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Have you ever seen counterfeit money? It looks like a real dollar bill, but under scrutiny some of a genuine bill’s built-in security features, like a special watermark, are missing. Despite appearances, the counterfeit bill is worthless.

When you join a church community, it’s important to distinguish true churches from false ones. Many cults and extreme sects have the appearance of a church but are merely counterfeit churches peddling a counterfeit gospel that harms people rather than heals them.

By a “true” church, though, we do not mean a “perfect” church with no faults or weaknesses. Neither do we mean a church with perfect members. By analogy, a worn-out, creased, and maybe even slightly torn $20 bill is still genuine. A bill’s physical condition is irrelevant to its genuineness.

Neither do we mean only a church that is “Reformed.” For example, $5, $10, and $20 bills are all genuine money but different denominations of money. They share similar characteristics that identify them as genuine money. Similarly, different Christian denominations can all be true churches.

By a true church, therefore, we mean an organized church that genuinely does what Christian churches are supposed to do. We do not evaluate the quality of different churches but their genuineness. So how do we distinguish true from false churches?

The historic Reformed creeds consistently identify three marks of a true church. For example, Article 29 of the Belgic Confession claims that a true church (1) purely preaches the gospel, (2) purely administers the sacraments, and (3) practices church discipline for correcting faults.

When the Belgic Confession was written, its author Guido De Brès had in mind the errors of the 16th-century Anabaptists and Roman Catholics. He probably could not have imagined the immense plurality of Christian denominations that exist today. Hence, in applying these three marks today, we might need to be somewhat generous. It might be too strict, for instance, to interpret “pure preaching” as “Reformed preaching.”

But there are still boundaries. The gospel is framed within the narrative of God’s Holy Scriptures. The sacraments are interpreted and administered within this same biblical framework. Similarly, church discipline is practiced within the guidelines or examples set in Scripture. As the Belgic Confession suggests, a true church strives to govern itself according to God’s Word, not simply according to human whim and fancy.

But why do we use these three marks and not others?

If we see the church’s role as guiding people to grow in their relationship with God and Jesus and in mission to others and the world, then the church must, at the very least, provide sound teaching of that relationship and mission (gospel). It must administer the signs and seals of commitment to that relationship and mission (sacraments), and it must create accountability for pursuing that relationship and mission (discipline). Church discipline is about more than just excommunication. It includes mutual prodding, encouraging, and strengthening, along with holding each other accountable in our faith journeys.

Hence, the Christian Reformed Church restricts who can preach and administer the sacraments. And its accountability structures for individuals through church membership and for local churches through classis and synod are not simply institutional bureaucracy. They serve an important role of keeping the CRC from drifting into a counterfeit gospel.

When you as an individual or a family choose a church community, use these three marks as your baseline criteria, rather than your own preferences. After all, you’re not making just another consumer choice. Rather, it’s a spiritual step in your faith journey, since spiritual growth never happens without a genuine Christian community to sustain and nourish it.

for discussion
  1. Discuss the three marks of the true church: “The gospel is framed within the narrative of God’s Holy Scriptures, the sacraments are interpreted and administered within this biblical framework, and church discipline is practiced within the guidelines set in Scripture.”
  2. What are you questions or concerns regarding these statements?
  3. Do we still practice church discipline? How? And how might we do better?
  4. How are these guidelines a gift to your Christian walk?
  5. Would you use these guidelines to choose a church? Why or why not?

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