Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Four Marks of the Church, Part III

In Parts I and II we began examining the Nicene Creed as a fundamental statement of Christian belief and source of doctrinal unity among Christians in the world today. Specifically we have focused on one line from the Creed – “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.” This passage identifies “Four Marks” of the Church as described by the early Christians who composed the Creed.

Having reviewed the meaning of the first two Marks (that the Church is One and Holy) we now consider the Church as Catholic and Apostolic

3) The Church is CATHOLIC

The word catholic means “universal” (from the Greek katholikos). By saying that the Church is “catholic” we are recognizing that Christ intended His message for the whole world: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) So Church is meant to be universal – that is, for all peoples, at all times, and in all generations. Christ’s Church, if she is to be true to Jesus’ command, must actively seek followers around the world: “...make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you...” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Jesus’ Church cannot remain isolated in one nation or region or among only one cultural group, cutting herself off from the rest of creation. This would not reflect the universal (catholic) mission that Christ commanded. The true Church of Christ should be focused on actively carrying out the mission of evangelizing all of creation just as Christ commanded. The true Church must be catholic.

Thus far in our study of the Four Marks, we have a Church that is One, Holy and Catholic. So how do the various Christian denominations stack up?

Well, most of the thousands of Christian denominations we find today do not have a global reach. How can an independent mega-church in Anytown, U.SA., with only one or two locations and a few thousand members be the same universal Church referred to in the Bible and the Creed? Such a church may be one (even as small as it is) and they may certainly strive to be holy (as we all do), but they are definitely not catholic (universal) as Jesus established His Church to be. How can we call a church “catholic” in the truest sense of the word, when it is so exclusively identified with only one nation or one region or even one city or neighborhood and is not striving to “make disciples of all nations”?

Frankly there are many denominations today that have grown up within a certain cultural setting or among a particular people, churches that are rooted in a spiritual movement or even a political movement. Most of these churches are so narrow in scope that it would be impossible to call them universal. Such churches can only represent a very limited expression of Christianity. For this reason it would seem doubtful that any of these are the same Church referred to in the Creed.

In their defense, it might be argued that most of these Christian denominations have sprung up relatively recently, and so have not had sufficient time to reach a global (or catholic) scale. Given enough time they may reach other cultures and peoples and be more truly universal. But therein lays the final blow against them. They are so very new that they cannot possibly represent the true Church. The fourth Mark of the Church demonstrates this point…

4) The Church is APOSTOLIC

By Apostolic we mean that the Church can trace itself to the Apostles, in an unbroken chain of believers throughout history. What began with Christ and His unique mission as God’s Son was passed on in an uninterrupted line of succession, like a torch handed from one to another, down through the centuries, until today. It is the “torch” of Christ’s own Light…

Christ came as a Light to the World. When He ascended into heaven, He established His Church on earth to be the continuing presence of His own divine Light: “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others…” (Matthew 5:14-16) Jesus promised that this Light will not fade or disappear. His light will not be hid beneath a bushel basket, but rather placed on a lamp stand. (Mark 4:21)

The first to bear the Light of Christ were the Apostles. They received it from Jesus Himself and they passed this Light on to the next generation…and then to the next, and so on, throughout history. In every century, from the time of the Apostles to our own time, we should see the same Church, a Light to the world, as a continuous chain of believers in the one Body of Christ. Jesus promised this Church would not fade or be destroyed, but would be passed on from Apostolic Times. Jesus said,  “…I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Nothing – not even the powers of hell – can destroy the Church.

So to whom did the Apostles “hand on” this Light of Christ? Was a line of succession established for the leaders who came after the Apostles?

As an answer we read Paul’s command to Timothy: “The things which you have heard from me through many witnesses you must hand on to trustworthy men who will be able to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2) We see here that the ministry of authority and leadership in the Church was handed on since New Testament times. The Apostles immediately set about organizing Jesus’ Church, installing trustworthy teachers who would continue their ministry of leadership. Paul instructs Titus in this way: “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you…” (Titus 1:5) And Paul says that these leaders deserve obedience for “they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful to you.” (Heb 13:17)

Now certainly, every Christian denomination has some form of leadership (ministers, preachers, elders), but how many can claim that their leadership traces directly to the Apostles themselves? Most of the thousands of Christian churches can only trace their existence back to some split with another Christian group or denomination. The founders of these churches lived centuries after the Apostles and had no direct link to Apostolic teaching. In fact some churches have only been in existence for ten years, or five years, or even less. Can a church claim to be Christ’s true Church if it was not founded by Christ Himself? Can a church be called the true Church, as described in the Creed and the Bible, if it does not have the mark of Apostolicity?

So now we see that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. In Part IV we will conclude by demonstrating which church bears all four of these Marks as found in the Nicene Creed and Holy Scripture.

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