In my last post, I tried to show how the three marks of a true church in article 29 of the Belgic Confession are not a Biblical method of critiquing churches. This post continues to show that these three marks are not good criteria and what is the better way to evaluate churches.
What is the church? It is not a building or location. It is not an organization or social club. The church is not any group that calls itself a church. The church is the assembly of those who have been redeemed, regenerated, justified by faith in Christ Jesus. The church is those people who by true faith and repentance have been united to Christ. Through the Spirit, we are born again and placed in God's family, His church. Christ is the Head and the church is His body.
"There is one body and One Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all." Ephesians 4:4-6.
"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." 1 Corinthians 12:13.
Those that are redeemed are the church of God and they are to gather together in local assemblies. All the believers in the world and those in heaven are commonly called the invisible church, while the local assemblies are called the visible church. Every one who is united to Christ is part of the true church. and has unity in Him. Since we have unity in Christ we should work hard at living this unity out in our interactions with other Christians. Even though there may be some big doctrinal differences among Christians, we are still equal and one in Christ.
Knowing this should lead us to forego using the three marks of the Belgic Confession to decide if a church is truly a church or not. A true church is not just about doctrine, but also about its unity to Christ by true faith. What often happens to those who evaluate churches based on the three points, is that churches are declared false churches when those members have in fact been bought by the precious blood of Christ. This is a sad and evil thing in the sight of the Savior who loves all His people, even though there are many weaknesses in them. This also brings dishonor to Christ by causing disunity in the church. God is gloried when believers live in unity with each other.
Every local church is imperfect. There are false Christians in every church. Their hearts have not been changed by the Spirit, and yet are part of the local church, but are not members of the body of Christ. In addition to unconverted people making each local body imperfect, there is the sin of each believer in the church. No Christian is perfect in this life. We all have to struggle with sin. Some are more godly than others. Some are more mature in the faith than others. None of us have perfect knowledge, wisdom or insight into the truth of God's word. Since no Christian is perfect and all are flawed, therefore each church will be flawed.
In contrast to the true church, the false church is an assembly of the unconverted. It is a goat pen not a sheep pen. It is where a false gospel is proclaimed. A true Christian will not sit long under the devil's gospel. Sometimes it is very clear which church is a false church since there is no gospel preached there. For example Mormon churches, Jehovah Witnesses, the Roman Catholic church and the churches of the health, wealth and prosperity teaching like Joel Olsteen's church are all examples of false churches. But often it is very hard to say what is a false church. We can evaluate a church's doctrine and determine if it lines up with Scripture, but we can't see the hearts of all the people in a church. If there are no Christians in a church than that church is not a church since none of the members are part of Christ's body. But we can't determine this, and so should reserve placing judgement on that church.
A better way to evaluate churches than using article 29 is to look at the whole of the church and compare that to the Biblical model for what a healthy church is. We shouldn't look at just doctrine, but also practice. A healthy church will have Biblical preaching, qualified shepherds, reverent worship, passionate evangelism and missions work, compassionate service, generous giving, sound theology and holy living. All these areas need to be looked at to diagnosis what is the spiritual health of a church. Much more could be said on the matter, but a few good books on the subject are "9 Marks of a Healthy Church" by Mark Dever and "The Master's Plan for the Church" by John MacArthur, if you want to read more.