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Four Marks of the Church - An Excerpt from What Christians Ought to Believe
“One holy catholic and apostolic church.”
This phrase from the Nicene Creed is small, but action-packed. In today's excerpt from What Christians Ought to Believe, Mike Bird dissects it to help us understand the parameters--and the broadness--of the church.
The Marks of the Church
In every family there are certain telltale signs of someone belonging to it. It might be children who look like their parents with the same hair or eye color, or share a particular way of talking, or follow a particular sports team, or like certain foods, or who share certain habits. Similarly, there are several characteristics shared by all churches, features which show a family resemblance and indicate that this group of people is part of Jesus’s family, the church.
The first thing the Apostles’ Creed says about the church is that we believe in “the holy catholic Church.” The words “holy” and “catholic” are adjectives used to describe the nature of the church. The Nicene Creed expands this into “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Those four adjectives—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—have traditionally been known as the marks of the church by which you can know that you have the true church. These marks are easily the best headings to use to parse what we mean when we use the word church.
The oneness of the church derives from the electing purpose of God, who calls one people to be his treasured possession. God brought a people into being through the patriarchs by rescuing Israel and making a covenant with them, and the story of Israel is continued in the story of the church. The church has one head in Christ (1 Cor 11:3; Eph 4:15; 5:23; Col 2:10) and so it has only one body (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18, 24). This oneness entails the importance of unity among those who profess faith in God. Just as unity was vital for Israel (2 Chr 30:12; Ps 133), so it is also important for the church (John 17:23; Eph 4:13). Jesus prayed that his followers would be “one,” just as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:11, 21). For Paul, the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace is something to be earnestly pursued because “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6). The oneness of the church is beautifully symbolized in the one loaf of bread that we all share at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:17). No wonder that many Christians prayed these words during the Lord’s Supper: “As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever and ever.”
Sadly though, the church is not always unified or at one mind. The multiplicity of denominations is testimony to how badly the body of Christ has been rent into innumerable fellowships, with each thinking of itself as the only or truest part of Christ’s people. As much as we can lament the division and disagreement between the various Christian groups, it is worth remembering that diversity has always been part of the church’s life. You only have to read Luke’s account of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), listen to Paul recount the painful incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11–14), read Paul’s plea to the Corinthians against factionalism (1 Cor 1:10–17), and notice Paul’s attempt to reconcile two colleagues at odds with each other (Phil 4:2) to know that even the best of saints do not always get along and agree on important matters.
Diversity in the church has been an ever-present reality, yet often a good one since diversity brings together a multiplicity of gifts and graces. Christ’s one body has many parts (1 Cor 12:12, 18, 20). Diversity, even theological diversity, can mean riches for the body of Christ since we are forced to expand our horizons beyond our own faith and practices. Other traditions can help us overcome the blind spots in our own tradition. Catholics remind us of the ancient roots of the church. Baptists remind us that Christians are Bible people and the church is for believers. Methodists remind us about the importance of piety and personal holiness. Presbyterians remind us about God’s sovereignty and God’s covenant promises. Pentecostals remind us that God’s Spirit is still with us and not on sabbatical. Anglicans remind us to hold together the catholicity of our ancient faith with the protest of our Protestantism. Lutherans remind us to remain true to justification by faith.
Even among these diverse fellowships, the fact that they can all recite the Apostles’ Creed is proof that there is still one church professing a common faith in one God, through one Lord, in the power of one Spirit. While the church’s oneness is invisible and created by the Holy Spirit, even so we are called to translate our invisible unity into visible expressions. Thus the challenge for the churches is, as Paul told the assemblies in Rome, to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification” (Rom 14:19).
A further mark of the church is its holiness. The idea of holiness here does not mean that the church is entirely free of sin. I’ve visited enough churches to know that such is far from reality. The holiness that marks out the church is something that is both a divine gift and an urgent task.
Holiness is first of all bestowed by God’s consecration of the church to be his treasured possession. Then, secondly, God also calls his people to live in holiness before him. So on the one hand, believers are sanctified by virtue of their union with Jesus Christ, the Holy One (Acts 26:18; 1 Cor 1:30; 6:11; Eph 5:26; Heb 2:11; 10:29). Then on the other hand, Christians are to pursue holiness, to be holy just as God is holy (Lev 11:44; 19:2; Eph 1:4; 1 Thess 4:3, 7; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 12:14; 1 Pet 1:15–16).
A good example of this dual focus of holiness as gift and task can be found in the opening of 1 Corinthians where Paul writes, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people” (1:2; emphasis added). The holiness that Paul refers to here is both a position we have in Christ and also a calling to be appropriately lived out. Holiness is central to the mission of church. If the church is to make a difference, then it must be different. At the core of the church’s difference from the world we find its holiness.
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