16th century Protestant Confessions on the marks of the true church

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Protestantism sought to place the church upon a different foundation than that which was perceived in Rome. As the Ten Theses of Berne, a 1528 Reformed confession, put it in its first thesis:

“The holy, Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger.”

Early Protestants believed the true church to exist in those places, but only in those places, in which they found the gospel preached and the sacraments rightly administered. This was not only the case with the Reformed, but also with Lutherans and Anglicans, as the Augsburg Confession (1530) and Thirty-Nine Articles (1571) show respectively:

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Augsburg Confession (Lutheran), Article VII: Of the Church

“Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4, 5. 6.”

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Thirty-Nine Articles (Anglican), Article XIX. Of the Church (in part)

“The visible Church of Christe, is a congregation of faythfull men, in the which the pure worde of God is preached, and the Sacrarnentes be duely  ministred,  accordyng  to Christes ordinaunce in all those thynges that of necessitie are requisite to the same.”

In this pairing, the preaching of the Word held the primacy, especially with the Reformed, who demonstrated this liturgically by moving the pulpit to the centre of the church, for the preaching of the Word was the “abiding mark” that rendered all else within the church intelligible. The condemnation of “synagogues of the devil” in the Genevan Confession below (1536; written by Guillaume Farel and John Calvin) is mitigated, but only somewhat, by Calvin’s acknowledgment that vestiges of the church still exist among the Roman Catholics:

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Genevan Confession, Article 18 – The Church

“While there is one only Church of Jesus Christ, we always acknowledge that necessity requires companies of the faithful to be distributed in different places. Of these assemblies each one is called the Church. But in as much as all companies do not assemble in the name of our Lord, but rather to blaspheme and pollute him by their sacrilegious deeds, we believe that the proper mark by which we rightly discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacrament be properly administered, even if there be some imperfections and faults, as there always will be among men. On the other hand, where the Gospel is not declared, heard, and received, there we do not acknowledge the form of the Church. Hence the churches governed by the ordinances of the pope are rather synagogues of the devil than Christian churches.”

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John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.ii.12

“Therefore, while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them. The question we raise only relates to the true and legitimate constitution of the Church, implying communion in sacred rites, which are the signs of profession, and especially in doctrine.”

Interestingly, the Belgic Confession (1561) would go on to add a third mark of the true church, that of church discipline:

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Belgic Confession, Article 29: The Marks of the True Church

“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.’

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.

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.”