While attending the organizing meeting of the World Reformed Fellowship, I was reminded of the ancient confession of the church, “I believe … one holy, catholic church” (Apostles’ Creed). When enjoying fellowship with representatives of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, churches, institutions, and seminaries from throughout the world, the catholicity of the church strikes one as more than a confession in words. In the person of representatives of churches from several continents, one sees a visible embodiment of this confession! No room is left for doubt that Christ is gathering a church of believers from throughout the world who are united in the “unity of the true faith” (Heidelberg Catechism).
What, however, do we mean when we speak of the “catholicity” of the church?
The term, “catholic” is not an expressly biblical one. Literally, the term means “what refers to or is encompassed by the whole.” In its earliest usage by the second century church father, Ignatius of Antioch, it was aimed at heretics who departed from the true church of Christ in its universal dimensions. Whenever artificial boundaries or limits are placed upon the fulness or wholeness of the church, whether by illegitimate separation or narrowness of viewpoint, there the catholicity of the church is endangered.
Because the term “catholic” has become so closely linked in the popular mind with the claims of the “Roman Catholic” church, many Reformed believers are hesitant to use this term, sometimes preferring the language of a “universal” church. This is unfortunate, since this attribute belongs to the true church of Jesus Christ, not to the church which calls itself “Roman” catholic. Indeed, the language of a “Roman” catholic church is inherently contradictory—an oxymoron, really. For the catholic Christian church transcends all artificial boundaries. It is not Roman nor European nor eastern nor western! In its temporal significance, the catholic church is the church of all ages (cf. Matthew 28:20; 1 John 1:1–3). And in its spatial significance, the catholic church is the church of all places (cf. John 4:23; Acts 10:34–35). The church of Jesus Christ encompasses all true believers of every age and place who are being gathered by Christ through His Spirit and Word. The catholic church is the whole body of Christ, “the fulness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Matthew 16:13; Ephesians 2:20), this church is the whole people of God, comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers alike and consisting of believers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).
The confessions of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches contain excellent summary affirmations of what is meant by the catholicity of the church. Two of these are especially helpful:
Q. 54 What do you believe concerning the holy catholic Church?
A. That the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member thereof (Heidelberg Catechism).
The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. XXV).
The confession of the church’s catholicity depends upon the work of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in all the fulness and richness of their respective operations. The church is the elect people of God, the bride of Christ, the temple in which God dwells by His Spirit (1 Peter 2:9; EpheSians 2:22; 5:25). The confession of the church’s catholicity, therefore, depends upon the conviction that the Triune God is realizing His saving and reconciling purposes through the gathering of His people. This confession is an article of faith, a conviction based upon the believer’s confidence that the church is God’s and not ours. Christ will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18)! In this respect, the confession of the catholicity of the church is exclusive: only those who enjoy fellowship with the Triune God through His saving work can confess and claim to be members of the catholic church. It also depends upon the other attributes of the church: unless the unity, holiness and apostolicity of the church are maintained, the church will not be what it professes to be, namely, the church of God through Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
This confession of the church’s catholicity places tremendous responsibilities upon all true believers in Jesus Christ. Among those responsibilities, several are especially important.
First, in our thinking and practice we must view the church through windows wide enough to include the whole of the church, and not only a segment. There is no room, accordingly, for believers who suffer from “tunnel vision” when it comes to what they regard as belonging to the church of Jesus Christ. Any unbiblical limitations—whether of time, of space, of nationality, of culture, and the like—upon the fulness and extent of the church of Christ are to be rejected. The church belongs to Christ and is as catholic as the embrace of His grace and saving work in the world. Thus, we may receive gladly the richness and diversity of the church throughout history and among the nations and peoples, as a legitimate expression of the church’s catholicity.
Second, in our thinking and practice we must be receptive to the fulness and richness of the great catholic tradition of the church, expressed for example in the ecumenical creeds and confessions, as well as the particular confessions of our more restricted traditions. Sadly, many Reformed believers seem more bent upon excluding many from the catholic church than including them. Who is not familiar, for example, with the petty way in which some Reformed believers pit the confessions of the continent (e.g. the Three Forms of Unity) against the confessions of the English/Scottish churches (the Westminster standards)? Others seem more skilled at discerning minor differences over matters of church polity and the like, which then prevent serious efforts at expressing our unity in the faith, than they are at finding common ground. Those who confess the catholicity of the church are obliged to receive the richness and fulness of the confessional and theological tradition(s) of the church. By contrast they need to resist all premature and unnecessary erecting of boundaries which inappropriately narrow the reach of Christ’s saving work.
Third, the confession of the catholidty of the church also requires an embrace of the fulness of truth on the one hand, wherever it comes to expression in any sphere of human endeavor, and of the fulness of obedience on the other. The truth of God is catholic. It embraces every legitimate area of human knowledge. There is no false dichotomy permitted between religious and “secular” knowledge. Furthermore, obedience requires a life wholly and exclusively devoted, in everyone of its legitimate expressions, to the service of the Triune God. Any double theory of truth contradicts the church’s confession of her catholicity. Any arbitrary division between religious and non-religious service likewise diminishes the fulness of God’s claim upon the life of His people.
Admittedly, this is to state the matter rather abstractly. The confession of the catholicity of the church obliges Reformed believers to confess their sins where they have disobeyed the obligations of this confession. Without going into detail, our sins in this area are undeniable. But this confession also asks us to look beyond the narrow boundaries of “our own” church (congregation) or even denomination. It asks us to acknowledge and to seek fellowship with all who belong to the catholic Christian church. We may not do this, of course, at the expense of the church’s holiness or apostolicity. But do it we must if our confession is not to ring hollow.
Dr. Cornelis Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook magazine, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.