Recognizing the church: Marks, or Streams?

As a Roman Catholic who grew up reciting the Nicene Creed at every mass, I am accustomed to a paradigm in which we recognize the true church by the four creedal marks: one, holy, catholic[1], and apostolic. (Then of course, one argues about exactly what those terms mean. But onward!)

I was very interested to read of Anglican scholar Lesslie Newbigin’s framing of the three ecclesiological streams which recognize the church by either:

  • the two Reformation marks: the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly celebrated
  • the sacramental continuity model: sacramental incorporation into a church in historic apostolic succession
  • the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement: the lived experience of the Spirit


The difficulty Newbigin raises is that typically, each church tradition recognizes one of these as essential, and if we are to make any progress towards organic union, these streams must be reconciled.[2]

There was some discussion in class that placed the Holiness movement churches in the Pentecostal stream, which surprised me. I think of the “lived experience of the Spirit” in terms of a charismatic prayer experience, and/or the courage of prophetic convictions, both of which are more subjective than objective.

If I had to classify the Holiness movement in one of these streams, I’d tend to describe it as “right living” and place it with the right preaching and right sacraments of the Reformation, as another variant of right praxis.

But I wonder whether it should be considered a fourth stream. Recognizing the church by evidence of right living is what I think of as a “fruit” ecclesiology, where we recognize the true church by the very visible fruit of right living among its members (because anyone who doesn’t have this visible fruit is excluded from the church via some form of ban or disfellowshipping), where I’m defining it over against what one might call a “seed” ecclesiology, where the right preaching or right sacraments or right profession of faith are considered the seed that may/will eventually bear fruit, but possessing the seed is enough to qualify you as a church member.

The visible gifts of the Spirit are indeed visible “fruit”, but they’re fruit that is purely received; whereas right living is fruit that one produces at least partially by one’s own efforts. So these seem qualitatively quite different to me.

I was also very intrigued to read of an alternate approach to historic continuity in apostolic succession. Again, as a Roman Catholic, I was raised to consider unbroken episcopal succession, as a chain of hands imposed at ordination, to be the definition of apostolic succession.[3] This of course has been a source of great ecumenical difficulty, as the RC church pronounces that this church has “valid orders” in apostolic succession, and that denomination does not have valid orders, or is not in unbroken apostolic succession, and therefore cannot be considered a church “in the proper sense.”

I’ve been reading some of the proceedings of the Consultation on United and Uniting Churches, and am both interested and encouraged to see that the Porvoo Agreement (between Anglicans in England and Lutherans in northern Europe) recognizes a broader approach to historic continuity. Citing the early church and the Orthodox church as evidence, the Agreement can recognize historic succession in historically continuous sees (diocesan-level local churches) even in cases where the strict lineage of bishops ordaining bishops was broken during the Reformation.

In Mary Tanner’s[4] delightful phrasing, this is an approach that emphasizes “bottoms on seats” rather than hands on heads. I love it!


[1] Small-c catholic, katholica, universal

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, discussed in Karkkainen, chapter 14

[3]Historic accuracy notwithstanding, the RC church’s self-understanding and, one might say in a non-pejorative sense, its mythology of the episcopacy is still very strongly grounded in this story of a lineage of ordination that goes back to the apostles.

[4] Mary Tanner, “The Porvoo Agreement,” Built Together: The Present Vocation of United and Uniting Churches, Faith & Order Paper No. 174

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