A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Foundations of Life Together in Christ, Part IV: The Marks of the Church
January 26, 2017
As it describes the foundations of our life together, the Book of Order sets before us the classic “marks of the church” that are listed in the Nicene Creed. (F-1.0301) For 1700 years, the church worldwide has considered this creed as the most essential distillation of the Christian faith taught by Holy Scripture. Its single sentence on the church’s nature is foundational to any adequate account of how we live together as God’s people.
Several years ago a sister denomination launched a public relations campaign under the slogan, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” A close friend of mine composed a wonderful jazz setting of that text that became the campaign’s musical signature. It was a clever way of affirming that God is still speaking, still at work in the world.
Not only do we sometimes put periods where there should be commas – sometimes we put commas where there should be no dividers at all. One case in point is how we understand the nature of the church. The Nicene Creed invites us to affirm, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Another way to put this claim might be: “This is what makes the church credible and trustworthy: that it is one holy catholic and apostolic.”
Why make a big deal about commas, or lack thereof? Because the lack of commas signifies something crucial: These church characteristics are indivisible. We often take them to be discrete traits that we hope someday will be visibly manifest in the church. Some of them seem more attainable than others, and sometimes pursuit of one seems to lead us away from another.
But “no commas” means we can’t have any of them without the rest. We cannot be “apostolic” without being “one.” We cannot be “holy” without being “catholic.” And so on.
Anything less than a full display of these marks together hinders the credibility of the church’s life and witness. No longer is a church believable when any of these marks is absent. If we desire our proclamation of the Gospel to be truly effective, let’s take a good look in the mirror. Are we living faithfully and publicly as the one holy catholic and apostolic people of God?
Our Book of Order briefly explicates each of these marks in succession, introducing each of the four as “God’s gift to the church.” Unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are not goals or achievements, but gifts. It is impossible to be the church apart from them. They are markers of our very identity, not descriptions of what we ought to become. We may wear them well or not so well, but they are indelibly engraved in us.
I tremble to raise this illustration, given just how tender we still are about this, but here goes…. The Steelers are just as much the Steelers whether they win or lose. When they win, we feel like they are living up to their identity better than when they lose, but win or lose, they are still the Steelers. Whether the church lives up to its identity doesn’t change its identity. But when it does live up to it, it is much more effective in accomplishing God’s purpose.
There is but one fellowship of the people belonging to the one God, through the one Spirit. It is the one body of the one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Its members are incorporated through one baptism into one faith, and it has one apostolic purpose: to bear the one Gospel to the world in every way possible. (Ephesians 4:1-16)
Yours in our shared identity,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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