False worship in biblical history, the distinguishing marks of a true church, examples of false churches & practical considerations for Christians in those groups.
A false church is where the Word of God and true gospel is not honored or taught, where the sacraments are not properly administered, and where church discipline is not faithfully exercised.
What is a false church?
In our age of toleration and retreating Christian culture, it may seem rude to suggest some churches are false while others are true. But the question is not new. As we will see, throughout Biblical and church history godly leaders have aimed to distinguish between true and false worship. In other words, the concepts of a “true church” and a “false church” are not new.
In this post I aim to review false worship in Biblical history, identify the distinguishing marks of a true church, and provide examples of false churches with practical considerations for Christians in those groups.
False Worship in Biblical History
False worship, the cornerstone of a false church, is not new.
In Genesis 4, we catch the first glimpse of true and false worship. Cain had become a farmer and offered up a portion of his harvest to God. His brother Abel, a shepherd, offered up the firstborn of his flock. God had regard for Abel’s sacrifice but not for Cain’s. In this instance, we see how Abel was a true worshiper of the Lord while Cain, a seemingly religious man, was a false worshiper. This was abundantly clear when he murdered his brother, a clear violation of God’s authority over all life (Genesis 4:8).
The Old Testament prophets also distinguished between worshiping the one true God (יַהְוֶה) and false gods. Elijah boldly called for God’s people to worship the LORD or Baal (1 Kings 18:21). Habakkuk made a clear division between a false idol that men created and the LORD who lived in his temple (Habakkuk 2:18-20). It seems when genuine faith ebbed, God would raise up men to clearly differentiate between true and false worship.
In the first century, the New Testament writers warned God’s people there would be false leaders. On multiple occasions Jesus warned of false teachers and false prophets, especially in the last days. (Matthew 7:15, Matthew 24:24).
The Apostles followed Jesus’ teaching regarding false teachers. Paul spoke of false teachers who preached to “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Peter also warned of false teachers among the professing people of God who would ultimately be judged for their heresies (2 Peter 2:1-3). Even John, the final New Testament author, warned of “false prophets” and “deceivers” (1 John 4:1, 2 John 1:7). The Bible makes it clear God’s people would deal with some who called themselves Christian teachers, but were not.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Matthew 7:15
Elements Of A True Church
Fast forward ~1,500 years to the Protestant Reformation. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Reformed theologians began to make distinctions between true and false churches, just as Biblical authors made distinctions between true and false worship and teaching. One of the more clear definitions of a true church was written in the The Belgic Confession, (1561). This early Reformed document states:
“The marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.”
There is much contained in these three elements. For one, the first principle excluded all “churches” where the Word of God was not properly taught. In the context of the Reformation, that meant the Catholic Church. The second principle excludes all groups where baptism and the Lord’s Supper were not properly administered similar to loosely organized groups of Christians. Finally, it excluded any group that did not exercise church discipline, also called excommunication. In our day, this third element is one of the more neglected marks of a true church.
According to the Belgic Confession, the churches who follow these principles of doctrine, sacraments, and discipline as outlined in the Scriptures are true churches. The groups that failed in any of these areas are false churches, though they claim to be Christian. Many theologians have agreed with these distinctions as being both Biblical and true and I think it’s a good starting point to understand what a false church is.
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5)
Examples of False Churches
As the Reformers pointed out, false churches are real. It seems from Revelation 2:5, that God will judge any congregation that refuses to follow his commands. One of those judgments is to remove its “lampstand from its place”. That judgment suggests the church will become false.
Some of the more prominent examples of so-called Christian groups that Reformed theologians have often considered false are…
- The Catholic Church
- The Orthodox Churches
- Liberal Protestant churches
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
- Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses)
This is not a comprehensive list of false churches. To review whether or not a church may be a false church, prayerfully review Watchman.org’s Index of Cults and Religions.
Ultimately, God alone makes the judgment of whether a church is true or false. The main point here is to recognize that false churches exist and to identify some distinctions theologians have made related to true churches and false churches.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1
If You’re In A Possible False Church…
Not everyone in a false church is a false Christian. No doubt there are many genuine Christians in congregations that are no longer Biblical churches. So being a member of a false church does not condemn every person in the group.
However, if you worship in a potential false church, prayerfully seek a more Biblical church. Look for a place where the Word of God and the gospel is taught, where the sacraments are properly administered, and where church discipline is exercised faithfully. If you see a congregation with these marks of a true church, you will find genuine fellowship with God’s people in true worship of the living God.