Four Marks of the Church

Four Marks of the Church

The Four Marks of the Church is a term describing four specific adjectives—one, holy, catholic and apostolic—indicating four major distinctive marks or distinguishing characteristics of the Christian Church. The belief that the Church is characterized by these four particular "marks" was first expressed by the First Council of Constantinople in the year 381 in its revision of the Nicene Creed, in which it included the statement: "[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." In Protestant theology these are sometimes called the attributes of the Church.[1] They are still professed today in the Nicene Creed, recited in the liturgy of Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant churches' worship services.

While specific doctrines, based on both tradition and different interpretations of the Bible, distinguish one Church or denomination from another, largely explaining why there are so many different ones, the Four Marks, when defined the same way, represent a summary of what historically have been considered the most important affirmations of the Christian faith.



The ideas behind the Four Marks have been in the Church since early times. Allusions to them can be found in the writings of 2nd century early Church Father and bishop, Ignatius of Antioch. They were not established in doctrine until the First Council of Constantinople in 381 as an antidote to certain heresies that had crept into the Church in its early history. There the Council elaborated on the Nicene Creed, established by the First Council of Nicea 56 years before by adding to the end a section that included the affirmation: "[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."[2] The phrase has remained in versions of the Nicene Creed to this day.

In some languages, for example, German, the Latin "catholica" was substituted by "Christian" before the Reformation, though this was an anomaly[3] and continues in use by some Protestant churches today. Hence, "holy catholic" becomes "holy Christian."[4]

Roman Catholics believe the title "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" only to be applicable to the Catholic Church, as they believe it was directly founded by Christ in the first century. Further, they maintain that the Catholic Church, under the Pope as the Bishop of Rome, is "the one, true Church of Christ" that does not include those groups that have emerged from the Protestant Reformation. They are considered by Roman Catholics to be "false" claimants.[5]

The Eastern Orthodox Church, in disagreement with the Roman Catholic, regards itself as the historical and organic continuation of the original Church founded by Christ and his apostles.[6]

The Four Marks

According to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, describing the earliest days of the Church, the Apostolic Age, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."[Acts 2:42]

Since Catholic and Orthodox Christians consider their Churches to be "the one, true Church of Christ" and Protestants to be "false" claimants,[5] there is no agreement among all Christians as to the exact definition of the adjectives "one" and "catholic" in the Creed.


We believe in one God.... We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ....”

Nicene Creed

"There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all."[Eph. 4:5-6]" One describes the unity of the body of Christ. These words from the Creed speak of the followers of Jesus Christ as united in their belief in one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ. In the "Upper Room" (possibly the Cenacle) Discourse—Jesus' final interaction with his disciples on the night of his arrest—Jesus prayed three times the same request—that we may "be one."[Jn 17:20-23]" He prays for Christians to have unity, saying this unity will provide the most compelling evidence to the world that he is the Savior of the world.


The word holy means set apart for a special purpose by and for God. It does not imply that the members of the Church are free from sin, nor that the institution of the Church cannot sin. Christ's Church is holy because it is Christ's Church: "...upon this rock I will build my Church."[Matt. 16:18] Jesus founded his Church to continue his redemptive and sanctifying work in the world. Christians understand the holiness of the universal Church to derive from Christ's holiness.[Matt. 16:19][7]


The word "catholic" means "universal" according to most Western interpretations, pronouncing the universality of Christ's church. It refers to the wholeness and totality of all true believers in Jesus as the Christ. The Church as the Body of Christ is not limited to a time, place, race or culture.

Protestants believe that it encompasses every Christian of any denomination, even though they each hold to certain distinctive doctrines, beliefs, practices, and social views.[8] [9]

On the contrary, Roman Catholic[10] and Orthodox interpretations make a distinction between actual geographical universality and completeness of the true faith that is intended for all. whether they accept it or not:

Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Matthew 28:18-20

The phrase "all nations" in the above quote of the Great Commission implies universality, making Christ's Church on Earth open to all: all classes, all genders, all nationalities.


This describes its origin and beliefs as rooted in the teachings of the Apostles of Jesus (cf. the 1913 Webster's Dictionary).[11] All Christians understand apostolic to mean that there is continuity in the church's teachings from the apostles throughout history, not just in the first century. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church also claim that each of their respective Churches alone is the true Church, although they believe that both Churches have "Apostolic Succession" of the priesthood. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church further believe that the Roman Catholic Pope and the Syrian Patriarch derive their authority through a direct line of laying on of hands from Peter the Apostle.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth, 1949), 572.
  2. ^ Creeds of Christendom
  3. ^ See footnote 12 in The Book of Concord, Translators Kolb, R. and Wengert, T. Augsburg Fortress, 2000,p. 22. ISBN 978-0-8006-2740-9
  4. ^ For example, see Lutheran Service Book. Concordia Publishing House, 2006, p. 158. ISBN 978-0-7586-1217-5
  5. ^ a b Brien, Richard P. "The marks of the church (Nicene Creed)." National Catholic Reporter, August 8, 2008
  6. ^ Bishop Kallistos (Ware). The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-014656-3. p. 307
  7. ^ Whitehead, Kenneth D. "The Church of the Apostles," This Rock, March 1995. See article at
  8. ^ Online: <>
  9. ^ Robinson, B.A. "Grouping Christian Denominations into Families." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2006. Online: 22 Sep 2010 <>
  10. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 830-856
  11. ^ Cf. also an Armenian statement, a Roman Catholic statement.
  12. ^

Further reading

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