The 4 Marks of the Church

-The Doctrines & Beliefs of the early Church as written by the people who lived it.-

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times. . .” 

-Irenaeus of Lyons “Against Heresies, 3:3:1” (Written 180 A.D.)

What are the 4 Marks of the Church?

As the early Church took root and Christianity began to spread throughout the known world, divergent sects with conflicting teachings began to spring up among localized populaces.  The idea of “denominations” with differing beliefs united in an “invisible” church was unheard of at this time and thus it became vital to early Christians to be able to recognize the true Church and it’s teachings as it was handed down by the Apostles and to distinguish it from the teachings of local leaders whose views opposed the more universal teachings of the Church. Allusions to the Four Marks of the Church (especially Apostolic Succession) can be found in the writings of 2nd-century Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons. While many doctrines, based on both tradition and different interpretations of the Bible, distinguish one denomination from another, the Four Marks were indications of which Church -and thus which doctrines- were of Apostolic origin.

the church is one

The Church, as Christ’s mystical body on earth, is united as one body of believers (Jn 17:20–23, 1 Cor. 12:-12-13, Phil. 2:2, Eph. 4:5-6).  Early Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch did not understand this unity to be simply symbolic but rather believed it to be made manifest through participation in the Eucharist and made visible through our recognition of the authority given by Christ to the bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome (Matt 16:18-19, Jn 21:15-17).  Without the Eucharist, we are Christ’s Body in name only.  Without an authority to rule definitively on a matter, any disagreement among members could ultimately lead to dissolution of Church unity (Matt. 12:25, 1 Tim 3:15, Matt 18:17).

the church is holy

This phrase was not intended by the early Church to convey a perpetual righteousness in the actions or behaviors of the individual members of the Church, as the Church was considered to be a refuge for sinners.  Rather the word holy meant set apart for a special purpose by and for God (John 15:19), just as the Tabernacle and Temple of the Old Covenant were visibly set apart. Early Christians understood the holiness of the universal Church to be derived from Christ’s holiness (Eph. 5:25-27) as the Church is the mystical Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13).  The Church was holy because it was instituted by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit.  The Church then provided its members the means of holiness through the Sacraments it offers.  

the church is catholic

The word “catholic” is derived from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning “universal”.  The earliest known use of the word catholic is by Ignatius of Antioch around 107 A.D. Although the church is spread throughout the world (Matt. 28:19–20, Rev. 5:9–10, Gal. 3:28), each local manifestation of the church contains the wholeness of the Christian faith, full and complete, lacking nothing.  Although cultural practices  may differ from place to place, the essential doctrines and dogmas expressed in each place are universal.  Church Fathers like Augustine of Hippo and Optatus of Milevis used this idea to illustrate to the Donatists that they could not be the true Church as they were found only in one small corner of Northern Africa and did not reflect the universal beliefs of the rest of the Church.

the church is apostolic

The Church’s foundation and beliefs are rooted in the living Tradition of the Apostles (Eph. 2:19–20, 2 Tim. 2:2, 2 Thess. 2:15, 1 Cor. 11:2) and continue through the apostolic succession of bishops who derive their authority through a direct line of laying on of hands from the apostles (Acts 6:6, Acts 13:3, 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6).  This Apostolic Succession is made apparent by tracing the lineage of bishops of the various churches back to their original founding Apostles or close acquaintances of the Apostles.  This line of succession was very important to the Christians of the first three centuries as this was the litmus test for verifying true doctrine and Apostolic Tradition.

“For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop.”

-Ignatius of Antioch “Letter to the Philadelphians 8:1”
(Written 107 A.D.)

Explore the world of early Christianity with the writings of the Church Fathers

  • What was early Christianity really like?  
  • How did the earliest Christians understand the writings that would eventually compose the New Testament?
  •  What did those Christians who were taught directly by the Apostles have to say?  
  • Why not find out by reading the letters of those early Christians in their own words?

-For my children:  Ella, Elias, Colton, & Corbin

May you always keep your faith and may you always lead others to it.