The protestant Reformation presented people with many serious issues. We have looked at the chief questions: (1.) What is the right way of salvation, and (2.) What is the right way to worship God? There was yet another query which follows upon the heels of these questions: Which is the true church? 
Both Rome and Protestants claimed to be the true church, each denouncing the other as a false church. Additionally, there were Anabaptists and other sects which condemned both Rome and Protestant congregations as false churches. Today, the problem is exacerbated by a myriad of religious assemblies, all claiming the title of Christ's church. How should a man sift through these conflicting claims? How can he know which church he should join?
The reformers were sensitive to this dilemma, and the creedal formulations of Protestants addressed the issue in a strongly pastoral manner. The creeds hearken back to those basic issues we have already examined: the way of worship, and the way of salvation. From scripture, the reformers concluded that we should look for three basic marks to identify the true church: (1.) the preaching of the gospel, (2.) the proper administration of the sacraments, (3.) the right exercise of church discipline. Where these three marks are clearly present, we may rest assured we have found the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a most practical manner, these marks provide the believer with a measure by which to evaluate a local congregation before joining it. If the marks are conspicuous, we may join with a clear conscience, knowing it to be a genuine Christian congregation. If these three marks are not plainly manifest, we should look elsewhere; we are not obligated to join an assembly which does not exhibit the marks of a true church.
Further, if it is obvious that the opposite marks are present such as a false gospel, corruption of the sacraments and worship, and gross abuse or neglect of church discipline then it is our duty to avoid such an assembly and admonish others to do likewise. Such openly corrupt assemblies are synagogues of Satan.
It is not our purpose to enter into a detailed discussion of each of the individual marks. As a summary, we note the following facts.
"Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). If a religious assembly has not the gospel of Christ, it is not worthy to be called a church. Without the gospel, there can be no true Christians; without true Christians, there can be no real church.
The administration of the sacraments is an indicator of a congregation's practices in wor ship. If an assembly substitutes man-made forms of worship in place of the sacraments, it is not worthy to be regarded as a true church. And when a congregation adopts a multitude of humanly -devised "aids to worship," as supplements to the biblical ordinances, the leaven of idolatry is already present. Christians must avoid corrupt worship, "for what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?" (2 Cor. 6:16).
Church discipline is designed to maintain the glory of God and preserve the health of the church. If a person makes a profession of faith, but exhibits a life of moral corruption, men regard his profession as hypocrisy. Similarly, if an assembly claims the title of a church, while tolerating notorious heresies and scandals in its midst, it has degenerated so as to become no church of Christ, but a "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9; 3:9).
We stress that the marks of the church are used to answer a question about the legitimacy of religious assemblies in their collective capacity. Does the congregation corporately bear the character of a genuine church of Christ? The failure of a congregation jointly to measure up to these standards does not, in itself, consign every individual there to flames of perdition.
Having said that, we must assert the obligation of every Christian to seek out a true congregation. Believers are admonished not to forsake "the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is" (Heb. 10:25). The Reformers took this duty seriously, noting "that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true church, for this title has been much abused." "It is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the church, and to join themselves to this congregation [the true church], wheresoever God hath established it. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God."
It is the office of every believer to discern between true and false shepherds. Christ "putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:4-5). Since the preaching of an assembly reveals its doctrine of the gospel, the believer must evaluate the teaching ministry of the congregation. Is this church faithfully proclaiming the word of Christ? The discernment of the believer is tested in this regard, and by his decision respecting church membership. Will he follow the voice of Christ, or will he entertain the voice of a stranger by joining a corrupt church?
These principles have great relevance to the present interaction between Protestants, evangelicals, and Roman Catholics. Yet the imperative nature of proper church membership is studiously avoided in contemporary literature on inter-denominational relations. We contend that a proper approach to church membership is mandatory for those who are faithful to the Lord and his word. The marks of a true church will dictate two crucial matters: (1.) what church we will join; (2) and whether we should recognize a particular communion as a legitimate church and account its membership outwardly as brethren in the Lord.
Having considered the marks of a true church, in light of our earlier examination of the gospel and true worship, we must conclude that Roman Catholicism is a false church. At the Council of Trent, Rome officially repudiated the biblical doctrine of justification, institutionally cutting itself off from the true gospel. The popish corruption of the gospel and the sacraments, and Rome's blatant practices of idolatry, openly display its character as a synagogue of Satan. There obviously is no biblical discipline, because the heresies and corruptions of Rome go unchecked, while anathemas are hurled against those who profess the scriptural gospel.
One recent writer, William Webster, makes an appeal to Roman Catholics to "come out from among them and be separate" (2 Cor. 6:17). "Why do I say that?" he asks. "Am I being impolitic in this counsel, especially when many evangelicals are saying we should not call upon Catholics to leave their communion?" He goes on to say, "The issues that separate Protestants and Roman Catholics are not minor. They are major. They have to do with the eternal destinies of men and women." These comments speak volumes at a time when many evangelical churchmen have lost sight of the pastoral urgency of calling men to repentance.
But again, we must not stop with Rome. As we have seen, many modern evangelical churches have embraced the false gospel of decisionalism and adopted man-made worship. Moreover, great heresies and scandals remain unremedied within evangelical congregations; because church discipline is so unpopular among the people, it is generally avoided. In short, if the marks of the church are telling against Rome, they are equally telling against evangelicalism.
In a recent evangelical book on Roman Catholicism, Donald Bloesch flatly denies the historic distinction between true and false churches. Another author in the same book, Michael Horton, makes a passing reference to the marks of the church (leaving out the third mark on discipline), stating that Rome is "not a true visible church." Later in the same essay, Horton criticizes evangelicals for Pelagian evangelism: "Entire denominations that were committed confessionally to the doctrine of justification [by grace alone through faith alone] have ended up adopting, in actual practice, a Pelagian message. When evangelicals deny human depravity and inability, affirm that human beings cooperate in their own conversion by the use of their free will, and view salvation as a project of moral improvement (especially when that affirms a notion of entire sanctification), they are further afield from the gospel than Rome has ever been." One might expect the author to state the implications of his observations, and discuss the marks of the church as they relate to evangelicals. But the essay comes to an abrupt halt, without following through on such important ramifications.
Earlier in the same book, Robert Godfrey correctly summarizes John Calvin's analysis of the chief disputes between Rome and the Protestants: namely the conflicts respecting the gospel and true worship. After his historical overview, Godfrey asks, "Were Calvin to evaluate Rome today what would he conclude?" He rightly answers that Calvin "would surely conclude that Rome is worse off today than it was in the sixteenth century." Godfrey then reminds us of Rome's "syncretistic" worship, doctrine of justification that "still rests on human cooperation," and administration of the sacraments "in an idolatrous and magical manner."
Curiously, Godfrey adds, "Calvin would no doubt equally lament the sad state of much of Protestantism today." Considering that Godfrey's essay is included in a book styling its authors as "evangelical Protestants," his definition of Protestantism must include the evangelicals of our time. So why does Godfrey let evangelicals off with only a mild critique, in comparison to his pointed criticisms of Rome? Surely what is good for the Popish goose should be good for the evangelical gander. Why not apply the same historic measures to both Rome and evangelicalism?
One suspects that contemporary evangelical writers are reticent to press the issue more forcefully because of the embarrassing implications. A due regard for the marks of the church would not only unchurch Rome, but a major part of modern evangelicalism. That prospect is so startling, that even the most conservative and "reformed" theologians in our day cannot bring themselves to consider the idea.
Horton speaks with hope of a new reformation within Protestantism. But if there is to be a new reformation, we need to come clean on the depth of the problem among evangelicals, and summon them to repent, believe the true gospel, and depart from their idols in worship. (Anything less is simply beating around the bush.) And until evangelicals bring forth such fruits meet for repentance, historic Protestants will have no choice but to regard the bulk of evangelical churches as no more legitimate than Rome. Once again, we see that evangelicals and Roman Catholics together are making shipwreck of the faith.
Footnotes for Chapter 4
1. In the following discussion, our comments are narrowly focused upon the identity of the true church in an institutional sense. Because the believer's connection to the institutional church comes within the context of the local congregation, that is the focal point of our inquiry.
In an enlarged discussion of related themes, we could explore the differences between the visible church and the invisible church. The scriptures clearly make a distinction between the universal church of all ages, the elect "the heavenly Jerusalem the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven" (Heb. 12:22-23) and the local congregations which are composed of those in outward communion with the assemblies of Christ. Thus, the historic Protestant creeds distinguish between the visible church and the invisible church (cf. Westminster Confession (1646), chapter 25; the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), chapters 16 and 18). Obviously our discussion pertains mainly to the visible church, regarding its proper identification: that is, how it may be discerned among local congregations.
2. The marks of the church are treated in The Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556), the French Confession of Faith (1559), articles 26-28; the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), chapters 16 and 18, and the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), articles 27-29; Second Helvetic Confession (1566), chapter 17.
3. The Westminster Confession elaborates on the doctrine of the church when it says, "The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan" (25:5).This statement does not purport to tell us how we may "rate" churches in a dubious condition, nor does the Confession commend believers to "less pure" churches which have not yet fully degenerated into synagogues of Satan. Rather, the Westminster Confession lets stand the previous creedal doctrine that calls upon men to seek out a true church one clearly discerned by the right marks.
These comments would seem to be unnecessary, were it not for modern Presbyterians who have sought to pit the Westminster Confession against the previous Protestant creeds, in order to lessen the role of the marks of the church. It should be noted that it was the Church of Scotland which ratified the Westminster Standards, giving the standards their ecclesiastical approval. Yet nowhere in the acts of ratification did the Scottish church repudiate its former creedal testimony. It is worth noting that the Scottish General Assembly had previously ratified (among others) all each of the following creeds: The Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva, the French Confession, and the Scottish Confession of 1560; and all of these creeds affirm the marks of the true church.
4.. French Confession of Faith (1559), article 27. The Belgic Confession (1561) says, "We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all the sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church" (article 29). The Scottish Confession says, "Because that Satan from the beginning has laboured to deck his pestilent synagogue with the title of the kirk of God, and has inflamed the hearts of cruel murderers to persecute, trouble, and molest the true kirk and members thereof it is a thing most requisite that the true kirk be discerned from the filthy synagogue, by clear and perfect notes, lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace to our own condemnation the one for the other" (chapter 18).
5. Belgic Confession, article 28. In some cases, there may not be a preexisting true congregation near a believer's home. Still, the imperative to separate from false churches remains. In such irregular circumstances, where there is not an acceptable preexisting church, the believerwould be encouraged to help form one or, perhaps, move to a location near a true congregation. During the Reformation, Protestants formed numerous "house churches" sometimes called privy congregations, and often held "underground" meetings. (See Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 17.)
The present author has discussed ecclesiastical polity in more detail elsewhere. See: Kevin Reed, Biblical Church Government (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1983, 1994 expanded edition); also, Presbyterian Government in Extraordinary Times (Dallas: privately published [loose-leaf], 1993).
6. "Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as 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. We hold, then that all who take part in these acts, and commune in that church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ." (French Confession, article 28) "As for the false church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in his word, but adds to and takes from them, as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those, who live holily according to the word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry" (Belgic Confession, article 29). The Confession of the English Congregation speaks of "idolaters and heretics, as Papists, Anabaptists, with suchlike limbs of Antichrist." Status: RO
7. William Webster, "Did I Really Leave the Holy Catholic Church?" in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (edited by John Armstrong; Chicago: Moody Press 1994), p. 286, 288. Webster adds: "I believe that a Roman Catholic who is sincerely committed to following truth will eventually leave the Roman Catholic Church, realizing as the Reformers taught that it is not the historic, biblical, holy, catholic church" (p. 286).
8. "It has been fashionable in evangelical Protestantism to regard the Reformation church as the true church of Christ and the Roman Catholic church as a false church. A more biblical stance is to see one holy and apostolic church irremediably fractured by the Reformation." Donald Bloesch, "Is Spirituality Enough?" in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (edited by John Armstrong; Chicago: Moody Press 1994), p. 152.
9. Michael Horton, "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (edited by John Armstrong; Chicago: Moody Press 1994), p. 247; 258.
10. Michael Horton, "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" p. 263.
11. W. Robert Godfrey, "What Really Caused the Great Divide?" in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (edited by John Armstrong; Chicago: Moody Press 1994), p. 79.
12. Michael Horton, "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" p. 264.
Copyright ©1995 by Kevin Reed