evangelicalism and the disorder even in the confessional Reformed churches can be traced to failure to fulfill one or more of these responsibilities and to manifest the marks of a true church.

The degree to which the NPP and the so-called Federal Vision movements have infiltrated our churches is a prime example of our laxity in all three areas. The Federal Visionists wish to be regarded as “Reformed.” Indeed, many who are unfamiliar with the details and history of the controversy take the Rodney King approach: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Well Rodney, there are three reasons: First, the Federal Visionists since 1974 (starting with Norm Shepherd) have been persistently vague or flatly wrong about the doctrine of justification. Further, part of the package for many Federal Visionists has also been a significant revision of our doctrines of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Because they deny the distinction between internal and external modes of communion in the visible church (the covenant of grace), the Federal Vision either assumes or teaches explicitly a doctrine of baptismal union with Christ in which, they say, baptism confers a temporary, conditional, election, union with Christ, justification, and adoption that must be retained by faithfulness (faith and cooperation with grace). Many of them have also argued for infant communion.

How could ministers who are vague, or confusing, or wrong about the gospel, or who contradict our confession regarding the sacraments, gain admission to or continue to serve in Reformed churches? Their admission to or continuance in the ministry is a failure of discipline.

In the case of the FV we have a breakdown of each of the three marks, the gospel (“faith,” even “faith alone,” is defined not as “resting and relying” but as “trusting and obeying”), the sacraments, and discipline. In the first two, the FV movement brings the errors and in the third case, the confessionally Reformed churches have until recently failed to do or say anything about this movement until it was well entrenched.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Excellent Post Dr. Clark. As a Presby I love to see others find the beauty of the Scots Confession.

  2. Thanks for the post, Dr. Clark. I read through the section on the Church in Ursinus’s commentary on the HC and am currently going through the section on the sacraments. This is all very helpful and I really appreciate your help, thanks again.

  3. Excellent piece. You succinctly homed in on the most grievous FV errors in your one paragraph, “Well Rodney, there are three reasons: First, . . .”

    I always thought the Church would be attacked from the outside, not from the inside. However, the cancerous FV movement is metastasizing because the right medication is not being applied. You correctly identified the medicine, church discipline. We should always strive for the purity of the Church while remembering the lesson in Mathew 13:24 ff, especially verse 30, where we are told to let the weeds and wheat grow together because in gathering the weeds, one can root up wheat along with the weeds. In the end, God will separate the weeds from the wheat.

    The PCA, OPC, and other denominations have condemned the FV movement as not in accord with the confessions of the orthodox denominations.

    Thanks for continuing the good fight.

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