The Catholicity and Universality of Christ’s Church

In my last post we considered the characteristics of Christ’s Church in the weeks and months following Pentecost. Christians (especially pastors) are often guilty of romanticizing when they speak of the Early Church, but the New Testament not only gives us a clear picture of the most gracious and glorious strengths of that fellowship (the Acts of the Apostles) but also the most glaring and grievous weaknesses of Christ’s Church in its infancy (the New Testament Epistles to particular local churches, such as the church at Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, etc.). All of those young churches in particular locations had their own pastors and their own problems. As we saw previously, none of them were perfect, just as no local church today is perfect, because every church is made up of people just like us, and none of us are perfect – for, after all, the word for church means “a gathering of people,” a “peculiar people,” the “people of God.”

The most important unit of ministry and mission in Christendom is the local church. The place where the followers of Jesus come together for worship, for study, for fellowship, for prayer, for nurture, for support, for encouragement, for comfort, for inspiration, for affirmation, and to be discipled and equipped for “the work of ministry” both in the church and in the world. Nowhere else is the Church so clearly visible, so well known, so easily recognized, but, sadly, the church is therefore too easily identified as a building – the place where Christians meet. There are some branches of Christ’s Church that do not even use the term “church” for that very reason. For example, the Quakers call the place where they come together the “meeting house.” However, the Church is not a meeting place, in the truest sense of the word, for it is not a place at all; it is a people! If you had asked New Testament Christians where they “went to church,” they would not have known how to answer that question. There were no buildings, no designated places to come together for worship and fellowship. There were “house churches” (i.e. the homes of believers), and often Christians were forced to meet in secret places, in safe places, for they were being persecuted. Wherever they came together, they came together as the Body of Christ – the Church – meeting in those particular places as a local  assembly (i.e. a local church).

It is still true today, although there are many buildings that people easily identify as “churches,” many with a steeple that has a cross on top. However, those buildings are not the Church; they are where the Church meets in particular locations. Some Christian groups actually believe the word “church” only applies to local congregations, and it is certainly true that except for the local congregations there would be no church. However, it is also true that a local congregation is not the whole Church, and a local church cannot be separated from the universal church (i.e. the Church “catholic,” for this word simply means “universal”). When we say in the Apostles’ Creed that we “…believe in the Holy Catholic Church,” we are not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, which is a part of the universal Body of Christ but not “the Church” (i.e. the only true Church). Roman Catholics should not be given a monopoly on the use of the word “catholic” (little “c”). When we are talking about that part of the worldwide Body of Christ that has it’s seat of authority in Rome we should say “Roman Catholic.” For all true believers in Jesus Christ, who have been baptized into the Body of Christ, belong to the “Holy Catholic Church” (i.e. the one holy, universal, Church).


When we talk about “the Church” (capital “c”,) we are talking about the whole people of God. For centuries there were no “denominations.” There were only local churches, which belonged to a “parish” (i.e. a group of local churches in different geographical areas), and the center of the Church’s power and authority was Rome. There were no “Protestants” until the sixteenth century, when the Reformation occurred. This was an effort to “reform” (re-form) the Church – to change the structure of the Church, to prevent the abuse of spiritual power, to cleanse the Church of its corrupt practices like the sale of “indulgences” which were peddled to the laity who were told they would gain and guarantee the forgiveness of sins (indulgences also happened to be one of the major fund-raising efforts to cover the cost of building St. Peter’s in Rome). Many of the “denominations” we know today came out of the Protestant Reformation. The Presbyterians are one such group belonging to a larger group known as the “Reformed.” In Europe that is the designation that is used rather than Presbyterian (except in Scotland where there is a Presbyterian Church of Scotland). I was privileged to serve a local church in England, which was a part of the United Reformed Church of England (URC), which also belongs to a worldwide body of believers called “Reformed” because they trace their roots to the efforts of such reformers as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox.

The Roman Catholic Church has its roots in the ancient Church, often referred to as the “Ancient Catholic Church,” and medieval Catholicism, however, Roman Catholicism is not the same as medieval Catholicism. The Council of Trent, a church council which met at the time of the Reformation, formulated the doctrine of the Church. Many doctrines which had been permissible in the medieval church were no longer permitted. Many of the dogmas promulgated by the papacy in Rome (which become just as authoritative for Roman Catholics as what the Scriptures principally teach) date to particular times, some of which were controversial and disputed doctrines, also contributed to what became known as the “Protestant Reformation.” Many so-called “dogmas” of the Roman Catholic Church are also a hindrance to the unity of Christ’s Church today, such as the “Infallibility of the Pope” proclaimed in 1870, the “Immaculate Conception of Mary” (dating from 1854), and the dogma of the “Assumption of Mary” (1950). It was Vatican Council II (1962-1965) that gave the universal Church new encouragement and hope for ecumenical dialogue and cooperation, a new openness to discussing doctrines, and other issues that have for too long divided Christ’s Church (Source: The Church: A Believing Fellowship, John H. Leith, 1965).

Those of us who consider ourselves reformed Christians have never considered ourselves alone to be “the true Church.” No Protestants believe their particular denomination to be the final form of the Church. When we are at our best, we are striving to be continually “re-formed,” to always be about the business of ordering or re-ordering our life together in these changing times in obedience to the changeless Word of God – as the so-called “Emerging Church” in the twenty-first century, being sure at all times that we are doing all things with a greater interest in that which is “timeless” than that which is “timely.” Yes, we must be open to the fact that our God is continually “doing a new thing.” Never forgetting that we are the followers of One who says, “Behold, I make all things new.” At the same time we remember that nothing is good merely because it is new, no more than it is good simply because it is old. It is good if it is true – if it is forever true, if it possesses enduring value and vitality, if it remains relevant for all times – especially in a time when so many things are being shaken. The things that cannot be shaken will remain and will stand forever and ever (Hebrews 12:27).

God’s Word, which will never be shaken and will remain forever the same, is our only rule and authority for faith and practice (i.e. the practice of our faith). As a Presbyterian, I am speaking to fellow Presbyterians, if not all of us, when I say let us strive continually and consistently to order our life together in the worldwide Body of Christ – in conformity to Scripture, in obedience to Jesus Christ, the Only Head of the Church – while continually praying and laboring for the unity of Christ’s Church and seeking to help heal the divisions in the worldwide Church, the one “holy catholic Church,” to which all who belong to Jesus also belong. As Protestants we must seek to correct the mistaken view that this designation has a negative meaning, for that is the way the word “protest” is so often interpreted. This is unfortunate, since the word actually comes from the Latin “protestari,” which means “to speak for” not against – “to make a positive declaration or affirmation.” Protestants are those in the Body of Christ who speak up and stand up for something, like those Reformers of the sixteenth century. Let us not forget that! Let us live up to that name. Most of all, let us live up to the name we bear as those who belong to CHRIST: CHRISTIANS!

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