The Church as One

Michael A. Hayes

Across the globe ? and across denominational boundaries ? Christians publically and liturgically profess the Church as ?one, holy catholic and apostolic?. These four adjectives are widely referred to as the four marks of the Church. Despite the fact that they have been professed by countless millions, across innumerable places by generation after generation, there are real questions as to what exactly is meant by each of them and how they can be used.

To describe the Church as one, at face value seems palpably false. The slightest observation or research will show a myriad of agencies and organisations calling themselves ?church? ? and often with no reference to one another. It is therefore worth for a moment to recall what the word church means. The Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint) adopted the word Ekklesia to translate the Hebrew word for the assembly of the people of God gathered formally by prophet or priest. The Greek Ekklesia had no specific religious sense ? its meaning in everyday use referred to a public assembly for political purposes. The writers of the New Testament used the same as we find in Acts 19.39-40: ?if there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly??. It is in the etymology of Ekklesia, however, that we find its theological significance, for it has a vocational emphasis ? the people were ?called out?. That sense of the Greek carries into the Christian dispensation for the early Christians saw themselves as ?called out? by God for membership of his Church. The fact that as the Church grew there were various ?assemblies? does not undermine the understanding of the oneness of the Church, as Paul notes in his letter to the Galatians 3.27-28: ?As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.? The oneness of the Church is not primarily a sociological reality; rather it is a theological truth. Just as the twelve tribes of Israel were seen not as a confederation, but as the one people of God (cf. Ezekiel 37.15 and elsewhere), so the people of the new Israel of God, the people of the new covenant were seen as one people, the people of the one God.

This assertion of the oneness of the Church is explicitly articulated by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians 4.4-6: ?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.? This New Testament tradition was confirmed in creedal formulation at the First Council of Constantinople in 381: ?[We] believe?in one, holy catholic and apostolic Church.? It now is enshrined in our liturgy. The oneness of the Church enunciated is the being part of the ?one body? on the basis that Christians share what they hold in common: an incorporation through baptism into the triune God: Father, Son and Spirit; sharing also in common an eternal hope of a divine destiny, a calling to transform God?s world, a faith in a divine presence.

The Vatican II Constitution on the Church ? Lumen Gentium ? takes great care to outline Catholic thought. The Church though visible is also a spiritual reality but not two realities ? the document uses the analogy of the incarnation ? ?they form one complex reality which comes together from a human and divine element? (LG 8). The Church is one because Christ is one, and the Church, which is his body, is one ? its oneness comes not from any attempt of human manifestation, but from its divine origins.??

Text Size

Pastoral Review Subscription

Manage or Renew your Subscription