As most Christians know, the traditional marks of the Church, taken from the Nicene Creed, are that the Church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Each of these can be traced directly to New Testament precedents (Ephesians 4 is a good place to begin, where all of them are manifest). Indeed, most, if not all, Christians can agree with them, though their implications may create some controversy.
But rather than talk of the “Nicene” marks of the Church, I want to highlight three other New Testament markers. As will be seen, I am sensitive to these marks particularly and specifically because of my background in Protestant churches. They are as follows: The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, is the dwelling place of the Living God, and is one Body.
The Pillar and Ground of the Truth:
I begin with two important verses:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-14 (ESV)
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth. 1 Tim. 3:14-15 (ESV)
This is often overlooked by Protestants. Protestants necessarily must make the Scriptures the foundation of our Faith. If they make the Church their foundation, one automatically must inquire, “Which one?” We cannot appeal to the “invisible Church” because our very notion of the “invisible Church” carries with it irreconcilable contradictions. Does the invisible Church believe, for example, that baptism by immersion is essential to being saved or not? One cannot claim that the invisible Church is indifferent to this matter, because after all, sincere and pious believers who presumably are part of the invisible Church believe that this matter is important. And what could be more important than a proper understanding of how one gets to be part of the invisible Church?
So, Protestants are forced back to the Scriptures. But nowhere are the Scriptures called “the pillar and ground of the Truth.” Indeed, if the Scriptures were absolutely important to the founding of the Church, then one is left with the problem of how to found the Church prior to the writing of the New Testament Scriptures? Presumably the Church was founded some twenty or more years before the writing of the first of the New Testament Scriptures, but if so, it was founded apart from the Scriptures. And of course, no New Testament congregation had all the New Testament, let alone any of the books of the New Testament for many decades.
More telling, Protestants cannot agree on the proper interpretation of key biblical passages. Are works part of saving faith or not? Can one lose one’s salvation after having been (really) saved? There are as many interpretations as there are Protestants.
Clearly, then, the Scriptures cannot be the foundation of the Christian faith. Scriptures support the Christian faith. They are indispensable to the Christian faith, but if the Scriptures were to ever be completely lost to us, we would not suffer. The Church has kept alive all which we need to embrace the Christ of the Gospel. Christians need not worry overmuch about attacks on the faith that take on the Christian Scriptures, alleging contradictions, fiction and so forth. The Church existed before the completion of the Christian Scriptures, and quite plausibly would continue to exist without them.
Indeed, the Church is the one who confirmed and verified exactly which Christian writings were to be included in the canon of Scripture. The Church kept and preserved the manuscripts of the Scriptures, to the point of execution. And the Church has laid down the standard of proper interpretation of the Scripture.
What Protestants often fail to realize is that if you take away the Church, and leave the ancient disciples with nothing more than the Scriptures, the Church would not have been founded until after the death of the Apostle John. In short, we would not be talking about the “New Testament Church” but the “Second Century Church” as the original. We would also have no clear teaching on: the Trinity, the life of Jesus, the role and place of the Old Testament, on whether Jesus was God-incarnate or not, on whether the body was important to salvation or not, and so forth. We take all these things as pretty much given, and point to the New Testament for evidence of these dogmas. But in point of fact, opponents to the Trinity, to Jesus as God-incarnate, and so forth, also utilized the Scriptures. What solved these controversies was not a particular hermeneutic, the voting power of the majority, or the speaking in tongues. Rather, it was the self-evident fact that Christians have believed these things from the beginning—and evidence pointing back through the Fathers to the apostles was mounted effectively.
In other words, it was the Church, as pillar and ground of the Truth, that verified and confirmed what Christians believed and are to believe. The Scriptures are part of that verification and confirmation, make no mistake. The Scriptures are an essential and non-negotiable aspect of the life of the Church. We need them. But we need them because we need the Church who gave them to us and interprets them for us.
The Dwelling Place of the Living God:
Another important verse:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV)
Protestants have consistently taken most of the “you” passages—such as the one above—in individual terms. That is to say, what Paul is saying here is that “you, Clifton Healy” are a dwelling place of the living God. This is true, of course, by virtue of the gift and seal of the Holy Spirit. But it is only a part of the truth. And if left by itself, it is a distorting, and potentially heresy-making, part of the truth.
The fact of the matter is, almost all of the “you” passages which Protestants apply individualistically are plural “you’s.” That is to say, Paul is addressing the group of Christians at, say, Ephesus, collectively: “you all.” Modern English lost the second person plural form (“ye”) more than a century ago. So, when we read “you” in the English translations of the New Testament, we hear “me.” Or, to put it more bluntly: Most of the time Paul is not speaking to you, the individual Christian, but the Church. And if Paul is speaking to you, he is doing so on the presupposition that you are part of the Church.
This distinction, then, is important. The living God dwells, not in individual Christians, as such, but only in his Body, the Church. In fact, this Church that God dwells in is the one founded on the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. As Paul says earlier in the chapter of the verse above, there is one Church (about which more in a moment), and it is in that one Church that God dwells.
God does not dwell in just any gathering of two or more Christians. Indeed, the verse (Matthew 18:20) which many Protestants claim for home Bible studies, or low attendance Sunday evenings, is not a promise that Christ will bless just any gathering of two or more believers. Rather, it is a promise that when the Church prays and exercises discipline upon an impenitent member, it is Christ himself acting in the Church administering the discipline. In other words, it’s not about individual Christians coming together but about the Church acting in Christ’s behalf.
So, where does God dwell? In the Church that is apostolic. And, as we will see shortly, apostolic means not only in doctrine—and many claiming apostolicity of doctrine do so incorrectly—but also apostolic in historical, which is to say, incarnate, descent. To say it another way, there is only one Church where God dwells.
The Lord’s Body is One Body:
What is that one Body?
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:20-23 (ESV)
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:4-6 (ESV)
First of all, the one Church is the one Christ formed with his disciples, and which is a mystical unity with the Trinity. The one Church is not merely an institutional unity. In fact, apart from the mystical union with Christ and the apostles, no amount of institutional unity will make the Church.
But this one Church is also not merely a mystical unity. The one Church has a bodily life, which is to say, a history. The institutionality of the Church, therefore, is as essential as the mystical unity of the Church.
Indeed, neither the visible, institutional unity of the Church nor the mystical unity, are actually anything different from one another. They are both the unity that makes the Church. Or, rather, the unity of the Church is necessarily manifest in its fullness as a visible institution and a mystical spiritual union.
Therefore, it is rationally and ontologically impossible for all of the institutional divisions among Christians (Roman, Orthodox and Protestant) to be the visible and manifest mystical unity which necessarily constitutes Christ’s Church. One cannot both be one and be many.
This leads inescapably to the following conclusion: the one Church, which is both a mystical and a bodily unity, cannot be all the churches of Christendom, nor all the (true) Christians among them. The former denies the mystical union (by including division and schism), and the latter denies the institutional union (by excluding the organized visible manifestation of the Church). From this follows the conclusion: there is one Church in which the mystical and visible unity that is necessary to the life of that Church obtains.
We have no other recourse than to ask: Where is that Church?
There are many other important marks of the Church in the New Testament. One can speak of love, faith and hope, especially love. One can speak of the martyrs of the Apocalypse. One can speak of the episcopacy, of evangelism, of service to the poor.
But coming from my background, when these three essential aspects made their mark on me, I could only come to one conclusion. My answer to the question “Where is that Church?” is crystal clear and unequivocal. And such conviction grows more each day.