The Nature of the Church

Return to Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
Home Page

"By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind" (LG, 1).

We have seen that the Church is a society that was carefully formed by God and began its mission at Pentecost.  This society is composed of those baptized persons who profess the faith taught by Jesus Christ and handed down by his apostles and their successors.  The members participate in the sacraments given to us by Our Lord, and are united with their bishops under the leadership of the Pope.

In order to understand the nature of the Church more fully, we need to examine three significant points: (1) the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, (2) the marks of the Church, and (3) the reasons Christ established his Church.

Images in the New Testament

Many images used in the New Testament help us to understand the Church.  A number of these arise from Our Lord's own words.  Christ frequently spoke of the Kingdom that will be established on earth and finally completed in Heaven.  Several parables, like that of the mustard seed, use this image, showing us how the Kingdom will grow and flourish on earth, or how the wicked and the just will live together in the world but will finally be separated at the end of time.  If we reflect on this image, we can see how it pertains to the Church. 

In other places Christ uses the image of the sheepfold.  We, the faithful, are the sheep, led by human shepherds on earth but most perfectly by the Good Shepherd, Christ himself.  In still other places Our Lord uses the images of the vineyard, a building, and his bride to represent the Church.  How would these be images of the Church?  You may need to use your New Testament to help you.

The Mystical Body of Christ

One of the most beautiful images is that of the Church as the Body of Christ.  The roots of this image can also be found in the words of Christ.  When Our Lord was speaking of the Last Judgment, he told us that we would be judged in part on the basis of our charity toward others - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, and so on.  He concludes by saying, "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40).  In other words, we serve Christ by serving others.

In another place, when Jesus sent the disciples out to preach in his name, he said, "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you, rejects me . . . " (Lk 10:16).  From both of these passages, we see that Christ in some way identifies his followers - the Church - with himself.

There is another passage (Act 9:1-5) in which the words of Christ are recorded.  Not long after Pentecost a man named Saul of Tarsus was fanatically hounding and pursuing the early Church.  "I was persecuting the Church of God", he later admitted (1 Cor 15:9).  One day on the road to Damascus he was knocked off his horse by a light from Heaven and heard mysterious words.  A voice said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? . . I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting."  How was it that Saul (later St. Paul) was persecuting Christ by persecuting his Church?  Did it amount to the same thing?  What was meant by these words?

For the rest of his life St. Paul would think about these words telling him that Christ and his Church are one.  This was such a great mystery that its meaning seemed inexhaustible.  He later developed this image of the Church as the Body of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians, his letter to the Ephesians, and in many other letters.

Our physical bodies have many different parts, which are arranged so that they can work together.  All of these parts - eyes, ears, hands, feet, heart, lungs, and so on - form one body, and each part must work for the good of the whole.  If one part of the body suffers, the other parts share in this pain, while the healthy parts must come to the assistance of the sick parts.  If one part - such as an infected limb - threatens the health of the whole body, it may need to be removed.

As St. Paul tells us, the same is true of the Church.  The individual members of the Church must help their fellow members.  A sin committed by one member hurts the whole.  One saint lifts up the whole.  "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor 12:26).  sometimes it is even necessary to remove one member from the Church in order that the whole may remain healthy. 

Furthermore, each of the many organs of the body has its own specific function and is arranged in some kind of order.  Each has its own task.  The eye cannot and should not want to do what the ear does.  The hand cannot and should not want to do what the feet do.  The same is true of the Church.  There are many individuals in the Church occupying special positions and exercising special functions, but all are united in one whole under Christ.  The head of this Body is Christ.  St. Paul reminds us, "He is the head of the body, the Church . . ." (Col 1:18).  It is Christ who unites this Body and whole life we share.  We are joined together by the Holy Spirit who is personally present throughout the Church. 

The Pope is the visible head of the Church, representing Christ.  The bishops with the Pope teach, sanctify, and rule in the name of Christ.  The priests and deacons assist in this work.  Lay people, who make up the bulk of the Church, have their special tasks within the Body of Christ.  They may, for instance, be the hands that take care of children in their families or help the poor.  They may be the feet that go to visit the sick.  They may be the tongues that teach their children the ways of God or spread the Word of God to others in the world.  They may be defenders of the faith, like St. Thomas More.  Each one has his special vocation, and all work for the one Body of Christ.  All are called to holiness.

Again, the individual parts of the body form one living organism, which requires nourishment to grow and mature.  The Body of Christ, like the human body, must be nurtured constantly by the graces that are received through the sacraments.

Calling the church a "body", however, is not just a figure of speech.  The Church is truly the Mystical Body of Christ.  Mystical here means spiritual.  It is also called mystical to remind us of the supernatural character of this society, which is both human and divine.  Unlike purely human organizations, the ultimate purpose of the Church is salvation.  The goal is Heaven.  The Church helps us to know, love, and serve God in this life so that we can be united with him forever in the next.

Marks of the Church

The Church, as we have seen, is a visible institution made up of human beings united with Christ as the invisible head.  Since the earliest centuries, Christians have believed that there are four signs, or marks, by which the true Church can be recognized.  These marks are included in the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,"


The unity in the Church is striking and is probably the clearest of the marks.  This unity is found in three areas.

First, there is the unity of belief.  The Church teaches the same doctrines everywhere and always.  Throughout the world the members of the Church profess this one faith.  The clearest statements of this faith are in the creeds, particularly the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.  There is also unity of moral teaching, based on the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ.  These doctrinal and moral beliefs have through the ages always been and will always remain the same.

Second, the Church is one through her unity of worship and Liturgy.  There is one sacrifice, the Mass, by which all members are united in worshipping God.  The Church is united also in receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments, by which all share in the life of Christ.  While there is absolute unity in the essentials of worship, there is rich variety in the rituals and ceremonies that surround them.

Third, there is unity of government in the Church.  All members submit themselves to one divine authority, Christ.  Christ promised us that there would be " . . . one flock, (and) one shepherd" (Jn 10:16).  The shepherd is Christ, and he is represented by his Vicar on earth, the Pope.  The bishops, successors of the apostles, are shepherds.  The Pope is the supreme shepherd, and he, together with them, rules the Body of Christ.  Christ knew that any community needed a leader to survive, so he appointed Peter to be his visible representative.  It is Peter's successor and those bishops in union with him who now govern the Church.  We are united to our bishop, and he in turn is united to the Pope.


The second mark of the Church is holiness.  The Church is holy in her origin, first of all, because her Founder, Jesus Christ, is holy and is the source of all holiness.  The Church is holy also in her purpose, which is the sanctification and salvation of all her members.  She has all the means at her disposal to make her members holy.  Her sacraments are also holy because they lead to holiness.

Finally, the Church is holy in those of her members who open themselves to grace.  Throughout history, the Church has been manifested in the holiness of many men and women who have wholeheartedly accepted Christ and his Church.  These saints, both canonized and uncanonized, are living proofs that the Church is holy.  Christ said, "By their fruits you shall know them:  We can see the fruits of the Church in her saints.

It is important to remember that the holiness of the Church does not mean that all members of the Church are holy.  Far from it, unfortunately.  Most of us fall far short of holiness and many times even fall into sin.  In fact, our Church history reveals that there have been many who have led "unholy" lives.  But sin is the result of imperfections in our human nature, not in the nature of the Church herself.  Despite our failures we must always strive to imitate the holiness of our Founder.


The third mark of the Church is her catholicity, or universality.  The Church is called catholic because she possesses the fullness of Christ's truth and revelation, and also because she is for all men and women at all times and in all places.  She is not limited to one race or nation.  Her members include both the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the young and the old.  The Church founded by Jesus Christ, unlike the pagan religions at the time, was meant to include every human being.

This mark has become more evident as the Church has grown over the centuries.  The Church has spread throughout many nations according to the command of Christ.  And through her missionary work, the Church continues to manifest this mark of universality.


The final mark of the Church is apostolicity.  This means that the Church originated with the apostles, upon whom Christ built his Church.  We have already seen how Christ chose "the Twelve" to be the foundation of his Church.  Apostolicity also refers to the fact that the Church is still ruled by the legitimate successors to Peter and the apostles, namely, the Pope and the bishops.  In other words, the mark of apostolicity is made clear by the fact that authority in the Church can be traced in an unbroken line back to the apostles.

The Church is also apostolic in the sense that she professes the same doctrine taught by the apostles, the deposit of faith given to the Church by Christ.  This deposit of faith remains the same in all essentials.  Thus the Church is founded on the apostles and the teaching given to them by Our Lord.

Why the Church?

We have seen that Christ founded the Church, his Mystical Body, and identified her by four unique and visible signs.  But why did he establish this Church?  Understanding this will give us a more complete grasp of the nature of the Church.

To begin with, Our Lord was on earth for only a short time.  In order to offer salvation to all men, not just those living in Palestine two thousand years ago, he established his Church to continue his work.  By his death, Our Lord merited sufficient graces to save all men.  He then entrusted to Peter and the apostles the power and the means necessary to carry out the work of salvation.  Our Lord himself gave the apostles the task of administering the sacraments.

At the Last Supper, for example, they were given the power to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.  After the Resurrection, they received the power to forgive sins.  And on the day of the Ascension, they were directed to baptize in the name of the Trinity.

So that the Church could carry out this mission of sanctification, Christ also gave the Church the powers to govern and teach.  The power to govern is necessary so that our weakened wills will have the guidance and support needed to follow Christ and his commands.  This power was indicated when Christ told first Peter, and later all of the apostles, " . . . whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be lossed in Heaven" (Mt 16:19).  The Church, then, has the power from Christ to be the final judge determining what is necessary for salvation and sanctification.

Finally, the Church has the power from Christ to teach, so that we may know the truths that Christ has revealed to us.  We have already seen that Christ instructed his apostles to go forth and teach what he had taught them.  This work is carried on primarily by the successors of the apostles, the Pope and the bishops, and those who share in their authority.

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

Return to Index The Catholic Faith
Return To Level Four Topic Index
Home Page