The classical theological view has always been that unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are the "four marks" of the Christian church. Various evangelicals attempt to add "other" marks to these, some even popularly speaking of "nine marks of the church." I have no dispute with this notion in terms of a general consideration of the work of the church but there are not "nine" marks of the church in the confessional and historical sense. The danger comes when "nine marks," or any other number we come up with on our own, becomes a new form of sectarianism, adding to the confessional life of the church a list of items that a few individuals believe are central to faith and practice when the church catholic has deemed otherwise.

The view that there are four marks grows out of a deep understanding of the Nicene Creed. The creed confesses faith in the church as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes of these four marks as integrated confessional components of the triune God, thus they must be understood (he believes) as statements of faith, hope and action (love). For Moltmann these marks are not so much characteristics that the church possesses as they are characteristics of Christ's own activity, thus statements of faith on our part. What Moltmann means is this—unity, holiness, catholicity and the apostolic character of the church are all statements about what Christ is presently doing; in, with, and through the church. At the same time these are statements about "Christ's messianic mission and the eschatological gift of the Spirit" therefore they are "messianic predicates of the church in the perspective of his coming kingdom, for which it exists and which in the church acquires form and testimony."

Here is the critical point in Moltmann's theology regarding the four marks of the church: Whenever we speak of any one of these marks, or all four of them together, we are making statements of hope, not statements about full possession. But as statements of biblical hope, and this is extremely critical to grasp, these are also statements of faith. And as statements of faith they are statements of action. As a statement of faith these four marks remind us of Christ's work first and foremost. As statements of hope they remind us that the kingdom of God will come on earth as it is now in heaven. But faith and hope always lead us to action, thus to love. These marks always call us to be one, to be holy, to be catholic, and to be apostolic. Taken together, in this kind of rich theological understanding, you can see why these are the real marks of the church. They make visible and present the real life of the church, that life which cannot be replicated through teaching various other marks that we come up with on our own.

Moltmann's comments about this subject are worth a more careful reading:

The church's essential nature is given, promised and laid upon in the characteristics. Faith, hope and action are the genius of the form of the church visible to the world in unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. That is why theology cannot withdraw to the "the invisible church," "the church of the future," or "the church of pure demands." The church lives in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic rule of Christ through faith, hope and action (Church in the Power, 340).

This theology offers us a helpful, and I would submit practical, way of understanding the church. There is a critical tension within the real church, a tension with what we are and how we are to live faithfully. We cannot escape this tension. This tension calls for self-critical reflection, constant discernment and the ongoing renewal of the Spirit. This is where the oft debated term reformata semper reformanda (the church is "reformed

[and] always reforming) comes in, at least in spirit. This tension is so serious and powerful that we are continually called to pursue total renewal. It will involve, according to Moltmann's paradigm, facing resistance from without the church and also from within.

This also raises questions that address ongoing conflicts within a particular society. In South Africa this was the case with apartheid between 1948 and the election of Nelson Mandela and modern reform in the 1990s. This challenge produced a confession from within the church called The Belhar Confession. This confession is now in the process of being adopted by my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America. If this adoption finally takes place Belhar will have reached far beyond its original context to speak to the racial (and other) divisions that exist in our own American churches. What fascinates me is how people on the right "fear" Belhar because they see it as a way to embrace the homosexual agenda inside the church. I do not doubt that this could happen but I will not decide my own view on such a subject based on what "could" happen when I am seeking to correct a problem or address a present need.
The church in South Africa was served by neither the ruthless pluralism of apartheid nor by attempts to establish rigid uniformity. Practicing unity in freedom is vital to the health of the church. But this is where the struggle really comes. This is why the struggle over sexuality is so difficult in the modern West. I remain strongly opposed to adopting sexual standards that oppose the commandments of God while at the same time I work against rigid uniformity as the response of so many Christians. This means that I am always in a place where tension over such issues is quite real. The easy way to deal with such tension is to simply walk away and divide the church again. But sometimes division will (must) come. In this case that seems to be true in the Episcopal Church U.S. (I have more than a few friends who remain in a particular local parish out of conscience even though they strongly repudiate the actions of the ECUSA as a denomination.) My central point here is not to sort out the present tensions with simple solutions. Actually, my point is quite the opposite. This is true because I believe this dynamic tension will always call us to continuing reformation. This, I believe is desperately needed in the North American church. I thus believe such tension is integral to Christian faithfulness and to the history of faith among all who confess the triune God. But if you fail to confess these four marks you will be very likely to move either toward ruthless pluralism, as is happening in some liberal/progressive American Protestantism, or rigid uniformity, which very often happens in rigid conservatism. I believe it is time that ordinary, faithful and serious Christians understood these four marks in this way and then took seriously their contribution to the work of reformata semper reformanda. This will require deep faith, real hope and earnest action (love).


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  1. John Ross February 9, 2010 at 6:28 am

    John, once more an interesting post which, at many points, begs for comment. Let me confine myself to the adoption of Belhar in a context for which it was never designed.
    Personally, I fear that any church adopting Belhar in a post-modern European or American context is likely to be creating a hostage to fortune. It served its purpose well enough here in South Africa when its triple themes of reconciliation, unity, and justice were focused on the single issue it was drawn up to deal with, the heresy of legally and ecclesiastically sanctioned racism (apartheid).
    Once in place, you can be sure it will be applied with ruthless logic to issues it was never meant to deal with, such as gender and sexual orientation. This is exactly what Allan Boesak has done: insisting that Belhar demands the right of homosexuals to live in open and church sanctioned relationships.
    To be sure, the Church must proclaim God’s love to the Gay community on the same terms as others, namely, as a call to repentance and an offer of life changing grace. As I see it Belhar in the ARC, or, for that matter, the Church of Scotland, serves only to muddy the waters, rather than clarifying them.

  2. Ed Holm February 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Is it not possible that we are required to consciously stay within tensions such as these and that there is a certain holy suffering in doing so? Are we not required to embrace such suffering by the Beatitudes? I have been watching this morning on the coverage that the current New Yorker magazine is giving to the early Civil Rights movement. We tend to remember the heroes and particular faces of that movement when, in actuality, many average people had to live in the tension between the status quo and the possible (The Dream) and were somehow willing to slog through painful social change to a better vision. As The Church, are we not called to live within similar tensions? I think Moltman has a good insight, particularly within the concept of The Crucified God. Good stuff.

  3. Sean Nemecek February 9, 2010 at 9:30 am

    While I agree that an emphasis on the four historical marks of a church is helpful. I don’t think attacking the nine marks teaching will help your cause. Nine Marks ministries are doing some wonderful work in helping the local church work toward renewal. They never inteded these nine marks to be seen in the “confessional and historical sense.” Rather they are biblicaly based expressions for the modern context. I have personally found these nine marks to be helpful in the renewal of a local church. They can be taught and used without sacrificing the ideas of a one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

  4. John H. Armstrong February 9, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Sean, please read the sentence about the “nine marks” again. You seem to have missed both my words and my spirit/tone by your response. I am not attacking them but rather suggesting that the terminology is not the best to use in light of the historical role of the “four” marks.
    I could respond to the “nine marks” material itself, of which there is plenty to read and respond to, but do not plan to do that since others have done it well. A little reading by interested readers, pro and con, will suffice. The recent attack by the “nine marks” blogger on my friend Jim Belcher’s highly regarded book, Deep Church, calling him “emergent” (now the great nasty word in some circles) was a rather sad commentary on some thinking at “nine marks.” I hope someone there sees this broad brush criticism for what it is: grossly unfair and quite misleading. Others have corrected them better than I could so I simply urge readers to search all this out on their own.

  5. Bryan Cross February 9, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Concerning Moltmann’s notion about the marks:
    “Whenever we speak of any one of these marks, or all four of them together, we are making statements of hope, not statements about full possession.”
    That seems to me to be a subtle way of saying “We do NOT believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”. It is a way of denying the present full possession of the marks, on the ground that they will be more fully visible in the eschaton. But the greater future visibility of the marks, should not be taken to imply that the Church does not now fully possess them. In the Creed, the “resurrection of the dead” and the “life everlasting” are things we “look for” [Προσδοκῶ, expecto] as future. That’s why they are placed after the lines about the Church and baptism. The wording of the Creed is not such that we “look for” (as future) the marks, or baptism. Those are things the Church has now. The baptism we receive for the “forgiveness of sins” is placed right after “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” because this baptism is found (fully) in that Church. The Church doesn’t partly possess the marks, just as she doesn’t partly possess baptism.
    Denying the Church’s present full possession of the marks is just one more way of excusing disunity among Christians as something we should expect until Christ returns. If the Church fully possesses the marks, then we have an obligation to be united to the Church’s unity. But if the Church does not fully possess the marks, then who are we to go beyond what Christ thought was proper to give to the Church in this age? And there goes the incentive for pursuing unity. If the Church does not already fully possess unity, then unity pursued in this age by ecumenicists becomes a man-made thing, rather than something that the God-man Jesus Christ deposited irrevocably and indefeasibily in His Church.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  6. John H. Armstrong February 9, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Bryan’s response is superbly thought provoking and very clear. I love to see such comments to my ideas.
    I believe there is one theological point that adds to your ideas Bryan that you may or may not embrace. It is the theology of the “already/not yet.” We posses the mark (now) as you insist but there is always a future when it comes to eschatology. The church will be really, totally, openly one in the final day. We can all agree on this even if we define “one” very differently now. I think you know I am not advancing the idea that we should settle for a divided church now. Quite the opposite thus my deep commitment to all kinds of ecumenism; e.g. formal and informal.
    In my book I speak of the unity we will finally have when Christ comes and then suggest that the “approximation should reflect the consummation” as we move toward the coming Day of Christ. We work and pray for visible, real unity now while we also confess our sin in breaking it. (The last two popes have spoken about this in a gracious and wonderful way.) This is consistent with both Catholic and Protestant thought, at least by the best ecumenical writers/theologians I know.
    So I agree with you Bryan but I would also say what we have now is not the fullness of what we shall have. We pray, “Your kingdom come . . . ” and it has come but it has not come in fullness. We pray in the knowledge that we are in that reign of Christ right now but we shall see the reign come in the eschaton with amazing power beyond what we know right now.
    I think, and I could be wrong about this, that Moltmann had something like this in mind in his Theology of Hope. I know this is what I have in mind at this moment. I am quite open to learn a lot more.

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