Over the past year these weekly letters have been exploring essential elements of the church’s identity, as set forth in our Book of Order’s “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.”[i] The pandemic has shaken the church to its core, and what it will look like in the years ahead is anyone’s guess. But this much is sure – tending to its foundations has never been more important.
Whenever our beloved ways and institutions are shaken, we need to remember the words of Scripture declaring that God’s abiding purpose is sometimes discovered through what remains after everything has been shaken. (Hebrews 12:27)
I firmly believe that these foundations are not merely Presbyterian, but essential for the whole Christian church. The Foundations section of our Book of Order is not “Presbyterian 101,” but “Church 101.”
Over the past year, I have intentionally worked backwards through the Foundation blocks as set forth in the first chapter of the Book of Order. We began by asking how “The Great Ends of the Church” (F-1.0304) will shape the post-pandemic church’s mission. Then we proceeded to unpack the way “The Notes of the Reformed Church” (F-1.0303) will be manifest in the post-pandemic church.
Now we turn to “The Marks of the (post-pandemic) Church” (F-1.0302). The Great Ends are approximately 100 years old, the Reformed Notes go back some 500 years, but the Marks have been declared for more than 1500 years through the Nicene Creed. For most of the church’s history, Christians worldwide have affirmed “the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” These are the four ancient “Marks” of the true church:
- The church is one
- The church is holy
- The church is catholic
- The church is apostolic
These marks of the church are indivisible. There are no commas separating them in the creed. They are not aspirational, not something to reach for. Rather, they are descriptive, something given. The Book of Order rightly begins its explication of each mark by noting that it is a gift of God, something we receive rather than something we achieve.
So why must the church fight tooth and nail to demonstrate in practice what it already is, by definition? When it fails to evince these marks, is it no longer authentically “the church?”
John Calvin pointed out that this line in the creed has come to us in two versions, both ancient. One says, “I believe in this kind of church,” while the other simply says “I believe this kind of church.” Calvin contended that the latter version is the right one, since only God is the object of faith itself. If this is so, the creed asks us to affirm the marks of a credible church. It sets forth what makes the church believable.
Jesus is clear about what will make credible his followers’ claim to be his disciples. They will be publicly recognized as his disciples by how they love each other. (John 13:34-35)
When we fail to love each other, we lose our credibility as Christ-followers. Alas, the church has all too often elicited the world’s dismissal, mistrust, and contempt.
The marks of the church are public demonstrations of the church’s love. Love for its Lord. Love for all who call on the name of the Lord. Love that is observable, empirically verifiable. Love that is expressed in action, not just in words. Love that acknowledges the worth of everyone, our need for everyone, and our obligation to everyone in the community of faith.
Such love inevitably extends beyond the community of faith, embracing the world just as our Lord Jesus did. But before we can extend our love outward in Jesus’ way, we must practice his love amongst ourselves.
The ancient church historian Tertullian reported that the reason Romans joined the earliest Christian believers in droves was that they marveled at how Christians loved each other. In a world where everyone fought tooth and nail against each other to assure their own survival and security, Christians took care of each other, sacrificed for each other, and were devoted to the welfare of the least among them. They defended each other even when they disagreed.
Imagine the impact such a church would have today! The Beatles declared, “All you need is love.” In a post-pandemic church that has lost much in resources, attendance, and capacity, we may find that all that’s left is love. And if so, we have everything we need. When that’s all we have, we are poised for apostolic impact.
“I believe the … apostolic church.” What does it mean to be “apostolic”? Stay tuned.
Yours in the bonds of love,