The church Jesus founded, built by God (Mt.16:18), has grown, matured, and changed since its historic inception. Is it an institution? An organism? A hybrid of both? At the Nicene and Constantinople Councils, the church looked again at it meant to be the church, at what it meant to represent Christ in their context and culture, and how the church was essentially different than the non-church. In the formulation of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, four historic marks were identified; the church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. At the time of their formulation these marks were perhaps clear, even unchallenged as the church wrestled primarily with the boundaries of the nature of Christ and the Trinity, yet what these boundaries are to mean to us in our context remains awash in challenges. This is a cursory re-examination of the historic marks of the church in light of its contemporary challenges, many of which those at the Nicene and Constantinople Councils could never have anticipated in their bare-bones fourfold set of marks.
The Apostle Paul develops the theme of the church as Christ’s body, a body that is essentially one and particular (1 Cor 12:12-26). Likewise, Ephesians 4:4-6 emphasizes a church united, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Yet those who claim Christ in our day lack a great deal of credibility in claiming to be one church in light of Protestantism’s constant fracturing as seen in its ever more numerous denominations and non-denominations. On the other hand, unity does not require uniformity or unanimity to achieve God’s purposes; for God can use division where healthy multiplication remains to be sought. Despite its many challenges, there is a growing ecumenical movement seeking reconciliation. Despite the ecumenical movements’ theological hurdles and its various institutional incarnations, the church “militant” is becoming more globally connected than ever before. While the church of our day may have its own form of Dissociative Identity Disorder, effectually saying with its many divorces that, “Because [you are] not a hand, [you] do not belong to the body,” this does not, in a sense, make it true (1 Cor 12:15). It simply reflects the sinfulness of the church, a reality that also must be both acknowledged and dealt with.
At its best the church is holy, set apart for God’s purposes and obedient and responsive to God’s commands. At its core, holiness stems from love, for God is love (1 John 4:8). The church as a representation of the Trinity, and as the body of Christ, is called not only to return God’s love, but also to share God’s love with others; to love God, love others, and in doing so follow Jesus (Mt. 22:36-44). The church—like Jesus its founder, is called to love the world enough to do something about its plight (John 3:15-17). Holiness is more than a list of shoulds and should-nots—where one by legalistic zeal might embrace a checklist approach to life, it is a call to the highest good; the highest love one can attain with divine assistance, giving glory to God.
The main challenge to this vision of a holy church is the church’s own sinfulness, a sinfulness that is demonstrably real and must be accounted for. Luther’s understanding of the church as simul justus et peccatore, or “simultaneously justified and a sinner,” is helpful for describing the paradox of the church’s “now and not yet” struggle with sin. Luther’s perspective affirms the reality of the sin of the church, yet also allows that God’s sanctification is in fact at work and progressively enacting real change in the hearts, minds, and actions of those who allow the Holy Spirit’s work to continue unhindered in their lives; i.e. those who are working with and not against God’s plan of redemption for the world. The Holy Spirit, with and in spite of the sinfulness of humans, is leading the church to be remade from within into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, presenting all that we are as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God as an act of love and worship (Rom 12:1-2).
Jesus’s church, while particular as “one,” is also catholic or universal. All believers are essentially part of the same body, that of Christ. Just as God as Trinity has many facets, so does the church. Though essentially one, the church is profoundly complex, encompassing the full range of those who have fellowship with Jesus. This fellowship is global consisting of numerous people, cultures and even ages. It consists of uniquely gifted people who each reflect God’s image, yet the church is more than the sum of its parts. Within the church’s unity is not uniformity, but room for the truest of freedoms, for in being remade in the image of its creator we are encouraged to co-create with God. The church reflects the character and nature of God from its smallest subunits to the local church as a congregation, and even the global context of the church at this moment. One of the greatest expressions of the catholicity of the church is the biblical metaphor of being the Bride of Christ (Eph 5:25-27; 2 Cor 11:2). In marriage, there is more at work than merely a covenant between two people, there is an expansion into all the familial possibilities and descendants that will arise from that covenant. Though this union is between the finite and the Infinite, the covenant is to all who participate in this human/divine romance; it also stretches beyond time extending to when the whole church becomes “triumphant” at the great wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9).
The church is apostolic, both in the sense of being stewards of the apostle’s teachings, as well as in its mandate to be “sent forth.” The relationship between these two specific senses of “apostolic” do not stand in contrast to the other. Both are intimately connected, for in the great commission “go” and “teach” are a part of the same imperative command. The church—like Jesus its founder, is called to love the world enough to do something about its plight: it is to bear Christ’s message as witnesses to a watching world. As a sent people, we image (or in a sense incarnate) God just as Jesus did, by both a proclamation and demonstration of the gospel with our whole selves, wherever we are, and wherever we are called to go. Yet the greatest challenge to this is that the message of an incarnate God, suffering and dying on a cross, and sent on a divine mission of love, is a hard one to accept; especially as sin is increasingly viewed through a different lens in our post-scientific clinical psychology enamored world.
There are also great challenges arising from human evolution to a historical Adam, and thus it is hard for people who see the story of humanity’s fall as non-historical to accept the biblical rational for a savior. Moreover, the “now and not yet” quality of the church is not satisfying to some who see Jesus’ noble work as an enterprise that seemed to capture the hearts of many, yet still left sin both alive and well in the world, and alive and well in the church. One must humbly accept the reality Nietzsche pointed to as he wrote, “for me to believe in their Savior: his disciples would have to look more redeemed!”
In an American context where the “church hour” is one of many options in a sea of social activities and nonprofit organizations, what does it mean to be sent? In a time when people are more concerned about “this world” answers than afterlife concerns, what might the gospel look like contextualized for our time? I think the church should reevaluate its understanding of apostolicity in light of Pannenberg’s understanding of election as “for service,” not merely for salvation. A practical application oriented approach is needed which focuses on making a difference in this world, especially in seeking out the marginalized and oppressed, and expressing God’s love tangibly to a world that is hurting.
The work of witnessing is not merely the work of marketing the message of Jesus and the kingdom of God, but enacting it. I do not—like many social gospel or liberation theology proponents—believe this can be done without an explicitly connecting these humanitarian efforts to the glory and message of Jesus. This work cannot be done at the expense of the message of a God who loved the world enough to come and save it; it must be more than merely disseminating information and hoping for transformation. For the church to be sent, it needs to reevaluate where it is being sent, lest faith become a mere “Jesus stamp” on what we were already going to do anyway, like perhaps finding a comfortable life in the suburbs.
Psychology and social sciences are helpful, but the church needs to get past merely helping people feel relieved about their future experience in the coming afterlife. As Cavanaugh demonstrates, there are very real dangers inherent in seeing the church as a mere “shepherd of souls,” (relegated only to the realm of the spiritual) while leaving the physical world behind. Like God in the incarnation, the church needs to be sent—to be among the hurting, and get its hands dirty. We should fearlessly ask, if Jesus is our model, why do we look so tame? If this is supposed to be the Kingdom of God, why does it look so much more like the rotary club instead? Sin is a tangible thing, a universal experience. A big part of being “sent ones” is not sweeping sin under a big warm blanket of denial, or helping people find the right therapist, or feel better about or manage their sin—but to contextualize the hope we find in Jesus even there: to break free of the superficiality that prevents us from being transformed, and engage the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
The historic marks of the church are still with us, though challenged on nearly every side. The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic in ways both old and new. We, in our day, may never get a chance to expand upon the historic marks of the church in a way that becomes widespread. Though we may desire to propose some more marks of the church, and in certain contexts would benefit from remix and reinterpretation, holding new global church councils to create new benchmarks or theological parameters seems beyond the realm of feasibility. Perhaps what is needed is even more grace and humility. Through the patchwork spider web of the church’s brokenness; its particularity and universality, its sinfulness and holiness, its mission and message; may we weigh all of it under “Paul’s rule” of glorying (boasting) in Christ.