What Is A False Church?

By Brandon Clay / August 19, 2018

False worship in biblical history, the distinguishing marks of a true church, examples of false churches & practical considerations for Christians in those groups.

Short Answer

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.

Long Answer

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…

  1. The Catholic Church
  2. The Orthodox Churches
  3. Liberal Protestant churches 
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
  5. 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.


Brandon Clay is a Christian (Reformed Baptist) and an apologist. He earned a BA in history from the University of Texas and an MA in theological studies from Southern Seminary. Brandon is married and has 4 children, one of whom (Knox) is now with the Lord.

15 responses to “What Is A False Church?”

  1. […] the Church, and Christ’s sacrifice for all sins of his people, I believe the Catholic Church is a false church. Likewise, anyone who holds to these non-Biblical doctrines consciously is not a true Christian. […]

  2. Eric Parry says:

    There is no true church in existence today and God remains silent.
    The church died out when the last apostle died and there was no one left to pass on the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands.
    But the church will be restored when Elijah returns to Israel to preach to the Jews. Then a new generation of saints will be revealed from the tribes of Israel and the gospel will again be preached, first in Israel and then to the world. The Jewish nation as a whole will once again reject the gospel and will come under severe condemnation and punishment beginning with drought and famine.
    Israel will be invaded by the Arabs and many Jews taken into captivity into Arab countries.
    Jerusalem will be captured and half of the inhabitants deported to Babylon for three and a half years. Then Jesus will return and the saints will be resurrected and harvested. The beast will be destroyed and some of the captives will return to Israel.

    • Eric – thanks for dropping by. Haven’t heard that one before. That’s a pretty dangerous idea to suggest the church doesn’t exist any longer on earth. Not sure what you do with Matthew 16:18, specifically: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Sounds like hell is stronger than the church in your theology.

  3. Tore Orvik says:

    What element(s) of the three, would you say put’s Prosperity/Word of faith church movement on the list of false churches? Please give me grounds for your answer.

    • A fair question, Tore. The short answers is #1, “the pure doctrine of the gospel is not preached.” No doubt, there are elements of truth in Word of Faith churches, as there are elements of truth in other false churches. But the issue with Word of Faith is the emphasis on earthly prosperity and health over heavenly prosperity and reconciliation to God through Jesus. The movement is den of false teachers. Paul warned us about them he said “among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Timothy 6:5) You really don’t have to look further than their private jets and mansions to know you’re dealing with people who follow the man “who had no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

      This is not to say their aren’t Christians in some of their churches. But it is to say a true church will be more God-exalting and Bible-focused where the pure gospel is taught and practiced by humble followers of Christ.

      • UPDATE to Post (May 2020): I have removed “Word of Faith” from the list of false churches. Although there are many false teachers in the ‘Word of Faith’ movement, this movement is so diverse it’s difficult to say all such associated churches are false.

  4. Nyanisile says:

    Why at other churches,pastors use de drunkers,people who are not born again to whorship even ushers,their commit is only people who has money,some of them they dont want you to use your gift,they swipe you to other possition,and why they continue to call jesus,

    • Hi Nyanisile – I think what you’re asking is why do churches tolerate bad behavior in their members and visitors. There are multiple reasons why, one of which could be they are not a true church. But not necessarily. Another reason is that false teachers could have infiltrated the church and they are allowing bad behaniors. Paul spoke of some bad actors that would come into the Ephesian church after he left, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). So it’s possible that’s the issue – but again, not necessarily. Only the Lord knows.

  5. […] to be the “one true church” (ex. LDS / Mormon church), this is good sign that “church” is a false church or […]

  6. Scott Horne says:

    I’ve been to the church pictured when I lived in Iceland for three and a half years. Good insight brother.

  7. Randy Q. Porton says:

    I believe in the Holy Catholic Church who founded by God himself. No other churches can prove it. I believed in all the Saints and the Bible. Jesus, the God the Son built the church in Matthew 16:18 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. The true church will be scattered all around the world so it should be Catholic or Universal so everyone could join. I believed in all the miracles happened in the Catholic because it is his true one Church… Amen…..

    • Brandon Clay says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Randy. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has diverged from the biblical gospel and has substituted it for a system of works righteousness. A so-called church can claim a line of teaching and tradition from the Apostles, but that’s not the standard of truth. The biblical gospel is. As Paul wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9)

  8. Rebecca Rogers says:

    I think I understand what you mean about the Catholic Church being a false church. I grew up Catholic, but had serious questions and doubts as to what I was seeing and experiencing. I would just like to be 100% sure of your answer. They keep changing the rules? The hypocritical? They’re political and have been sold out by greed? They hide and lie and protect pedophiles? I appreciate any feedback as to my interpretation of the Catholic Church.
    Thank you

    • Brandon Clay says:

      Thanks for the question, Rebecca. Though I was not raised to be a Catholic, my father was Catholic and I attended many Catholic services growing up. Many on my father’s side of the family are still Catholic and I love them. I say that as a preface to say I take no pleasure in placing the Catholic Church in the same list as other pseudo-Christian groups. Because they reject the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), they are not a true church. That form of religion may have led to many problems including pedophilia, etc. which is horrible. But the core issue is their perspective on salvation and authority. Here’s a better overview: https://theolocast.org/blog/catholic-church-protestant-perspective/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *