R. Joseph Owles
A Sheep Among Wolves
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Wednesday, June 13, 2012, 07:24 AM
From its earliest days, the church, has found it necessary to identify “marks” that distinguish it as “the church.” The Nicene Creed identifies four marks which can be used to highlight the characteristics of outreaching mission of the church: it is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.  The Reformation established three marks that can be used to identify the characteristics of the in-reaching mission of the Church: the Word Is Properly Preached, the Sacraments Are Rightly Administered, and Christian Discipline Is Practiced.  

I believe that the Nicene marks represent the church’s ministry to the world and the Reformation marks represent the church’s mission to itself. These marks should never be viewed as mere adjectives attempting to describe the church in static terms. They are not adjectives, they are adverbs, describing the church’s mission to and in the world.

The Nicene Creed proclaims that the church which is faithful to the expression of divine justice contained in the Good News of the Kingdom of God will always exemplify four marks: it will be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.

The Church is One.  
The whole church of Jesus Christ is “one body and one Spirit...called to one hope” (Eph. 4:4). It has “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).  And it is ruled over by “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). To say that the church is “ONE” is to declare the unity of the church.   

To declare that the church is one is to declare that the variety of forms that the Christian church may take in particular places and among various traditions are all somehow equally and authentically “The Church.” Nevertheless, some have used the confession that the church is one to declare that “We are the one and You Are Not.” A Christian tradition or denomination is not ONE to the exclusion of the others, but can only be ONE when included with the others. For any one tradition to deny any other’s status as the church is to amputate a portion of Christ’s Body–it a mutilation of the Body of Christ.

It is the entire church that is the Body of Christ, not any one part of it. Evangelicals cannot authentically claim to be the church to the exclusion of others. Catholics cannot claim to be the one church over and against others. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). Each tradition serves a vital role in the Body of Christ. All churches are the body of Christ, and individual churches are parts of that body ( cf. 1 Cor. 12:27).

The Church is Holy.  
In Hebrew thought, to be holy is to be separate. Holy things are separated from common things. Israel was holy because it was distinct from the other nations. Holy objects are imbued with a sense of “otherness.” Something is also said to be holy due to its association with God. Jacob declared Bethel to be holy because he associated it with God’s presence (Gn. 28:11-22). When the church claims holiness as one of its marks, it is not referring to an inflated sense of moral superiority, it is declaring both its separateness from the world and its association with God.

The Doctrine of Election attempts to express both aspects of the church’s holiness. Election means chosen. And that’s what the church is: the chosen people. That is what the Greek word ecclesia means. To be the elect is to manifest both aspects of holiness: (1) the elect are separated from the world at large; (2) the elect are given a task which is associated with God.

The Doctrine of Election falls short, however, when it states that election is for salvation, or merely for salvation alone. To be chosen by God doesn’t just mean to be chosen for salvation. I think many have encountered individuals from their lives, their congregations, their history who were in the church, but not likely candidates for salvation. Those who adhere to election for salvation would probably say that’s the point. The Doctrine of Election as expressed in a Doctrine of Predestination conjures the image of an arbitrary God who randomly selects some for salvation and most for damnation and the implication is that Adolph Hitler could have been chosen for salvation and Mother Teresa is writhing in hell.  

The Doctrine of Election must force us to ask “For what we have been chosen?” I contend that election is not limited on salvation; for that matter, it may have little or nothing to do with salvation. Election, as an expression of holiness, as an expression of being separate from the world and associated with God, is an election of a community of people who have been chosen by God to represent God to the world.

Therefore, when the church is claiming to be HOLY, it’s not saying that it’s morally superior, or that it’s filled with magic juice, or that it’s saved, or that it is inherently special; it is declaring that it is the agent by which God acts in the world. To be HOLY is to be chosen, to be elect, but we are chosen to be God by proxy, representing God to the world, mediating between God and the world, ministering to the world on behalf of God–these are all what priests do in the Bible and every Christian is a priest and king. For the church to declare its holiness, it must take seriously the notion of the priesthood of all believers, that every Christian has been chosen by God to serve as God’s priest to the world.

The Church is Catholic.  
The word catholic is probably derived from the Greek phrase kath’ holou, meaning “of the whole.” When used in reference to the church it describes the universal character of the church.  The Creed of the Dacian Bishop Niceta of Remisiana was the first instance of the word “catholic” being associated with the church in Western Creeds. It stated that “[t]he Catholic Church is nothing less than the congregation of all the saints,” meaning that the church is catholic in its worship in that all believers in every time and place are united together.

In 1054 the Eastern and Western churches split; each church condemned the other and declared itself to be the ONE true church. It is at this point that “catholicism” became linked to Rome. In the Western Church, to be catholic was to be in communion with the See of Rome. This was exacerbated during the Reformation when the Western church once more began to split. At this point catholic became used almost exclusively to describe the Roman Catholic Church. The Nicene mark of catholicism, however, predates these splits and refers to all Christian churches.

The catholicity of the church declares that even though the church is one, but often varied, there is something that is visible everywhere as “church.” The Body of Christ may look different in different places and times, but there is something consistent, something that is “of the whole” about it regardless of its location in time and space. The liver may look different from the heart, and both may look different from the brain; they all may appear to have different functions, but they are all part of a single organism and all are enlivened by the same common spirit that animates that body.

To say that the church is CATHOLIC is to say that all authentic expressions of the church have a common spirit, or essence, or something ineffable that marks it as “church” compared to other organizations and institutions. It declares that all Christians are mystically linked to one another. It asserts that all Christian communities are mutually interdependent. The catholic church knows that its work in a local context is vital and demonstrative of the work of the church “of the whole.”

The Church is Apostolic.
Most people know that to be an apostle is to be “sent out.” But it isn’t merely being sent, it is to be sent with the authority of the sender. So to say that the church is APOSTOLIC is not just to say that it has been sent out into the world, it is to declare that it has authority. The authority it has is the authority of the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth.

When some traditions say that the church is APOSTOLIC, they are saying that the church as an episcopal structure that can be traced back to the twelve Apostles. For them, to say that the church is APOSTOLIC is to say that it is governed by bishops who are the inheritors of Apostolic status, which has been passed down from generation to generation from the original Twelve. The idea expressed in this “Apostolic Succession” is that there is a clear line of continuity that links the church of today with the church of the past which must be preserved. That in itself is valid; yet, it can be misapplied to suggest that the term APOSTOLIC is limited to this line of episcopal continuity, thus becoming a misrepresentation of the original meaning of the mark.

It may have been shocking to suggest that the church was sent out into the world; it may have been even more shocking to suggest that it was sent out into the world by God; but it was definitely shocking, and offensive to some, to suggest that not only has the church been sent out by God, it has been sent out with God’s authority. Frankly that is still shocking after two-thousand years. Most Christians would be shocked to hear that they are empowered by God to act with God’s authority.

What is the authority that the church has? It is the same authority that Jesus Christ has to be an expression of divine justice. It is the authority to relate to the world. It is the authority to express God’s justice, embodies in love, wrapped in the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  

The church is APOSTOLIC in that it also goes out into the world with “All AUTHORITY.” It cannot be reduced to ecclesiastical structure or polity, it isn’t merely faithfulness to a set of doctrine allegedly passed down from generation to generation, it is a matter of taking on the Apostles’ mission of being sent with authority, the authority to embody the Kingdom of God in the world.

Many churches declare these four marks every week by either reciting the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. But are they just words when we say them? Do we really believe and declare each week that we as Christians are United, Separated from the world to be priests to the world, animated by the same Universal Spirit, and Sent Out into the world with Authority? I can’t help but thinking that if we really do mean what we say when we recite the Creed, then the world would look a whole lot different than it does.

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