Church: Marks, Attributes and why does it

“You are confusing the marks of the church with it’s attributes”.  It was one of those throw away comments that Ed Clowney made while answering a student’s question.  I couldn’t hear the question because the lecture was online.  Up to that point I hadn’t really considered them different, let alone able to be confused.  So it got me thinking: Was Clowney right?  Is there a difference between the marks and the attributes of the church?  If so, what is their relationship and what difference does it make?

Let me say at this point, I am throwing out my thoughts here as a hypothesis.  I am happy to be shown that I am wrong on this (and I may convince myself of that when I have done some more research).

Why does it matter?

Imagine you are sitting in a hospital and a man, with a stethoscope around his neck, reading a file walks by.  You might assume, in this case rightly, that he is a doctor.  But this raises several questions.

  1. If I put on a stethoscope and pick up a file and walk through a hospital, does that make me a doctor?  No.  The point here is that we should not mistake the form of church with the essence of church.  Calling yourself a church like the church of scientology, doesn’t make you one.  But then what does?
  2. If I am a doctor, do I have to be a man?  Do I have to be in a hospital?  Do I need a file and a stethoscope?  Obviously, the answer here is ‘no’ again.  This is the question of flexibility in form.  What can a church do and not do and still be a church?
  3. Why is a doctor in a hospital reading a file and wearing a stethoscope?  This is the question of form following essence.  There are good reasons that we do things as a church.

The discussion of marks and attributes are going to help us answer these questions at least in part.  This is not simply asking what is a church, that is a question of definition.  This is about makes a church a church.


Looking purely at the definition of these two words we can see that the words are very similar:

Attribute: (noun) something attributed as belonging to a person, thing, group, etc.; quality, character, characteristic, or property1

Mark: (noun) an affixed or impressed device, symbol, inscription, etc., serving togive information, identify, indicate origin or ownership, attest tocharacter or comparative merit, or the like, as a trademark2

The main difference is that an attribute is a property and a mark is something that you can see.


Historically, generally it regarded that the attributes of the church come from the Apostle’s Creed: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”.

The marks of the church are from the Reformation.  Namely, preaching of the Word, sacraments and church discipline come from being able to identify a true church from a false one.

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.” The Belgic Confession (Art 29)

The point here is that the church was dealing with different things when it was working out the marks and attributes of the church.    During the Reformation it was working out what was the true church if it were not the Roman Catholic church.  During the early church it was seeking to work out what was the nature of the wider Christian community.

What’s the Difference?

At this point I want to suggest that there are some key differences between attributes and marks of the church.

Attributes were used to describe the whole church.  They were seeking to emphasise the unity and coherence of the church.  They are for the church universal.  They are not ‘seen’ in the sense that you cannot see ‘holy’ or ‘universal’ but have an eschatological element of what they will be like.

Marks were set out to help people see what a true church is and is not.  What is the essential things that someone should be able to see in a local church to determine its authenticity.

What’s the Relationship?

So if there is a difference, is there way that they all relate together?  Here is my hypothesis:

The definition of the church is: God’s people gathered to meet with Him through His Word3.

If that is the definition then the marks of the church explain how that is to work:  The Word preached, but also seen in the sacraments and applied in church discipline.

When the church is gathered around God through his Word, by the marks, it should take on the attributes: it will be holy, unified and catholic as it is based on the apostolic word.

How does this solve our questions from the doctor in the hospital metaphor:

  1. The definition tells us what a church is and what it is not.
  2. The marks tell us what is flexible about the form of church and what is not.  The attributes tell us what it should aim to be  like in character.
  3. Once we understand this we can understand why the form of many churches are as they are.




3. I will explain how I got to that definition in a later post.

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