Christ’s Church: the Four Marks of the One True Church of Jesus Christ
by Fr. Eric Flood, FSSP
From the December 2011 Fraternity Newsletter
When we profess our belief in the Church Christ established, we proclaim that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These four marks must necessarily be present in the religion founded by the God-man. They distinguish false religions from the true one, and, once found in a particular religion, they guarantee the integrity of the doctrines it teaches.
The first mark of Christ’s Church is that it must be “one.” Many today consider themselves to be broadminded when they study various religions and then make a personal decision as to what to believe. Others, however, simply accept—and live according to—the latest creed of the current population. Both of these not only lack a firm foundation upon objective truth, but they are easily influenced by the transitory opinions of the mass media, political agendas, and new “religions.”
But the faith upon which Christ established His Church must—of necessity—have the characteristic of an unending truth enduring throughout the centuries. Christ established His religion upon His own immutability; therefore, its teachings reflect His permanency. When falsity and sin are rampant, Christ’s Church serves as a beacon of light drawing scattered mankind home to unchanging and recognizable truth.
It was to be expected that some men would be bold enough to oppose the teachings of Christ when He walked the earth, but He showed by His example that His teachings would not be influenced by the transitory standards of such men. Similarly, the transient standards of society in the twenty-first century cannot be a reason to call into question the teachings of God. The truth taught two thousand years ago must also be true today.
For instance, consider how, less than a hundred years ago, nearly all the major religions taught that contraception was intrinsically wrong. Now the Catholic Church is virtually alone in upholding that doctrine, while others have changed their teachings in order to acquiesce to modern social thought or to cushion consciences which prefer an easier religion to practice.
True ecumenism, then, strives to build upon the sacred edifice which has Christ as the cornerstone. It does not have a nonchalant attitude towards the proliferation of creeds nor does it ignore certain biblical passages to achieve a common agreement. Similarly, it does not water down the doctrine of Christ; rather, it confidently presents the teachings of Christ in an effort to gather the nations into the one flock.
The oneness of the faith of Christ is further rooted in the unity of God. Christ likens Himself to the good shepherd who watches over his flock. There is only one shepherd, and there is only one flock. Other sheep may be wandering outside the flock who can join the one flock when they attend to the shepherd’s voice. But as Christ shows in the Gospel of St. John (6:67), He will not water down His teachings in order to keep attendance at a high number in His Church.
In His parables, Christ likens the Church to various things: a kingdom, a city, a field, and a vineyard. In every instance, it is a singular thing, not plural kingdoms, cities, fields, or vineyards. Furthermore, the Church is likened to the spouse of Christ (Eph. 5:24-29), but a husband is permitted only one wife. Thus, the Church founded by Christ is one and only one at any given time.
Christ instructed the Apostles to teach “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20). He did not give them permission to change His teachings. Even if the majority of people believed otherwise, or if the truths seemed difficult to believe to the possible converts, the Apostles were to “stand fast in the faith” (I Cor. 16:13) as there is only “one faith” (Eph. 4:5).
Knowing that the truth was in danger of being adulterated, St. Paul also warned of those who “would pervert the Gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:7-8) for “if any one preach to you a gospel besides that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:9). And for those who attempt to pervert the truth, to “mark them who make dissensions and offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17).
Christ, too, warned that “there will rise up false christs and false prophets, and they shall show signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect” (Mark 13:22), and these would be known by their refusal to submit to the Church. “If he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican” (Mt. 18:17). For Christ is the same today, yesterday, and forever (Heb. 13:8), and the faithful must be cautious to “be not led away with various and strange doctrines” (Heb. 13:9) for “no other foundation can a man lay, but that which is laid” (I Cor. 3:11).
The abomination of heresy and schism is rooted in the willing withdrawal from unity. But the person who has so withdrawn himself must not be allowed to pretend that he is still “unified.” Hence, unity among the flock of Christ sometimes requires the severing of “dead” members so they do not sap energy from the body of the Church. Furthermore, the oneness of the Church is proclaimed every time it exposes such error or falsity.
Since the Church is one (has a unity) in its principle—God; one in its invisible head —Christ; one in its informing Spirit—the Holy Ghost; one in its aim—Heaven; and one in its communion among members; the unity cannot be broken. Thus, the essence of the Church, being founded upon the rock— Christ, must necessarily have unity.
Unity, then, is an external mark whereby the world can distinguish the false prophets and teachers from the Teacher of truth. This oneness of the Church will persist until the end of time, for even the gates of hell cannot overcome it by instigating division or a multiplicity of religions.
December 5, 2011