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The Marks of a True Church

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 4 Sep 2019

Lee Gatiss looks at Roman Catholic and Protestant disagreements on the doctrine of the church, to put Anglican doctrine into its context.

In a recent blog, we looked at what Article 19 says about Anglican polity, the meaning of the word “congregation”, and the structure of the church. Yet this Article was not intended to speak to debates about church governance primarily. Its main aim was to describe what a true church looks like. This is therefore a great way to consider what kind of healthy local Anglican churches we should be seeking to pioneer, establish, and secure for the future.

The Article begins by saying, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” This is framed in a very similar way to a number of other contemporary statements about what the church is, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. It was intended to speak into that polemical context. Only by seeing it in that light, can we make sense of the particular truths that Article 19 is trying to confess. When we do see it in that light, however, it presents a number of very significant challenges to us today, particularly for Anglican Evangelicals.

Roman Catholic views of the Church
We saw in the previous blog that Luther’s nemesis, John Eck (1486-1543), along with many others in medieval and early modern Europe, thought of “the church” as the clerical hierarchy. As the Reformation continued, even more thought was given by Roman Catholic theologians to this subject. Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621) listed 15 marks of true church in his treatise on the subject as part of his learned and impressive work on current controversies in the Christendom. Elsewhere, Bellarmine gives a snappier definition, aimed more at brevity than comprehensiveness. “The Catholic teaching,” he says, “is that the Church is only one, not two, and that the body of men of the same Christian profession and of the same Sacraments, gathered in communion is one and true, under the legitimate pastors and especially of the one Vicar of Christ on Earth, the Roman Pontiff.” So, in essence, there are three parts to his definition of what makes a church: “the profession of the true faith, the communion of the Sacraments, and subjection to the legitimate pastor, the Roman Pontiff.” (De Ecclesia Militante in De Controversiis, Book 3).

We see the same basic structure of this approach in Bellarmine’s catechism. So, what is the church, in essence? He answers, “The Church is a certain convocation and gathering of baptized men who profess the same faith and law of Christ under obedience to the Roman Pontiff.” So, the church is a convocation or congregation (Latin: convocatio / congregatio) he says, “because we are not born Christians (like we are born either as Italians, or Frenchman, or of some other nation).” We enter the church through baptism, but that is not sufficient for us to be the church. There must also be some confessional, doctrinal content to the church’s faith: “it is necessary to believe and profess the holy faith and law of Christ just as the pastors and preachers of the Church propose.” Yet even that does not suffice to make a church: “but it is also necessary for us to be in obedience to the Roman Pontiff as the Vicar of Christ, which is to hold and recognize him as the Supreme Head in place of Christ.” (Doctrina Christiana Catechismus, under the 9th Article of the Creed).

So a true Catholic Church is a band of baptised believers beholden to the Bishop of Rome.

Luther on the Church
Martin Luther wanted to be very clear that the Pope and his cardinals are not the Church, but the people are. He claimed, in On the Councils and the Church (1539), it would have been better if, in the Apostles’ Creed, the word “people” had been used instead of “church”. He said, “If the words, “I believe that there is a holy Christian people,” had been used in the Children’s Creed, all the misery connected with this meaningless and obscure word (“church”) might easily have been avoided. For the words “Christian holy people” would have brought with them, dearly and powerfully, the proper understanding and judgment of what is, and what is not, church. Whoever would have heard the words “Christian holy people” could have promptly concluded that the pope is no people, much less a holy Christian people. So too the bishops, priests, and monks are not holy, Christian people, for they do not believe in Christ, nor do they lead a holy life, but are rather the wicked and shameful people of the devil.” (LW 41:144)

Luther enumerates 7 marks of this holy Christian people. The first four are the traditional word of God, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and church discipline. “Fifth,” he adds, “the church is recognized externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers.” As he explains, “There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things or holy possessions in behalf of and in the name of the church, or rather by reason of their institution by Christ” (LW 41:154-155). As he concludes, “The people as a whole cannot do these things, but must entrust or have them entrusted to one person. Otherwise, what would happen if everyone wanted to speak or administer, and no one wanted to give way to the other?”

Luther continues by adding a sixth mark of the church: “Sixth, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God.” And finally, “the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross.” He doesn’t mean by this that our buildings must possess wooden crosses or that our necks must be adorned by crucifixes. What he means is that we “must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.” (LW 41:164). He also adds a number of other “other outward signs that identify the Christian church”, such as love, obedience, forgiveness, sobriety, humility, and godliness (LW 41:166).

Other Protestant views of the Church
In the Lutheran Augsburg Confesssion (chapter 7), we are again told that the church isn’t defined by its hierarchy or its allegiance to the Pope and Cardinals, but by its profession of faith. “The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.”

Martin Bucer (1491-1551) also wrote about the church, and the true care of souls within it. “The church of Christ is the assembly and fellowship of those who are gathered from the world and united in Christ our Lord through his Spirit and word,” he said, resonating with some of the language of our Article 19 but also with the understanding of Bellarmine that we are an assembly that has been called out of the wider world and set part from it. (Concerning the True Care of Souls, chapter 1)

For Bucer, there were five marks of the church: “heeding the shepherd’s voice, the ministry of teaching, suitable ministers of the Word, the lawful dispensation of the sacraments, and righteousness and holiness of life.” He also summarised this by saying the church “possesses the ministration of life and salvation, that is, the teaching of the word, and the rightful use and dispensation of the sacraments, and it exercises that discipline which is commanded by Christ in the canonical Scriptures, and displays a life conformable to such discipline.” (See the Commonplaces assembled from his works, including his Commentary on Ephesians, edited by D. F. Wright). This is more than simply three marks: it is, in essence, word, sacraments, orderly ministry, and holiness of life.

This last aspect of what constitutes a true church is also echoed in John Calvin (1509-1564). In his Institutes he says, “we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with us” (Institutes, 4.1.8-9). Discipline is essential, he says, but so also is “example of life”, if we are to recognise others as members of the church with us.

The Belgic Confession (1560) also adds discipline to the two basic marks of the church, and adds that the church “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head” (Article 29). This is how we are to distinguish true churches from false Sects. Every Christian is under obligation to belong to such a church, and to serve it with their gifts, building one another up.

So we can see here that when people during the Reformation said “The church is…”, Protestants and Catholics usually came up with different definitions. They shared certain things in common (the word, sacraments, a properly ordered ministry), but with certain definite divergences from each other — particularly concerning the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome.

One noticeable feature of Protestant definitions of the church is also holiness or example of life including (for Luther) a certain thankful joy within our inevitable suffering. So Protestants try to establish the headship of Christ, not the Pope, and consider holiness, not simply nominal baptism, as crucial for the “holy Christian people.”

Tomorrow, we’ll unpack what the Anglican doctrine of the church is, and see how all this challenges our contemporary Anglican Evangelical doctrine and practice.

Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society and author of Light After Darkness: How the Reformers Regained, Retold, and Relied On the Gospel of Grace (Christian Focus).

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