I. What's Meant
In the Sixteenth Century, the Reformers faced a serious problem. They believed, as John Calvin wrote in Book IV, Chapter I of Institutes of the Christian Religion, that “beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for.” Since Calvin and others were breaking away from the visible Church, this doctrine posed a serious hurdle. After all, they appeared to be condemning themselves with their own words.
So what they did is redefine what “Church” means. The clearest example of this is from the Dutch Calvinist Belgic Confession (1567):
The Belgic Confession
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church-- and no one ought to be separated from it.
So it's only the true Church if the preaching of the Gospel and administration of sacraments are pure, and church discipline is used for correcting faults. Calvin only believed in two marks of the Church: “the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments.” He argued that to lose these two marks would “destroy the true and genuine distinction of the Church”:
There is nothing on which Satan is more intent than to destroy and efface one or both of them - at one time to delete and abolish these marks, and thereby destroy the true and genuine distinction of the Church; at another, to bring them into contempt, and so hurry us into open revolt from the Church. To his wiles it was owing that for several ages the pure preaching of the word disappeared, and now, with the same dishonest aim, he labours to overthrow the ministry, which, however, Christ has so ordered in his Church, that if it is removed the whole edifice must fall.
Thus, he argued, Catholicism wasn't the true Church, because the Sacraments and preaching were all wrong. In the 1559 French Confession of Faith (PDF), he put it like this:
Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them.Thus, schism from the visible Church was not only permissible, but necessary, since the Church had (according to Calvin) stopped being part of the true Church.
II. Why It's Wrong
Catholics will readily agree that good preaching, the proper administration of the Sacraments, and Church discipline are important parts of the life of the Church. A church that fails to do these things fails the flock in important ways. But here's the important caveat: a church that fails in these ways doesn't cease to be part of the Church. We can see this clearly from Scripture. In Revelation 2-3, Jesus delivers a message through St. John to the seven churches of Asia Minor (see Rev. 1:17-20). In Revelation 2:12-17, we hear this message to the Church in Pergamum:
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”In other words, the Church in Pergamum both (1) failed to enforce Church discipline (as did the Church in Thyatira -- see Rev. 2:20), and (2) apparently permitted heretical (Nicolatan) teachings.
That is, it failed to meet two of the standards that the Belgic confession claims are basic marks of the Church. And yet Jesus still calls it a church. He even says that despite these problems, the local church (as a whole) has remained “true to My Name.” (Rev. 2:13).
So plainly, while the failure to enforce Church discipline, and to ensure that heresy isn't preached are important tasks of the Church (Jesus is rebuking them for these failures, after all), they don't render the Church not the Church. And if that's true on the local level, it's certainly true on the global.
III. The True Marks of the Church, And Why They Matter
The (Calvinist) Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) acknowledges that:
Since the fourth century, Christians, including the Reformers, have used the Nicene Creed as a confession of faith. Worshippers confess that they believe one holy catholic and apostolic church. However, since many sects claim the name "church," the Reformers asked what scripturally defined marks distinguish true and false churches? How can we identify where the true church of God is present? The Reformers are clear: Where the word of God is truly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline faithfully exercised, there the one true holy and apostolic church is present.
There are three important points to be made here.
- There are distinctive marks that the true Church must hold to, laid out by the Nicene Creed. The Creed, at the heart of orthodox Christianity, proclaims a belief in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” These are the Four Marks of the Church, and the Fathers point to them constantly. The True Church is a single Institution, is Holy, is Catholic, and has Apostolic Succession. Historically, there's no real question that the Nicene Fathers were referring to the visible Church, the very Church Calvin and the other Reformers broke away from and denied.
- The Reformers are the source of these new “Marks”: solid preaching, proper administration of the sacraments, and Church discipline faithfully exercised. And the Calvinists are divided over what these new Marks are, and how many there are. The Belgic Confession and the Orthodox Presbterian Church list these three, while Calvin himself listed only two (excluding Church discipline). Some Reformed Evangelicals now claim that there are nine marks (none of which are the four identified by the Nicene Creed). Yet we've already seen from Scripture that the Church remains the Church even where She fails to deliver on one of these two (or three, or nine) categories.
- The new “Marks” are divisive and unhelpful: The OPC notes that “many sects claim the name "church,"” but as an excuse for using the new “Marks.” But these sects can't credibly claim Apostolic Succession or Catholicity or Oneness. But every sect can (and does) claim proper preaching, sacraments, and Church discipline. We think Presbyterians have too few sacraments. They think we have too many. So the new “Marks” provide no serious basis for distinguishing between the Church and schismatics or heretics. It quickly devolves into “they disagree with me, so they're not really the Church.”
In fact, the new “Marks” were made for precisely that purpose. Calvin and the Reformers wanted to break away from the visible Church, and by creating heightened standards (including vague and impossible to prove or disprove criteria), they were able to justify it.
Let's use divorce as a parallel. There's no question that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and totally forbids it (Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18). But if you really wanted to divorce your husband, all you'd have to do is create a new checklist, claiming that a true husband gives his life up for his wife (Ephesians 5:25). So unless your husband has risked martyrdom for you, he's not really your husband, so you're free to leave.
Do you see the error there? A husband should do x, y, and z. But that doesn't mean he ceases to be your husband if he doesn't, or that you get to divorce him if he doesn't. There is such a thing as a lousy husband. By adding more and more things to the list of what it takes to be a true husband, you may sound pious, but you're really just adding more and more excuses for divorce.
Likewise, the Church has some lousy ministers. There are bad homilies, there are times when heresy has sprung up, and the Church has been slow in cracking down. And there are times when there are even invalid Sacraments: a heretical priest who refuses to use the Trinitarian formula, or changes the words of consecration. But those people are, short of excommunication, still a part of the Church. Judas was a bad Apostle. But he was still an Apostle, according to Scripture (Acts 1:20; Matthew 10:1-4).
And of course, even Reformed churches suffer from bad homilies, lax ministers, and the like. For example, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has complained that Church discipline is “the missing Mark,” in that it's so rarely exercised in the modern world. In other words, even most Reformed churches don't meet the Reformed definition of Church. So this vague and heightened definition destroys the Church, rather than building it up, or locating it.
Hopefully, this basic outline establishes a few things.
- The Church, from the beginning, has believed that there are four essential Marks by which we can know the true Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
- The Catholic Church possesses all four, in the sense understood by the Fathers of the Council.
- Protestant churches don't, since the Reformers deliberately broke the Oneness of the Church, and end Apostolic Succession.
- To justify these schisms, the Reformers invented new criteria that the Church must hold to, but they contradicted one another and the Church Fathers in so doing.
- These new standards are contrary to the Bible, are subjective, and have helped destroy the Oneness that the Nicene Creed calls for, and that Christ calls for (John 17:20-23).
So if you're looking to find the fullness of the Church established by Christ, look for the One that can credibly claim to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.