In his Theology of Mission John Howard Yoder points out that the function of the so-called “marks of the church” is to identify where a church is present in a time of confusion or challenge. The most widely used set of descriptors of the church come from the Nicene Creed of the 4th century: “one, holy, catholic, apostolic.”
In our age of unprecedented physical, psychic, spiritual, financial, and emotional violence, it is worth reflecting on the contemporary meaning of these marks of the church. Yoder also notes that these marks are more often used as goals rather than achieved realities. Though they are true and ours in Christ, we are still living into them and often fall short. I’ll use them that way too.
These marks address violence in many and mutually interlocking and reinforcing ways. For instance, if we are one, siblings in Christ and daughters and sons of the Father, violence toward one another is unthinkable. So also our “holiness.” If we are the family of the God of Abraham and Sarah (“one”), the promised forebears of the family through whom God would bless all creation (“holy” or unique), violence toward one another or the world is unthinkable. And so for catholic and apostolic as well.
The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic language is well known (at least in the churches that regularly use the creeds). Perhaps too well known for them to serve us well today. I’m going to suggest another set of marks three of which are from the movie “Remember the Titans.” I’ll use these marks with one I will add to interpret them for the church today.
“Remember the Titans” is about a prominent Northern Virginia High School that has hired a black coach for its football team in the first years of integration. The coaches are preparing the newly-integrated team for their first game. As they move through their opening exercises, the new head coach yells out “Who are we?” The team replies, “We are the Titans!” “What are we?” the coach yells back. “We are mobile, agile, and hostile!” the team cries back. I would like to borrow this threefold cry, with one addition, for my suggested marks for today’s church.
“Mobile” indicates the much-needed quality of readiness to move – physically, in service, theologically, and in whatever other ways are needed – that should mark a pilgrim people, those always “on the way” to the kingdom of God. A mobile church is a lean church, stripped down to its essentials, sitting light to place and buildings, expecting the Spirit to move it to break boundaries and cross barriers that exist between people and groups. Reconciliation is an ever-moving target and God’s people are his “mobile response unit” for such service. We see such mobility in founding narratives of the church in the book of Acts which is, of course, the Spirit-directed course of the unfolding of God’s purposes.
“Agile” suggests flexibility and the suppleness to reach others around the barriers of race, social status, respectability, tradition, denomination, language, and so forth to forge new connections of solidarity and sharing enhancing relationships and meeting need. This capacity to reconfigure relationships and networks is critical to non-violently sustaining and communicating our identity as God’s people and carrying out the ministry to which we are called.
“Hostile” does not immediately resonate as a mark of the church, especially in these volatile and violent days in which religion is implicated in a tragic and embarrassing degree. Yet, the truth is that God’s people are on a mission in a hostile world. Sin, evil, and death have ordered and insinuated themselves into the warp and woof of human life lived in rebellion against God. From the intimacy of personal life to the large-scale systems and forces that order human life against itself and its own best interests, sin and violence and their manifold distortions mark the shape and tenor of our lives.
Our hostility is directed not against human beings, however. Paul makes this crystal clear in Ephesians 6. We go to battle against the spiritual forces of evil often called the “principalities and powers.” We execute our struggle with what Oscar Romero calls “the violence of love.” Such love defeats “the powers” on the one hand and, on the other, liberates, restores, and reconciles fallen humanity into the “new being” Paul speaks about so beautifully in Ephesians 2. This is the holiness of God’s people, singularly and uncompromisingly prosecuting God’s battle to reclaim and restore his creation-dream of a community of humanity sharing life with him on a fully flourishing creation throughout the ages!
“Fragile” is my addition to these marks. The church stands (or should stand) in stubborn solidarity with the broken and hurting masses in our world. If our hearts are not broken by sharing God’s broken heart for his wounded world, we belie our calling and confession (Matt.5:4). Fragility means we live out of our own woundedness and journey toward healing in serving the God who has called us. We call others to share this journey with us in the name of the Christ by whose own wounds we are healed (Isa.53). Fragility is the name of the violence of love that forms our service, lubricates our agility, and fires our mobility.
Fragility is the name of the love of Christ within us. Mobility is love’s mode of being in the world. Agility is the form of our action with and towards others. And hostility names the aim of this subversive, counter-revolutionary people – to erect signposts of justice, love, and freedom that point to God’s coming new age and to announce and demonstrate that this gracious rule is already present and possible for those who trust and serve him. These four, I suggest, are the marks of the church we ought seek in these days in which we live.
God’s people, I like to call his “subversive, counter-revolutionary movement,” is that people equipped and commissioned to undercut and sabotage the attitudes and patterns that sin has set in place (subversive) and demonstrate the new life, life as God originally intended it (counter-revolutionary). As such, we are a hostile people, hostile to all that hinders and thwarts God’s intention for his world both large and small. Our hostility is, as we have seen, not against people, however, but rather against “the principalities and powers,” standing behind the disorder of God’s wayward creation. Our weapon is the gospel, the announcement of God’s victory over these powers of sin, evil, death, and the devil in Christ. We use only the “violence of love” (Archbishop Oscar Romero) to implement this victory in the world.
Mobile, agile, hostile, and fragile – these I believe are marks of the church worthy of generating a “subversive, counter-revolutionary movement” for the violent world we live in.