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Basic Christian Doctrines IX: The Classic Marks of the Church - Signposts.

Updated: Jan 11

The Cathedral Church of St. Ambrose of Milan Western-Rite Archdiocese of New York Poughkeepsie, New York, USA

The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

The desire to recover the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ is a gift of God and a call of the Holy Spirit. Certain things are required in order to respond to this call. This paper will explore the ways in which a unified church can begin the process of functioning together, while accepting the plurality that exists, as it moves into the dawn of the new millennium. The Classic Marks of the Church, passed on to us over the last sixteen hundred years, will be the basis of our exploration. The paper will conclude with an Expression of Hope for One Church, as a Community of Communities, in God.

The Signposts - Messages of Hope

The Classic Marks of the Church can best be understood in relation to the Nicene Creed (381 AD): "We believe...{in} the one, holy, and apostolic church." These are the attributes of unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are considered signposts of the Church of Jesus Christ. A signpost means just that; they are indicators which impart a message of identification and expectation.

This Message of Hope is activated by our faith in Jesus Christ and his Good News of Salvation; a Salvation that takes us away from the dis-unity, un-holiness, and both the segregation and selfishness of this world. Additionally, the signs also counsel us to Act and share the Message of the Church. Theologian and Scholastic Philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) asserts, that it is the Church, through these recognizable sign posts, along with the Power of the Holy Spirit, which is the "Soul" that inspires the Body to be active in the world.

How do we place the traditional markings of the Church into the context of todays environment? As a Church which is situated firmly in the world, it has experienced many divisions since the Pentecost. Quick observation tells us that the Church is at least on the surface united in duty to God, but is partisan in terms of ecclesial authority. Sadly, the Church is Holy in Faith, but at times Sinful by its conduct toward one another.

In light of Christian division, how do we identify ourselves as the 'Church'? What are some possible solutions to bringing the diverse denominations together to share in the expectation of the future Kingdom of God? Let us explore each signpost and see what they indicate.


The Unity of the Church is an essential reality based on its Unity with God. However, plurality is part of the reality of human existence. Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) suggests that this diversity helps us perceive both the revolutionary and fundamental truths and realities of the Christian faith more so than if everyone was the same in their Secular and Ecclesial circumstances. Therefore, we may ask the Church to be open to the idea of a permanent renewal, as a call to duty and faithfulness in its stewardship, in the movement toward Unity. How the Church identifies itself would then be based on each denominations uniqueness in Service to God and the world.


Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is correct when he describes the Church as being both, a "communion of saints" and a "communion of sinners". This Holiness is not based on worth or attainment, but from an indwelling of God's Spirit. Such an indwelling is accomplished when the Church comes together in acts of worship and communicates with God. It is at these moments that the Church confesses to its sinfulness and is open to the Divine Blessing and Mercy of God.

There occurs a transformation within the hearts of the faithful as they try to live Holier lives according to the Gospel. The Holiness that lies within each person is actualized when they begin to experience Christ in themselves and each other. We then can begin to share with the world the intimacy of our Creator. Holiness contains a love of God and Church that is quite unique and one can not simply acquire it for oneself. The love of God is a sharing love that is meant to be given to all humanity. Even though we are not a Saint, we still can be Holy if we choose to know ourselves in God.

The modern Church may serve itself well, if it shows itself as fallible, yet in full Communion with God. Such indwelling means a Church which has not lost its Holiness. Its Holiness is embodied in its promise of an everlasting life in absolute Communal freedom fashioned by the Holy Spirit. The Church can be a people of prayer, free to express their intimate love for God, whether alone or at worship or even in the context of the whole Ecumenical Movement.


The recognition of authentic diversity, of a flexible plurality in belief, liturgy and practice should not be allowed to condone the unproductive division, separation and outright hostility of the various Christian Communities. One can not look at catholicity as a matter of incorporating all the people into a Christian empire.

Universality is better understood as an inner totality and the future fulfillment of all people. The Church is not standing still, it is developing and always seeking absolution, restoration and reformulation. Its catholicity resides in overcoming individualistic, provincial and hierarchical modes of existence. It is orientated to the universal redemption of humanity.

Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant Ecclesial Communities opens up the possibility for all Christians to richly experience Jesus Christ, the Gospels and the many Traditions of the Church Catholic. An opportunity exists within the Church for the Faithful to follow the way of Jesus Christ, with each Faith Community using its own unique approach. The twenty-first century brings challenges, but it also brings Hope. The Church, as a whole, genuinely seeks to bring Hope to the world, allowing all the Faithful to posses a true knowledge of each other, as it endeavors to achieve its full potential as a Community of Communities.


Swiss Roman Catholic Theologian Hans Kung (1928-2021) compares Apostolicity to the Diaconal Ministry. This is a ministry of service to the entire world, to Christian and non-Christian alike. Such ministry is done for love of neighbour and God. Authority is properly utilized by means of service in the name of freedom. Such a ministry of service and liberation is very difficult to achieve, but we must try.

The Apostolicity of the Church will never serve the People of God as a bully pulpit. It is better to impress upon those who possess the Power in the Church to renounce the abusive nature of authoritarianism, dogmatism and hierarchicalism. Apostolic service should characterize every Ecclesial office in all Faith Communities. Such a Ministry takes the form, not only of witness to Christ, but also service to the world.

A contemporary look At the Signposts

The Church has experienced many divisions in its long history, but fortunately it constantly strives to recover its unity through renewal, conversion, prayer, dialogue and collaboration. Today, the Church attempts to find unity through some form of consensus and mutual understanding. I believe that the entire Church shares in a common struggle against dehumanization, alienation and oppression.

Ecumenicalism is not a dirty word. It is a gift to the Church from God, but the Church must always pray to maintain, reinforce and perfect the unity that Christ wills for it. As the Church, we place all our hope in Christ, in the love that the Creator has for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit who guides us on our faith journeys.

Ecumenical cooperation among the the Christian Faithful and clergy is vital if it is going to be effective as a force for positive change in this world. Therefore, dialogue between the Faith Communities, along with collaboration in various areas of service to humanity, would be quite beneficial for the life of the Church as a whole.

Jesus Christ bestowed unity on His Church from the very beginning. This unity, continues as His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Such unity can never be truly lost. Nevertheless, we must continue to pray for an equitable form of Ecumenicalism and that all faithful Christians will move forward with a deep sense of Charity and respect for one another's uniqueness.

These Signposts identify the Church as the Body of Christ. It is also a Sign of both Hope and Unity with the One True God. Indeed, we are called upon to seek that unity. Jesus, Himself, prayed at the time of His Passion and did not stop praying to His Father, for His Disciples to continue, one with each other, and maintain such a Sacred bond.

"That they all may be one. As you Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, that the world may know that you have sent me."

Saint John 17:21


Originally entitled The Church-A Modern Look At The Classic Marks Unity, Holiness, Catholicity And Apostolicity was submitted to Dr. William Close as a Master of Theological Studies course requirement 511v-Basic Christian Doctrines St. Stephen's Theological College University of Alberta

Published on November 22nd, 1996

{Revised September 24th, 2023}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

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