One Holy Catholic Church

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Ephesians 4:1-6
1 Peter 2:10

“I believe in . . . the holy catholic church.” So Christians are taught to confess using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. But do we, really? Is belief in the church a vital part of our faith?

“I believe in . . . the holy catholic church.” So Christians are taught to confess using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. But do we, really? Is belief in the church a vital part of our faith?

It is if we are biblical Christians! Yet how often have you heard someone say, “I believe in God, but I can’t stand the church.” Or, “You know, the person of Jesus really appeals to me, but every time I go to a church it’s a huge turn-off.” Or, “I’m a Christian, but I prefer to worship God in my own way by myself. I really don’t feel the need for anyone else.”

Sound familiar? Theologian Michael Jinkins, in a recent book on the Apostles’ Creed, talks in his chapter on the church about what he calls the “myth of solitary religion.” Americans in particular are prone to believe that their faith is something that is best practiced privately, all alone. Jinkins writes,

. . . the problem with this way of thinking is that when we are left to worship by ourselves, what we usually worship is ourselves. Solitary religion tends toward idolatry, the worship of false gods made in our own image.”

Jinkins, M., Invitation to Theology, p. 222

As the great 18th century evangelist John Wesley observed, “The New Testament knows nothing of solitary Christians.”

So the very fact of being a Christian, at least in any authentic New Testament sense, means to be a member of the church, the fellowship of the people of God. Despite appearances in our culture to the contrary, the church is not a voluntary organization made up of like-minded individuals who have chosen to join it. It isn’t a social club or religious society. No, the important choice when it comes to church membership is not ours, but God’s. The New Testament word for church is ekklesia, which literally means “called out.” The church is the company of all those whom God has called out of the world to belong to himself and to each other in Jesus Christ.

The apostle Peter, in his first epistle, says to a church made up of both Jews and Gentiles living in small congregations scattered across what is now northern Turkey, “you are a chosen race . . . a people for [God’s] own possession . . .” (1 Peter 2:9). Those phrases, so rich with echoes of God’s choice of Old Testament Israel, now point to a new reality. The people of God are no longer limited to a single ethnic or racial or geographic group. The people of God are now the church of Jesus Christ, chosen and called by God out of every language, race and nation. And about this church we believe and confess three basic truths: it is one, holy, and catholic.

The Church Is One

So lets start with this truth: the church is one. I wonder when the last time is that you heard a message on Christian unity, or that the unity of the universal church was the subject of prayer in your congregation’s worship. We talk about a lot of things in the church: vision, leadership, growth. We emphasize the church’s call to worship, to evangelism, to community ministry, to world missions. But what about unity? The apostle Paul declared it. Listen to what he says in Ephesians 4:

There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

Do you know how many times Paul uses the word one in that sentence? I’ll save you the trouble of counting; it’s seven times. Paul not only declares the church’s unity, Jesus prayed for it. Go to John 17 and read his high priestly prayer in the upper room. The last thing Jesus asked for his disciples was that they would be one. Our Lord prayed on the last night of his earthly life this way:

Father, . . . that they all may be one . . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

John 17:21

Today there are more than 20,000 Christian denominations throughout the world, and that’s not counting the various splinter groups and cults. And many of the fastest growing new churches are independent, what we could call “denominations of one.” What must non-Christians think? “You tell me to become a Christian,” they say, “all right; what kind? You tell me to join the church; which one?” The world would be evangelized a hundred times over by now if the church of Christ were not so visibly divided.

Paul explains to the Ephesians the doctrinal foundation upon which the unity of the church rests. It’s derived from the unity of God himself, for there is “one Spirit,” “one Lord,” and “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (vv. 4-6). One God cannot have many bodies!

The church’s unity also rises out of the unity of Christian faith and experience. There is only one body because, despite minor variations in practice and teaching, all true Christians have been born again through one and the same Spirit. They have been called to one and the same hope. They belong to one and the same Lord. They believe one and the same faith. They receive one and the same baptism.

Now here is the place to weigh in with a caution. We all know that there are some churches that bear the name “Christian” but do not hold to the essentials of biblical faith. Those who reject the “one faith” or deny the “one Lord” are not really part of the one body of which the apostle writes and for which Jesus prayed. We will not compromise our convictions for the sake of peace with those who reject or deny the historic Christian faith, as that is expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed.

But we also want to lift up the Bible’s declaration that all those for whom Jesus Christ is truly Lord are one, no matter what church or denomination they belong to. And we will in Paul’s words “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3). The great evangelical leader John Stott asks a pertinent question about this passage in Ephesians chapter 4:

Where, I ask myself, is this eagerness for unity to be found among evangelical Christians today? Is this an apostolic command we are guilty of largely ignoring?

John Stott, God’s New Society, ad. loc.

Holy

So the church is one; and the church is also holy. Not “holier than thou,” just holy. At first glance this looks like another unreal expectation, just like our conviction that despite all our fragmentation the church is really one. But just as the essential unity of the church, though invisible, is nevertheless real, so is the church’s holiness real, despite the many and obvious failings we exhibit in our lives and congregations.

“You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” God had said to Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 19:6). “You are . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession,” Peter echos in his letter to the first-century church.

In the Old Testament, the idea of being holy meant to be literally set apart by God for himself. This is why the New Testament characteristically calls the members of the church “saints.” A saint is not first and foremost an especially godly person. A saint is first of all someone whom God has chosen to love and whom he has called to belong to him. So the holiness of the church refers more to its identity than to its character.

But this objective idea of holiness, of being set apart for God, also has a subjective side. God’s purpose in saving us is to make us actually holy, in and of ourselves, that is, to make us really different, different as in better, different as in like Jesus. So the great priority of our lives, of the church’s life, must be to become in fact what we already are by faith, namely, a holy people – a holy nation, pure and good, humble and loving, loving others and loving God both in word and in deed. The church is called to live out its identity as a community of grace, a beacon of wholeness and light in a dark and twisted world (Philippians 2:15).

Catholic

Finally, we confess in our faith that the church is universal: “I believe in the holy catholic church. The dictionary defines catholic as “general, universal or inclusive.” Why is it so important to remember and confess this aspect of the church’s nature in our confession of faith? For one reason, because it reminds us that the church is for everybody. We dare not try to exclude anyone. We may not turn our church into a club for “the right sort of people,” that is, people just like us.

For another reason, it reminds us that the church is everywhere, not only in all places, but throughout all time. If we belong to Jesus Christ, we belong to a people that stretches all the way back to the New Testament — and even further back than that. In fact, this one people of God isn’t even limited to earth; even as we worship the triune God on earth we are one in the Spirit with all those who worship around his throne in heaven.

Here is something that really excites me. For generations, when Christians confessed, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” they were speaking more by faith than by sight. But today, in our generation, for the first time in history we can see that the church truly is universal. On every continent, in every country, the church of Christ exists, Christians are worshiping, Jesus is being acknowledged as Lord. And I can’t think of anything greater than being a part of that.