Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

ST009/2 The Attributes of the Church.


The Attributes of the Church

By the attributes of the church we mean those characteristics by which we know it and which are set forth for us in the Scriptures. In considering this subject, it must be remembered, as someone has pointed out, that the church has a dual nature.

It is a divine organism and institution, brought into being by God and living by God's power and resources alone; yet at the same time, it has to live its life and carry on its work in human surroundings and with all the weakness of human organization.

Therefore when we consider these characteristics of the church, the opposites are usually considered as well. There are four mentioned in the early creeds and with their opposites they are,

  1. Unity and Diversity,
  2. Holiness and Imperfection,
  3. Catholic and Local,
  4. Apostolic and Confessional.

Various theologians have added others but we will limit ourselves to these, though enlarging on some to include other important points.

(a) Unity and Diversity.

The Church is undoubtedly one and our Lord stated this clearly in His prayer in John 17. As Ephesians tells us, there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. But there is diversity as well. Because of different countries, different cultures, different methods of thought even in the same country, there is bound to be a great deal of diversity in many things.

This liability is increased by the fact of fallen human nature and of imperfections in the mind and thought of those living nearest to the Lord. Even in the New Testament the writers never speak of "the Church" in an area or province but of "the Churches!"

There was no uniformity or even, as far as we can see, a command for uniformity; but there was a continual plea that the unity of the Spirit be maintained. This question of unity and uniformity is allied to the matter of the Visible and the Invisible Church.

Especially in the situation which holds now, those who are in the visible church are not necessarily all in the true or invisible church. The church of the New Testament clearly consists of those who are truly united to Christ in the new birth, those, in other words, who are "in Christ". The Roman Catholic Church and other Sacramental churches do not and of course, cannot make any distinction between the visible and invisible church. Entry to the church is by meaans of the sacrements and everyone therefore must be known to be a member of the church and everyone who has partaken of the sacraments must be a member by virtue of his partaking.

(b) Holiness and Imperfection.

The Church is holy in the sense that it is composed of those who are "in Christ" and who are, therefore, saints in the making. All who are in Christ" are members of the church according, to the New Testament and are also called saints. Holiness has begun and they are also called to be "sanctified wholly".

The purpose of God is that all should be perfect in Christ Jesus and should reach the "measure of the fulness of the stature of Christ". In this sense, therefore, the attribute of the church is holiness, while in actual fact it, at the same time, contains a great deal of imperfection, which in the nature of the case is unavoidable.

(c) Catholic and Local.

The word "Catholic" is from a Greek word and means "worldwide". As such it refers to the body of true believers throughout the whole of the world. The church includes all who are "in Christ" of whatever nation, tongue, colour or caste throughout the world.

The Roman Church has limited the word to mean that, not only is that church spread worldwide, but that only those in that particular communion are truly the church. The church, however, is also "local".

An assembly of true believers anywhere is the church in microcosm and all the blessings and gifts which are the privilege of the larger church, are likewise the privilege of that assembly.

(d) Apostolic and Confessional.

By Apostolic is meant that the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone" (Eph.2:20). It does not and cannot mean that the only true ministers are those who have been ordained by bishops who can trace their ordination back to the Apostles, and that the only true church is that which is pastored by such ministers.

The idea of apostolic succession cannot possibly be upheld. The matter cannot be discussed fully but it is sufficient to point out,

  1. That there is no trace in the New Testament of bishops as a separate order with exclusive right to ordain;
  2. That there is no justification for giving Peter a superior position to Paul;
  3. That there is no proof that Peter was ever Bishop of Rome;
  4. That it is impossible to show an apostolic succession from Peter onwards, and especially is this the case from a spiritual point of view;
  5. That the history of the succession through the Middle Ages is exceedingly confused and morally polluted. Therefore by "Apostolic" today we mean that our teaching and belief is based on the teaching of the Apostles in the New Testament. ie take our stand on the Scriptures written by the inspired Apostles rather than living apostolic authority.

In the words of Dr. Pope, "the Church is apostolic as being ruled by the apostolical authority living in the writings of the apostles, that authority being the standard of appeal in all the confessions that hold the head'. (Comp. of Christian Theology Vol.III p.285).
When we speak of the church as confessional as well, we refer to the pact that membership is based on a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

"For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation". (Rom.10:10). It was such a confession as this that was required of the Ethiopian eunuch.

Different national and denominational churches have had their own creeds and confessions, but the one essential confession is that given above. What are called "Notes" or "Marks" are also mentioned in many theological works and are sometimes confused with the attributes just mentioned.

It seems that strictly speaking these "Notes" refer to the marks or characteristics by which any visible church can be shown to be a true church. Very often the above mentioned attributes are used in the opposite direction as tests as well, but Berkhof and other theologians would deal with the "Marks" of the church in a different way.

Berkhof makes them three, the true preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of discipline. He admits, however, that all is based on the true preaching of the word and its recognition as the standard of doctrine and life. It seems, therefore, that the only marks that can really be laid down to decide whether a body of people is a true church or not are (i) that they confess Christ as Lord and Saviour, and (ii) that they preach the Word truly and recognize it as the standard of doctrine and life.

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