The Characteristics of the True Church Founded by Christ
Apologetics And Catholic Doctrine, Part I, Chapter IX

Categories: Apologetics

Note

It must be carefully noted that in these Chapters (VIII, IX) we are speaking of the nature and characteristics of the Church which Christ founded. In Chapter X we show which one of the existing churches can lawfully claim to be identical with it.

The characteristics of the Church founded by Christ are set forth in the New Testament which we have proved to be a trustworthy historical document.


Summary

The Church of Christ is:

  1. Imperishable, Visible
  2. One, Universal or Catholic (membership, therefore, obligatory on all men), Apostolic, Holy
  3. Infallible

The Church Founded by Christ is Imperishable and Visible

Christ’s Church is Imperishable. — That the existence of the Church, the society possessing the right to speak to men in the name of God, was not to be limited to a particular period of time is manifest from the promise of the abiding presence and assistance of Christ Himself and of the Holy Ghost, a presence and assistance which was to be not temporary but perpetual: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations … and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”1 “I will ask the Father and He will give You another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever”2 “I say to thee,” He said to St. Peter, “thou art Peter” — i.e., a rock — “and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,”3 “The gates of hell,” that is, death, destruction, the power of its enemies. These unequivocal promises of Christ made to the society which He founded, seal it with the seal of imperishability: it was to last to the end of the world, teaching, governing, and sanctifying men.4

His Church is Visible. — Christ established the Church as a visible society, that is, as a society which stood out plainly before the eyes of men as an organized body, consisting of teachers and taught, rulers and subjects, who joined in public worship and made open profession of their belief. The Apostles admitted men to membership of the Church by the public rite of Baptism; they made laws affecting the external behaviour of the faithful, and they exacted obedience; they gave the faithful the command of Christ to confess their faith openly: “everyone therefore that shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But he that shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.”5

The Church Founded by Christ is One, Universal, Apostolic and Holy

The fourfold proposition that the Church founded by Christ is one, universal, apostolic, and holy, has been already implicitly established in the course of our proof that the Church is a society. But a more detailed and explicit treatment is necessary.

Christ’s Church is One

General proof of the unity of His Church.

(a) Christ, in His prayer after the Last Supper, said: “not for them only ” — i.e. His Apostles — “do I pray, but for them also who through their word shall believe in Me, that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, in Me, and I in Thee; that they, also, may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.”6 Christ, therefore, desired for His Church an absolute unity, a unity which shoidd exclude all division, whether in government, doctrine, or worship, for He likens it to the perfect unity of the Father and His Divine Son, and this unity was to be so evidently miraculous as to afford a proof of the Divine Authority of Christ Himself.

(b) St. Paul is of one mind with his Lord and Master. He holds that unity is the fundamental characteristic of the Church. Over and over again, he compares the Church to a living body: “as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body, so also is Christ. For, in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jew or Gentile.”7 He conceives the members of the Church as parts of the same living organism. Vivified by the same spiritual fife, they believe the same doctrine, they participate in the same worship, and yield obedience to one and the same authority.

Particular proof of the Unity of His Church.

His Church is One in Government. — This particular proposition has been already proved (p. 127). To recapitulate: (1) Christ spoke of His Church, not of His Churches. Therefore, He meant that His Church should be one society under one government, not several societies, each under its own government, distinct and separate from the rest. (2) He compared His Church to a “sheepfold,” “a city,” “a kingdom,” thereby implying unity of government. (3) The Apostles themselves regarded the Church as one in government. (See page 127.) Further proofs — (4) Christ said that no kingdom divided against itself can endure.8 Therefore no division in government could be found in the imperishable society established by Him. (5) The Church, St. Paul says, must be “one body and one Spirit.”9 It must be like the living body; and as in the living body there is but one governing will, so in the Church there must be but one governing authority.

His Church is One in Faith. — (1) Christ said to the Apostles: “Teach ye all nations … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”10 The Apostles, therefore, were to teach every man the whole doctrine of Christ. They were to insist that every man should believe one and the same body of truths. The Church of Christ, therefore, must be one in faith. (2) In the Church, according to St. Paul, there must be “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”11 The Church, he says, in the simile he so often repeats, is a living body; and as, in the living body, there is but one mind, so in the Church there must be but one faith. The faithful, he says to the Romans, “with one mind and with one mouth” are to “glorify God and the Father of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.”12 “I beseech you, brethren,” he says to the Corinthians, “by the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you, but that you be perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment.”13 “Mark them who make dissensions and offences contrary to the doctrines which you have learnt, and avoid them, for they that are such serve not Christ Our Lord.”14

His Church is One in Worship. — The proposition follows directly from the preceding. Worship is nothing more than a practical manifestation of faith. The members of His Church are one in faith; they must, therefore, be one also in worship. Their runty of faith excludes the possibility of any disagreement among them as to the rites by which God is to be adored and man sanctified.

Note that, of the three species of unity, unity of faith is the chief. It is, as it were, the root of the other two. Converts to Christianity believed first of all in Christ and His doctrine. Believing His doctrine, they believed as part of it, that they were bound to worship God in the manner prescribed by Him and to yield obedience to the superiors whom He had appointed for their guidance.

His Church is Universal or Catholic. The Obligation of Membership.

His Church is Universal or Catholic — Christ gave His Apostles a most emphatic command not to confine their teaching to the men of any particular race or social status. He bade them preach the Gospel to “all nations” 18 and to “every creature.”15 Ihe Apostles obeyed Him: St. Paul applies to himself and his fellow-preachers the words of the Psalmist, “their sound hath gone forth into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the whole world,”16 and he tells the Colossians that the Gospel is believed “in the whole world.”17 The Apostle, we must understand, is speaking, not of an absolute, but of a moral catholicity, i.e., of a membership which, in kind and extent, could be described as catholic or universal in the ordinary speech of men. The moral catholicity of the Church was to be both social and numerical: it was to be social, in the sense that the membership of the Church should include men of every condition and grade of culture; it was to be numerical, in the sense that the Church would be widely diffused throughout the world. The Church could not have failed to achieve, within a reasonable time after her foundation, a moral catholicity, because her teachers were supported by Christ Himself in their mission to the world, and because her doctrines, being the doctrines of God, must have made a powerful appeal to the reason and the heart of all well-disposed men. Since the Church of Christ, being imperishable, still exists in the world, it must, for the same reasons, viz., Divine aid and suitability of doctrine to human needs, possess a moral catholicity; and it must, moreover, in accordance with the will of Christ that all men be saved, strive by practical and organized effort for the ideal of absolute universality.

The Obligation of Membership. — The command of Christ to the Apostles to preach the Gospel to “every creature” implies a corresponding obligation on the part of all men to hear and obey them, and, therefore, to become members of His Church; “preach the Gospel to every creature,” said Christ, “… he that believeth not shall be condemned.”18 No man, therefore, who on coming to know the true Church, refuses to join it can be saved. Neither can he be saved, if, having once entered the Church, he forsake it through heresy or schism: “a man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid, knowing that he that is such an one is subverted and sinneth, being condemned by his own judgment.”19 The Church as St. Paul says is the living body whereof Christ is the Head. He who severs himself from the Church, severs himself from Christ, and cannot be saved, for in Christ alone is salvation: “I am the vine,” said Christ, “you the branches: he that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing. If any one abide not in Me, he shall be cast forth. … They shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire and he burneth.”20

His Church is Apostolic

By saying that His Church is Apostolic we mean that in every age the rulers of His Church are clothed in the authority given by Christ to the Apostles.21 Christ gave the Apostles authority to speak in His name. He said to them: “As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you.”22 “he that heareth you heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me; and he that despiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me.”23 As we have seen in the first paragraph of this chapter, Christ placed them in charge of a work that will not be completed until the world ends. The Apostles themselves are dead, yet according to the terms of His assurance they must in some sense remain in the world until the end of time. They can remain in the world only through representatives chosen in the manner which, under divine direction, they themselves prescribed. They must, therefore, have made provision that their authority should be passed on to others and transmitted down the whole line of their successors, so that, in every generation, the rulers of the Church could say: “Our authority is the ever living authority of Christ Himself. Our authority is the authority of the Apostles, for we are one with them by lawful succession.” The words of Christ make it clear that the Apostles are the last envoys whom God will send to the human race. The authority which He gave them and their successors He will never give to any others. The mission of the Apostles is final and perpetual. That the Apostles elected others to assist them in their work is plain from the Scriptures themselves; that they went further and made definite provision for their succession during all time, can be proved by many authorities, e.g., St. Clement, who died about 100 A.D., says: “Christ was sent by God, the Apostles by Christ. They appointed bishops and deacons … and they made order that when they (the bishops and deacons) died, other men of tried virtue should succeed in their ministry;”24 and St. Irenaeus, writing towards the end of the second century, speaks of “the bishops and their successors down to our time who have been appointed by the Apostles.”25

But Christ in giving the Apostles authority over His Church did not make them independent of one another: He made them a united body with St. Peter at their head. (1) He built His Church on St, Peter as its supporting rock;26 from St. Peter therefore, the other Apostles derived their strength; they belonged to the Church by belonging to St. Peter. (2) To St. Peter He gave the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, which means that St. Peter is master of the gate to that Kingdom, and that only through him could the other Apostles obtain admittance. (3) He gave St. Peter His own office of Good Shepherd:27 “Feed My lambs,” He said to him, “feed My sheep,” which shows that as He, Christ, had been the one and only Shepherd, so now St. Peter was to be the one and only Shepherd in His place, with authority over all, including his brother Apostles, the one supreme Pastor to whom all should listen and whom all should obey. Loyalty to St. Peter and his lawful successors was therefore an outstanding character of the Church founded by Christ.

His Church is Holy25

The Church is Holy in her Founder — God Himself is the Founder of the Church, the Author of her organization and all her work. She is holy, therefore, in her system of government, in her doctrine, in her worship, and in her object.

The Church founded by Christ is Holy in her Doctrine — Non-believers admit the excellence of Christ’s moral precepts, but Christ rose far above the low level of mere natural ethics and taught a far higher doctrine inspired by the Mystery of the Incarnation. Not content with the common virtues, such as truthfulness and honesty which are practised by many pagans, He urged His followers to higher things. He bade them strive to attain the ideals of heroic virtue. He recommended to them profound reverence for God leading to a childlike submission which would manifest itself in fraternal charity, meekness, humility, and self-denial in its various forms, e.g., voluntary poverty, submission to persecution, self-sacrifice even unto death to testify to their faith or to relieve the sufferings and save the souls of others.28 He summed up all these ideals in one: “Be ye perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.”29

This doctrine of holiness with His other teachings He placed in the custody of His Church: “Teach all nations,” He said to the Apostles, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”30

The Church founded by Christ is Holy in her Members — Christ did not say that all the members of His Church, high and low, would be holy, even in the humblest sense of the word: man may abuse the liberty God has given him, and choose evil instead of good. So, we find that among the Apostles, who had lived in intimate friendship with God Himself, there was a traitor; so, we find that Christ likens His Kingdom (Church) to a net that enmeshes worthless fish as well as good,31 or to a field wherein the cockle grows among the wheat.32 Still, because of His divine assistance, the Church of Christ, as a whole, must at all times be remarkable for sanctity; she cannot fail in this object of her existence, and she must exhibit many instances of the realisation of the highest ideals. Heroic sanctity must be manifested among her children in all ages. His Church is “the good tree” that “bringeth forth good fruit.” She must needs bring forth the good fruit of virtue, for Christ, her Founder who is God Himself, will be always with her.

Her Sanctity Proved by Miracles — He will never cease to prove her sanctity by miracles, for He said: “These signs shall follow them that believe: In My name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover”33; “he that believeth in Me, the works that I do, he also shall do, and greater than these shall he do.”34

The Church Founded by Christ is Infallible

The Church founded by Christ is infallible, that is, His Church cannot err in teaching and interpreting, as of faith, the truths which Christ delivered to her keeping.

Indirect Proofs — (1) If it be admitted that His Church can err in exacting the assent of faith for her doctrine it follows (a) that God has bound men on pain of damnation to believe what is false: “He that believeth not,” He said, “will be condemned”;35 and (b) that there can be no certainty whether any particular doctrine is the doctrine of God. (2) If there be no organ of infallibility on earth, it follows that Christ’s office as teacher ceased when He left the world; but see what this involves. Though God, all through the long waste of centuries, had been preparing the hearts of men for the coming of His Son, by vouchsafing to them revelation after revelation, and by setting up a whole system of elaborate ceremonial, yet we are asked to suppose that, in spite of all this, when the Redeemer came at last, He taught infallibly for but a few years a mere handful of people of one generation in a small comer of the world. Common sense rejects such an absence of wise proportion; it justly expects that what God granted to the men of Judea in the days of Christ, He has granted also to the men of every generation down to the end of time; it justly claims that God has established an organ of infallibility among us through which we can still hear the infallible voice of His Divine Son.

Direct ProofsProof from Imperishability — His Church will never perish. She will always teach men with Divine authority, because Christ has promised to be always with her. Hence, she can never err in her teaching. Proof from Unity of Faith: His Church must at all times teach and believe the same body of Divine truths. Possessing unity of faith, she must also possess, the means by which that unity may be preserved and defended. Owing to the waywardness or wickedness of men, the plainest doctrines of Christianity, as we know from history, and even the writings of St. Paul himself, are liable to constant misinterpretation. Christ’s Church therefore is always threatened with error, and error would be fatal to unity. Christ therefore must have empowered His Church to declare with an infallible voice whether a doctrine has been revealed or not, and to expel from her fold and threaten with damnation all who reject her decision.

Since the Church founded by Christ is Imperishable, it exists in the world at the present day clothed in all its attributes. It is Visible, One, Catholic, Holy, Apostolic, and Infallible.


  1. Matthew 28:18-20 [return]
  2. John 14:16 [return]
  3. Matthew 16:18 [return]
  4. Had Christ intended that His Church should last only for a time, He would have set forth in clear prophecy the signs of its dissolution. The termination of a Divine institution should be as marvellous and manifest as its beginning. [return]
  5. Matthew 10:32 [return]
  6. John 17:20,21 [return]
  7. I Cor. 12:12 (f), Cf. Eph. 1:5; Rom. 12, See Mgr. Benson’s Christ in the Church [return]
  8. Matthew 12:25; Mark 3:24 [return]
  9. Ephesians 4:4 [return]
  10. Matthew 28:19,20 [return]
  11. Ephesians 4:5 [return]
  12. Romans 15:6 [return]
  13. I Corinthians 1:10 [return]
  14. Romans 16:17,18 [return]
  15. Mark 16:15 [return]
  16. Romans 9:18 [return]
  17. Colossians 1:6, See Chapter VIII, B I. [return]
  18. Mark 16:15.16 [return]
  19. Titus 3:10 [return]
  20. St. John 15:5,6, See Chapter VIII, B II, See Chapter X, p. 160 [return]
  21. The word “apostolic” has other senses also with which we are not concerned at present. [return]
  22. John 20:21 [return]
  23. Luke 10:16 [return]
  24. I Clem. 42, 44 [return]
  25. Men or things are holy according to the intimacy of their relation to God. [return]
  26. For fuller treatment of Scriptural evidence, see pp. 181-3. [return]
  27. Because, of all the Apostles, Peter loved Him most. [return]
  28. Read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5,6,7 [return]
  29. Ibid. v. 48, See pages 163-166 [return]
  30. Matthew 28:20 [return]
  31. Ibid, 14:24-30 [return]
  32. Matthew 13:47,48 [return]
  33. Mark 16:17,18 [return]
  34. John 14:12 [return]
  35. Mark 16:16. [return]