We, Orthodox Christians, mean by “church” the body through which Jesus is present and active in the world today. It was founded by Christ through His Apostles, and has maintained a living connection with the Apostles through the ordination of its clergy. The Nicene Creed indicates four basic characteristics of the Church, “We believe in One, Holy, Universal (Catholic) and Apostolic Church.” These attributes are called essential, that is, those without which the Church would not be the Church. These characteristics are:

One Church

    The church is one body, from different members, visible and invisible, because God is one. About being one church, St. Paul says, “There is one body, one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” (Ephesians 4:4-6). In the long soliloquy of the Lord Jesus with the Father, He prayed that the church may be “one” even as He and the Father are one. He said, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one just as We are one” (John 17:20-22). The Lord Christ also said, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). This one shepherd in the parable is the Lord Christ who said, “I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 14).

    The church is one because she is one body and Christ is the head as St. Paul says, “Christ is head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23), “He is the head of the church” (Colossians 1:18). So, the church is one, since the Lord Christ has one body; and we all are members of His body as the Apostle says, “For we are members of His body, of His flesh and bones” (Ephesians 5:30).

    The church is one because she is the bride of Christ. St. John the Baptist said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been send before Him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoice greatly…” (John 3:28, 29). The same meaning is stated in (Ephesians 5:31, 32, 25; 2Corenthians 11:2). Being the only one, the bride of the Lord Christ is represented in the Song of Songs; and about her the Bridegroom says, “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one” (Song 6:9).

    Since the church is one, what then does the word “churches” in the Holy Bible signify? It signifies the places where the churches were established (Acts 9:31). The book of Revelation mentioned seven churches in Asia (Rev 1:11); however, all of them are members of the One Holy Universal Apostolic Church.

Holy Church

    The church is holy because our Lord Christ made her so. St. Peter describes the church, saying, “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… but you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1Pet 2:5, 9). As we know, the word “church” comes in the Bible to signify the believers (Acts 2:47; 8:1) as well as priesthood (Matt 18:17; 18:18) besides the building (Rom 16:5; 1Cor 4:17).

    The Church is holy because the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sins, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1John 1:7). About Christ our Savior and His blood, the book of Revelation says, “To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Rev 1:5). In our baptism, the old man dies, who is corrupted; and a new man rises, who is holy in the image of God. On this regard, St. Paul says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3:27), that is you have put on the righteousness, holiness and cleanliness of the Lord Christ. He also says, “Just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her in Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

    Not only is the church holy, but also her objective is to make us holy, i.e. to live a holy life, to be different from the world, conformed to Christ’s will.

Universal Church

The church is universal, gathering all believers together in the unity of faith. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). Just as there are no distinction within the love of God, so the church stretches out her arms to the world “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).  This universal church brought together the Jews and Gentiles, as well as all nationalities, peoples, and tongues in one faith.

Being universal, the church held Ecumenical Councils, like the that of the Apostles (Acts 15:1-35), formed of the leaders of the church to study and define a matter of faith, and decide certain issues regarding the church organization so that all churches might follow one doctrine.

    The universal church brought together all the local churches in one church embracing all, in one Creed, under uniform church laws. This universal church brings all believers together in communion, in one faith, in the holy sacraments, and in partaking from one altar.

    Nowadays, we see many differences in faith among the different churches, which shouldn’t happen, that shattered the universal church. During the process of crucifixion of our Savior (John 19:23, 24), we notice:
Dividing His garments into 4 parts represent spreading of Christianity in the four corners of the world
Seamless tunic, woven from the top in one piece is symbolic of the unity of the Church, which was born in Pentecost by the dissension of the Holy Spirit from heaven
The soldiers refused to divide it saying, “Let us not tear it,” symbolic of one church shouldn’t be divided

Let us pray for the unity of the church to be a universal church, one flock for one Shepherd… the good Shepherd.

Apostolic Church

    The church is apostolic because we can trace her existence historically directly back to the Apostles. The term “Apostolic” signifies that the church was founded by one the Apostles, and followed the teaching of the Apostles without any deviation till this day. The Apostle Paul refers to this fact by saying, “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). The foundation of the church is the teaching of the Apostles, which they had received from the Lord Christ, as He ordered them saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations... teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, 20). It is the teaching of the Lord Christ delivered to the Apostles during the forty days following His resurrection. The Apostles, in turn, delivered these teachings to the churches they established (1Cor 11:23).

St. Mark the apostle, for example, established our Coptic Orthodox Church in the first century of Christianity, delivering to us these teachings, not only orally, but also through His Gospel. Other Apostles recorded these teachings in their Gospels and epistles besides their laws and other written and unwritten teachings. This is known as the “Apostolic Tradition,” which the church received one generation after the other, as St. Paul said to his disciples Timothy, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2Timothy 2:2).

In addition, the life of the church during the apostolic era is delivered to us as an apostolic church. An example of this is the liturgies they prayed, and all the prayers of the sacraments they used like the methods of baptizing and ordaining priests. They practiced these prayers and continued in the life of the church throughout the ages.

Being an apostolic church, the Orthodox Church has two distinctive features:
Her changelessness
Her Living continuity with the early church of the Apostles

One of the distinguishing features of the Orthodox Church is her changelessness. She had, and still, preserved the full and true faith of Christ without changes throughout all these centuries. The word “Orthodox” is applied to this church to designate that she has kept the faith “which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

The apostolic church is also characterized by the “Apostolic Succession.” The priest today has been ordained by laying the hands on and received the holy breath (John 20:22) from his bishop. And the bishop was ordained by the archbishop, the patriarch, or the pope, who was, in turn, ordained by his predecessor up to one of the Apostles who received this power from the Lord Christ.