In Parts I, II, and III we have focused on one line from the Nicene Creed which reads:
“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church.”
These are the Four Marks of the Church – One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Thus far we have noted that these identifying characteristics reflect a biblical understanding of the Church and we can use these Marks as a scripturally-based guide to lead us to the true Church of Christ. Scripture tells us we should “test every spirit” to see whether it is from God (1John 4:1). Therefore to discover which church is from God, we must test each church to see whether it fits the description of the authentic Church that Christ established. Applying what we know of the Four Marks we should be able to study the various Christian churches to discover which church fits this ancient description.
1) The Church is ONE
Many Christian denominations claim to be the true Church, yet also insist that any denominational divisions that have happened throughout the centuries are of no consequence to the unity and oneness of the Church. They say that the Church is a “spiritual” reality that transcends the denominational or sectarian differences found between various groups. The problem with this line of thinking is that the differences between the denominations is more than just a matter of style or opinion – there exists serious doctrinal disagreements that have caused harm to the Body of Christ. As we previously concluded, Christ established only one Church, and if that Church is truly one then the Church must be united on matters of doctrine. The division into denominations is opposed to the biblical notion of unity. Any idea of “church” that glosses over denominational divisions or that claims the Church is one in “spirit” but not in “truth” is a false concept of Church.
So where do we find a church that teaches the biblical truth about the one Church?
In matters of Christian unity the Catholic Church is the most outspoken defender. It seems that no other church is more adamant about doctrinal conformity and uniformity. The Catholic Church herself can truly be called one since she is united in her teaching and in her structure (her hierarchy). The Catholic Church is united under one earthly leader, the pope, and maintains a body of teaching that is adhered to by all the local churches in communion with Rome. The Catholic Church is not a loose association of local independent congregations, but truly one Body of Christ, just as we see described in the Bible and the Nicene Creed.
2) The Church is HOLY
As we stated previously, the Church is called holy because Jesus left the Holy Spirit to guide her to all Truth. He said that the Spirit would remain with the Church until the end of time. This means that the Church is assured of teaching correct doctrine. The Spirit will not lead the Church into error; rather Jesus prayed that the Church be “sanctified in Truth.” Furthermore, the Bible describes that Church as “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth.” (1Timothy 3:15) And Jesus says that not even the “gates of hell” will overcome the Church. (Matthew 16:18)
Strangely, many Christian denominations claim that the original Church did fail, apostatized, and had to be restored. Some Christian churches claim that the Church does not have authority from the Spirit. They believe in individual interpretation of the Bible, so that each person is a “church” unto him or her self. This is clearly not the biblical understanding of the Church. The Spirit was given to the whole Church so that the Church (not the individual) is the “pillar and bulwark of truth.”
Again we find that the Catholic Church is the staunchest defender of Spirit-led holiness.
3) The Church is CATHOLIC
Many Christian churches have a very limited presence in the world. Some have only one or just a few congregations. While some may have thousands of local congregations, these are often concentrated in one nation or in one region, and are obviously tied to a certain place or culture. Groups like the Southern Baptist Church (which takes its name from a region in the United States) or the Lutheran Church (which is named for its German Protestant founder) are obviously outgrowths of a particular religious movement that is narrow in scope and can be traced to a particular people or nation. They are at best a subset within Christianity.
However, the Catholic Church is truly catholic, not only in name, but in her presence throughout the world and across social and cultural barriers. The word “catholic” means universal. And the Catholic Church has shown herself to be a global Body that seeks followers in all cultures and among all people. There are nearly 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide (far more than any other Christian group) and there is a Catholic presence on every continent (even in countries where being Christian is a crime punishable by death). Just as Jesus said to “go out into all the world,” so the Catholic Church has made herself known in every land and continues to do so.
4) The Church is APOSTOLIC
The Apostles were Jesus’ closest friends and pupils. To them He entrusted His teachings so that they could teach others. In the Bible we read that the Apostles passed on their authority as teachers and leaders to other men who then taught the next generation, and so on. We call this Apostolic Succession. Through Apostolic Succession the Church remains one (since her teachers are bound together in one teaching office); she remains holy (because the authority to teach in the Spirit is passed from one teacher to the next through the laying on of hands); and she remains catholic (as the local churches around the world are ensured that their leaders will be rightly ordained for teaching and administering the Sacraments).
Any church that ordains ministers outside of Apostolic Succession must admit that this vital link has been broken. We must ask: Who has the authority to ordain, except those to whom it has been given? And to whom did Jesus first give that authority? – the Apostles. It is necessary that the Church be Apostolic so that we can be sure that it is the same Church that Jesus established in the First Century with the Apostles as the first bishops.
The only Church that can truly claim this kind of Apostolicity is the Catholic Church. One exception would be the Orthodox Churches. But then we must question the extreme nationalism of the Orthodox. So closely linked are they with particular nations and regions, that while they certainly bear Apostolicity, they lack the Mark of catholicity. Only the Catholic Church bears all four “Marks” of Christ’s true Church, just as Scripture and the Nicene Creed describes them.
The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has been led by the successors to Peter (the popes), together with all the bishops, in an unbroken chain of leadership throughout history, preaching to all people, and guided by the Holy Spirit, as the one true Church established by Christ. To become a member of the Catholic Church is to share in the fullness of God’s Revelation and be united to Christ as a member of His Holy Body. If the Nicene Creed is a unifying statement of faith for all Christians, then it is in the Catholic Church that this unity is truly realized this side of heaven