Attributes and Marks of the Church

The Church consists of those people whom God in Christ has gathered together. The NT does not endorse a rugged individualism. God saves individuals to establish a corporate body.

The Nicene Creed defines the church by four distinct attributes – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.


In the United States there are more than 2000 distinct Protestant denominations. Because of that, many believe the church can regain its effectiveness only if it unites together into one worldwide Christian institution. After all, didn’t Jesus pray in John 17:22 that His followers might be one?

However, the lack of visible unity does not mean there is no unity of the true church. There is indeed a genuine unity of the church, and it is found across denominational lines. There is an unbroken fellowship, a spiritual unity, among all true Christians by virtue of their common union with Christ. Therefore, Christ’s prayer has been answered (Ephesians 4:4-5).

Of course, there are times when we must break fellowship with other groups or institutions, but overall we should seek to be at one with as many professing Christians as we possibly can. Churches split far too easily over insignificant issues. We are not to negotiate over the essentials of the gospel, but neither should we be at odds over minor issues.


The word “holy” is “set apart” or “consecrated,” which ties directly to the very meaning of the word ekklesia – “the called-out ones.” The church consists of those called out and set apart for a holy task.

The church is holy also because it is made up of people indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Surely the Spirit works in the lives of people in a host of other institutions, but the church is the focal point of the Spirit’s ministry. The church has the preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the worship of God in corporate gatherings, and this is where Christians gather together in fellowship.

The church is the only institution in the history of the world to whom God has given an absolute guarantee that it will not fail, because Christ said, “I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).


The word catholic means universal. It does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, it refers to the invisible church – the church of Jesus Christ which that encompasses all nations, tribes, and peoples.


The title Apostle means “one who is sent.” In ancient Greek culture, an apostle was a delegate or ambassador sent by a king or some other authority figure. The apostle was a spokesman for the one he represented.

The first and primary Apostle of the NT was Jesus Himself. He was sent by the Father and authorized to speak for Him (Matt. 28:18; John 12:49; 17:8). To reject Christ is to reject the One who sent Him (Matt. 10:40; John 8:54-56).

When Christ established the NT Church, He gave first the office of Apostle (Eph. 4:11). He invested His authority in the Apostles. Jesus had many disciples [students, learners] (Luke 10). From His many disciples He chose a select number of Apostles. Apostolic authority, which means biblical authority, is the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). Those who reject the Apostles reject Christ the One who commissioned them (Luke 10:16). It is not possible to be a friend of Christ and reject the apostolic authority of the NT.


From Scripture the Reformers identified three essential marks of a true church. The first is that the church professes the gospel. If a church denies any essential point of the gospel, such as the deity of Christ, the atonement, or justification by faith alone, it is no longer a church (Galatians 1:6-9). The Reformers excluded the Roman Catholic Church because it rejected justification by faith alone.

The second mark is the proper administration of the sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There are two errors to avoid: one is to say the sacraments are necessary for salvation. The other error is to say they are not necessary for the spiritual growth and well-being of the church.

The third mark is discipline, which requires some form of church government and spiritual oversight. Discipline is required to keep the church from becoming infected with impurities and corruption. If the clergy of a particular church denies the deity of Christ, yet the church does not remove them, then that church has ceased to be a legitimate church.

[Adapted from R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian]