Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Four Marks of the Church, Part II

In Part I we examined the Nicene Creed as an important resource for teaching the Christian faith. For the purpose of Christian unity the Creed is a valuable point of reference which compresses the essence of Christian belief into brief but precise statements about God and His work in history. The Nicene Creed ought to be a tremendous asset in building solidarity among various Christian denominations. To that end we will now examine what are called the “Four Marks” of the Church as listed in the Creed…the Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. If we can come to an understanding of how the Church embodies these four ideals, then we may discover how Christian unity can best be achieved.

“We believe in one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church…"

1) The Church is ONE

We must always remember that Christ established only one Church. In fact, Jesus always referred to His Church in the singular, never plural. Whenever “churches” (plural) are mentioned in the New Testament it is always in reference to a collection of specific communities which together comprise the one, whole Church. But these communities of Christians are not independent of each other. Rather they are united into one “Body of Christ” with Jesus Himself as its Head (Ephesians 4:15-16). Christ has but one Body, and so Christ has but one Church. As Paul tells us, “there are many members yet one body.” (1Corinthians 12:20) Obviously Jesus’ intention was to build one unified Church, not multiple denominations or churches.

As evidence of this, Jesus prayed to His Father for the unity of His Church: “Holy Father, protect them in your name...so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11) We might ask ourselves: Would the Father and the Son disagree on doctrinal matters such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or Baptismal Grace, or the authority of Bishops? No, They would not. Yet many Christians have a distorted notion of Christ’s “Church” which pits one denomination against another, each radically opposed to the other on core doctrines. Does this fulfill the unity of Father and Son as Jesus prayed? Yet some Christians considered these fragmented groups to be part of the same “Church.” This cannot be the Biblical meaning of “oneness,” and it cannot be the meaning intended in the Creed. The Church cannot teach contradictory doctrines and yet be called “one.”

So in our quest for Christian unity, we must look for a single Body as the true Church of Christ. It cannot be that all Christian denominations together form a single Church when their doctrines are so contradictory. Authentic Christian unity must mirror the unity of the Father and the Son just as Jesus described.

2) The Church is HOLY

God is active in the Church, which makes the Church a holy institution: When Christ ascended to the Father in heaven, He did not leave the Church alone in its earthly mission: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” (John 14:16) This Advocate was none other than God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit: “…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:25-26)

The Spirit was sent to be with the Church “forever,” as Jesus promised. This abiding presence of the Holy Spirit ensures that the Church’s teaching will remain true: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…” (John 16:13) So, the Church received the Spirit from Jesus on that first Pentecost and was given the assurance that she would never be abandoned by the Spirit, and that this Spirit would guide her to all truth. It is this continuing presence of the Spirit of Truth which sanctifies (makes “holy”) the Church: “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17-19)

So in our quest for Christian unity, we know that there is ONE Church established by Jesus; and that He established that Church as a HOLY institution. She is assured the protection of the Spirit so that she cannot err in matters of faith. We know from Christ’s own promise, that the Spirit will abide forever with the Church to sanctify her in truth. So where is this one, holy Church?

In Part III we will examine the other two Marks of the Church, to seek and answer to this question…

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