If we spotted a church located in a racially mixed neighborhood, and all its worshipers were white, we'd rightly be concerned. Or if we attended a church that focused so much on reaching young families that singles and seniors felt uncomfortable, that too would bother us. Most of us would suspect the first church to be racist and the second, exclusivist. Both suspicions might certainly be true. But there is more going on: Each church is failing to live out the gospel.
An essential part of the gospel is that it is catholic—that is, the Good News is given to all people. And the church the Holy Spirit creates is catholic.
Putting the matter like this may make some Christians squirm. Many Protestants affirm, either weekly or semi-regularly, the Nicene Creed, proclaiming, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church," but many balk at that word, catholic. (That's why in my own congregation, we use the word universal rather than catholic, because the original Greek term katholikos means "whole, entire, universal.")
When most of us hear the word catholic, we think of the Roman Catholic Church. By naming itself "Catholic," the Roman Church has claimed that it alone is the true universal church. Its argument is severalfold: (1) Only Rome has a unified, worldwide authority; (2) only Roman Catholics exist in every global region; (3) the Catholic Church is the only Christian tradition that dates back to the time of the apostles; (4) only the Catholic Church has the fullness of grace and truth; and (5) the majority of Christians in the world are Catholic. In short, they claim to have always been everywhere—truly catholic.
I personally cannot affirm that "catholic" is an accurate description of that visible organization that submits itself to the authority of the pope, the bishop of Rome. The combination of Roman and Catholic is oxymoronic—one word implies spatial and cultural limitations, while the other implies universality and inclusivity. No one church alone can rightly be called "the Catholic Church."
Still, there is much more to be said than that "catholic" simply means "universal." Let me rehearse all too quickly the history and biblical theology behind the term, why it's included in the great summary of the Christian faith, and how it challenges churches today.
The Authentic Church
As far as we know, Ignatius of Antioch was the first person to use the word catholic in relation to the church. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, written around A.D. 112, he wrote, "Where Jesus Christ is, there is the universal church." Early Christian writers believed in the catholic church—that Christians everywhere trusted in one God, confessed one faith, received one baptism, and shared one mission. In that sense, catholic meant "real" or "authentic."
From the third century on, the word became synonymous with orthodoxy. Thus, "the catholic church" was in contrast to heretics and schismatics. Ninety years after Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria wrote,
The one church is violently split up by the heretics into many sects. In essence, in idea, in origin, in preeminence we say that the ancient Catholic Church is the only church. This church brings together, by the will of the one God through the one Lord . . . those who were already appointed; whom God foreordained, knowing before the world's foundation that they would be righteous.
By the middle of the fourth century, the word came to mean more than authentic and orthodox. It was also used to connote the church's extensive reach to every land and every class of people. In his lectures to baptismal candidates around 350, Cyril of Jerusalem said that the church
is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.
In 381 at the Council of Constantinople, the original Nicene Creed was altered to describe the church as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." By the next century, the word catholic was inserted into the Apostles' Creed. And by the 11th century—when the Eastern and Western churches split—Eastern writers preferred the description "orthodox," while those in the West preferred "catholic," though both meant essentially the same thing.
So from the early church until the modern period, the word catholic has been used to distinguish the church from that which is irregular or erroneous, much like conservative American Christians use evangelical in opposition to cult.
While the term catholic never appears in the Bible, the ideas behind it are found throughout Scripture. For example, Paul says in Galatians that anyone—no matter who they are, where they live, or what time period they live in—can have a relationship with God, so long as they have faith in Christ:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (3:26–28)
And in Ephesians, Paul practically gives a theological treatise on the universal nature of the church: "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (3:6).
According to Scripture, the church is a universal entity, and anyone can be a part of it.
A Challenging Blessing
The universal nature of the church is one of the great blessings of the gospel. The Bible gives us a grand picture of what the church is—and what, on this side of the coming kingdom, it should set its sights on. That said, the catholicity of the church cuts against four major problems we see in our churches today.
PROVINCIALISM. Our traditions are sometimes not as firmly rooted in the gospel itself as they should be. They often reflect the particulars of our own country, denomination, and personal preferences more than the spirit of Galatians 3:26–28.
The universal church is not called to entrust itself to the will of any one earthly pastor, whether in Rome or elsewhere. While the universal church exists in all cultures, it's limited to none. The gospel is displayed powerfully when Christians of different cultures all believe, preach, and embody the same gospel.
This is one reason traveling is beneficial. By visiting Christians in other regions and countries, we discover the many facets of Christian practice and thought. And one of the best ways to better understand your own culture is to live in another one. By doing so, you realize the things you've always assumed are not necessarily assumed by others. You're more prone to ask yourself questions like, "Is there a correct way or a right answer?" Sometimes there is, but many times there is not. By interacting with Christians from different cultures and traditions, we discover what the essence of our faith is and what merely a particular expression of it is.
SECTARIANISM. From a Congregational perspective like my own, denominations are in some ways very much like parachurch organizations—that is, they are specialized ministries. Even churches with a presbyterian or episcopal polity recognize that their distinctives are not always coextensive with other churches'. Since we all profess the same faith in the same Lord, the denominational lines that distinguish us from other Christians should never mark an ultimate separation.
Insofar as denominations do not breed an uncharitable and divisive spirit, and allow Christians to work for the kingdom, they can be helpful. But what unites us as Christians must always be valued more highly than the things that distinguish us.
RACISM. The universal nature of the true church seriously challenges the racial segregation we see in our churches. God forgive historically Caucasian congregations for any ways they have marginalized Christians of different skin colors. White Christians would do well to learn about the history of the African American church. In those first churches, black Christians were allowed to exercise leadership and make decisions. And from tiny financial means, they built great churches and denominations.
Nevertheless, our racially divided congregations only harm the church and its mission. So what can be done to better display the catholicity of the gospel?
The great Anglican preacher and theologian Charles Bridges gives us an excellent image: "The Church is the mirror that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe."
God, as Trinity, is unity in diversity: he is one God eternally existing as three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this perfect God is not white. He's not black. He's not of any skin color. As image bearers, all humans reflect our Creator God. And as the church, we image the unity of the Trinity, especially in our diversity.
We may need to divide for practical reasons such as language. But, as much as we can, let us not divide our churches for other cultural reasons. The gospel is powerfully displayed when unlikely groups of people—especially those who formerly showed animosity toward each other—are united together in love.
EXCLUSIVISM. It's appropriate and commendable that ministries focus on evangelizing or discipling one group of people—college students, businesspeople, mothers of young children, skateboarders, military personnel, and so on. By identifying with specific groups, Christians often can present the gospel in an accessible, relevant, and personal way. Many parachurch ministries do exactly that. But when an entire congregation focuses on one particular niche or group so that others are sidelined, the universality of the church is undermined. The gospel is for every kind of person, and our congregations should reflect that as best as they can.
To be sure, God in his sovereignty will use different congregations in different ways to accomplish his work. But we should never make our congregations more specifically focused than God wants them to be. The gospel is more greatly magnified when our churches strive to include the full range of people whom Christ saves by his mercy. Christ chooses the living stones who make up his church (1 Pet. 2:4–9). That's not our task.
Anytime and anywhere, anyone—regardless of ethnic identity or social status—can be forgiven of his or her sins by trusting in the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. That is the true catholic doctrine of the true catholic church.
Mark Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and coauthor of The Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (P&R Publishing), from which this article has been adapted.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.