In the current debate over the health of the church, it is good to return to the past so we can know how best to craft the future. What yardstick shall we use to measure whether any form of the church is healthy? The classic answer has been given in the Nicene Creed, which speaks about the four great “marks” (indispensable attributes) of the church: “We believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
I believe in One … Church
God has only one church. Though congregations are scattered throughout every geographic region, meet under a multitude of denominational markers, and worship with widely divergent styles, we are all part of one great church. Healthy churches refuse to be sectarian or divisive.
I believe in One Holy … Church
In our tradition the word “holy” picked up some unfortunate baggage. It was often defined as “sinlessness”. But the primary meaning of the word holy, when applied to the church, is that it is distinct from all other organizations. It has been dedicated to God’s use. It belongs to God and owes allegiance to no other. The Church exists for the sole use of God. It is therefore holy!
The word “Holy”, however, developed another connotation. To be holy is to be godly. So when we say, “I believe in One Holy … Church”, we are agreeing that godliness is the guide by which it models its behavior. Healthy churches will take godliness in character as the goal towards which it will guide their people.
I believe in One … Catholic … Church.
Like the word “holy”, the word “catholic” also picked up unfortunate connotations. But just because one part of Christendom has taken it as its label, this does not mean the rest of us cannot use it. In its basic meaning it simply indicates that God’s church is global, and not just local or national. It means that God’s church is open to all persons regardless of their origins or location. Healthy churches refuse to be provincial, but insist upon being international in both nature and mission.
I Believe in One … Apostolic Church
If the word “catholic” has reference to the geographic extent of the church, the word “apostolic” has reference to its historical depth. The church did it come into existence with the laying of our cornerstone, or with Wesley, or Luther, or Augustine. It began with Jesus and the earliest Apostles. These apostles were given the authority by Jesus Christ Himself to set the genetic code of his church. He gave to these apostles a message which was to be passed on to every succeeding generation. The Scriptures contain that message with its implications for all of life. The church takes those scriptures seriously and in doing so stands on apostolic foundations. This is why, even in the twentieth-first century, Healthy church will treasure their own deep past, while proclaiming the ancient story in new words and new forms for each new generation.
Published in Light and Life, September-October, 2006.