Professor David Engelsma

On November 11, 2016, Professor David Engelsma lectured on the topic “The Necessity of Membership Within a True Church of Jesus Christ.”  A recording of the lecture is provided below along with answers to the questions that were asked by the audience at the lecture.

If you have any additional questions regarding the content of the lecture, please submit them using the contact form below.  You may also request a hard copy of the lecture using the contact form.

In addition to the lecture,  Professor Engelsma has written two books on this topic called Bound to Join and A Defense of the Church Institute published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association.  Links to these books are also provided below.

NEW! Download here the pamphlet which includes the transcribed lecture as well as the question and answer section.

  • Lecture Recording
  • Lecture Q&A
  • Further Reading
  • Contact Form

Questions answered during the lecture:


Written (with some additions by Professor Engelsma):

If a person believes the gospel but is not a member of an instituted church, does this person perish making Christ's death ineffectual

If a person believes the gospel, he will be a member of an instituted church. Of course no one who is a true believer in Jesus Christ will perish. The point of the necessity of the membership in a true church is that faith is worked by God in a church. Or, if one is converted on the mission field, he is saved with a view to membership in an instituted church, whether the church formed on the mission field or the church that sent the missionary. That faith is worked by God in such a way that part of that faith is the conviction I must remain a member of the church or become a member of the church, whatever the case may be, and there worship God rightly and partake of the means of grace.

Rome falsely claims that one must be a member of their church in order to be saved, but salvation is in Christ not a church. How do you differentiate between your teaching and Rome's?

This way, negatively:  the difference is not that Rome thinks it is necessary to be a member of a church and we Protestants think it is unnecessary. Positively, the difference is that Rome thinks it is necessary to be a member of its false church. We maintain that it is necessary to be a member of Christ’s true church. That’s the difference. That’s how we distinguish between Rome’s teaching and ours.

With regard to the implied question in the words, “salvation is in Christ,” it is certainly true that salvation is in Christ.  What must not be forgotten about Christ is that he is the husband of a wife. He lives with his wife the church and he lives in His Bride, the church, according to the epistle to the Ephesians and other places in the Bible. Christ in whom is salvation is the Head of the church. He’s the one who is present in the church, by His Word, the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline. So if you want salvation in Christ, look for him where He is to be found. He is not found outside the true, instituted church.

Will this speech be available on a CD? Thanks.

Yes. You may submit a request for a CD through our Contact Form on this webpage or email us at hoperwc@gmail.com.

What gives the Belgic Confession authority? Isn't it fallible?

I was speaking to a largely Reformed audience tonight. And that Reformed audience I assumed understood that the Belgic Confession is a secondary authority for all Reformed Christians. We regard that Belgic Confession, and have vowed to have that Belgic Confession, as an authoritative expression of the truth of the Bible. What the Belgic Confession teaches, we have determined, is the truth of the Bible so that we have bound ourselves to the teaching of the Belgic Confession as a faithful expression and teaching of scripture itself. For all Reformed believers the Belgic Confession is authoritative. It summarizes, it simplifies, the teaching of the Bible, so that when the Belgic Confession affirms, and has all Reformed believers affirm, that outside the church is no salvation, that’s authoritative for us. What the Belgic Confession teaches is based on scripture, in this case, particularly, I Timothy 3, which I also did appeal to. I showed that I Timothy 3 is speaking of the instituted church, the church of bishops and deacons. About that church it says that it is the house of the living God and pillar and ground of the truth.  Clearly implied is that within that church is salvation. Not outside of that church. We look for God as Father and Savior in vain outside His house. He lives in His house. That is the original living in a house. Our living in a house is patterned after His living in a house. If my children want to live with me, when they are little children they have to live in my house. If they go outside my house into the wilderness, then they live without their father, and these little children, which we all are in our relationship to God, if they try to live without their father outside the house, they die. They show themselves very foolish children besides. So, the Belgic Confession, in its statement about the necessity of church membership is squarely based upon I Timothy 3 and other passages besides. But in answer to the question, what gives the Belgic Confession its authority, the Bible does.

What is one's proper attitude and how does one properly treat a fellow church member who removes his church membership from a true church of Jesus Christ?

The proper attitude is not to leave the impression with him that everything is fine, that the relationship between that disobedient family member and myself is the same as it was before he left the true church of Jesus Christ.  Fundamentally, my attitude is determined by this, you have left my heavenly Father; you have left my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When you left them, you left me. You must feel that, you must know that. It doesn’t mean I don’t have any contact with them anymore. But my contact is rebuke, admonition, and warning. He has severed the fellowship.  When he’s made to feel that, who knows, God may use that to bring him to repentance and restore him, but in any case, I will not be responsible for his earthly miseries outside the true church, or, ultimately, his eternal destiny, by giving him the impression that he may leave God and Christ and the true church of Christ and everything remains the same between us.

What exactly does the Belgic Confession mean when it states 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? To what extent does the believer separate himself from such a person?

The context in which that is found in the Belgic Confession helps to determine the meaning. I believe the first application is that believers separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church by not being members with such people of the false churches which they are members of. That’s the first application of this duty. As a member of a true church, I am separate from those who are members of false churches, and I maintain that separation simply by keeping up my membership in a true church. But I think there is also a second aspect of application. This is a strange teaching in our day, when what’s called love overrides everything else. A member of a true church, a living believing member of a true church, one who worships God, loves Jesus Christ, and confesses the truth will live in antithetical separation from those who do not belong to the true church. That is, a believer in a true church does not live in sweet fellowship with one who is outside the true church as an unbeliever. Antithesis is spiritual separation. This is an important aspect of the Christian life. We are not one with the world, we are not one with members of false churches, and we show that also by our behavior. We have contact with them. As much as possible in that contact we rebuke them and witness to them, but we don’t indicate that we share life with them.  We share life with Christ, they don’t share that life and we make that known to them.  Separation of ourselves from all those who do not belong to the church is an important aspect of the individual calling of the child of God.

Would you stand by your mother's adage, you need the church more than the church needs you?

She being dead, yet speaketh. Yes, I need the church more than the church needs me.

Can you comment on the thief on the cross? He was saved, but did not belong to a visible church.

He did not belong to the visible church, well, that is true of course. In effect, he had been excommunicated.  As a Jew, he had been a member of the nation of Israel. He was certainly an unworthy member of that nation. We have to take the special circumstances of that case into consideration. There are such things as deathbed conversions.  That’s still possible today. It’s possible that someone would grow up in the true church, abandon it, live all his life outside the church and on his deathbed be brought to repentance and be saved. In that case he would be an exception, an exception to the rule. That is not the rule. It is not the rule that there are deathbed conversions. Usually, the way a man lives is how a man dies. So we don’t observe the exception, but we observe the rule. The rule still stands, although the thief on the cross was an exception.

Can you comment on the electronic church and its benefits to the shut-ins, the hospitals, etc.?

There you have a situation, not that someone removes his membership from the visible church. He remains a member, but God makes it impossible for him to attend the worship services regularly. That is really a different subject than the subject of membership in a true church. In a case like that where God himself makes it impossible for a church member to attend the services anymore, then tapes and CDs of the worship services are undoubtedly of great spiritual help and blessing. Nothing I’ve said tonight ought to be taken as any other attitude towards those things than what I’ve just stated. If, however, a man deliberately refuses to become a member of a true church and contents himself with listening to tapes and CDS, he is no member of a true church, even though the sermons on the tapes and CDs are orthodox.  The “electronic church” is, in reality, not a church.

Can you comment on being in a true church where the true preaching of the Word is lacking in edification?

I can comment on that in general.  First of all, not every preacher has the same gift for edification, although every preacher ought to be able to edify. One ought to be sure then that the Word is lacking in edification rather than that his own appreciation of the Word is lacking. In the second place, if there is actually this situation, and that is possible in a true church—the  preaching of the Word is lacking in edification—the solution is that the elders of the church are vigilant in carrying out their calling. We have elders for reasons in the church. They must be active in their calling, they must be aware of what their calling is. The first calling of an elder is to exercise oversight over the preaching of the Word. That would mean that the elders take heed to the fact that the preaching is lacking in important respects so that it’s not edifying. They must make an issue of that with the minister, what the reason for that is, and pursue that.  Some may like the minister, and others may not like the minister. I have been in the ministry long enough to know about those things. One thing may not be lacking in the church, and that is that the preaching is edifying. That is absolute necessity.  There must be edifying preaching.  The elders are to see to it.

If there are enough members present could a 'house church,' a gathering of believers, appoint for itself ministers, elders, and deacons and become a true church of Jesus Christ? In other words, how is a new church properly instituted and established?

The answer to the first part of that question is simply this. If a gathering of believers institutes itself by appointing the offices, it’s no longer a house church. It is exactly the thinking of a house church, we don’t need offices, we don’t want offices, and we don’t want to be instituted. We want to sit around on a Sunday morning in our living room and listen to Brother Harold (Camping) blather on the radio. So a gathering of believers may certainly do this, although in the institution of itself by the appointment of offices they ought to have a minister perform this institution. And then they do become a true church of Jesus Christ, if in other respects they have the marks of a true church. That is how a church is properly instituted and established. What this possibility makes plain is that the fundamental office in the church is the office of believer. Not the office of bishop or of deacon, but of believer!

Questions answered after the lecture:

Can you explain what is meant by the plurality of the church?

I assume that the question refers to what is called the pluriformity, or multiformity, of the church.  The idea is that the many, significant differences among the various Protestant churches (denominations)—differences of worship; of church government; of creed; and even of doctrine—are legitimate.  The differences are expressions of the full reality of the one, universal body of Christ.  Each church with its prominent characteristic brings out one or more of the features of the true church of Christ.  Rather than expressing that the differences separate the churches, making oneness of organization impossible until the differences are resolved, the differences encourage some kind of organizational union which is necessary so that the combination of all the differences will bring out the full, pluriform (or, multiform) nature of the one church of Christ.  Rome with its pope does justice to the (alleged) Christian reality of the church’s government (ignoring the Bible’s teaching of the government of each congregation by a body of ruling elders, or bishops); Presbyterianism does justice to the church’s concern for sound doctrine (ignoring Rome’s doctrine of salvation by works); Anglicanism contributes the element of splendid worship (ignoring the Bible’s insistence on simple, sober worship, governed by the Word of God—the “regulative principle” of worship); and Pentecostalism injects into the mix its supposed Spirit-worked enthusiasm, especially “tongues” (ignoring that the apostolic age with its speaking in tongues has passed and that the genuine fervor of the church is her zeal of faith in Christ, worked by the Spirit by the preaching of sound doctrine).

This notion of the pluriformity of the church is not biblical.  It is not a truth about the church that is found in the Reformed creeds.  When noted Reformed theologians acknowledge the pluriformity of the church, they speculate without creedal support.

In fact, pluriformity repudiates the teaching of the Belgic Confession in Articles 28 and 29 concerning the true church and the false church with their marks.  Now there are not true churches and false churches, but only churches that make their distinctive contributions to the full manifestation of the one church of Christ.

The teaching of the pluriformity of the church promotes the erroneous ecumenicity that produces the beast out of the earth of Revelation 13, that is, the false church that assists the Antichristian world-power at the end.

Could you talk about 'dead orthodoxy'? Why isn't orthopraxy one of the marks? Christ said to Sardis: I know thy works that thou has a name that thou livest and art dead. Be watchful. . . (Revelation 3:1,2)

In reality, this question with its implied rebuke is not directed to me, but to the Belgic Confession, Article 29.  Article 29 of the Belgic Confession does not make “orthopraxy” a mark of the true church, whereas it does make the preaching of “the pure doctrine of the gospel”—orthodoxy—the first and chief mark.

“Orthopraxy” is right practice, or orthodox behavior.

Whereas the Belgic Confession does not expressly make orthopraxy a mark of the true church, it does, in Article 29, make orthopraxy a mark of Christians, the members of the church:  “With respect to those who are members of the church, they may be known by the marks of Christians, namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness,” etc.  Even in the case of Christians, the first and fundamental mark is “faith,” which faith is primarily doctrinal, an orthodox knowledge of all that God has revealed in His Word (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 21).

The thought of the Belgic Confession is certainly not that orthopraxy on the part of the members of the church is unimportant.  Nor is the thought that carelessness of life is not a threat to the members of the true church.  But the thought of the article, expressing the conviction of the Reformed faith, is that the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, that is, the gospel of salvation by grace alone by faith alone, will, by the power of the Spirit of Christ, produce holy Christians, zealous for good works out of gratitude.  In addition, the pure preaching of the gospel will include the instruction that true faith, which is union with Christ, always is fruitful in a life of good works.

Orthodoxy produces orthopraxy, to use the word of the questioner.

In addition, one of the marks of the true church is the exercise of Christian discipline “in punishing of sin,” in the language of Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Faithful exercise of discipline, with the admonitions that accompany discipline, indeed are part of it, will preserve the orthodox church from dead orthodoxy and will serve to maintain godliness of life in the church.

The trouble with Sardis, therefore, was not simply that the congregation practiced wicked deeds.  The imperfect works with which Christ charged her were the failure of the minister to preach boldly and gladly the gospel of salvation by faith alone, or, perhaps, his corrupting the gospel of grace, and the failure of the elders to discipline wickedness of life on the part of some of the members.  The result was dead orthodoxy—a merely formal profession of the gospel, shown to be dead by ungodliness of life.

One does not accomplish zeal for holiness of life by muzzling, or subduing, much less corrupting, the preaching of the gospel of grace.

What do we say of the Ethiopian eunich? He went back to Ethiopia, not back to Jerusalem (Acts 8:26-40 - DJE).

In those early days of the New Testament church, the gospel was spread to the nations by the witness of such as the Ethiopian eunuch.  Having been brought to faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ by the preaching of Philip, the eunuch went on to his homeland in Ethiopia as an evangelist.  The salvation of the eunuch, consisting of bringing the proselyte into a knowledge of the fulfillment of Isaiah 53 in Jesus the Christ, was, at the same time, the ordination of the eunuch as an evangelist.  By his evangelistic witness to Jesus, the eunuch would gather and institute a true church in that land.  There was, therefore, not even in that incident in the early and unusual time of the church a despising of the church institute.

In his commentary on the event recorded in Acts 8, Calvin wrote:  “Luke passes on to a different episode, viz. how the Gospel reached the Ethiopians.  For although he reports the conversion of only one man to the faith of Christ, yet because he [the Ethiopian eunuch—DJE] had great authority and power in the whole kingdom, his faith could breathe its fragrance far and wide.  For we know that the Gospel grew from frail beginnings; and the power of the Spirit shone the clearer in the fact that one grain of seed filled a wide region in a short space of time”  (Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, Eerdmans, 1965, 1:243).

What should elders say when a daughter of the congregation asks for her membership papers to be sent to her, because she has married a man who does not desire to join our congregation, but wishes to remain Christian Reformed? Is the Christian Reformed Church a false church, or in the process of becoming a false church?

The elders should have been working with this member of their church long before she asks to be dismissed from the congregation.  Either they observed that the young lady was dating a Christian Reformed man, and was in danger of leaving the Protestant Reformed churches, or the parents would have informed the elders, and asked the elders to work with their daughter.  The message that the elders would have brought to the young lady is the solemn truth of Article 28 of the Church Order:  “No person…ought to withdraw himself [herself] to live in a separate state from it [a true church as identified by the marks—DJE]; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it…[and that] all those who separate themselves from the same…act contrary to the ordinance of God.” The elders would have urged upon her the seriousness of leaving:  “Out of it [a true church—DJE] there is no salvation” (Belgic Confession, Article 28).

The elders need not pass judgment on the Christian Reformed Church that the Christian Reformed Church is a false church in their admonition of the female in their congregation.  Convinced by the presence of the marks that the Protestant Reformed Churches are true churches of Christ, they may simply exhort the young lady that she may not leave a true church for the sake of a husband.  So serious is the matter of church membership that even the suspicion that a church is losing the marks of the true church and taking on the marks of the false church is reason not to contemplate leaving a true church for such a church.

Then, there is at least solid reason to judge the Christian Reformed Church as an apostatizing body, that is, as a church that is in the process of becoming a false church.  In 1924, it departed from the gospel of grace as confessed and defended in the Canons of Dordt by adopting the heresies of universal, saving, but inefficacious grace; of the dependence of salvation on the free will of the sinner; and of the denial of total depravity of unregenerated sinners, which denial encourages the breaching of the antithesis between believer and unbeliever (the common grace decisions).  Since then the Christian Reformed Church has officially (synodically) approved the heresy of universal atonement and the heresy of the rejection of predestination.  With regard to the Christian life, the Christian Reformed Church has officially approved the adultery of divorce (for any reason) and subsequent remarriage.

These decisions and others necessarily also adversely affect the mark of the right administration of the sacraments and the mark of the exercise of Christian discipline.  Concerning the latter mark, in 1924 the Christian Reformed Church disciplined orthodox, holy men and women for their confession of the truth of the gospel.  Today, that church refuses to discipline egregious heretics and members living impenitently in gross, public sins, for example, adultery and sodomy.  How this corrupts the celebration of the sacraments is obvious.

How far the Christian Reformed Church has fallen away from the gospel, and from Christ in the gospel, is plain to all from the fact that in 2016 her synod seriously debated, at length, whether to approve sodomite and lesbian “marriages.”  Now this depravity, so far from having been condemned, is a matter of study by a synodical committee!  Awful, and decisive against a member of a true church contemplating joining that church, as against believers remaining in that church, is that, in light of Romans 1:18 ff., God is at work upon the Christian Reformed Church to harden her in her rebellion against the truth by giving her over to a reprobate, sodomite mind and practice.

What do you see as the most pressing, or dangerous, or most likely route of apostasy in the Protestant Reformed Churches?

As I stated and explained at the conclusion of my lecture, I regard complacency as a danger in the Protestant Reformed Churches.  Where no express denial of the truth of the gospel, no obvious corruption of the sacraments, and no flagrant abuse of discipline can be charged, there complacency threatens all the marks.  Complacency is the foolish, sinful notion that because the churches have held and contended for the truth in the past, there is no need to contend for the truth at present,  or to be vigilant that love of the truth not cool in the future (see Matthew 24:12).   Complacency regarding doctrine takes form in a failure, if not outright refusal, to preach vigorously and sharply the doctrines of grace confessed in the Canons, warning at the same time against the heresies opposed to these doctrines, because “all is well with us today in this respect.”  This complacency regarding preaching the doctrines of grace extends to virtual silence concerning the development of them in the Protestant Reformed Churches:  the doctrine of particular grace, in opposition to the heresy of the “well-meant offer,” and the doctrine of the unconditional covenant, in opposition to the heresy of a conditional covenant.  This silence is defended with the response that “all is well with us in this regard.”

Adding to the evil of this complacency regarding the preaching (and writing) is that developments of the heresies concerning particular grace and the unconditional covenant in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches make the Protestant Reformed testimony to these truths imperative in our day.

Complacency affects discipline particularly in this way, that the elders are not, and do not consider it necessary for them to be, vigilant with regard to the preaching.  As I noted in the lecture, almost the first requirement for a bishop, which includes both the teaching and the ruling elder, is that he be “vigilant” (I Timothy 3:2).  The elder who is vigilant is always watchful that the preaching be sound and that the oversight of both the preaching and the life of the church be diligent.

A church that was once true can fall away.

A Protestant Reformed minister can err, whether by carelessness or of purpose.

Another aspect of complacency is unsound ecumenicity.  Unsound ecumenicity is close relations, whether official or unofficial, with churches with whom the Protestant Reformed Churches are not one in the truth, on the basis of genuine oneness of confession of the Three Forms of Unity.  Invariably, this unsound ecumenicity proceeds further without resolving the fundamental differences, or even seriously discussing them.  The justification of these relations is that the Protestant Reformed Churches will be able to influence the churches that have corrupted the pure Reformed doctrines of the creeds, for example, the sovereign particularity of grace by all those holding the “well-meant offer”; the gracious, unconditional covenant by all those holding a conditional covenant with all the baptized infants of believers alike; and the gospel-truth of justification by faith alone by all those churches that promote or tolerate the federal vision.

What this defense of unsound ecumenical relations forgets, to the peril of the Protestant Reformed Churches, is that ecumenical relations are a two-way street.  The churches embracing heresies are as liable to influence the Protestant Reformed Churches as the Protestant Reformed Churches are to influence them.  To ignore this is complacency.

Two considerations ought to give the ecumenical appeal to the possibility of influencing unsound churches pause.  First, the proper way to deal with churches that espouse false doctrine is not ecumenicity, but polemics.  Only when and if polemics has been effective in delivering a church from its errors does ecumenicity have its proper place.  By definition, ecumenicity is relations between churches that are one in the faith.  Ecumenicity is not a means to convert churches; ecumenicity expresses the oneness of churches.

Second, the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches ought to be a warning against complacent, unsound ecumenicity.  In the early 1950s, unsound ecumenicity with the “liberated” Reformed Churches came close to destroying the Protestant Reformed Churches.

If a consequence of unrepentant disobedience is being put out of the fellowship of Christ (excommunication), how does God draw such a person back? Does God take into account the obedience/repentance of a sinner? How does one once again enjoy and experience the fellowship of Christ and His Church?

I understand this question, indeed, several of them, in connection with the topic of the lecture, not as questions about church discipline in general.  First, the repentance of a church member who has been under discipline is the way to restoration, not a condition to restoration, as though it were a work of the sinner that deserved restoration.  Second, the excommunication of a member is indeed exclusion from membership in a true, instituted church and, as to its significance to all concerned, exclusion from the universal church of God (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 85).  There is a way back to membership in the instituted church for one who is, in fact, member of the universal church by the election of God, which cannot fail.  This way is the way of repentance, which is worked by the Spirit of Christ, using the discipline itself as a means of the restoration.  One of the means that the Spirit uses is the warning of the members of the congregation.  The members do not shun the excommunicated person, but admonish him.  Third, one experiences the fellowship of Christ and His church by the witness of the Spirit in his heart that, as he is repentant, he is forgiven and restored to the church by Christ the head of the church.  This witness is sounded by the official declaration of the instituted church that the penitent sinner is restored and is to be received by the other members.  Church discipline has as its ultimate goad, not that one be driven out from the church, but that he be united to the church, from which his impenitent sin has separated him.

In the experience of the sinner, to be outside the instituted church is to be cut off from the body of Christ.  This conviction of a to him intolerable condition motivates him to return to the church institute by repentance.  The excommunicated sinner experiences that “outside the church is no salvation.”

Why did Naaman not stay in Israel after he was healed of his leprosy? He seemed to be a true believer but the prophet seemed to give him his blessing as he went back to Syria. Was it different in the Old Testament?

The history that occasions this vexed question is found in II Kings 5.

Naaman the Syrian leper was a child of God.  God cleansed him both of his leprosy and of the defiling, destroying, spiritual sickness of sin of which physical leprosy was a symbol.  He came to know Jehovah God and was determined, even in Syria, to worship Him alone on holy ground.  For even the appearance of participating in the worship of an idol, he asked forgiveness.

The prophet did not rebuke him for going back to Syria, but bade him farewell:  “Go in peace.”  Neither may I condemn the Syrian general.

In light of the different attitude and conduct of the Moabitess, Ruth, who was determined, regardless of the sacrifice, to live in Israel and become a lively member of the holy nation, I may, nevertheless, fault Naaman for a weaker faith than that of Ruth.

The explanation of Naaman’s conduct is, no doubt, in part the darker time of the Old Testament.  The truth of church membership, like many other truths, was not so clearly revealed in the Old Testament as in the New.  And as the old proverb puts it, God could draw a straight line with a crooked stick.  He could preserve Naaman in salvation outside the promised land.  It is not impossible that God used the healed leper as a witness to Himself in that heathen land, for the salvation of other Syrians.  Here the little maid of Israel in Naaman’s house, who was the occasion of Naaman’s journey to Israel to be healed, is the example of a faithful witness in a heathen land.

One thing is sure:  the Old Testament account of Naaman is not the rule, even in the Old Testament, concerning membership in the true church.

How does the true/false church distinction relate to the denomination, in contrast to the local church, which actually preaches, administers the sacraments, and disciplines?

The rule is that the apostasy of the denomination and the falling away of the congregations in the denomination go together.  The explanation is obvious.  A denomination is simply the federation, or union, of congregations.  Apostasy in one or more of the congregations must spread throughout the federation by virtue of the union, just as cancer in a certain cell in the physical body spreads throughout the body.  No more than cancer can be restricted to a particular cell or part of the body can the spiritual cancer of apostasy be restricted to one or a few congregations in a denomination.  Apostasy in a congregation must be dealt with as cancer is wisely dealt with in the physical body:  no matter the pain and loss,  cut the cancer out by removing the body part that is affected.  Although the figure is different, the warning of I Corinthians 5:6 is pertinent, applying as it does to a congregation’s tolerance of a wicked member in the congregation:  “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?  Purge out therefore the old leaven.”  Just as one wicked member tolerated in the congregation will corrupt the entire congregation, so also one wicked congregation tolerated in the denomination will corrupt the entire denomination.

In the case of a denomination of churches, it is often, if not usually, the reality that the denominational organizations, especially the seminary and assemblies, specifically, synods and general assemblies, go bad and then, by virtue of their denominational influence, corrupt all the congregations in the denomination.  The seminary produces unsound, doctrinally weak or unbelieving graduates as pastors of all the congregations.  Synods take ungodly decisions that affect all the congregations for evil.  Once an old, conservative pastor in an apostatizing Reformed denomination told me that in response to the wicked decision of the synod of his churches approving divorce for any reason, and subsequent remarriage, he and likeminded conservative pastors in the denomination comforted themselves that “we will keep the evil out of our own congregations.”  “Today,” he added (merely twenty years after the corrupt decision on marriage) “every consistory meeting in my own congregation spends much of its time and a great deal of energy in dealing with cases of divorce and remarriage.”

The denominational union is significant for good or for ill.

The denomination that notices a “liberal,” or spiritually weak and disobedient, congregation in the federation, must take measures to expel the congregation from the denomination, sooner than later, of course, after admonishing the congregation.  This calls for courage, which points out that cowardice plays a prominent role in the apostasy of a denomination.  Synods do not dare to take an unsound congregation in hand.  The denomination has an instrument with which to detect the falling away of a congregation.  This is the church visitors.  This committee of the denomination, carefully chosen on the basis of their wisdom and courage, examines the consistories of the churches in the denomination once every year.  By prescribed questions, they assure the denomination that every church in the federation is sound and faithful and that all officebearers are faithful in their calling.  Alas, all too often this agency against apostasy in the Reformed churches fails because neither the visitors nor the classes to which they report take the visitations seriously.  Again, vigilance is lacking, indeed, even the thought that vigilance must be exercised.  About a congregation that all in the denomination know to be in dire straits, the report is given that “all is well.”  A year or less later, the church explodes.

On the other hand, a soundly Reformed congregation in an apostatizing denomination must leave the denomination, sooner than later, of course, after protesting the evils without result.  Basically, this was the action of the reforming churches in the church reformations in the Netherlands in 1834 and 1886.  This action too calls for the courage of the conviction that the pure worship of God, the proclamation of the gospel of grace, and a holy life warrant sacrifice and suffering.

How does one discern the 'purity' of preaching? Are there degrees of purity? At what point does one leave a church? If no faithful church can be found, what does one do?

One discerns the purity of preaching by the testimony of the Spirit of truth enlightening his mind in comparing the preaching with Scripture and the Reformed creeds.  Discerning the purity of preaching lies within the competency of every member, although it is the main duty of the elders.

Fundamentally, there are not degrees of purity.  Either the preaching is pure or it is impure.  Only pure preaching is acceptable.  All impure preaching is intolerable and to be condemned.  The main mark of the true church, according to Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, is the preaching of the “pure doctrine of the gospel.”

There are, however, degrees of impurity.  In the area of impure doctrine, a church first preaches that God desires to save all humans without exception—the “well-meant offer”—next, it denies reprobation; finally, it teaches that all humans will be saved.

In the area of the Christian life, a church first allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of the “innocent party”; then, it decides that remarriage after divorce is permissible in any and every case; finally, it approves sodomite and lesbian “marriage.”

One protests impurity at the stage of its beginning.  If the impurity is apostasy in the doctrine of the gospel, and if, upon protest and appeal, the church assemblies approve the impurity, the member of the church is called either to join a true church that is not falling away, or to institute the church anew in a congregation that has the marks of the true church.  Wisely, Calvin advised patience if the weakness of a church has to do with the exercise of discipline.  One should work at the strengthening of the weakness, but should not hastily withdraw from the church.

If no faithful church can be found, one should first reexamine his idea of faithfulness, to be sure that he does not confuse faithfulness with perfection.  Then, he must investigate whether there might be a true church in some far-off place, even in different lands, or he must try to organize a true church with others of like mind.

What if one is threatened with discipline when objecting to improper discipline? Ought one to leave, or to continue to warn the church of error and risk being wrongly excommunicated? What if one knows of no other true church of which to become a member?

For a church to threaten discipline upon a member who is objecting to a discipline case as improper is, if the objection is properly brought to the consistory, a mark of a false church.  Article 29 of the Belgic Confession expressly states that it is the mark of the false church that she “persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke her for her errors…”  Besides, the mark concerning discipline is that the true church punishes sin, not well-doing.

Difficult and potentially painful as it may be, the right way for the Reformed believer to respond to the wicked behavior of a consistory of threatening discipline in such a case is to remain in the church and continue to protest.  If the consistory will not heed, the Reformed believer has the right and duty to protest to classis and synod.  If all the assemblies are in league with the consistory regarding the evil behavior of the consistory, all take on a clear mark of the false church.  Therefore, if the consistory carries out its threat to punish the member for his well-doing, with the approval of the major assemblies, the excommunicated member may be confident that he has fulfilled his calling on behalf of the abused member and the church; that his excommunication was nothing but a piece of carnal vengeance; and that God will honor him in the day of righteous judgment, and expose and punish those who unjustly excommunicated him.

With regard to the apparent lack of a true church of which he can become a member, let him make his need known to God, trusting that God will provide such membership to him.  But his apparent lack may not deter him from his calling to protest unjust discipline.  The old Dutch proverb applies in his case as in all others:  “Blind voor de uitkomst, ziende voor de gebod, that is, “blind regarding the result, seeing regarding the command.”

How are the three marks of a true church that you mentioned, and not others, determined biblically?

The biblical basis of the three marks that I mentioned is, in part, the following passages of the Bible.  With regard to the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, John 10:27; Ephesians 2:20; Acts 17:11, 12; Colossians 1:23; and John 8:47.  With regard to the pure administration of the sacraments, Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:19ff.; Romans 4:11; and I Corinthians 11:23ff.  With regard to the exercise of church discipline, Matthew 18:15-18; II Thessalonians 3:14, 15; and I Corinthians 5.

Apart from specific texts, the three activities of a church that identify the church as a true church commend themselves as the marks in view of their outstanding importance according to Scripture generally and in light of the history of the church. That which has gathered the church in missions and preserved the church down the ages has been the preaching, teaching, and confession of the pure Word of God.  The force that has been destructive of the church more than any other has been heresy, or the preaching of false doctrine.  Who can be ignorant of the reality that the church depends upon, and grows by, the Word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Attached as they are to the preaching of the Word to signify and seal the Word to believers and their children, the sacraments partake of the fundamental importance of the Word.

And since discipline serves to protect and preserve the Word, and the church herself by the Word, discipline also shares in the importance of the Word.

All Reformed and Presbyterian confessions agree as to which spiritual and ecclesiastical activities constitute the marks of a true church.  These creeds are authoritative for all Reformed and Presbyterian churches and believers.

Noteworthy about the marks is that they are objective.  Some persons err in judging whether a church has the marks, for example, with regard to the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, insisting that preaching a love of God for all humans is pure doctrine.  But the reason for the error is not that Scripture is unclear concerning the doctrine of particular grace.  Rather, the error is the wilful blindness to the truth on the part of the one who supposes that universal grace is the truth of Scripture.

God has not opened up the vitally important matter of the marks of a true church to uncertainty by making the marks such subjective characteristics as a church’s being “loving” or its minister being “friendly.”  Which is not to say that a church should not be “loving,” or a minister friendly.

Can (may) we bring unbelievers into the church so that they can learn?

Believers may bring unbelievers into the church services so that, if God pleases, they may be converted under the preaching.  Believers are encouraged to do so, perhaps, their own unbelieving child, perhaps, a neighbor, and even, perhaps, an unbelieving mate.  Membership is limited to believers.  Unbelievers may attend. In I Corinthians 14:23-25, the apostle appeals to the presence of unbelievers in the worship services as a reason why the Corinthians should not speak in tongues.  “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?” (v. 23)  The verses that follow allow for the expectation that the Word will convert and save the unbeliever:  “falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.”

At the end of your speech, you emphasized our calling. Does the layman have a calling to promote the faithfulness of his church? Does the layman have a calling to ensure the church remains faithful? How? You called us to vigilance. Can you be more specific what the laymen must do?

Although the calling vigilantly to guard and promote the faithfulness of the church comes primarily to the bishops, that is, the pastor and elders, it is the calling also of the members of the church, who are not in office (better, who occupy the office of believer).  That vigilance is a characteristic of bishops is the teaching of I Timothy 3:2.  I Peter 5:8 calls all members of the church to be “vigilant” (v. 8), and that with regard to the threat of the devil, who works with special energy upon the church.  II Peter 2 and 3 calls all the members of the church to be on guard against “false teachers” and “scoffers.”  That all the members are called to ensure that the church retains the marks is evident with regard to discipline from the basic fact that usually discipline begins with the vigilant activity of the member of the congregation (see Matthew 18:15-20).

Every member promotes the faithfulness of his church by the very fact of his membership in that church.  But this membership must be lively—attending the services of divine worship; serving in office when called; witnessing to the truth to the other members as he has opportunity; raising his or her family in the Word of God; praying for the welfare of the church; attending such lectures as that which inspired this question; and more.

Every member also has the calling to ensure that the church remains faithful.  He or she attends the worship services, not as what the Dutch describe as a “ja broer,” that is, one who affirms everything that goes on and every sermon simply because the elders arrange the service as they do and simply because the minister says whatever he says.  Such a member is an uncritical “Yes brother.”  But he or she vigilantly judges all the proceedings in the worship service and the content of every sermon, to assure himself or herself that all elements of the service are commanded by God and that the sermon is both orthodox and edifying.  If elements are intruded into the service that are not commanded in Scripture, for example, a choir, or the singing of hymns, or a sentimental plea for missions by a representative of the denomination mission committee, the member must protest to the consistory and, if necessary, appeal to classis and synod.  The same is his or her calling if the preaching is not the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, or if unworthy persons are admitted to the Lord’s Supper.

Implied is that consistories, classes, and synods must recognize, not only the right, but also the calling of the members vigilantly to guard the faithfulness of the church in the matter of the marks.  They may disagree with the member’s fear and charge, but they may not challenge his right to have them, and express them—to the assemblies.  It is no small part of the hierarchy—and apostasy—of  the Roman Catholic Church that it repudiates the calling of the office of believer, and thus the office itself, shutting him up, and that it gives over all the calling and ability of guarding the faithfulness of the church to the officebearers.  “Papa dixit.”

If one leaves a true church and joins a church that is becoming false, can it be said that, in so far as they have left the truth, they have left Christ?


How would you characterize the action of a young Protestant Reformed member who has made confession of faith in our churches, who then leaves a Protestant Reformed congregation in order to marry into another Reformed denomination? Is he or she forsaking the truth, or merely joining himself or herself to another Reformed denomination?

No one should join a church, or be allowed to join a church, merely because his or her mate is a member of this church.  Church membership is not as frivolous as this.  Church membership is awesome and deadly serious.  One must join a church because God is purely worshipped in this church, because Christ is present in this church, because this church clearly displays the three marks of a true church; and because one is saved unto eternal life in this church.  One who joins a church (denomination) merely because “my fiancée attends this church” trivializes church membership, and the church herself.  I hope that my speech on membership in a true church, if it does nothing else, destroys this trivial attitude toward church membership and toward the church herself.

Regarding the question itself, if the other Reformed denomination that a Protestant Reformed young person joins on the occasion of his or her marriage to a member of that other denomination is orthodox in doctrine, so that the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached there, and if the other denomination shows the other two marks of a true church as well, there can be no objection to his or her joining the other denomination.  But if the other Reformed denomination has corrupted the gospel, for example, by preaching that God loves all humans and has a sincere desire to save all humans without exception; or by preaching that God makes His covenant with all the infants of believers without exception, desiring to save all of them, but that the actual salvation of the children is conditioned upon their faith and obedience; or by preaching that justification is by faith and works, the young person who forsakes the Protestant Reformed Churches forsakes the truth and Jesus Christ, whom the truth reveals and honors, as well as breaking the vow he or she made at confession of faith.

If, in addition, the church joined by the ex-Protestant Reformed young person approves the adultery of remarriage after divorce, thus defiling the sacraments and making a mockery of church discipline, the young person, by his membership in this church, makes himself or herself responsible for the profanation of the holy sacraments and for the damnation of the sinners.

Of this, parents must warn their sons and daughters.

Of this, ministers must warn their young people, especially when the young people make confession of faith.

Of this, the elders must warn the young person who is leaving the church when they work with him or her.

In connection with church membership, could you explain, or expound on, the important submission or obedience to Christ (head of the church) as the only way of fellowship with God the Father?

Jesus said that He is the only way to the Father, that is, to the one God, who is Father of the man Jesus and of all elect believers, and that no one comes to the Father but by Him, Jesus (John 14:6).  

Jesus is the way to the Father for His people by faith in Jesus.  Faith in Jesus Christ is the way—the only way—to the Father, inasmuch as justification by faith alone is the only righteousness of the guilty sinner, which grants access to the Father and fellowship with Him.

How this applies to church membership is, first, that it is in the true church that Jesus is proclaimed as the believing sinner’s righteousness with God, thus giving access to the Father in the sinner’s consciousness.  The false church either outrightly denies or subtly corrupts the truth of justification by faith alone and, therefore, blocks the way to the Father, and salvation, to the members of this church.

Second, by way of faith in Christ, who is head of the true church, the member, having membership in Christ by his or her faith, has fellowship also with God the Father, whose Son and Mediator Christ is.  The member of a true church enjoys fellowship with Christ, the head of the church.  Whoever has fellowship with Christ has fellowship also, and by this very fact, with the Father of Christ.

Article 29 of the Belgic Confession states that the true and false church 'are easily known and distinguished from each other.' Why, then, the middle ground in saying a church is becoming false? That seems to contradict the Belgic Confession. Also, does the 'false ecumenicity' movement, what with super councils of churches, deny this article of the Belgic Confession? Is it even possible for members of such groups to have a right view of church membership? This issue seems especially pertinent because of the Protestant Reformed Churches' apparent interest in joing NAPARC.

Although Article 29 of the Belgic Confession speaks absolutely of the true church and the false church, with no mention of a church’s becoming false, in a process, it is a mistake to interpret this absolute distinction as ruling out the process of a church’s becoming false, as though every church that has departed in any respect or degree from Reformed orthodoxy is to be judged absolutely false.  

First, the practice of the Reformed churches holding Article 29 of the Belgic Confession at the time of the Reformation contradicts this absolutism.  The Reformed churches did not regard all churches differing with them on even important doctrines as absolutely false.  They judged the Roman Catholic and Anabaptist churches as false churches.  But they did not regard the Lutheran churches as false churches, even though they judged the Lutheran doctrine of the sacraments as serious deviation from the truth of the gospel.  The Reformed churches and theologians, including John Calvin, regarded the Lutheran churches as yet confessing and preaching the gospel of grace in important respects, despite their departure from the truth in the matter of the mark of the sacraments.  The Lutheran churches were in the process of becoming false churches.  The implication of this generous view of the Lutheran churches, which the Lutherans did not reciprocate, was not that Reformed believers might in good conscience join a Lutheran church.    

Second, what the Belgic Confession’s distinction, true church/false church, teaches about the church is that essentially all deviations from the gospel of grace, from the right administration of the sacraments, and from the right exercise of Christian discipline are a matter of ceasing to be a true church and of beginning the process of becoming a false church.  The distinction warns against regarding such deviations as harmless.  It warns against viewing churches that have deviated from the marks, especially the mark of sound doctrine, in any degree whatever, as continuing faithfully to be true churches, in which one may safely remain or with which a true church may have what we call ecumenical relations.  It warns against the notion of the pluriformity of the church, which I have explained earlier in these answers to questions about membership in a true church.  

This leads to the second question, concerning the ecumenical body that calls itself NAPARC, North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council.  This ecumenical body of churches would probably not deny the distinction, true church/false church, in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  But it would limit the distinction regarding the false church to the extreme development of the false church in the Roman Catholic Church and in the liberal Protestantism that denies such doctrines as the deity of Christ and the bodily resurrection.  As for the true church, NAPARC recognizes as true churches those that are, or claim to be, generally “conservative.” This designation applies mainly to churches that do not permit women to hold church office.  Of all errors, the touchstone for NAPARC seems to be women in office.  

The exception is the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC).  Although the PRC might be acknowledged as “conservative,” leading churches in NAPARC do not recognize the PRC as true churches of God, regardless that the PRC do not allow women in church office.  The United Reformed Churches (URC), responsible for the disciplinary actions against the founding fathers of the PRC and for the ecclesiastical decisions adopting the heresy of common grace of the Christian Reformed Church (of which the URC are the continuation, except for women in office), thereby perpetuate the Christian Reformed condemnation of the PRC as false churches, regardless that the PRC may be viewed as “conservative.”  And the “liberated” Reformed Churches make no secret of their judgment upon the PRC as false churches inasmuch as the PRC confess the unconditional covenant of grace.  To these influential churches in NAPARC, the PRC are the one, anomalous, “conservative” false church.  Because the PRC confess the gospel of salvation by sovereign, particular grace in the preaching of the gospel and in the covenant of grace!

The main, and deadly serious, error of NAPARC with regard to the true church/false church reality is that, on behalf of a false and dangerous ecumenicity, this organization, and all the churches that are part of it, approve fundamental departures from the gospel of Scripture either as acceptable or as truth itself.  Likely, all the churches in NAPARC, not only the URC, are committed to the false doctrine of the “well-meant offer” and the false doctrine of common grace.  By decision of their general assemblies, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America have approved the heresy of the federal vision, denying justification by faith alone—the heart of the gospel of grace.  Leading men in the churches of NAPARC have openly advocated and defended the false doctrine that the days of Genesis 1 were long periods of time, thus questioning the infallible inspiration and authority of Scripture and thus compromising the Christian faith concerning the origin of the universe under the pressure of evolution.  

As for basic truth concerning the Christian life, all of the churches in NAPARC approve the adultery of remarriage after divorce, thus indicating the loss also of the marks of the pure administration of the sacrament and of Christian discipline.  Indeed, one minister in the URC publicly boasted of his remarriage after divorce, admitting that he was the guilty party in the divorce.

Thus, NAPARC, despite any protestation it might make to the contrary, in fact denies the true church/false church distinction of Article 29 of the Church Order.  It denies the distinction by legitimizing churches that display the marks of the false church as true churches of God.  It denies the distinction by honoring what are in fact marks of a false church—or of a church becoming a false church—as marks of a true church.

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Bound to Join

Bound to Join

Some professing Christians deny the necessity of church membership. Others join a church for unsubstantial reasons or leave a church for trivial, often selfish reasons. Many remain members of apostatizing churches because of family or traditional ties. Some Christians find themselves in areas or countries where no true church exists or can be formed. They ask, sometimes in anguish, “What must we do?”

Seemingly forgotten today is the truth that Jesus Christ institutes his catholic church in organized congregations that are clearly identified by objective marks. These are true churches, in distinction from false and apostatizing churches.

In the form of letters to an inquiring (though not always appreciative) European audience, this book addresses the issue of church membership in the twenty-first century.  This instruction is applicable to all believers and is based on Scripture, the Belgic Confession, and the important, but little known, controversy of John Calvin with the Nicodemites.

-Reformed Free Publishing Association


A Defense of the Church Institute

The statement in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession that all believers are “in duty bound to join and unite themselves with” an instituted church that has the three marks of the true church has proved to be controversial in North America and Europe. Engelsma’s book, Bound to Join, addresses the doctrine of church membership and has received criticism from both expected and unexpected critics.

This book answers those critics, defending the doctrine of church membership and demonstrating that love for the universal, invisible church invariably expresses itself by love for the manifestation of this church in the church institute. This book also examines the “house church” movement and the claim by such men as Harold Camping that the church age has ended.

– Reformed Free Publishing Association

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