Catholic Doctrine: The Four Marks of the Church of Christ


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.

20 thoughts on “Catholic Doctrine: The Four Marks of the Church of Christ

  1. She must be the Body of the glorified Head in Heaven, without dissension or falsehood.

    So , the Catholic Church failed before I even finished the third paragraph.
    Should I bother reading the rest?


    1. Expand. The only way you can come to that conclusion if you were to refer to the Reformation. But you’re relatively intelligent, so I know it can’t be that; I’ll need a reason as to why the Church fails on the first Mark.


      1. I’m saying that you can’t throw out a one word reply and expect me to know where you’re going with it. In what way does Purgatory fracture the Catholic Church? You don’t have to provide a massive amount of explanation, just a simple reason as to why Purgatory divides the unity of the Church?


      2. I remind you ….

        …. without dissension or falsehood.

        And to use your own words ….

        But you’re relatively intelligent,. Therefore, I really don’t consider there is a need to be any more pedantic, do you?


      3. So your issue is with the doctrine of Purgatory being Biblical? Intelligence doesn’t denote the ability to read minds. If an atheist asked me why I rejected atheism, and I simply said ‘objective morality’, I wouldn’t expect them to understand my rationale. You have to expand on your thought.
        What about Purgatory do you consider to be false?


      4. So are you not going to reply to the first part, where I asked you what makes you consider Purgatory to be false? Please note that it’s not my job at this point to defend a doctrine you reject, if I don’t know why you reject that specific doctrine.


      5. It’s not biblical for one thing.
        In other words, the Church made it up.

        So, in light of what you wrote:
        She must be the Body of the glorified Head in Heaven, without dissension or falsehood.
        The doctrine of Purgatory is false. Thus the Church failed.
        I can’t see how I can make this any more plain?


      6. I’m writing a blog right now, so I don’t have time to use my own words

        Perhaps the best place to start is with the most overt reference to a “Purgatory” of sorts in the Old Testament. I say a “Purgatory of sorts” because Purgatory is a teaching fully revealed in the New Testament and defined by the Catholic Church. The Old Testament people of God would not have called it “Purgatory,” but they did clearly believe that the sins of the dead could be atoned for by the living as I will now prove. This is a constitutive element of what Catholics call “Purgatory.”
        In II Maccabees 12:39-46, we discover Judas Maccabeus and members of his Jewish military forces collecting the bodies of some fallen comrades who had been killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (vs. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin. Therefore, Judas and his men “turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection… and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”

        There are usually two immediate objections to the use of this text when talking with Protestants. First, they will dismiss any evidence presented therein because they do not accept the inspiration of Maccabees. And second, they will claim these men in Maccabees committed the sin of idolatry, which would be a mortal sin in Catholic theology. According to the Catholic Church, they would be in Hell where there is no possibility of atonement. Thus, and ironically so, they will say, Purgatory must be eliminated as a possible interpretation of this text if you’re Catholic.
        Rejecting the inspiration and canonicity of II Maccabees does not negate its historical value. Maccabees aids us in knowing, purely from an historical perspective at the very least, the Jews believed in praying and making atonement for the dead shortly before the advent of Christ. This is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. And it is in this context Jesus declares in the New Testament:

        And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32, emphasis added).

        This declaration of our Lord implies there are at least some sins that can be forgiven in the next life to a people who already believed it. If Jesus wanted to condemn this teaching commonly taught in Israel, he was not doing a very good job of it according to St. Matthew’s Gospel.

        The next objection presents a more complex problem. The punishment for mortal sin is, in fact, definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed in Hell according to Catholic teaching (see CCC 1030). But it is a non-sequitur to conclude from this teaching that II Maccabees could not be referring to a type of Purgatory.

        First of all, a careful reading of the text reveals the sin of these men to be carrying small amulets “or sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia” under their tunics as they were going in to battle. This would be closer to a Christian baseball player believing there is some kind of power in his performing superstitious rituals before going to bat than it would be to the mortal sin of idolatry. This was, most likely, a venial sin for them. But even if what they did would have been objectively grave matter, good Jews in ancient times—just like good Catholics today—believed they should always pray for the souls of those who have died “for thou [O Lord], thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men” (II Chr. 6:30). God alone knows the degree of culpability of these “sinners.” Moreover, some or all of them may have repented before they died. Both Jews and Catholic Christians always retain hope for the salvation of the deceased this side of heaven; thus, we always pray for those who have died.
        In Matthew 5:24-25, Jesus is even more explicit about Purgatory.

        Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny (Matthew 5:25-26).

        For Catholics, Tertullian for example, in De Anima 58, written in ca. AD 208, this teaching is parabolic, using the well-known example of “prison” and the necessary penitence it represents, as a metaphor for Purgatorial suffering that will be required for lesser transgressions, represented by the “kodrantes” or “penny” of verse 26. But for many Protestants, our Lord is here giving simple instructions to his followers concerning this life exclusively. This has nothing to do with Purgatory.

        This traditional Protestant interpretation is very weak contextually. These verses are found in the midst of the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” where our Lord teaches about heaven (vs. 20), hell (vs. 29-30), and both mortal (vs. 22) and venial sins (vs. 19), in a context that presents “the Kingdom of Heaven” as the ultimate goal (see verses 3-12). Our Lord goes on to say if you do not love your enemies, “what reward have you” (verse 46)? And he makes very clear these “rewards” are not of this world. They are “rewards from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1) or “treasures in heaven” (6:19).

        Further, as St. John points out in John 20:31, all Scripture is written “that believing, you may have [eternal] life in his name.” Scripture must always be viewed in the context of our full realization of the divine life in the world to come. Our present life is presented “as a vapor which appears for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away” (James 1:17). It would seem odd to see the deeper and even “other worldly” emphasis throughout the Sermon of the Mount, excepting these two verses.

        When we add to this the fact that the Greek word for prison, phulake, is the same word used by St. Peter, in I Peter 3:19, to describe the “holding place” into which Jesus descended after his death to liberate the detained spirits of Old Testament believers, the Catholic position makes even more sense. Phulake is demonstrably used in the New Testament to refer to a temporary holding place and not exclusively in this life.

        The Plainest Text
        I Corinthians 3:11-15 may well be the most straightforward text in all of Sacred Scripture when it comes to Purgatory:

        For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

        No Christian sect I know of even attempts to deny this text speaks of the judgment of God where the works of the faithful will be tested after death. It says our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used metaphorically in two ways: as a purifying agent (Mal. 3:2-3; Matt. 3:11; Mark 9:49); and as that which consumes (Matt. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:7-8). So it is a fitting symbol here for God’s judgment. Some of the “works” represented are being burned up and some are being purified. These works survive or burn according to their essential “quality” (Gr. hopoiov – of what sort).

        What is being referred to cannot be heaven because there are imperfections that need to be “burned up” (see again, Rev. 21:27, Hab. 1:13). It cannot be hell because souls are being saved. So what is it? The Protestant calls it “the Judgment” and we Catholics agree. We Catholics simply specify the part of the judgment of the saved where imperfections are purged as “Purgatory.”

        The Protestant respondent will immediately spotlight the fact that there is no mention, at least explicitly, of “the cleansing of sin” anywhere in the text. There is only the testing of works. The focus is on the rewards believers will receive for their service, not on how their character is cleansed from sin or imperfection. And the believers here watch their works go through the fire, but they escape it!

        First, what are sins, but bad or wicked works (see Matthew 7:21-23, John 8:40, Galatians 5:19-21)? If these “works” do not represent sins and imperfections, why would they need to be eliminated? Second, it is impossible for a “work” to be cleansed apart from the human being who performed it. We are, in a certain sense, what we do when it comes to our moral choices. There is no such thing as a “work” floating around somewhere detached from a human being that could be cleansed apart from that human being. The idea of works being separate from persons does not make sense.

        Most importantly, however, this idea of “works” being “burned up” apart from the soul that performed the work contradicts the text itself. The text does say the works will be tested by fire, but “if the work survives… he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss.” And, “he will be saved, but only as through fire” (Gr. dia puros). The truth is: both the works of the individual and the individual will go through the cleansing “fire” described by St. Paul in order that “he” might finally be saved and enter into the joy of the Lord. Sounds an awful lot like Purgatory.


      7. Too long. I have no time for diatribe.
        The Catholic Church even apologised for Limbo.
        It is falsehood. Period.
        Now, show some integrity and acknowledge you have erred.


      8. You’re quite laughable. You don’t want to read the evidence for Purgatory, then say it’s a falsehood. Well, take the time to read it and challenge the evidence, not the mere notion


      9. Neither Purgatory or Limbo are in the bible.
        Again, you’re the Catholic, do you really need me to tell you what the character Jesus said for example, or why the Pope apologised for Limbo?

        To make use of the vernacular:
        Time to ‘fess up, Alan and stop behaving like a blindly indoctrinated acolyte or pedantic fundamentalist.


      10. The notion of limbo was never an official teaching, it was a concept. Yes, Purgatory is Biblical. Simply ignoring my response because it’s ‘too long’ doesn’t validate your argument that it’s un-Biblical. Why is it un-Biblical? What passages disprove it? I’ve given you my reasons for it.
        Stop condescendingly asking ‘do you need me to…?’


    1. You know what an official teaching is in the Catholic sense right? It must be spoken ex-cathedra or defined by a Council.

      “The Church’s Magisterium asserts that it exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging Catholics to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these” CCC

      There is a difference between Limbo, and Limbo of the Fathers. Limbo was a place hypothesized because people couldn’t understand what happens to unbaptized babies. Limbo of the Fathers is different, and in the Bible.
      As for the Limbo of the Father’s, I believe you’re referring to those who died in communion with God, but prior to the Incarnation of the Logos; before Heaven was accessible?
      The Limbo of the Fathers is where the righteous awaited the resurrection of Jesus, after which they could enter heaven. This place wasn’t Hell, because they were in friendship with God. It wasn’t Heaven, because the way was shut prior to the Resurrection.

      The concept derives itself from the Jewish belief in Sheol.

      Judaism had a development in its understanding of the afterlife. Originally, Sheol was believed to be a place where all the dead went. In later periods Judaism developed the belief that in Sheol the righteous and the wicked were separated. This is clearly seen in Jesus’ parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In early Jewish belief it was thought possible to pass from the side of the wicked to the side of the righteous (the “Bosom of Abraham”) through the intercession of Abraham. However, by the time of Jesus, Judaism generally believed that it was not possible to pass from one side of Sheol to the other (Luke 16:26)
      Scripture refers to Jesus descending to the realm of the dead and preaching to the dead (Eph. 4:9; 1 Pet. 3:18-20). What did Jesus preach to them? It would make little sense to preach to the damned, tradition tells us that Jesus preached to those who were to enter heaven.

      Tradition teaches us though the gates of heaven were closed, in the limbo of the fathers (“the bosom of Abraham”) the righteous awaited the resurrection of Jesus and entrance into heaven..
      However, this limbo is no longer required because the way has been opened, salvation is accessible to all, there’s no need to ‘wait.’


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