The Church which Christ established has no name other than that of its founder. It is known simply by His name and that of His followers; it is known solely by the name of Christian. While it has no “denominational” name to identify it, it does possess identifying marks. Historically and Scripturally there have been four marks by which the Christian Church identifies itself.
After establishing His Church, Christ’s prayer is that the Church will be one. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”1
The first mark of the Church, and according to Christ, the way by which the world will know that the Father has sent Him, and that the Father loves us, is oneness. Not just oneness, but that we become completely one. In case we are unclear He repeats Himself. It seems essential then to ask – is this how the world sees the Church? Do they perceive the Church as being completely one?
St. Paul returns to this theme frequently writing that, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”2 Indeed this unity of the Church appears to be a common theme throughout the New Testament, and it is a unity which is fundamentally Eucharistic in nature. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”3
The Church is Holy
In the very next chapter St. Paul speaks of the Church’s holiness when he writes, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.”4
We often struggle with the idea that holiness is one of the marks of the Church. After all, we’ve witnessed the numerous failings of both the Church and her members over the many centuries since Christ. Pope Francis addressed this very objection last year when he said,
“We thus affirm the holiness of the Church, and this is a characteristic that has been present ever since the beginning in the conscience of the first Christians, who called themselves simply ‘the holy’, as they were certain of the action of God, of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the Church.”
“But,” he asked, “How can we say that the Church is holy, if we see that the Church throughout history, during her long journey through the centuries, has experienced many moments of darkness? How can a Church be holy if she is made up of human beings, of sinners? Of men who are sinners, women who are sinners, priests who are sinners, nuns who are sinners, bishops who are sinners, cardinals who are sinners, popes who are sinners? Everyone. How can a Church like this be holy?”
Almost echoing the words of St. Paul, he went on to say that the Church is holy because, “…she comes from God Who is holy, Who is faithful to her and never abandons her to the power of death and evil. She is holy because Jesus Christ, Son of God, is indissolubly united to her; she is holy because she is guided by the Holy Spirit which purifies, transforms, and renews. She is not holy by our merits, but because God makes her holy.”
“Do not be afraid of holiness,” concluded Francis, “of letting yourself be loved and purified by God. … Let us allow God’s holiness be transmitted to us. Every Christian is called to holiness; and holiness does not consist, first and foremost, in doing extraordinary things, but rather in letting God act. It is the encounter between our weakness and the strength of His grace.”5
The Church is Catholic
It is important to note that the word “catholic” means universal, and that this was a mark of the Church which Christ founded long before it was ever its “name.”
“It refers as much to the fullness of the faith which it possesses as it does to the undeniable extension in both time and space which has characterized it virtually from the beginning…The Catholicity of the Church in any case resides as much in the fact that the Church is for everybody at all times as it does in the fact that it was indeed destined to spread everywhere throughout the whole world.”6
The Church which Christ established is the Church universal, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”7 It is the Church in Rome, in Hong Kong, in Kenya, and Detroit. The Church as the Body of Christ is not limited to a time, place, race or culture.
The Church is Apostolic
This mark of the Church is foundational from her very inception. “Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve?”8 In establishing His Church He creates it apostolic when He says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”9
This apostolic structure is further reinforced when Christ passes on the same authority to the rest of the disciples just two chapters later saying, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”10
This apostolic nature of the Church is reflected in Christ’s plan for the transmission of the faith seen in the Great Commission,11 and in His prayer that we began with above, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”12
The apostles themselves seemed to clearly see the need for the transmission of their apostolic authority and office, as witnessed by the Acts of the Apostles:
“For it is written in the book of Psalms,…‘His office let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsab′bas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthi′as. And they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthi′as; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.13
Scripture also bears witness to the laying on of hands in order to ordain bishops (the successors to the apostles) and pass on this authority.
The Witness of the Early Church Fathers
Writing around AD 190 St. Irenaeus writes of his master Polycarp, himself a disciple of the apostle St. John, “[he] taught only what he received from the apostles, what the Church transmitted, and what alone is true.”14 As St. Polycarp died he prayed, “for all the Catholic Church.”15 And St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote that, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be, as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”16
By the First Council of Constantinople in the year AD 381, we see the formation of the Nicene Creed, and with it the statement: “[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
Indeed, this Creed, along with the four identifying marks of the Church, are still being professed by the faithful throughout the world every day, and at every Mass.
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John 17:20-23 ↩
Ephesians 4:4-5 ↩
1 Corinthians 10:16-17 ↩
Ephesians 5:25b-27 ↩
Pope Francis, General Audience Vatican City, October 2, 2013 ↩
Kenneth D. Whitehead Four Marks of the Church ↩
Matthew 28:19a ↩
John 6:70b ↩
Matthew 16:18-19 ↩
Matthew 18:17-18 ↩
Matthew 28:18-20 ↩
John 17:20 ↩
Acts 1:20-26 ↩
Against Heresies 3.3.4 ↩
To the Philippians 7 ↩
Letter to the Smyrnaeans ↩