That every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is in duty bound to belong to the organized church is ‘beyond dispute. However, the visible church is divided into a great many parts known as denominations, and some parts are so independent of all others as to call themselves undenominational. Thus the question arises in which one should hold membership.
Many Christians regard that question as quite insignificant. More than a few never give it a thought and just naturally drift along in the church to which their parents belong or belonged and in which they themselves may have been baptized in infancy. Others deem this a matter of personal taste concerning which there is no disputing. If one likes ritual, perhaps he should be an Episcopalian. If one is emotionally inclined, let him be a Methodist. If one is so eccentric as to take an interest in doctrine, he may feel at home in a Calvinistic church. Often this matter is put on the basis of mere convenience. If one lives a mile from a Presbyterian church but there is a Lutheran church just around the corner, that settles the question in favor of the latter. Not infrequently newcomers in a community will unite with one church rather than another because its members are “so friendly.” And in these days when church union is all the vogue, we are told that the matters on which churches agree are so incomparably more significant than the points on which they differ that, instead of choosing among them, every Christian should bend his efforts toward getting them merged.
Instead of being unimportant, the question in which church one should hold membership is of very great moment. And instead of being simple, that question has angles so difficult that the ablest theologians are still grappling with them. Because of its importance this matter must be considered. And in spite of its difficulties a number of assertions can be made which permit of no doubt.
One Must Choose a True Church
It is commonly assumed that every group of persons which calls itself a church is a church in fact. But that notion is exceedingly far removed from the truth. Some churches so-called are not at all churches in the Christian sense of that term. Not nearly all self-styled Christian churches have a right to their name. There are false churches as well as true.
False churches are of two kinds. There are those which once were true churches but by Scriptural standards have become so thoroughly corrupted as to forfeit their claim to Christianity. And there are those which by the same standards never have been Christian churches and are not now. Following are a few examples of each.
Undoubtedly the institution which today is known as the Roman Catholic Church was once upon a time a true church of Christ. In a real sense it is a historic continuation of the apostolic church. But in course of time it departed so far from apostolic doctrine and practice that the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century did not hesitate to denounce it as “the mother of harlots” and “a synagogue of Satan.” Calvin expressed himself both cautiously and courageously on that church when he concluded his
Comparison between the False Church and the True with the words: “Therefore, while we are unwilling to concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them…I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the Church still remain….But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, II, 12). By this time several Protestant denominations, some of them erstwhile bulwarks of orthodoxy, have fallen under the spell of Modernism and are under Modernist control. It seems to be little understood but is obviously true that on many cardinal points of doctrine Modernism is farther removed from Christianity than is Roman Catholicism. Rome boasts of an infallible church alongside of an infallible Bible; Modernism denies the infallibility, not only of the church, but also of the Bible. Rome teaches salvation by the atoning work of Christ supplemented by human merit; Modernism teaches salvation by human merit alone. Rome upholds the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Deity of Christ; Modernism has relegated both of these basic truths in their historic interpretation to the scrap-heap of speculative scholasticism. It is as clear as broad daylight that a church which wittingly and willingly harbors Modernism thereby forfeits every just claim to the Christian name. It is no less clear that the faithful in such a church may not leave a stone unturned in their efforts to banish unbelief from its midst and, in case their concerted efforts prove futile, are in sacred duty bound to heed the Scriptural command: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (II Cor. 6:14–18).
Those self-styled churches that are not churches and never were fall into two distinct categories. Some are neither Christian nor churches; others are Christian but not churches. The for mer are unquestionably false churches, and, if it seems harsh thus to classify the latter, it must certainly be insisted that they are churches falsely so called.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints, better known as Mormon, the Christian Science Church, and the Unitarian Church are obvious examples of the first type. By Scriptural standards they are utterly undeserving of the Christian name and therefore do not qualify as Christian churches.
But there are also religious organizations which profess Christianity and in the main adhere to it and yet are not justified in denominating themselves churches. A more precise name for them would be sects. At this point a serious problem arises. To distinguish between a church and a sect is not in every instance easy. Sometimes it is difficult indeed. It is hardly to the credit of the Reformed churches that they have often dodged this issue and sometimes befuddled it by unwarranted appeal to the indubitable fact of the pluriformity or multiformity of the Christian church. Repeatedly they have chosen the path of least resistance by recognizing, if not at once yet eventually, as a Christian church almost any group adhering to the fundamental teachings of the Christian religion and proclaiming itself to be a church. That brilliant, though at times somewhat erratic, Dutch theologian, the late Klaas Schilder, saw the weakness of that position and protested against it, but even he did not claim to have said the last word on the distinction between a church and a sect. However, we are not completely at sea on this matter. It can safely be said that, when a group of persons, loyal to Christian truth on the whole, goes off on some heretical or fanatical tangent and in consequence becomes separated from a true church, the organization of that group for religious purposes is not a church but a sect. That means, for a concrete example, that at best the Seventh Day Adventists rate as a sect, not as a church. It also means that a communion which makes premillennial doctrine or total abstinence from alcoholic beverages its reason for separate denominational existence is a mere sect. And it becomes a bit difficult to controvert the position taken by some Reformed scholars, that the Baptist and Methodist churches so-called are in reality no more than sects.
The subject that was touched upon deserves more careful study than it has thus far received. But even now it is clear that the believer must exercise great caution in the choice of a church. He should make very sure that the church with which he unites is a true church of Jesus Christ. By all means let him beware of a church which has degenerated into a synagogue of Satan. Let him be exceedingly careful to avoid alliance with a sect that. is hostile to Christianity. And let him take no chances even on a Christian organization concerning which there is any reasonable doubt whether it is a church or a mere sect.
One Must Choose the Purest Church Available
When a believer has learned to distinguish between true churches and false and has decided to cast his lot with the former, his search for the church with which he must unite is not yet ended. Hardly any Protestant will dare to assert that there exists but one organization on earth, or for that matter in a given country, which is the true church of Jesus Christ. Schilder did not take that position. When this writer once asked him whether he held that there is but one true church in a nation, he replied: “There should be.” To say that something should be is quite different from affirming that it is. And so, when the believer has rejected false churches and has chosen for the true church of Christ, he must still make up his mind which manifestation of the true church to join.
There is no such thing on earth as a perfectly pure church. Time and again men have attempted to establish such a church, but every attempt has ended in dismal failure. No wonder. A pure church presupposes human beings that are omniscient and perfectly holy. Only perfect members can constitute a perfect church, and only omniscient members can bar the imperfect from membership. But the very best Christians are exceedingly far from being either perfect or omniscient.
It does not follow that it is an indifferent matter which true church one chooses. No one has a right to say: “Even the best church is imperfect, and the difference between the best and the worst is only one of degree; so what matters it to which I belong?” Contrariwise, it is the Christian’s solemn duty to strive for perfection in every aspect of his life, his church membership included. And so the conclusion is warranted that he must choose the purest church available.
In this world of time and space availability is a factor that cannot be ignored altogether. Let us assume, for an extreme instance, that I am convinced that the purest church on earth is in South Africa or Australia. Even in this age of jet propulsion it is hardly feasible for me to be an active member of a church at so great a distance. So I shall have to get along with a true but somewhat less pure church nearer to my residence.
Of greater moment are the marks of the true church. While every true church of necessity possesses these marks, true churches manifest them in different degrees. They are the sound preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of ecclesiastical discipline. The first of these is basic to the other two, for the church which is loyal to Holy Writ in its preaching is likely to be loyal to it also in the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of discipline, whereas the church which departs from the Scriptures in its preaching is sure to depart from them also in the matters of the sacraments and discipline. The purity of a church, then, is commensurate with its faithfulness to the Word of God. The more Scriptural a church is in all its activities, the purer it is.
That the churches of the Reformed type, whatever their individual names may be, answer that description more precisely than do any other churches is a demonstrable fact. The distinctive· ness of the Reformed faith consists in its Scripturalness. Of all Christian theologies it comes nearest to embodying the whole counsel of God as revealed in the Bible. That claim is confirmed by the following examples.
It may be asserted without a moment’s hesitation that the Bible is theocentric. That could hardly be otherwise, for it is God’s self-revelation. But is not the Reformed theology more theocentric than the Lutheran theology? That holds, for instance, of their respective soteriologies. Calvinism upholds the Scriptural teaching of salvation by the grace of God more consistently than does Lutheranism. The five points of Calvinism, which are nothing else than an uncompromising statement of that teaching, do not meet with the unqualified approval of Lutheran churches. For another example, that preacher was badly mistaken who asserted that of the two Scriptural truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, Calvinists hold the former, Arminians the latter. Fact is that, while Arminianism clearly stresses man’s responsibility at the expense of God’s sovereignty, Calvinism firmly refuses to do the reverse. Nor is that the whole story. Calvinism stresses human responsibility not less strong-Iy, but more strongly, than does Arminianism. The Reformed theology insists on perfect obedience to the law of God, but Arminian teaching is satisfied with what it calls evangelical obedience, which is something less exacting. What else could be expected? Is not human responsibility a corollary of divine sovereignty? Man is responsible to God precisely because God is sovereign. By all the rules of sound logic, the more one stresses the sovereignty of God, the more will one stress the responsibility of man. For one more example, the Reformed faith is more Scriptural than is the Baptist faith, for the former recognizes the pervasive teaching of Scripture that the children of believers are in the covenant of grace, while the latter is blind to that truth.
If the Word of God may be represented by a target with the usual bull’s eye surrounded by concentric circles, and the various Christian churches so-called may be likened to archers aiming at that target, then it may be affirmed that only those churches which adhere consistently to the Reformed faith hit the bull’s eye. To claim that they hit it at its very center would be going too far, for the Reformed faith as we know it cannot escape the limitations of being a human interpretation of the Word of God. Therefore the very best Reformed creeds may never be identified with Holy Scripture. Yet they are pre-eminently Scriptural.
All of which amounts to saying that the Reformed faith represents Christian truth at its best and that a truly Reformed church is the Christian church at its purest.