What are the marks of the true church? The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the Nicene marks of the church. Of course, that’s deceptive. The Nicene marks of the church don’t define the Catholic church. Rather, the Catholic church defines the Nicene marks. It defines or redefines the Nicene marks to mark out the Catholic church.
The Catholic church has its historic roots in tradition. However, once has institution becomes well-established, it can take on a life of its own. It ceases to dependent on its historical point of origin for its continued existence. It can proceed to redefine itself. Over time, a bureaucracy may depart from its original vision or mandate.
The NT is the logical place to look for the marks of the church. For the NT church is the archetype and prototype of the Christian church.
Mind you, some details of the NT church may be timebound or culturebound. We may need to distinguish between what is normative and what is adaptive or inaugural.
But the NT church remains our standard of comparison for what is prescribed, proscribed, or permitted in Christian ecclesiology.
Catholics often act as though we Evangelicals lack a theology of the church, but, of course, that’s false. It’s just that we have a different source of theology.
As the church historian of the NT church, Luke is a major reference point for NT ecclesiology. I’ll be quoting some passages from a recent monograph on Lukan ecclesiology: G. Twelftree, People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (Baker 2009).
Of course, what Twelftree says here and elsewhere is subject to debate. But his exegetical orientation, and focus on Lukan ecclesiology, is a suitable starting point for further reflection.
And, needless to say, Lukan ecclesiology intersects with Pauline ecclesiology inasmuch as Paul was Luke’s friend, traveling companion, and theological “hero” in Acts.
So here’s what we might dub the Lukan marks of the church:
§§4.2; 14:2 The Church dispenses salvation?
“In these stories Luke’s view of the relationship between the Church and the individual’s present experience of salvation becomes clear. It is not that salvation is dependent on being part of the Church, nor even that entry into the Church is part of salvation. Rather, salvation comes about distinct from and prior to joining the Church. Yet, taking up one’s place among the other people of God is a natural and assumed consequence of being saved–being found or made whole. In short, for Luke, while salvation is not joining or re-entering the community of God’s people–the Church–it is a natural (perhaps expected or unavoidable) consequence or expression, even ongoing benefit, of it.” (49).
“Although Luke describes the Church as embodying the ministry of Jesus, he does not describe the Church as dispensing salvation. The missionaries remain mortals bringing and demonstrating the news that makes salvation possible. Moreover, although salvation is prior to and distinct from becoming part of the Church, belonging to the people of God is an assumed and natural expression of being saved…We are saved individually but live corporately (4.4 above).
§5.1 The Church and Judaism
“Luke occasionally calls his readers ‘Israel.” In the Infancy Narrative, in particular, salvation is said to come to ‘Israel.” Further, Luke insists that the group of twelve apostles must be maintained, conveying the idea that ‘Israel’ continues in the story of the Church (Acts 1:15-26). This is characterized in Luke’s description of the post-Easter community of followers of Jesus. What was expected for Israel–a kingdom, twelve leaders, the Spirit, growth, fear of the Lord, mighty works, material well-being, for example–had come to the early community of the followers of Jesus. This suggests that Luke saw the Church as the new or renewed Israel” (55).
“Also, in numerous passages, Luke introduces the word ‘people’ into the material as those hearing the message of Jesus. In Acts the followers of Jesus are called ‘a people for his (God’s) name’ (Acts 15:14; see also 18:10). The significance of this is that Luke is probably dependent on the Greek Old Testament where the ‘people’ are those God saves and leads (e.g. Zech 2:11)” (55n9).
§5.2 A synogague?
“That Luke thought of the first post-Easter followers of Jesus as a distinct group of Jews, with their own synagogue, is suggested early in Acts where he says the group totaled 120 persons (1:15; see §2.1). In any case, Luke’s undoubted knowledge of synagogues will have been informed by the Diaspora where, as I have just argued, he depicts the followers of Jesus beginning to form their own synagogues” (56-57).
§5.3 A sect?
“In that Luke also describes the Pharisees and Sadducees as sects [Acts 5:17; 15:5; 25:5] we can suppose that, in using the word ‘sect’ of followers of Jesus [24:14], Luke had similar motives: portraying them as a respectable school of thought or legitimate, perhaps even influential, expression of Judaism. In this, Luke is reinforcing for readers the view that they–Jews, Greeks, and God-fearers following Jesus–are at least a legitimate expression of God’s purposes for and promises to his people” (59).
§5.4 “The Way”
“In sharing with the Qumran people both their use of ‘the Way’ as a description of people faithful to Jewish traditions [Acts 18:25-26; 24:14] and their interest in the quotation from Isaiah 40:3 (Lk 1:76; 3:4-6), as well as what we have seen in his use of the word ‘sect,” we can reasonably suppose that the hint is confirmed that Luke held the view that members of his community were marked out from the mainstream of society as the true expression of God’s expectations of and promises to his people…the Church is being portrayed as the true and faithful expression of Israel” (61).
“In Acts 7:38 Luke uses ekklesia of the Israelites gathered in the wilderness (also Heb 2:12; cf. Josephus, Ant. 4.309)…The first feature to note about ekklesia is the implications of the answer to the question whether or not Luke wrote ‘church’ or ‘churches’ in Acts 9:31: ‘the church [or churches] throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria [all?] had peace.’ The issue at stake is whether Luke had in mind a single, universal Church distributed throughout various localities or whether he wrote of the various churches in their areas…This [singular] use of ‘church’ to represent either a region of churches or the universal Church would be unique in Luke’s writing…when Luke wants to write of groups of Christians in a number of places he uses the plural ‘churches’ (Acts 15:41; 16:5). More likely, then, Luke used the plural ‘churches’ here in Acts 9:31,which also has significant textual support (as in codex Bezae)…In short, this verse (Acts 9:31) is consistent with Luke’s use of ‘church’ elsewhere as a local gathering of the followers of Jesus. Thus, although Luke’s narrative conveys the idea that he considered the spreading numbers of followers of Jesus all belonged to the one movement that originated in the ministry of Jesus and expanded from Jerusalem, he did not use the word ‘church’ in the singular to express that idea” (62).
§5.6 A household
“To gain insight into his understanding of the local church we can note that, on a number of occasions, the local groups of followers of Jesus met in private homes…In Luke’s society the household was accepted as a semi-independent socioeconomic unit and political unit under the control of the householder. Thus, the household was a microcosm of society (cf. Mt 12:25)…A household would consist of members of the family, servants, labourers, tenants, and dependent business people. Economically, religiously, socially and personally these people were dependent on the householder who in turn had a measure of legal responsibility for his people. So, with the apparent frequent conversion of whole households and the focus of the local church in a house, Luke portrays the Church not as a collection of individuals in a city, but as people belonging to a basic social unit of care and responsibility that affected every aspect of life” (63).
“Not only does Luke expect his readers to find the Old Testament Christologically rich but also to mine it for ecclesiological self-understanding. In light of what he has written in relation to the texts, Luke probably expects his readers to use the Old Testament to find their place (and plight) in the biblical story…There is nothing about the speeches that suggests Luke thought scriptural interpretation was a particular prophetic gift or act” (150).
“We have not been able to find any evidence that Luke was attempting to establish an ecclesiastical system with Jerusalem as the headquarters; too much of the narrative takes place without recourse to Jerusalem or the leadership there for Luke to be seen as an early catholic or even presbyterian in this sense…Paul’s commissioning is without the direct imprimatur of any Jerusalem figure…James replaces Peter. Additionally, without attention to Jerusalem or the leaders there, Luke has Paul and Barnabas appoint leaders in churches” (175).