Marks (Notes) of the Church
Recognized as part of the Nicene Creed (the Creed of Constantinople), these four “marks” or “notes” are both attributes of the church presumed to be visible and goals to strive toward in order to assure the “truth” or “validity” of a community’s relationship with Christ and in Christ.
Little commentary is offered on them until the sixteenth century reformations when Martin Luther developed the concept of notae ecclesiae as he contemplated “justification by faith alone without the works of the law” and the Roman Catholic Church used them “to discern the true Church among the rival claims of the different Christian Communions” (Lathrop, 18-19). Conceptually, they remind that the church is a verb, not a noun; a sign, not a definition.
One describes the unity of the body of Christ with Jesus as its head. “Church unity is something given through the events of word and sacrament, not something humans do, achieve or preserve.” (29) Because it claims to be open to all, it must strive to overcome divisions and ensure access to full communion. “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6)
Holy means set apart for a special purpose by and for God. Part of God’s creation, the church is infused with and guided by the Holy Spirit as it seeks to enact the Dream of God. While part of the human condition and capable of sin, the church is called to strive toward purity and combat sinfulness.
The word “catholic,” meaning “universal,” offers the Good News of salvation to all creation. As the Body of Christ, the church is not limited to a time, place, race or culture. The challenge is to be present in every place where the Good News is as yet unknown.
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28-18-20)
Continuing in the teaching and the fellowship of the Apostles, this describes the church’s origin and beliefs as grounded in Jesus and his original followers. The church must be mindful of these roots and strive to ensure that it is faithful to Jesus’ message and mission.
Gordon W. Lathrop and Timpthy J Wengert, Christian Assembly: Marks of the church in a Pluralistic Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004)