THE FOUR MARKS OF THE CHURCH
The Church has always considered there to be four marks of identification; these marks point to the authenticity of the Church in question, and so must be visible that the Church in question can be identified as ‘true’.
The Four Marks:
The Church in question must be truly ‘one’. It must be united to Christ’s teachings without error, and so ‘one’ with the founder of the Church (Matt 16:18). After all, no denomination has ever laid claims to the Christian truth while separating themselves from Jesus in the same breath. Every Pope, every Reformer, every schismatic has declared that there understanding of Christianity is more in line with the teachings of the Messiah. They have recognized that Jesus holds the authentic Gospel, and is the foundation of all objective reality and truth, be that tangible or spiritual (John 14:6)
Therefore the Church must be inseparable from Jesus; She must be the Body of the glorified Head in Heaven, without dissension or falsehood. Christ must be looked to at every turn of the life of the Church, He must be the cornerstone of all the Church teaches. If a Church were to contort the teachings of Christ, or worse, change them completely by deliberate mistranslation, then this is a sign of separation from Jesus Christ. As we draw truth from Scripture without reading doctrine into it, so we draw teachings from Jesus without forcing the Lord to become contorted to what we assume He must mean. Rather we allow Christ to ‘speak for Himself’, wherever that may lead us.
The Church must also be one within itself, each Christian united to one another. Jesus prayed that the Church be one, as He and the Father are one (John 17:21.) By using the analogy of His relationship with His Father, we begin to understand what Jesus meant by this ‘oneness.’ Jesus is a distinct ‘person’ from His Father, while united to Him by the divine nature that each Person (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) possess.
This oneness that the Church possess is linked to the Trinity itself; it is a oneness of unity, not a oneness of personhood. When translated to a human level, we can understand this to mean that we are united by Christ, (especially in the Real Presence of the Eucharist) but we celebrate and enjoy our personal interactions with the Lord; we can encounter Christ on a personal level, and He can direct each of us personally according to His will. We do not give up what makes us individuals in order to serve the Lord, because that would be an error in understanding ‘unity’. After all, it was God Himself that created us as individuals (Ps 139:13), died for each individual (Rom 5:8), and calls each man to repentance (Acts 17:30). No, instead of throwing away our individuality, we bring that individuality to the Church, and express the Truth by our own personality. Please note, I am not saying that we are to understand or dissect the truth as individuals, but rather study the truth as One, and express that truth as our individuality sees fit; we must still hold true to the truth itself.
When Jesus used the word ‘one’ to describe the Church, the writer of the Gospel used the Greek word ‘heis’. This word means ‘indivisible’, to be unable to be divided or separated. Jesus expressed His will that the Church never be divided, not that each person within Her never express distinction.
In contrary to this unity, Jesus speaks of ‘the kingdom divided.’ This divided kingdom (Matthew 12:24) is spoken of negatively by Jesus, with the Lord saying that a house that shows division will not stand. The Greek word for divide is ‘merizó’, and it can also mean to ‘distract.’ When we are divided from one another, with no unity in doctrine, we become distracted from the mission we were given: to share the Good News with all humanity. And even if we are united in that common goal, the world can get caught up by the fact that the Church may lack unity. How is the world to believe in one Christ if this one Lord cannot keep a Church united?
We see how unity in worship and doctrine hold the Church as one, but also the belief in Holy Orders: the ordination of people of the Church with the specific role or function to carry the Gospel forward. The line of the ordained has been preserved, in order that we can be sure that the truths and mysteries of God have been securely and faithfully handed down.
It was always Christ’s intention that the Church had earthly leadership (Matt 16:18), and that leadership continue until His return (Acts 1:21-26). The authority of a Bishop is conveyed upon a man by the ‘laying of hands’ (1 Tim 4:14), in which an ordained Bishop conveys the authority of Christ to a recently ordained man, signifying and solidifying his being lifted to the Priesthood.
And so we see how being ‘One’ is an essential characteristic of the Church; it is an essential mark of the assembly of God’s people, and without this unity then the entire credibility of the Church falls apart, and with Her, the believability of the Gospel itself.
The Church is called to be ‘Holy’, a reflection of Christ’s holiness as God Himself. As the Head of the Church is, so the Church is to be also (1 Peter 1:16).
The Greek ‘Hagios’ (Holy), is to be set apart. This firstly means that the Church is set a part for a particular mission: to proclaim the Gospel. Moreover, we are set apart from the world as God is set apart from the world. See, the world is in a state of sin, and so distanced from God. If we are called to be one with God, we must be set apart from the world.
So how is the Church set apart from the world? How is She Holy? It is important to understand that the Church doesn’t have holiness as a natural quality, but rather that it is conveyed and gifted to Her by God (Col 1:22). When Christ accomplished reconciliation for us on the Cross, we were able to freely begin a relationship with God through faith in that redemptive work. It is Christ’s righteousness that is infused in us; we are truly made righteous, not only made to ‘appear’ as such. To use a metaphor, we are not made to appear as white as snow, but are made literally as white as snow. In the Psalms, David says that when purged of sin, he ‘shall be made whiter than snow’ (Psalm 51:7).
The true holiness of God’s people is absolutely essential. To be truly holy and righteous is the key to eternal life in God’s presence; we are told that nothing unclean can enter God’s kingdom (Rev 21:27). Note that St John doesn’t tell us ‘nothing that appears unclean may enter’, as this would suggest that cleanliness and holiness are mere matters of appearance. St John tells us that nothing unclean may enter, so we infer that this ‘holiness’ is literal, true, and complete. It is not purely metaphorical, or in appearance only.
The Church being truly Holy doesn’t mean that She is to practice some kind of ‘aloofness’, but that we should constantly be moving towards Heavenly ideals, and away from earthly ones. We recognize that our holiness is of God, and that if we seperate ourselves from Him, we lose that amazing gift that has been conveyed to us.
The word ‘Catholic’ comes from the Greek ‘katholikos’, meaning ‘universal’. The Greek ‘katholikos’ is derived from yet another Greek word, ‘katholou’, or ‘as a whole’. The term was first applied to the Church by a letter written by St Ignatius of Antioch, addressing the Church in Smyrna. In the Epistle, St Ignatius requests that the Church should hold to the teachings of the Bishop, and to take part in the Eucharistic feast. The Saint then went on to say that wherever the Catholic Church is, there is Jesus Christ. As we are the body of Jesus, we are inseparable from the Head.
We are called to present the truth of the Gospel to the entire world, in every generation. Jesus, His Good News, and His Church are not bound by generational values, or human whims.
Jesus ordered the Gospel to be preached to the entire world. This offer of salvation isn’t based on race, gender, sexuality, age, ability or intelligence. It is offered to all people; it is an act of love on God’s part, and He is the instigator that first moves towards us.
In this sense, the Catholic Church is truly ‘universal’, populated by people from around the world, in every generation for the last two thousand years.
There is yet another way that the Church is truly ‘universal.’ The Bible tells us that all Christians are gifted with eternal life (John 3:16), and that we are joined to the Body of Christ through our baptism. If all Christians have eternal life, those in Heaven are living, free from sin and in the presence of Jesus. So we understand that the Church is on earth, in Heaven, and undergoing purification in Purgatory. This is not a plurality of churches, but it is one Church present in three different stages of sanctification. All those who are part of the Church on Earth, in Purgatory, or in Heaven have shared in the one baptism, into the one Lord Christ, and hold to the one faith demonstrated in the worship of one God (Eph 4:5-6.)
She is, in yet another way, Universal.
Apostolicity is the mark that is required to identify the Church of today with the Church of the Apostolic era; to put it simply, we ask if we believe now as the Saints of the day believed then.
In its being ‘Apostolic’, the Church is one moral body that contains within the same mission that Jesus entrusted to Her 2000 years ago. The mission of proclaiming the Gospel (Mark 16:15), feeding the sheep (John 21:17), and exercising authority over all spiritual things has been handed to the Church alone.
This attribute also shows how it is that we can trust the teachings of the Church; we can trace a doctrine back through the Apostolic line, seeing whether this teaching has been held to throughout the centuries. The oft quoted “Vincentian Canon” is the Latin phrase: “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all).
Through the unbroken line of the Papacy, the Church has continually been guided and guarded into all truths, against all heresies. This unbroken line is essential for understanding that Christ wills for the Church to always have an authority that will ‘feed His sheep’. This authority is not trusted in spite of Christ, but rather because Christ has blessed this authority with clarity of vision, to speak infallibly as directed by the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel and truth of Christ has been handed to us in the form of written word, but we also acknowledge that there are many important truths that have been handed down orally to the Church (John 21:25, 2 Thess 2:15). These two modes of teaching illuminate one another, and can never be contrary. For if the Gospel were to contradict the teachings of the Church, then how are we to trust the Gospel that claims the Church will be guided into all truth? But if the Church contradicts the Gospel, then none of Her teachings can be considered authoritative, and all the doctrines that She has carefully defined unweave.
So we begin to see that being ‘Apostolic’ is essential; it gives Church a marked authority that can be recognized by all men, even if some choose to dismiss it.