I Belong (9): True Churches Are Shaped by Scripture Not Trends

It’s been a while since I released a regular episode. I’ve struggled to devote the time. I don’t want the podcast to distract from my calling as a pastor. The show contributes a bit to our congregational life at Jerusalem Church, however, the podcast can be distracting for me, and I’d rather be a faithful shepherd to my congregation than a successful podcaster. Pray that I would repent of any lust for approval or renown and be strengthened by the Spirit to give Jerusalem Church my utmost attention, love, and life and that I would find a good time to work on the podcast.

We continue today with the “I Belong” series. The last three regular episodes were focused on the necessity and blessing of local church membership. Today, we turn to Belgic Confession Article 29 and the marks of a true church. Think about that. The marks of a true church. Does this mean there are false churches? Yes, it does. The sad reality is that there are false churches. Sure, they meet in the name of Jesus Christ and believe some true doctrine, but they are false churches because they do not do what God commands local churches to do. To borrow from the Apostle John, they are synagogues of Satan, not churches. These false churches are not faithful in the essentials and do not give the congregation what feeds and grows their souls. Instead of doing church God’s way, they do church their own way. As they do church their own way, they kick truth out of their churches along with the Holy Spirit, and these false churches continue their empty and powerless routine without God’s blessing. Yes, the seats may be filled, but there is no life in false churches because the means by which God uses to give life to His people are not there. So, it’s important that you know what a true church is so you can belong to one for your own eternal well-being.

This message is so relevant today. Danny Hyde from Oceanside United Reformed Church wrote:

With everything from home groups to televangelism to the ministries of certain teachers to mega churches and emerging churches, all calling themselves “churches,” we need the guidance Belgic Confession, article 29, offers. A drive down the main street of any town in America reveals that anyone with a new idea about how to make church “relevant” has done so, to the approval of many. [1]   

And then what about cults? They call it The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Is that a true church even though it diverges from historic Christian doctrine at vital points? Can some guy self-appoint himself a prophet or a preacher and start a “church” without any oversight, accountability, or training thus leaving his “church” open to rehashed old heresies? Should we consider a “church” a true church that prays to “Mother God,” preaches LGBTQIA+ ideology more than the gospel, and welcomes goddess worship? [2] How can we tell if a church is a true church so that we can belong and actually receive God’s grace through God’s means?

Belgic Confession Article 29 is a long one but an extremely important one. We’ll unpack it in the coming weeks. I’ll leave the entire statement in the show notes for you to read, but let me read a portion of it for you today. It’s an excellent statement that can help Christians discern whether to belong to a certain local church or not. The first part of Article 29 states:

We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.” We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.” [3]

I love where this article begins. It begins with the authority of God’s inerrant Word. The Holy Scriptures explain to us in detail what a true church looks like. We don’t have to guess, and we don’t have to invent or innovate. We simply need to go to Scripture – and I would argue church history greatly helps us as a secondary resource – to know the marks of a true church and how to “do church.” False churches are shaped by human ideas, trends, and marketing research. True churches are shaped by Scripture alone.  

This line is all-important: “we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church.” False churches are filled with people who don’t really know God’s Word. They may simply be ignorant of it or they don’t actually believe it. True churches, on the other hand, are shaped, formed, or fashioned by God’s Word. You want to find a church that has the highest esteem for God’s Word, not just in word but in deed as well.

Why is it important for you and me to “discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church”? Well, Article 29 explains. There are sects or spinoffs that claim to be “the church.” Oakley sunglasses were a big deal when I was a teenager. Oakleys were really cool but really expensive. Then there were fake Oakleys or “Foakleys” as we called them. They were way cheaper. I think I had a pair. But they weren’t Oakleys because Oakley didn’t make them. Sects are like “Foakleys.” They kind of look right and claim to be a church, but they are fake because they aren’t shaped by the Word of God. They deviate and follow their own opinions of how church should be.     

We’ll unpack this more next time, but for now, understand this. One way to tell a true church from a false church is that a true church is entirely committed to first, rightly understanding God’s Word, and second, conforming everything they do as a church to God’s Word. I think true churches are also interested in church history and “discerning diligently and very carefully” along with sound and helpful Christian voices from the past.

Be careful. If your church values innovation, novelty, cultural relevance, and originality more than conformity to God’s Word, you’re in a dangerous place that may not be promoting your greatest well-being and comfort in life and death. Make sure your church is passionate about conforming to Scripture and helping you do the same in all areas of your life. That’s a great start!

[1] Daniel Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2008), 389.

[2] For example https://www.herchurch.org/.

[3] https://threeforms.org/the-belgic-confession/#29

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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