The marks of Christ and his Church

The marks of Christ and his Church

By Jason E. Vickers

The United Methodist (EUB) Confession of Faith identifies four marks of the church: oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. These four marks are not original with the Confession of Faith. They derive directly from the Nicene Creed (325 AD), and therefore they originate in the theological reflections of the early church fathers. They are at once contemporary and ancient.

For those with eyes to see and ears to ear, however, the marks of the church identified in the Confession of Faith and the Nicene Creed are not without rival in the United Methodist Church today. Indeed, one can discern in the language of United Methodist clergy, laity, and seminary professors new “marks of the church.” Like the marks of the church identified in the Confession of Faith and the Nicene Creed, the new marks are four in number: inclusivity, openness, tolerance, and diversity.

More than popular buzzwords, these four terms are code for a vision of the nature and mission of the church. If the church is to be the church, then the church should be inclusive, open, tolerant, and diverse. This vision is partly reflected in the current marketing campaign: The United Methodist Church is characterized by “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.”

The new marks of the church generate a whole host of questions. What is one to make of the new marks of the church? Should one embrace them? Are the new marks somehow more in-step with the wider culture? Are they politically or ideologically motivated, or are they theologically motivated? Is it possible to separate politics and theology? Is not all theology political? Is not all politics theological? Most importantly, one wants to know, should the new marks of the church replace the old ones?

Up ahead, I will venture to answer the last of these questions. Before doing so, it is crucial to take the time to revisit the old marks of the church. To be sure, the old marks do not sound as contemporary or culturally sensitive as the new ones. When compared with inclusivity and diversity, apostolicity and holiness sound antiquated at best. Surely the old marks are a relic of the past. Surely the old marks involve an unfamiliar language that turns people off to the church. Surely the new marks make the church sound more attractive to the unchurched.

At the outset, the temptation to give up on the old marks is a strong one. It must be admitted, however, that the old marks have been around for a long time. They have had a good run for their money. If for no other reason than their longevity, one should at least give them a respectful last glance before consigning them to the dustbin of church history. What precisely do the old marks mean? What kind of vision of the nature and mission of the church do they reflect? What, if anything, might be lost if the new marks are allowed to replace the old?

A good way to get at the meaning of the old marks of the church is to take the word church seriously. After all, the old marks are adjectives that modify the noun church. This is important because the meaning of adjectives can change based upon the noun they are called upon to modify. For example, the word “hot” means one thing in the phrase “a hot stove,” and it means something rather different in the phrase “a hot car.” The point here is a simple one. To get at the meaning of the old marks of the church, one needs to ask: what is meant by the word church?

In both scripture and church tradition, an entire range of metaphors is used to describe the church. The church is “a city on a hill,” “the called out ones,” “resident aliens,” “branches of the true vine,” a “royal city,” “the light of the world,” and so on. Yet, the metaphor that is arguably the most central theologically is “the body of Christ.” The church is not just any body. It is not simply a collection of individuals. Nor is it simply a community of persons who share a common story and common practices. The Church is the body of the Christ. The church is connected in a deep, albeit mysterious, way to the person of Jesus Christ.

What does it mean for the church to be the body of Christ? What does it mean to take this metaphor seriously? A simple question suggests itself. What kind of body does Christ have?

The temptation at this stage is to see Christ’s body as representative of his humanity. In other words, Christ’s physical body is the human component of the Incarnation. At a certain level, this makes sense. After all, Christ’s body is broken and ultimately succumbs to death. Naturally, one wants to associate brokenness and death exclusively with the humanity of Christ, preserving the dignity and purity of Christ’s divinity. Surely God, after all, is incapable of suffering and dying. Thus, the tendency is to associate the suffering and death of Christ with the human body that Christ acquires in the Incarnation.

While it is natural to associate Christ’s broken body with his human nature, the leading theologians of the early church rejected the notion that one can neatly separate the human nature from the divine nature in Christ. Rather, they insisted that Christ’s human and divine natures, while distinct, were united in such a way as to make them inseparable. Most importantly, they pointed out that God brought about the union of the divine and human natures in Christ in order to heal human nature from brokenness and death.

What does all of this have to do with the marks of the church? To begin with, it means that, as the body of Christ, the church is not immune to brokenness or even to death. On the contrary, the church is a place in which brokenness is front and center. Every time the church celebrates the Eucharist, her members are reminded that Christ’s body is a broken and mortally wounded body. We are reminded of the deadly consequences of sin. This is the offense of the Incarnation. In Christ, God joins God’s self to human brokenness, even to the point of death.

As the body of Christ, brokenness is a part of the very nature of the church. It is also a part of the church’s mission. The church welcomes the poor and downtrodden. The church opens her doors to those broken by willful sin, by addiction, and by all forms of abuse. The church is home to all persons, regardless of the source or shape of their brokenness. Thus the church is catholic insofar as all persons, no matter how broken, are welcome. Similarly, the church is one in brokenness insofar as all of her members share a common human nature broken by sin.

At the same time, it is crucial to recall that, in Christ, human nature is joined inseparably to divinity. Two natures are united in one person, one broken and dying, the other healing and alive. As the body of Christ, the church is not merely a human community. On the contrary, she is joined mysteriously to the divine nature in Christ every time she celebrates the Eucharist.

This brings one to the two remaining marks of the church. In the body of Christ, broken human nature is united to the healing power of Christ’s divine nature. To be a part of the church is to be made holy. In and through participation in the means of grace, broken persons experience divine healing; we begin a journey of healing and wholeness. Thus while the church is one in brokenness and death, she is also one in healing and the holiness of life that results from her union with the divine nature in Christ.

What about the last of the old marks of the church, namely, apostolicity? Often, apostolicity is associated with apostolic succession. According to apostolic succession, there is an unbroken line of persons extending from Christ all the way down to present day elders in the church. Among other things, this unbroken line is said to ensure doctrinal purity. Yet, there is another way to think about apostolicity in the light of the church’s identity as the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, the church is one both in brokenness and in holiness. Apostolicity testifies to the healing power of Christ’s body, insofar as those who accept responsibility for church leadership are exemplars of Christ’s holiness. Like Paul, they model their lives after Christ so that others can model their lives after them. In Christ, their lives are a testimony to what happens when broken human nature is united with the divine. The Wesleyan term for this is, of course, entire sanctification.

As attributes of the church, the old marks of the church are highly instructive for the church’s nature and mission. The church is a place in which all persons are welcome. The church does not flinch at brokenness and death any more than the One whose body she is. As the body of Christ, the church bears visible wounds, even mortal wounds. Her members are one in brokenness and in the death that is the wages of sin, both their own sins and the sins of others. In this respect, the church is truly catholic or universal.

Yet the church is also a place of radical healing and holiness. The church is a place of union with God. In and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work in the means of grace, the church’s members find themselves united with Christ. In this union, we find ourselves on a journey from brokenness to holiness. Our wounds are bound up, and they become the image of Christ on earth. As with Christ, visible reminders of the wounds remain. But there is also something more. There is deep healing. There is restoration to God. There is perfect love for God and neighbor. We are no longer the same. The church is holy and apostolic.

In light of the two natures of Jesus Christ, the church’s nature and mission involves both welcoming all who are broken and waiting patiently with the broken for the Holy Spirit to bind up their wounds in Christ. Brokenness is fully expected. But so is healing. This is truly good news.

Compared with this rich theological vision of the nature and mission of the church, the new marks of the church are clearly deficient. On the one hand, inclusivity, diversity, tolerance, and openness can be seen as capturing important aspects of oneness and catholicity. The new marks make clear that all persons are welcome in the church. Unfortunately, the new marks fail to remind persons of the healing power of the church. The new marks can only too easily be taken to suggest that persons should come as they are and remain as they are. They simply do not capture all that has been made available in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The new marks provide one vital aspect of the good news, but they do not tell the whole story.

Finally, a word needs to be said about the possible origins of the new marks of the church. Why the sudden emphasis on inclusion, openness, diversity, and tolerance? One suspects that the new marks of the church are partly the result of a failure on the part of the church to maintain the delicate balance between the human and divine natures of the One whose body she is. Otherwise put, one suspects that the church has a tendency to stress holiness over catholicity, oneness in sanctity over oneness in brokenness. There is a constant temptation to rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. To the extent that this is true, it does not necessitate the invention or adoption of new marks of the church. Rather, the church needs simply to take the old marks more seriously. The church is the body of Christ, wounds and all. The old marks remind us of the wounds; they also remind us of all that is ours in Christ. The old marks make it clear that all are welcome; they also make it clear that, in Christ, the Holy Spirit makes us truly alive unto God.

Jason E. Vickers is Associate Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  He is the author or editor of several books, including Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology (2008), and Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed (2009).