When Is a Church Not a Church?

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). Ordinarily, when I think of the “marks of a true church,” I think of Belgic Confession article 29, which provides three marks for 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.”

Interestingly, the Scots Confession uses virtually the same language as the Belgic Confession. Certainly, the common language bears witness to a sort of Reformed catholicity of the idea of a true church. Sometimes it is 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 the Scots Confession chapter 18 refutes such a 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 article 29. In fact, if anything, it is 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 are 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 the 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 final mark being church discipline. It is not enough 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 a failure to fulfill one or more of these responsibilities and to manifest the marks of a true church.

The degree to which the New Perspective on Paul 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 Federal Vision, 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 Federal Vision 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 have not 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 to the Federal Vision, 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 Federal Vision 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.


See the HB FV resource page for a comprehensive collection of ecclesiastical and other reports and actions against the FV.  The issue we are confronting now, relative to the marks of the true church, is the demand for the church to become another political or cultural action committee rather than the church. On the spirituality of the visible church see these resources:

On the marks of the true church:


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