Weijland, H.B.

Is Secession Allowed?



VII. Is Secession Allowed?

Observations on secession in the light of what the Belgic Confession is teaching on the true and the false church


The right question?

It cannot be denied that numerous reformational churches are becoming more and more disturbed about the divisions in their ranks. This is the case in churches which, due to their longtime ecumenical past, take a positive stance towards the World Council of Churches or a unity movement such as „Together on the Way” in the Netherlands. But also churches that used to be very critical of traditional ecumenicity now plead fervently for a „Together on the Way of all the Reformed.” Even the conservative wing of the Reformed community speaks openly of the „agony of being divided.” The habit of proudly underscoring the uniqueness of one’s own ecclesiastical community is now frequently decried as a sad state of affairs.

In the search for a responsible union, the Belgic Confession (1561) plays a dual role. On the one hand it confronts us with the penetrating question: How can we justify our internal fragmentation in the light of our common confession about „one catholic or universal church” (Art. 27)? It is a Church in which we „under the yoke of Jesus Christ” must obediently keep the unity of the church (Art. 28), a unity which we ought to strive for wholeheartedly and willingly in the strength of faith.

On the other hand, the same Confession impresses upon us the obligation to „diligently and very carefully” discern by the Word of God „what is the true church” (Art. 29). Through the marks of the pure preaching and administration of the sacraments that true church must be distinguished from all the sects that call themselves „the church.” Doesn’t it follow from these marks that one must take distance from all those who aren’t terribly concerned about purity, for instance in the application of ecclesiastical discipline?


This two-fold approach has occasioned the request to write a chapter on „the rights and boundaries of secession” in the light of the confession's teaching on the true and the false church. However, if the problem is thus formulated we believe some critical remarks are in order.

Was it really the desire of the Reformers to vindicate a „right” or, as the case may be, an „obligation” to secede from the Church? It is widely recognized that neither Luther nor Calvin had in mind to form a new and separate church alongside the Church of Rome. Their concern was not the right of secession but the right of the reformation of the church which had been turned by the pope and bishops into a caricature, a loveless mother who robs the children of their Father and needs evangelical cleansing. In other words, reformation is not an ecclesiastical goal in itself — the formation of an „ecclesia reformata semper reformanda” beside other chur-ches; its focus is always on another, already existing church, one that needs reformation! Not until that church, through its misuse of power and inquisition causes a break that cannot be healed, does the calling arise to withdraw oneself. And then, not from the church, but precisely from those who are not (no longer) of the church (Art. 28). Actually in Art. 28 the spiritual withdrawal is not the work of the reformers but of the persecutors, that is, those who through their disobedience to Christ have forfeited the right to be the true church! They are the ones who withdraw and they „act contrary to God’s ordinance” (Art. 28). It is they who place themselves outside the Catholica.

Yet, if that is how a schism has occurred, the true reformer may never forget the original object of his reformation. There must be a permanent appeal, a „prayer in the bond of faith,” from the „true” to the „false” church. Much may be expected, too, from the power of the Spirit who graciously will always leave his traces in a church which is „false.” In that sense a reformed church as a „church by itself,” will always remain an emergency shelter — something of which it must always remain aware — because a deep sense of responsibility for those who err is precisely what characterizes true catholicity.

So we observe in Articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession a close interwovenness between reformation and catholicity. Reformation


is as it were integral to the catholicity of the Church. The ecclesia reformata semper reformanda sentiment is not an incentive toward an ever continuing splintering, but rather a genuine catholic posture — for all churches and for the benefit of all Christians. The nobility of the true preaching is not that as a „secession church” one absconds with it as fast as possible, but that to the utmost it be put into the service of all who are willing to hear it. In that sense the idea of the „true church” must be carefully handled (Art. 29). It is noteworthy that the Confession mentions no church explicitly by name. Might it be inferred from this that the Confession aims to speak with reserve about the „true church as institute”? However much one is called to „join this assembly” (Art. 28), and however easily the false church can be identified by its excesses, an unmistakable vagueness remains — amidst the drive for reformation — about the boundaries of the true church.

This brings us back to the question, whether the „right” to secede is clearly deducible from the Confession. The very wording seems to point much more in the direction of a „sin” of secession, committed by the papists who through abuse of power and persecution had left the true Catholica.

Examining once again the history of the reformation churches, for example in the 19th century, the question arises if our fathers were sufficiently mindful of this fact in the progressive fracturing of the church. The „true-false” distinction, intended to label the break with the Catholica of those who sided with the pope — was wrongly refashioned into an argument to go new ways and to be a „free church.” Their sincere intention to serve the Lord according to his Word was obscured by this wrong use of the idea of secession. To what extent has this shift from „secession-as-sin” (a break because a church has become false) to the „right-of-secession” (assembling because one is true church) obscured the vision of the Catholica as a union of all God’s children? Herman Bavinck in his address on „The Catholicity of Christianity and Church” correctly points out that secession can never be an article of faith (35). Let us further sharpen this danger of a wrong approach to the issue of a right to secession.

If the Confession judges „secession” so negatively, seeing it as


the abandonment of the Catholica by Romish oppression, how do Reformed churches think they can apply to each other the scheme „true-false” on which that negative judgment rests? Suppose that in the past, with government oppression and blatant liberalism, this might have been possible, is it still a viable option, relevant to today’s ecumenical relationships? When we today employ the true-false scheme to justify permanent separation, are we listening to the judgment of history that teaches us that churches, which at the time we believed we had to leave were impure, will not always remain bereft of the influence of the Spirit?

Besides the question regarding the judgment of history, there is also the question whether human beings can ever provide a biblically warranted assessment of ecclesiastical schisms. Apart from situations such as in the 16th Century, when God’s children were persecuted, tortured and burned at the stake, it is extremely hard to get a handle on what it means that some churches are more pure, others less so. The Confession rightly employs here the terms „diligently and very carefully” (Art. 29), for the fact is that some churches are „right” dogmatically (for instance on the doctrine of election) and are often „wrong” ethically (for instance through quarrels and faction formation). It is better to leave to the Lord the judgment about all those sad schisms in our Reformed legacy of schisms that often pitted parents against children and tore whole families apart.

This brings us to a third problem. We believe that Christ is the Head of his Church, also in its visible form. Does this mean that if through controversy this Church falls apart into various factions, Christ also chooses for a certain faction? And suppose that such is the case, does this mean that from then on He dwells only with the one group and not with the other? Or must we say that his presence is not dependent on our schisms? If the latter is the case — as we acknowledge by recognizing the validity of each other's administrations of baptism — doesn’t this make all our talking about certain dates in church history (for instance 1834) as an act of God highly relative? Can we call it a proof that God is for what is true and against what is false? Doesn’t this make the „value” of church splits very relative, and can’t this be turned into an argument either never to go along with a church split or — the reverse — to make the crossing from one to the other very easy


because it is only a matter of „more or less pure” (Westminster Confession, 25.4) in the one (invisible?) church?

In brief, if secession is in conflict with the spirit of the Confession’s speaking about the Catholica, what are we searching for? And if secession for the sake of the true church is permissible, what would its value be in the light of the Catholica?


A way out of the dilemma?

The Introduction to this volume has mentioned the dilemma between catholicity and secession. It was stated that there seems to be no way to keep secession for truth's sake and catholicity for unity’s sake in harmonious relation. In the reformation churches this has led to the conclusion that we have downplayed catholicity and upgraded secession.

If it is a fact that secession is not an article of faith but something that we may be forced to resort to by those who „are not of the church,” how do we escape from the dilemma in which reformation churches have entangled themselves for so many years? What does it mean to be obedient to the command of Christ in this opposing problem of truth and oneness?

To gain perspective on these questions, we wish to say first that all Christians who use the term Catholica should humble themselves before God about the total failure of the church in this matter and the spiritual estrangement of its members. None of us is wholly innocent, for we have been unable to hold on to each other. Also, when we observe error and apathy in others we must always acknowledge that the dividing line between true and false runs first through our own heart (Bavinck). That entails not only a constant threat of disobedience or onesidedness in the study of the faith — now we know only in part and imperfectly (I Cor 13) — but it means especially that everyone of us is guilty of not having enough time for others, of not listening long enough to one another, and of failing to talk out our differences. The papers with which we attack one another often lay atop the Bible and serve as our basic perspective. Catholic truth is not something that can be imposed as a hierarchical system by a majority nor is it


the brilliant discovery of just a few. Catholic truth is a matter of reading Scripture in the koinonia. Koinonia does not suggest a carefully guarded fortress, nor a boundless space, but a tension-charged field in which we try together to understand the saving wonder of an (almost two thousand years old) Word of God as gospel for our time. Ecclesiologically speaking, the great sin we commit is not that someone arrives at a „wrong reading,” but that in the struggle to grasp and do the truth, we prematurely let each other go. Since „by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (I Cor 12: 13) it follows that our belonging together and being responsible for each other — in that one ecumenical baptism! — is irrevocable before God, even as the election of all Israel is also irrevocable before him (Rom 11: 29). The Catholica is rooted in the one covenant of grace of the Lord. If that is the way it is, then the Catholica may never be down-played.

One may now ask, Where, then, in this tension-charged field of the Spirit is there room for the struggle for the truth which we also need to profess together? Wasn’t there a brutal papalism in the 16th Century that strangled the freedom of conscience? Wasn’t there then and isn’t there today a rank liberalism which laughs at the fundamental tenets of the Gospel? Isn’t there also the constant danger of overstepping the boundaries of toleration? It must be acknowledged that the defense of the faith on all these fronts is directly tied to the spiritual wellbeing of a great many people. Isn’t it therefore mandatory to draw clear church-dividing lines?

What ought to be the focus in actualizing the obedience to Christ with respect to being genuinely Catholica? Should the emphasis be on the „separation passages” or on those that call us to „resist to the face?” Is Bavinck right when he pleads not to seek an „external oneness” and to let go of whatever does not „inwardly belong together” (39)? Or does J.H. Gunning point to a better way when he says that the church must show its holiness „in the way of what is common?” Since, the church cannot be holy and fragmented at the same time, is the criterion for the holiness of the church an optimum of purity or an optimum of togetherness?

To get a biblical perspective on the problem we wish to take our starting point in Paul’s familiar and ecclesiologically relevant passage to the Ephesians:


And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God (Eph 3: 18,19).

Here the apostle offers us a guideline for ecclesiastical association with each other. It is a key which has only rarely, no matter how often it has been read — least of all in the Reformational tradition — been understood as condemning our divisions.

The regularly emerging misconception, especially in the Reformed tradition, is the idea that the holiness of the church depends on the measure of the purity of the church. The point, however, is that whatever may threaten the gospel, the central issue is the quality of the Catholica. Therefore it is purity that ought to be our concern if we wish to continue to be a true church. It is remarkable how in this passage from Ephesians Paul shows us a church with „saints” who do not all think or act alike. They are „saints” who are „pure” in many different ways: in height, depth, length and breadth.

To our situation this truth could be applied to include that some are saints in the height of doctrine and others in the depth of experience. Some saints are pure in the breadth of ecumenicity, others in the length of the apostolate or dialogue. Even as in Corinth there were diverse spiritual gifts, so also in the present Catholica diverse gifts of obedience meet each other.

Here the apostle warns us against a striving after holiness all by itself by putting purity (now in doctrine) over against purity (then in the apostolate). He admonishes us to bear in mind that we are not as holy as we may think — and thus also not as pure as we may surmise! — if we are not completely holy, and all of us together.

If we aim at holiness by itself, such holiness may seem beautiful and important, but in reality it pertains to only one facet of the Church as Body of the Lord. In other words, the purity of the church which we profess — and which we also ought to strive for through the service of Word and sacrament — does not lie in the various facets, let alone in individual pieces, but in the communion that exists together with all the saints. This „together with”


is the more excellent way (I Cor 12: 31) and the key toward genuine holiness, because it is the key to the knowledge of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3: 19).

It may sound strange to our ears and, perhaps as in conflict with our tradition, but I hold that Paul means that a church is holy in the measure in which the salvation in Christ can be experienced in it together with a greater number of saints. For the purifying working of God’s grace cannot be rightly professed and believed if we are fragmented. The salvation that God gives us freely for the sake of Christ is so tremendous that it should bring us together, not drive us apart. To the extent that we heed that challenge we shall be able, as a true church, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is. Only when we are rooted and grounded in that love can we discover that the way of reformation is not the route of secession, that purifies the church in our own ranks and in our external relations.

This starting point should caution us not to appeal too quickly to the so-called expulsion passages (1 Cor. 5: 13 etc.) to justify a secession from the church. However much these verses embody an incentive toward a scripturally faithful exercise of church discipline, the question, in the face of specific (for the time being remaining) impurities is: Must one now also secede from that person's church?

Neither in the letters to the Corinthians, nor in the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor — notwithstanding the call to practice discipline! — do we read of a „right” to remove the lampstand or to walk off with it. That right Christ emphatically reserves for himself (Rev 2: 5).


Two confessions, two viewpoints

In what we have now said, have we really found a way out of the circle of truth and oneness, both of which we want to profess in their coherence? Does our position not amount to an overexposure of the koinonia, which threatens to downplay the truth and to make every form of secession for the sake of the truth objectionable? Does it not appear that such an approach puts us


on a collision course with that other line in Scripture in which the Church as God’s household is called the „pillar and foundation of the truth” (I Tim 3: 15)? For Scripture also calls constantly to „guard what has been entrusted to one’s care” (I Tim 6: 20). The question can even be asked — if it is a matter of weighing the two — whether striving after truth would not be better for the saints than a cherishing of oneness. That is why in our time some people, including the Reformed community, argue against ecumenicity and for a „mandatory ecclesiastical dividedness” so as „to unmask all specious oneness” (such as alleged to be in the „Together on the Way” movement in the Netherlands). If deformation has crept into the church and the call for reformation goes unheeded, one must be more obedient to God than to people and break with that institution which no longer is the household of the living God. Did the Reformers advocate such a presumed mandatory ecclesiastical dividedness? Before we answer let us take another look at the manner in which the relationship between truth and oneness was handled in the 16th Century.


The 16th Century Position

The many creeds of that era, despite differences in design, exhibit a remarkable consensus regarding the doctrine of the church. With Rome, the Reformers on the European continent agreed that there could be only one Church, even as we profess one God, one Mediator and one covenant of grace. Furthermore, with Rome, the Calvinists emphatically stressed the visibility of this church. However much the true church is based on election and however much the true faith itself is invisible, it did not enter their mind to evaporate their status as church — faced with the powerful Roman institution — into a spiritual oneness. On the contrary, this gathering is a res publica Christi in which the fruits of the true faith become manifest: in concrete obedience to Christ as the sole Head, in witness and sacrificial service. The mark of true proclamation is audible, and the mark of the pure administration of the sacraments is visible. Precisely because the true church is visible, it is easily distinguishable from the false church; even a child can see the difference (cf. Belgic Conf., Art. 29)!

Furthermore, the visibility of the true church demonstrates that,


in contrast to the falseness of the persecutors, it was not the Reformers but the Roman Catholic Church that bade goodbye to the Catholica, the flock that heeds the voice of the Good Shepherd.

If the Reformers speak also of the invisibility of the true Church, they do so because this Church is not so securely tied to its marks that outside it no elect would be found, even as within it there may also be hypocrites (cf. Conf. Helv. Post., Art. 17). The Lord knows who are His. Apart from that, the Reformers maintained the public character of the true Church as a „coetus visibilis” (Erlauthaler Bekenntnis, Muller, p. 289), as a „church-everyone can hear” (Conf. Geneva, 1536, Art. 18). Calvin sums it up in his Institutes as follows: „Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called ‘church’ in respect to men” (IV, I, 7). That is the church which „the Lord by certain marks and tokens has pointed out to us” (IV, I, 8).

Clearly, the original Calvinist tradition left no room for a construction in which the invisibility of the true church could serve as an alibi for dividedness among the Reformed churches over against the „oneness” of the Roman institution. The particular churches may have great differences, may even err, locally, regionally and nationally, but they may not set themselves over against each other as visible parts of an invisible true church. On the contrary, it is worth the effort to cross all the great seas (Calvin!) to keep the flock of Christ from falling apart. Therefore it is very important that the right relation between truth and oneness be maintained, lest one fall headlong into schism. In this Scripture is the guide (Conf. Helv. Post., Art. 17).


The Caution of the Belgica

Here we touch on a sensitive point which raises numerous questions. It is remarkable how cautious the Belgic Confession is on this point. Drafted to be presented to king Philip II of Spain, it avoided provocative statements. Therefore it contains no designation of the Roman Catholic Church as a „synagogue of


Satan” or of the pope as the antichrist. In the articles about the Church, the Roman Catholic Church is not even mentioned by name. Only indirectly — as in a mirror — it is pointed out to her that she bears the marks of the false church. This manner of witnessing against the Roman Catholic Church is unique in the Reformed confessions. The marks of what constitutes a false church are found in no other creedal document. As we shall see in greater detail below, this context ought to caution us against the wrong use of these marks by our churches in dealing with each other.

In line with that anonymity, Articles 27 to 29 of the Belgic Confession speak very reservedly about the distinction between invisible and visible church. The words are not even mentioned. The setting shows that for the Belgic Confession the one Catholic church, with Christ as its Head, is „in the eyes of men” visible as well as invisible, with the accent falling clearly on the visible. Note the following passages: „though still joined and united” (Art. 27); „keeping the unity of the church” (Art. 28); „discern diligently and very carefully . . . what is the true church” (Art. 29); „The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks . . .” (Art. 29).

In defending itself in this visible form on two fronts, against Rome and against the Anabaptists, in its testimony on the church, the Confession exhibits a remarkable variation between the beginning and the end of Art. 29. It ends by saying that the true church can easily be distinguished from the false church (i.e., Rome), but at the beginning it says that the same true church must be very carefully distinguished from all sects „in the world today” (at that time in particular the Anabaptists) which „claim for themselves the name of ‘the church’”. In between the beginning and the end of the article, the Church becomes manifest in the pure preaching of the gospel and the pure administration of the sacraments. It is not further indicated how far this being pure ought to be carried out. No boundary is indicated at which oneness ought to be traded in for truth and truth ought to be relinquished for the sake of oneness. The tension that is part of the search for the manner in which the trueness and oneness of the Church is best expressed remains.


An Intentional Lack of Clarity

Surveying the total picture, it can be said that the Belgic Confession exhibits an intentional lack of clarity with respect to the true church. For against Rome the Confession refuses to absolutize the true-church character of the Calvinist tradition while against the sects it refuses to relativize this claim. In the Confession there is a struggle toward expressing the scriptural ideal of being an unbroken church, without giving up the conviction of being a visible flock of the Lord. As long as the tension between truth and oneness is still present and there is the search for the highest and best (potissimum), secession is a rash act (temere, Helv. Post, ib.) and contrary to God’s ordinance (Art. 28). It is the sin of henceforth refusing to keep the Catholica in mind.

The Reformed confessions in England, Scotland and Ireland point in a different direction. This may be due in part to the fact that the church not only had to deal with the power of the Roman Catholic Church (Scotland and Ireland), but also with the dominant position of the Anglican Church.

Unlike the confessions of the European continent, the Scots Confession of 1560 calls the Catholica, which is the company of the elect, an invisible church, known only to God. Outside this church as Body of Christ there is no salvation (Art. 16). Through the marks of the true preaching of the Word, the lawful administration of the sacraments and the strict exercise of discipline, this church becomes manifest in many places as the true church (against the Roman Catholic Church as synagogue of Satan). It is not as the universal church but as a local church that the true church is visible, such as for example in Corinth and in Ephesus. In case of controversy or apostasy, an appeal should not be made to human powers (the pope) but to the Spirit who speaks in the Scriptures and never contradicts himself (Art. 18).

In the same line, the Irish Articles (1615) think of the Catholica as the invisible church. Visible are the „particular churches” which are „many in number.” The problem of judging these churches in case of disagreement among them is „resolved” by calling them „more or less pure” in the measure that „more or less sincerely” they manifest the mark of the true church. Remarkably,


a large measure of evil can be tolerated in the visible church, yes, even if „the evil have chief authority in the administration of the Word and Sacraments.” For the grace of Christ is not taken away by their „wickedness”, though the exercise of careful discipline remains essential (Art. 70).


The Westminster Confession of Faith

This line of thinking receives its most extensive development in Article 25 of the Westminster Confession. The catholic or universal church is invisible and consists of the whole number of the elect (1). The visible church, which is also catholic and universal under the New Testament, consists of all who profess the true religion, and is the house and family of God, outside of which „there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (2). This Catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible (3). The particular churches which are members of that church are „more or less pure” in the measure that „doctrine,” „ordinances,” and „worship” are „performed more or less purely in them” (4). Also the purest churches are subject to „mixture and error” and can even degenerate into a synagogue of Satan (5). Christ is the head of the Church. The pope is the Antichrist (6).

The church concept of the Westminster Confession is based on the distinction between the invisible and the visible church. The latter manifests itself in separate churches „which are members thereof,” and which are more or less pure. In distinction from the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession speaks in this connection not only of hypocrites in the Church („mixture”), but also of „error,” even in the purest of churches. Furthermore, the boundary of separation from Rome is more sharply delineated, but the demarcation from the „sects” evaporates into a gradation of values.

It is remarkable how this thinking in terms of pluriformity in the true Church could issue in a plea for a form of ecumenicity: The communion of the saints must — if God should make it possible — be extended „unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (Art. 26, 2.).


For a fair comparison between the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession we need to realize that the latter was drafted 86 years after the former at a time when the internally divided Reformation had crystallized into a number of separate churches. Now, almost a century after the exciting idealism of the early period, in which the Reformation emphatically stressed, in opposition to Rome, the obligation to join the one Catholica as the recognizable and hence visible true church, could no longer be sustained. That ideal had to yield to a practical realism of a pluriform status quo which moved the Westminster Divines to explain the dividedness with the use of an „invisible/visible scheme.” However, this did have certain important consequences.

There was first a shift in the function of the marks of the church. In the Belgic Confession they are specifically used to distinguish the true church from false churches and sects. In the Westminster Confession they serve as a kind of thermometer for determining the extent to which denominations are more or less pure.

The argument of the pure preaching of the Word and of the administration of the sacraments also begins to function differently. Whereas in the Belgic Confession these marks served to bring about purification from Romish and sectarian taints (in other words, „pure” has a specific address!), in the Westminster Confession the scheme „more or less pure” turns purity into a constantly to be pursued goal in itself, with all the risks of purism and puritanism involved. It means that switching over to other churches is no longer terribly serious and objectional, provided it is done in the service of reaching the goal of purity. After all, our duty is to strive for the highest gifts and the various churches are all members of the one in visible-visible Catholica.

Here the motif of seceding from a denomination receives a different focus. In the Belgic Confession secession is perpetrated either by Rome in its inquisition which persecuted and executed genuine believers, or by all sorts of sects which rashly broke the equilibrium between truth and oneness. For that matter, it would be unthinkable that a testimony intended for Philip II would plead for something like seceding from a church. To the best of my knowledge the word „secession” is not found in the


Westminster Confession, but that does not alter the fact that a transfer from a less pure to a more pure church was a real option. Moreover, the obligation to break with those churches that have degenerated into a „synagogues of Satan” is assumed to be almost self-evident.

If this would have been all, the Reformed churches — in a kind of mutual openness — could have lived with the ecclesiology of the Westminster Confession. However, a further development took place which has had serious consequences for the mutual relations among the Reformed churches, to which we will have to return briefly in a final paragraph. Let us return to the Belgica.


The circuitous route of the true-false scheme

We have noted that only the Belgic Confession spells out in detail the marks of the false church. This enabled it to hold up a mirror to Rome, without mentioning Rome by name, and charging that it had departed from the gospel. It did convey the idea that it is Rome that stations itself above the Word of God, which adds to and substracts from the sacraments, and which cruelly persecutes believers who rebuke it for its greed and idolatry (Art. 29). In this context the true-false distinction functions as a clear historical line of demarcation.

We have already pointed out that this concrete historical address should make us extremely cautious not to apply these marks in a general way to churches for which they were not written. After all, there is not one confession from that era in which the charge of being false church was explicitly directed to fellow Reformed churches. Unfortunately in subsequent history this reserve was certainly not observed. For instance, in The Netherlands the true-false scheme was used almost as fiercely in church splits among Protestant churches as against Rome.


How could this happen?

The Belgic Confession itself contributed to this misuse through its failure to apply consistently the marks of being true or false to


other groups. In Article 29 the marks of a false church evidently refer to Rome. Hence the final conclusion is that these true and false churches can easily be recognized and distinguished from each other. However, the marks of being a true church are meant not only to identify this church over against Rome, but they serve also to mark it off from the sects which „claim for themselves the name of ‘the church’.” This last demarcation — „diligently and very carefully” — is much more difficult than the one against Rome. The boundaries to the side of the sects were much more fluid.

In the Confession itself the danger loomed of a wrong use of the true-false distinction. If they are applied to the sects, the danger is that the marks will also be applied to fellow churches.

Later on this wrong use of the marks was accelerated when the idealistic view of the Belgic Confession concerning the Catholica as the visible gathering of believers — from which no one ought to be separated (Art. 29) — had to yield to the realistic view of the Westminster Confession on the church as a plurality of separate churches, all members of the one Catholica. This type of looking at the church as a plurality made it appear as if secession from authoritarian and liberalism-tolerating churches, for the sake of the truth, was a divine command. There was, so it was thought, an imperative to move from the „less” to the „more pure.”

In the difficult struggle to justify the 19th century secessions in the Netherlands the arguments were burdened with the true-false scheme of the Belgic Confession, even though the true-false distinction was not intended for such a situation as then prevailed. No more fitting was the term „synagogue of Satan” of the West-minster Confession.

Here then is the circuitous route of the true-false scheme in the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands: The distinction was detached from the ideal of the Belgic Confession (marking off the boundaries of the one Catholica from which no one ought to be separated), and via the pluralist concept of the church of the Westminster Confession it began to function as a weapon with which Reformed churches could oppose each other.


To be able to use the true-false scheme as a weapon, individual marks (for example the lack of discipline) were at times detached from the whole so as to make it possible to point to churches as objects of secession. It happened, too, that the notae ecclesiae were interchanged. This made it possible to label specific churches as false, not because they bore the marks of being false, but because they lacked the marks of being true church.

When a true-false distinction — intended as a urgent appeal to maintain the one Catholica against inquisitional hierarchy and sectarianism — is applied by way of the ecclesiology of the Westminster Confession to other churches: it breaks apart and destroys. Churches have pitted themselves against each other and the awareness of being responsible for each other is almost totally lost.



The question whether secession would be allowed under the church concept of the Westminster Confession should up to a point be answered in the affirmative: secession should be permitted provided one does not adopt a true-false scheme, and maintains a „holy fellowship and communion” with all who „in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (Art. 26, 2.).

From the perspective of the Belgic Confession a much more restrained answer is required. Precisely the force of the true-false distinction compels us to wrestle to the utmost in trying to hold on to each other. For it is only in extreme situations that the charge of being false can authentically be made. For example, when what is patently evangelical is brutally repressed and when genuine believers are made to suffer hard persecution. Beyond that it may well be true that what God has joined together in baptism, let no one put asunder by seceding.