Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Marks of the Church

A friend recently recommended an article by Ligonier Ministries (an organisation which in its own words is “the teaching fellowship of RC Sproul”) which speaks about “The Marks of the Church”.

In the article, the author comments that the Catholic Church teaches that THE mark of the church is the bishop – and that this bishop must be in a line of succession with the Apostles and submit to the Pope. This statement contains an element of truth, but not the whole truth i.e. a bishop in a line of succession and in communion with the Successor of St. Peter is a mark of the true church, but it is not THE sole mark. There are other marks as well, as I hope to demonstrate below.

The author goes on to say that, contrary to his assumption of the Catholic position, the marks of a true church are the Word of God and the Sacraments; which he tries to back up using 1 Cor 11:17-34. Now, it is true that the Word of God and the Sacraments are necessarily present in the Church of Christ; however, nowhere in this passage does St. Paul make the case (either explicitly or by inference) that  these are the marks by which the True Church is known as such.
In addition, the author’s case tends to fall a bit flat when pushed a bit – because no two Protestant denominations are able to agree on these two “marks”. They cannot agree on the Word of God because each Protestant denomination interprets the Scriptures differently according to their own self-assumed authority. And they cannot agree on the nature and effect of the Sacraments (that’s if they’re even willing to call them “Sacraments” in the first place); and yet he would affirm that there are denominations other that his own that he would gladly call “true churches”. Yet, how could they be if they don’t believe the same about the Word of God, and hold different theology regarding the Sacraments?
I sometimes wonder why the Protestant Reformers felt such a need to make such a strong point on this assumption of the “marks” of the Church when the Scriptures don’t specifically spell them out. My suspicion is that it is because they were up against the insurmountable claim of the Catholic Church – a claim rooted and grounded historically with evidence tracing all the way back to the Apostles. And, within this historic Christianity, the Church had already established what the “marks of the Church” were in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381) in which the Church throughout the ages affirms the belief that “We believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”. In other words, the “marks of the Church” are that:
a)    the Church is One;

b)    the Church is Holy;

c)    the Church is Catholic; and

d)    the Church is Apostolic.

The Catholic Church is the only Church that has been, is, and always will be, able to stand up to this test. Whereas, with at least on the points of unity, catholicity, and apostolicity, the Protestant Reformers were not able to give full assent and remain honest. The only way that they were able to continue to “affirm” the marks contained in the Creed was through a redefinition of terms – a redefinition that runs contrary to what the Fathers of the Church meant by these terms.

For example, the Protestants took the meaning of “apostilicity” to refer solely to the teaching of the Apostles. However, when worked through logically, this becomes a bit of a circular argument because “Apostolic teaching” ends up becoming subjective by being equated solely with the teaching of a particular denomination over against the thousands of other denominations in existence, who also claim to hold to “the teaching of the Apostles”.
The Catholic position is stronger than this because whilst it naturally affirms the teaching of the Apostles, it also goes a step further and requires that the direct line of Apostolic Succession exists.
Firstly, this idea of direct succession being necessary for the transfer of true authority and doctrinal purity is biblical (e.g. Matt 10:40; 1 Tim 1:3,11; 6:20; 2 Tim 2:1-2; Tit 1:5).
Secondly, it is taught by the earliest of the Church Fathers. For example, St. Clement of Rome, the third successor of St. Peter wrote in the late first century:
“...[the Apostles] having received perfect foreknowledge, appointed those who have already been mentioned [i.e. the bishops], and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.” – To the Corinthians

St. Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, had the following to say early in the second century:

“...let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters [priests] as the council of God and college of Apostles. Without these it cannot be called a Church.” – To the Trallians

“Those, indeed, who belong to God and to Jesus Christ – they are with the bishop. And those who repent and come to the unity of the Church – they too shall be of God, and will be living according to Jesus Christ...if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God....for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons.” – To the Philadelphians
“You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father...Let no one do anything without the bishop...Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” – To the Smyrnaeans

And late in the second century, we find St. Irenaeus saying the following:
“It is necessary to obey those who are the presbyters in the Church, those who, as we have shown, have succession from the Apostles; those who have received, with the succession of the episcopate [i.e. bishops], the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. But the rest, who have no part in the primitive succession and assemble wheresoever they will, must be held in suspicion.” – Against Heresies

This is just the tip of the iceberg from the Church Fathers, but it illustrates that from the earliest days, the Church has faithfully upheld the doctrine of Apostolic Succession as proceeding from the Apostles themselves. To reject Apostolic Succession, as the “RC Sproul disciple” does, is nothing less than to oppose the Church Fathers, many who were disciples of the Apostles and martyred for their faith.

I know that I have a few Protestant friends reading this blog who made up their minds long ago that the Catholic Church is “evil” and “riddled with heresy”...but I also know that those same Protestant friends have never given the Catholic Church a “fair trial”. What many Protestants believe about the Catholic Church is based on hearsay (for the most part) and sometimes even downright lies which have filtered down through the years since the Protestant Reformation (this is sad, but true. But the Catholic Church has many enemies, the greatest of which is the “father of lies” himself). This kind of evidence would never be allowed to stand in a court of should not be allowed to stand in the court of our hearts and minds either.

So, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage my Protestant friends to give the Catholic Church a fair hearing – don’t make up your mind before you have heard and prayerfully examined all the evidence. For many years, I did...but I just thank God that He granted the grace for me to be open to hear the Catholic position because I now realise that what I was closed to for so long was nothing less than that pearl of great price that our blessed Lord spoke about in Matt 13:45-46. And because the Catholic Church is the true Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is only in the Catholic Church that I have really been able to know and experience our Lord in the fullest sense.
And that is why my heart is heavy for my Protestant friends – because I only wish you could know what it is that you are missing out on...

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