Back only a few years ago you could open up the Yellow Pages and find all the churches within your given area. Now you can open up Google Maps and find all the churches in your city. If you are “church shopping” you have a plethora of choices within any populated place in the United States. The problem arises when you happen to be discerning about which church to attend. We live in a situation when any group of people can open its doors to the public, and can call itself a “church.” But are all churches the same, and does it matter which one you should attach yourself to? Quick answers: are all churches the same? No; Does it matter which one you attend, Yes.

Back in the time of the Reformation in Europe (mid 1500s) the choices were very limited: The Church of Rome, Protestants (Reformed and Lutheran), or Anabaptists. Granted there were differences in all three groups, but if you were a Protestant walking around a city it was easy to figure out which church to attend. As long as the church wasn’t Roman or Anabaptist, you were in all likelihood okay! Since that time the Protestant Tradition has splintered into thousands and thousands of denominations, and the Anabaptist and Roman churches are still around as well, which makes our discernment much more difficult.

One of the ways that the Reformed tradition has talked about this discernment is to use the category of true/false churches or the later Reformed categories of pure/less pure. The Belgic Confession uses the former language in Article 29 when it gives the “three marks of a true church.” If a church bears these three marks, then it can be considered a “true church.” In today’s world these marks need to be explored in greater depth as to their proper meaning because the distinction isn’t as black and white as it was at the time of the confession’s writing in 1561.

I hope to, in the next week or so, explore these three marks of a true church and how a URC church plant in Gig Harbor would seek to bear faithfully those three marks. There is more in Article 29 than just these “three marks of a true church,” which I hope to also talk about in our discussion. If you have any questions and would like to get the conversation started, then please leave a comment!

To lay the groundwork here are the “three marks”: 1) the pure preaching of the Holy Gospel, 2) the pure administration of the Sacraments, and 3) the exercise of church discipline. Stay tuned as we flesh out these marks.

Finally, here is the text of Article 29 of The Belgic Confession:

We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church– for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.
But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.