The Four Marks of the Church

How can we tell which is the Catholic Church and which churches, such as the Orthodox, Anglicans, Monophysites, Protestants, and others, have separated themselves from the Mystical Body of Christ? To help answer this question, the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 issued a creed composed by the Council Fathers in response to the Arian heresy. It is commonly called the Nicene Creed and it presents the chief doctrines of the Catholic Faith. The Nicene Creed identifies four marks (qualities or characteristics) which help to identify the true Church of Jesus Christ. The Nicene Creed states, "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church". Thus we have the four identifying marks or characteristics that we can expect to find in the true Church.

The Church is One

    The true Church of Jesus Christ must have a unity in belief, in worship, and in government or leadership. Unity in belief and worship means that the Church of today must hold to the same teachings and traditions that were given to the Twelve Apostles by Christ and subsequently passed on to their successors. The true Church must adhere to the same beliefs today as were practiced by the early Christians. The Bible tells us that there should be one flock (Jews and Gentiles) and one shepherd (John 10:16). Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11 and John 10:14). He entrusted His flock on earth (the Church) to Peter and his successors (John 21:15-17). Jesus knew that there would be contention among His followers so He prayed for unity of His Church "that they may be one" (John 17:11 and John 17:22-23). The unity that Christ prayed for is to be for ALL: ALL nations, concerning ALL doctrines of faith and morals, and for ALL ages to come. 1 The unity of the Catholic Church is to be found under one visible head of government and leadership, the Apostolic College with Peter and his successors as its head. (see also CCC 813)

The Church is Holy

    The true Church of Jesus Christ must have holiness. Holiness in its founder, holiness in its principles, holiness in its members, and holiness in its miracles. The Bible tells us that Jesus prayed for the holiness of His Church, to "Sanctify them" (John 17:17), "consecrated in truth" (John 17:19). Jesus Christ desires that the Church consist of His own sheep who have been purified for Him as an acceptable people (Titus 2:14). However, we must expect that there will be unworthy members in His Church as well. To demonstrate this, Jesus gave us some parables to help in our understanding. In the parable of the sower of seed, Jesus shows us the good and bad dispositions with which various men hear the word of God (Matthew 13:3-8). In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, He said that we must allow both the weeds and the wheat to grow together in the field until it is time for the harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). In another parable, he likened the kingdom of heaven to a net full of good fish and bad fish which will be separated by the angels at the close of the age (Matthew 13:47-50). Jesus also tells the story of the king who saw one of his guests without a wedding garment. When asked how he got there, the man was speechless and the king had him cast into the outer darkness (Matthew 22:11-14). All of these parables point to the fact that there will be both holy and unholy people together in the Church until the final judgment when the unholy members will be cast out (Matthew 7:16-17). Indeed, scandalous crimes have been committed by some members of the Catholic Church. Sometimes these mistakes have involved not only the laity, but also priests, bishops, and on occasion even a pope. These scandals do not prove that the Catholic Church is false, only that the Church contains sinners as well as saints. Paul's words concerning the Jews also applies to Christians. (Romans 3:3-4) (see also 2 Timothy 2:13)

The Church is Catholic

    The word "catholic", with a small "c", means general or universal, from the Greek word katholikos. "Catholic" comes from the Greek. "Universal" comes from the Latin. They both mean "all". The word "catholic" first occurs in Christian use in the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans around A.D. 110: "Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church". The Catholic Church consists of a universality in time and in place. There are two elements to the word "universal": 1) all AND one, and, 2) all IN one. The Catholic Church has consistently been the "universal" Church for the past 2,000 years. The Bible tells us that the gospel will continue to be preached throughout the whole world until the end of time (Matthew 24:14), to the whole creation throughout all the world (Mark 16:15), and by the power of the Holy Spirit to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Catholic Church (with a capital "C") is catholic (with a small "c") or universal because it consists of "ALL of Christ's teachings to ALL men at ALL times in ALL places."

The Church is Apostolic

    The true Church must always teach the identical doctrines that were originally delivered to it by Peter and the Apostles. Her ministers must derive their powers from the Apostles by an uninterrupted chain of succession and their teachings must be the same as those of Christ's Apostles. "Consequently, no church can claim to be the true one whose doctrines differ from those of the Apostles, or whose ministers are unable to trace, by an unbroken chain, their authority to an Apostolic source; just as our Minister to England can exercise no authority in that country unless he is duly commissioned by our Government and represents its views." 3 We read in the Bible that Peter is the rock upon which Christ will build His Church (Matthew 16:18). Christ knew that Peter would not live until the end of time, so the promise to protect His Church against the powers of death must have been intended to include Peter's successors as well. Jesus commissioned His disciples to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. He promised that He would be with them always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:18-20). Again, since He knew that the disciples would not live until the close of the age, this promise must also apply to their successors. The Church was "built upon the foundation of the Apostles" (Ephesians 2:19-22). "Any church claiming to be Christ's own must be able to trace its lineage in unbroken continuity back to the apostles."

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