The New Testament uses several images to describe the church. One of the most compelling is Paul’s description of the church as the “body of Christ.” Other important descriptors include vine and branches, bride, and family. Regarding the body of Christ, Paul reminds us that there is but one body, with many members, each with its own purpose/gift (1 Cor. 12). As Alexander Campbell, remarked in the Millennial Harbinger, “all Christian communities to stand to each other as individual members in the human body stand to each other in giving or receiving pleasure or pain, . . . honor or dishonor” [Royal Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 160].
While biblical images have important power in illuminating our understanding of the church, historically the church/churches have affirmed four marks of a true church. Four markers that are named in the historic creeds that one should look for in determining whether a church stands in line with the historic traditions. While the Disciples are historically a non-creedal tradition, it is worth spending some time considering these four marks, which according to the Nicene Creed, perhaps the most authoritative of the historic ecumenical creeds, affirm the existence of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Exploring each of these statements in brief can help us consider who we are as church.
We’ll begin with a mark that Disciples will not only recognize, but embrace without any qualms. That is, the confession that there is one church. Proposition I of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address makes this clear:
That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none can be truly and properly called Christians. [C.A. Young, Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union, (College Press, 1985), pp. 107-108].
While Campbell is clear that there is but one Church of Christ, a quick glance across the vast swath of Christian history will reveal a different story. There is both diversity and division within this one Church of Christ, while attempts have been made over the centuries to overcome the differences, often using coercion, demonstrates that this unity remains largely invisible. The Stone-Campbell Movement, a movement that emphasized unity, has itself divided at least three acknowledged times. Nonetheless, Disciples have continued to bear witness to the importance of unity within the body of Christ. Our current identity statement makes it clear that the Disciples are a “movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”
The foundation of this call for oneness or unity is rooted in our common confession that Christ is head of the church. If Christ is head of the church how can it be divided? As it now stands the church of Christ is a mutilated suffering body. Yet, such an unhealthy situation is problematic. There is a continued emphasis on unity and oneness, as can be seen in Ephesians 4, which produces at least seven signs of the unity of the church: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6). Some of suggested that an invisible unity is sufficient, that we need not pursue anything more, in part because such efforts end up diluting the message. But, can we be satisfied with a unity that requires nothing of us?
If unity is difficult to attain, then the second mark of the church is equally difficult to attain. If the church is composed of human beings, then how might it be holy?
One of the most helpful ways of understanding this issue is to examine the Donatist controversy of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Donatists insisted that the true church was composed only of those who were holy or pure. Anyone who fell during the persecutions was to be considered apostate and outside the church. If they were to re-enter the church, they would need to be rebaptized. If they had been church leaders, they would have to be re-ordained. They went so far that they insisted that if someone unknowingly had been ordained by one of the traditores or persons who had apostatized, their ordination was invalid, as were the sacraments celebrated by that person. For the Donatists the holiness of the church depended on the holiness of the individual members. Augustine responded to this movement by insisting that the true holiness of the church depended not on the individuals making up the church but Christ who stood as the head of the church. The validity of ordinations and sacraments depended not on the holiness of the one performing the ordination or sacrament but Christ who authorizes the sacrament or ordination. Augustine's view has been followed by most churches, though some sectarian groups will often push toward a Donatist position. While some distinguish between the theoretical holiness of the church and the sinfulness of its members, it’s possible to understand holiness eschatologically. The church is as sinful as its members, but the church like the people who make it up, will be purified at the last day.
Alexander Campbell distinguished between state and disposition. He writes that the “Christian is in a justified, reconciled, adopted, sanctified, and saved state. While Character is the work of time, a change of state is, or maybe, the work of a moment” [Millennial Harbinger, ’37, Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, p. 145]. Whatever holiness belongs to the church is a matter of state and not disposition. The character of the people who make up the church is a work in progress.
The term "catholic" may have baggage for some who are uncomfortable with the linkage with the Roman Church. Despite the use by the Church of Rome of the word catholic, the word simply means universal. It stands as a reminder that the true church can be found in all places and at all times, at least wherever the Gospel has been preached and has taken root. The reason the Roman church calls itself Catholic is because it does not recognize the dividedness of the universal church. It assumes that despite all appearances, the church is one and they will take their stand at that point. The issue here is not reality but ideal and they choose to hang on to the ideal. Even as Stone-Campbellites insisted that restoration of New Testament Christianity should be the basis of unity, the Roman Church insisted that the submission to the Pope as God's vicar or representative on earth should serve as the means of uniting Christianity.
Alexander Campbell affirmed the catholicity of the church, not in terms of Roman authority, but in terms of its breadth. He wrote in his debate with the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cincinnati, John Purcell, that the church is catholic in the sense that it is “a great community gathered out of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. It makes provision for them all” [Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, p. 152].
The question facing the church is this: Does unity or catholicity require uniformity? Many have argued that it does and have developed theologies and structures that demanded uniformity. Today many people are insisting that the true catholic church is a very diverse body representing different traditions, experiences and needs. Some desire contemporary forms of worship while others desire a familiar liturgy. Rather than saying one is right and one is wrong, there is the belief that both are needed. Instead of focusing on what divides we are encouraged to focus on common ground. Where do we agree? Only if we begin here, it is believed, can we move on to proper dialog on the places we disagree.
The final mark is that of apostolicity. While for some this entails having a ministry that stands in apostolic succession, for others it means standing under the authority of apostolic doctrine. In both cases the emphasis is on historical continuity with the primitive church. For the Stone-Campbell Movement, apostolicity has often been understood in restorationist terms. Restorationism insists that the contemporary church stand as close as possible to the church of the New Testament in its governance, worship, and doctrine.
The principle of apostolic succession assumes an unbroken line of bishops that goes back to the apostles. The belief is that this continuity serves as a guarantee of faithfulness. Most proponents of apostolic succession as a mark of the church insist that valid ordinations and sacraments theoretically depend on being in this succession. This position is found in Eastern Orthodox churches, Roman Catholic Churches, and in most parts of the Anglican Communion (e.g. Church of England and Episcopal Church in America). Even here there is difference of opinion as to its necessity. Some would see it as part of the essence of the church while others would see it as a sign of the church's well-being. Nonetheless, apostolic succession and the historic episcopate became a matter of deep concern in ecumenical talks by the Consultation on Church Union.
On the other side of the coin we have most Protestant churches that understand apostolicity not in terms of a form of ministry but in terms of apostolic doctrine. The true church is assumed to be comprised of all churches holding to the essence of the apostolic doctrine, especially as found in Scripture, what C.S. Lewis would call "mere Christianity." One of the Campbellite slogans, borrowed from the Reformer Rupert Meldinius, was and is: "in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity." Thus, the question is: what is this mere Christianity? In his booklet titled “Our Position,” second generation Disciple Isaac Errett noted thirteen areas of agreement with Protestants, but he also noted areas of disagreement. For instance, he suggested that the Disciples honored the Old Testament, but as the authoritative text, Disciples held only to the New Testament. In line with this vision, he noted that the Disciples repudiated “all human authoritative creeds.” While the creeds might be informative, they could not serve as tests of fellowship, including with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. According to Errett, what differentiates the Disciples witness from the other churches is that the Disciples reject “that which has been added to the original simple faith and practice of the Church of God. Could all return to this, it would not only end many unhappy strifes and unite forces now scattered and wasted, but would revive the spirituality and enthusiasm of the early church; as we should no longer need, as in the weakness of sectism, to cater to the world’s fashions and follies to maintain a precarious existence, Zion could again put on her beautiful garments and shine in the light of God, and go out in resistless strength to the conquest of the world” [Isaac Errett, “Our Position,” Historical Documents, p. 305]. The danger in thinking of apostolicity in Restorationist terms is that it tended to lead to a misreading of scripture and in Stone-Campbell context to focusing on the institution of the church and not the broader teachings of Jesus [See my book Freedom in Covenant, Wipf and Stock, 2015, pp. 26-31].
The confession that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is a creedal statement that Disciples might affirm, but without giving this any official support. Disciples have understood the church, at least since Restructure in the late 1960s in covenant terms. Ronald Osborn points us to the practice of the Puritans, who abandoned episcopacy, but organized themselves as church by entering “into a solemn covenant with one another and with God. They pledged to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and to walk in his ways. They took the Bible as their rule. Within these sacred commitments, the congregation made all decisions in regard to their Christian witness and life together.” Osborn suggests that this is the way in which the Disciples of Christ churches came into being. They established themselves as congregations by covenanting together to be a community in relationship to God. Osborn acknowledges that this is not a community of perfection, but one that stands under God’s grace. He writes: “The point is that wherever or whenever we respond in sincerity to the will of God, God is there to meet us in our good intentions. In every situation, God stands ready to make up out of divine goodness whatever is lacking in our performance” [Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, Chalice Press, 1979), pp. 63-64].
As church, Disciples stand in covenant relationship with God and one another. That church of which we are part of is broader than the local congregation or a denomination, but is truly catholic. This is true even if we fail to exhibit the oneness and the holiness and the apostolicity of the church, for as Osborn notes, God’s grace is sufficient if we engage with one another and with God in all due sincerity.