When Is a Church Not a Church?

An HB Classic

cornish churchI 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 self-glossed 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.

The OPC has produced an excellent report detailing the errors of the Federal Vision movement and there is hope for the same from the PCA study committee, but is that all that can be done? In the case of my own federation, the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) though we have taken a few preliminary steps toward these issues (speaking out at Synod Calgary 2004 against paedocommunion and in favor of the imputation of active obedience) we haven’t addressed the issue thoroughly or comprehensively. We have another Synod this summer and with it another chance to address an issue that calls us to reconsider our commitment to the notion of a “true church” and to reaffirm our ministerial vows to uphold and defend our confession of Scripture, even when it is not easy or perhaps even fashionable to do so.

Note: The URCs at Synod Schereville in the summer of 2007 adopted three points on sola fide and nine points against the Federal Vision. There is an explanation of these nine points here. For an introduction the the FV start here.


This essay first appeared in 2007. Since this piece was originally written and posted, the United Reformed Churches have twice considered and rejected the FV doctrines categorically. The URCs did so by adopting three points on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (at Synod 2007) and Nine Points of Pastoral Advice on the FV. These nine points were reaffirmed by Synod 2010 and the recommendations of a 2009 synodical committee report were adopted at Synod 2010.

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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.

  4. What is meant by the phrase “proper/right administration of the sacraments”?

    The reason I ask this is because I’ve heard Lutherans and the Reformed are confessionally bound to say that each other are not true churches.

    You guys would not say each other are true churches, but I assume you guys would say that each other are Christians. Why is that?

    • Hi Bradley,

      The proper/right administration of the sacraments refers, on the one hand, to the Reformed administration of the sacraments in distinction from Roman Catholicism, which has added 5 false sacraments and corrupted the two sacraments instituted by our Lord via their ex opere view of the sacraments, i.e., that the sacraments do what they signify. Baptism regenerates and cleanses sin more or less automatically (a rough paraphrase of ex opere) and the supper, having been consecrated, becomes the body of Christ (transubstantiation) and is offered as a bloodless, memorial sacrifice at the altar. On the other hand, it also distinguishes the Reformed administration from the Anabaptists, who denied the sacrament of baptism to covenant children.

      I don’t know that the Reformed churches have ever spoken directly to the status of the confessional Lutheran churches. The Reformed theologians who compiled the Harmony of Reformed Confessions included the Lutheran Augsburg Confession and Calvin signed some version of the Augsburg. The Lutherans confess, essentially, that Reformed churches are “sacramentarian” (Zwinglian, memorialist) and “crafty.” The Dutch Reformed churches did say, before Dort and in the Dort church order (1619) that only those who “profess the Reformed religion” are eligible to come to the supper in a Reformed congregation.

      Here are some posts on Reformed-Lutheran relations.

  5. We Lutherans (well, some of us anyway) believe that the Church is where the pure gospel is proclaimed (and people believe it)…and where the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are administered in accordance with the gospel.

    We don’t care who is doing it. If they’re doing it, then the Church is there.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Am I correct in drawing the conclusion that: (1) You would regard a “Reformed Baptist” church as lacking in at least one of the essential marks of a true visible church (namely, the right administration of the sacraments), and thus you would judge Reformed Baptist churches not to be true visible churches? And (2) You would also regard confessional Lutheran churches to be lacking in one essential mark of a true visible church (also the right administration of the sacraments, given their semi-ex opere view of head-for-head baptismal regeneration and their “consubstantiation” understanding of Christ’s presence in the holy supper), and thus you would regard confessional Lutheran churches not to be true visible churches? Help me out here.

    Most of us in the OPC follow Charles Hodge’s position on the validity of even Romish baptism (as opposed to Thornwell’s opposition to its validity and thus his view that those who received Romish baptism must be rebaptized). As long as baptism is performed by a professed Christian clergyman (even if that clergyman be a Romish priest) in the Name of the Trinity, it is regarded as valid, even if irregularly administered or administered within a body otherwise regarded as deficient, unfaithful or even apostate. Thus we don’t rebaptize former Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed Baptists, evangelicals, or others validly baptized in the Name of the Trinity. But if we adopted the view of the marks of the church as you explain them above, shouldn’t we be rebaptizing all kinds of people who come to the Reformed Confession from non-Reformed backgrounds? Anyway, not trying to open a can of worms here; just seeking clarification. (And, yes, I do affirm the three classic marks of the church as understood by the historic Reformed and Presbyterian chuches; I’m just wrestling with how we apply the implications of the marks in contemporary church life.)


    Geoff Willour

    • This is what I’ve always struggled to understand in comparing the WCF to the Belgic Confession. WCF XXV iv,v states:

      “This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.[8] And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.[9]

      V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error;[10] and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.[11] Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.[12]”

      AA Hodge, in his commentary on the WCF, explains that there is more of a continuum of truth and error in the visible church causing some to be “synagogues of satan” and others somewhere in between. I’ve heard other ministers explain that this article means that “of the Reformed/Protestant churches, there is a continuum of truth and error,” and that non-Reformed churches fell automatically into the “synagogue of Satan” camp.

      AA Hodge et al seemed to regard Baptists as brothers and members of the true church.

      In “The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century,” the authors note that the Divines said very little about baptism that made it into the minutes of the assembly. In my view, this means that they basically agreed with the Belgic Confession and the continental Reformers and felt no need to re-hash the issue. Jonathan D. Moore wrote an article in the Westminster Theological Journal in 2007 that gives strong evidence that the Divines believed that the English Baptists – a small but vociferous group at the time – were as false a church as the Anabaptists for neglecting infant baptism.

      Personally, neglecting infant baptism seems to be the same thing as an Old Testament Hebrew failing to circumcise his son on the 8th day. We saw what almost happened to Moses when he neglected the ordinance. Why, spiritually, is it any different for the new covenant ordinance?

      • Hi Walt,

        As I understand the WCF there it is answering the question, in effect, “where was your church before the Reformation?” The answer is that the church has always been but it has not always been pure. The church is but she is not always pure. That which is not the church, is not the church. I don’t think the WCF there is speaking to the same question as the Belgic. The Hodges were in a fairly different setting and both took a rather broader view of things than I’m willing to do or than I think was done in the 16th and 17th centuries. There’s a reasonable, if not airtight, argument that the Westminster divines were not including the Baptists, who were a relatively new group in 1644. They may have been speaking to them when they confessed that it is a sin to “contemn” baptism.

        It’s hard for me to see how the Reformed detested the Anabaptists for denying infant baptism but when the Baptists do the same it’s no big deal.

    • Hi Geoff,

      As I’ve indicated here, it’s difficult for me to see how those who deny baptism to covenant children have the marks of a true church, since they’re essentially committing the same error rejected explicitly by the Anabaptists rejected by the Reformed churches. If denial of infant baptism was a corruption when the Anabaptists did it, why isn’t it so when the Baptists do it? I’m willing to be instructed but the logic seems straightforward. I love my baptist friends and I see Particular Baptist congregations as rebellious congregations.

      As to re-baptizing, no, when Belgic 29 was adopted in the 1560s and 70s and finally in 1619 it did not lead to re-baptizing. The Reformed churches accepted e.g., Roman baptisms as valid but irregular. I’m not aware of the French or German Reformed churches re-baptizing Anabptist or Roman converts. Calvin’s wife, Idellete had once been an Anabaptist and she was not re-baptized.

    • Hi Jeremy,

      I don’t think that because a presbytery and the SJC ruled thus in this case that it overturns the 2007 GA. It does suggest a serious problem with the application of the intent of the GA or a “disconnect” (as they say) between 2007 and presbyteries since. It’s not as if, however, the PCA doesn’t confess the WCF or that it’s doctrine has changed. I would be surprised if there was such a move. That would seem rather precipitous and ill considered.

  7. Dr. Clarke

    Would you consider a Baptist church a true church or a false one failing to fulfil the second ‘note’, since they practice credobaptism.

    Or do you see the note of the truth of the church in it’s administering of (Trinitarian) ‘baptism’ whether to the infant or the confessing adult (notwithstanding the Reformed idea of baptising converted adults).

  8. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for your reply. AA Hodge also thought that “ordinarily no salvation outside the church” meant “the visible church.” IOW, salvation was still found in churches that were more false than true even though they might have met the Belgic Confession’s definition of a false church.

    This seems to be how most NAPARC ministers view things today.

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