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The Four Marks of the Church are a group of four adjectives—one, holy, catholic and apostolic—characteristics that describe the marks or distinctives of the Christian church. They describe a belief within Christendom that the Body of Christ—the church—is characterized by four particular “marks”. These marks were made part of the Nicene Creed of Constantinople in 381: “‘[We believe] in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.’” In Protestant theology these are sometime called the Attributes of the Church.[1]

While no creed or affirmation of faith can express the totality of Christian belief, the Four Marks represent a summary of some of the most important affirmations of the Christian faith. These words were used by Counter-Reformation theologians in their effort to distinguish the Catholic Church under the Bishop of Rome as "the one, true Church of Christ" from those that had emerged from the Protestant Reformation, considered by Catholics to be "false" claimants.[2]


The ideas behind the Four Marks had been in the Church since early times, and allusions to them can be found in the writings of the 2nd century early Church Father and bishop, Ignatius of Antioch. They were not established in doctrine until the First Council of Constantinople in 381. 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."[3] The phrase has remained in versions of the Nicene Creed to this day. In some languages, for example, German, the Latin "catholica" was traditionally translated as "christian" before the Reformation[4] and continues in use by some Protestant churches of these heritages today.[5]

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]


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. Jesus founded his earthly Church to continue his redemptive and sanctifying work in the world. The sanctity of Christ's Church is derived from the fact that followers believe it is Christ's Church: "...upon this rock I will build my Church."[Matt. 16:18] The universal Church's quality of holiness is understood by Christians to be derived from Christ's holiness. It does not imply that the members of the Church are free from sin, nor that the institution of the Church cannot sin. [Matt. 16:19] [6]


The word "catholic" means "universal", 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.

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" implies universality, making Christ's Church on Earth open to all: all classes, both genders, all nationalities.


This describes its origin and beliefs. The church's teachings are apostolic in that they find their roots in the teachings of the Apostles of Jesus. Protestants 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 Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church each claim that it is the true church based on the “Apostolic Succession” of the priesthood. The Catholic Church further believes that the Catholic Pope derives his authority through a direct line of descendency from Peter the Apostle.[7]

See also


  1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth, 1949), 572.
  2. Brien, Richard P. "The marks of the church (Nicene Creed)." National Catholic Reporter, August 8, 2008
  3. Creeds of Christendom
  4. 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
  5. Lutheran Service Book. Concordia Publishing House, 2006, p. 158. ISBN 978-0-7586-1217-5
  6. Whitehead, Kenneth D. "The Church of the Apostles," This Rock, March 1995. See article at

Further reading

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