God Has a Big Family—Part 1 “I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church”

Matthew 16:18

May 23, 2004 | Ray Pritchard

Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV).


The Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in the holy catholic church.”

People say, “I like Jesus, but I don’t care for the church.” “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in the church.” “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious so I don’t go to church.” “The church is full of hypocrites.” “I can worship God on the golf course. That’s my church.” “I believe in my own way. I don’t need to go to church and have someone tell me what to believe.” “The church is just after my money.” “I hate the organized church.”

Then we have our problems with this part of the Apostles’ Creed. Some of us stumble over the “c” word. If we are a Protestant church, why do we say we believe in the “catholic” church? There is something about that phrase that makes us feel vaguely uncomfortable, as if we’re doing something wrong if we say the Creed that way. Maybe we think we’re secretly (or not so secretly) saying the Catholic Church is right—or something like that. Since I started this sermon series, I have gotten many comments and questions from people who told me they wanted to hear what I had to say in this sermon because this particular phrase bothers them. Why do we say it and what does it mean?

To help us get the proper focus, let’s begin with the word “church.” When we move from the English back to the original Greek, we encounter the word ekklesia. That Greek word is almost always translated by the word “church.” When you break it down, you discover that ekklesia comes from two other Greek words: ek, meaning “out of” and the verb kaleo, meaning “to call.” When you put those concepts together, you get ekklesia, the assembly of those called out of the world and into the family of God. Think of an enormous circle that includes everyone living on the face of the earth. That circle encompasses over six billion people. Now draw a smaller (and still substantial) circle within the larger circle. That smaller circle (of approximately two billion professing Christians) represents the church. The word church refers to those people who have been called out of the world by God to join together as followers of Jesus Christ. So a church is a “called-out assembly of believers.” That definition helps enormously because it tells us several key facts:

1. The Church is not the building. That’s a common mistake. We say, “Meet me at the church,” but we’re really talking about the building. Our church building is a wonderful example. It was designed by W.G. Williamson in 1902 for the First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park. It is so beautiful that it is mentioned in the Chicago Magazine Guide to Chicago as one of the noteworthy churches of Oak Park and River Forest. But no matter how lovely it is, this building is not the church and can never be the church. Although it is built of stone, the stones are dead, and the church Jesus is building is made of living stones (1 Peter 2:5). The word “church” in the New Testament never refers to a building. It always refers to people.

2. The church is not a denomination. Sometimes we speak of the Methodist Church or the Lutheran Church or the Catholic Church or the Episcopal Church. That’s a valid use of the English word “church,” but it’s not a meaning found in the New Testament. Denominations are manmade organizations that allow groups of churches to work together. It’s not a bad concept, and it’s not wrong to be part of a denomination—but the New Testament doesn’t use the word church in this particular way.

These are helpful distinctions when you think about the religious confusion in America. There are approximately 400,000 local churches in the United States—and over 7,000 in Chicago alone. No one really knows how many churches there are in Chicago because we have so many house churches and storefront churches. A quick survey of Oak Park, a small village of two miles by four files, reveals that we have over 55 churches. I say “over 55” because the number might be quite a bit higher.

With that as background, we come to this phrase of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the holy catholic church.” The very wording makes you stop and think. Up until this point, everything in the Creed has been either invisible or distantly historical. When the Creed mentions “God the Father Almighty,” we understand that we cannot see God in his essence. He is hidden from our eyes. The same goes for the Holy Spirit. When we speak of Jesus Christ, we proclaim our belief in a Person who last walked on the earth 20 centuries ago. The Creed so far has led us to confess our faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But now we make a sharp right turn when we say, “I believe in … the church.” Forget the “holy catholic” part for a moment. After so many exalted phrases, it almost jars the ear to say, “I believe in the church.” With these words the Creed plunges us deep into the nitty-gritty of life in the 21st century. Now we’re being asked to affirm our faith in the church—an institution that all too often seems unworthy of our trust. The historical record is checkered at best. Critics like to point out that many of history’s bloodiest wars took place because of religion—often men killed each other mercilessly in the name of Jesus Christ. Cardinal Francis George commented that sometimes the church has looked more like a mob than a holy family of God. In our day we have seen respected Christian leaders fall prey to immorality and greed. The sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic priesthood has tarnished the church (I mean the church as an institution—not just the Roman Catholic Church) in the eyes of many people—believers and unbelievers alike. There was a day when society looked to the churches to provide moral and spiritual leadership. That day (for better or worse) is long gone.

Perhaps you remember folding your hands together, with your finger interlaced downward and saying, “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.” That’s the problem and the challenge and the blessing and the hope of the church—”all the people.” People! If we didn’t have to deal with people, church would be a breeze. But inside every church you find …

Difficult people,

Contentious people,

Mean-spirited people,

Greedy people,

Unreasonable people,

Unkind people,

Thoughtless people,

Critical people,

Angry people,

Cantankerous people.

When I gave this list on Sunday morning, I heard several people say, “Amen” and “That’s right, preacher.” If you doubt that these people exist in the church, just take a good look in the mirror. We’re all sinners in need of God’s grace. As I’ve told you before, if we knew the naked truth about every other person in the church, and they knew the naked truth about us, we’d all run screaming from the sanctuary.

The problem of the church is the problem of the people. One writer said it this way:

To live up above with the saints that we love, that will be glory.

But to live down below with the saints that we know, that’s another story.

But if people are the problem, they are also the hope of the church. Take away the people and there would be no church left. So the Creed challenges us to set aside our misconceptions and our frustrations and say, “I truly do believe in the church.” We need to say that just as much as we need to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” We need to affirm that the church exists because of God, that this all-too-human institution that fails too often because it is full of fallible human beings is still worth believing in because God is involved. He started it, it belongs to him, and if we are in the church, we belong to him too. These are amazing and even countercultural assertions—but they are also entirely biblical. I know that many people have become skeptical and even cynical about the church. Some people have been deeply hurt by thoughtless and even cruel church members. But we must not let the foolish acts of others keep us from saying what Christians have said across the centuries: “I believe in the church.”

Four key words have historically been used to describe the church. Two of them come directly from the Apostles’ Creed, The other two come from the Nicene Creed. In this sermon we’re going to consider the first of those words. We’ll look at the other key words next Sunday.

The Church is One

The first key word is one—the church is one. When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” he used the singular, not the plural—”churches.” Jesus promised to build one church and one church only. There is only one true ekklesia—the assembly of those who have been called out of the world to follow Christ. The oneness of the church is the basis for true Christian unity. Or to say it negatively, without that oneness, unity would be impossible. Paul explains the basis of our unity in Christ by using the word “one” seven times in Ephesians 4:4-6. “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

One Body

One Spirit

One Hope

One Lord

One Faith

One Baptism

One Father

The church is one because it is built on Jesus Christ: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Samuel Stone said it well in his famous hymn:

The Church’s one foundation

Is Jesus Christ her Lord,

She is His new creation

By water and the Word.

From heaven He came and sought her

To be His holy bride;

With His own blood He bought her

And for her life He died.

Elect from every nation,

Yet one o’er all the earth;

Her charter of salvation,

One Lord, one faith, one birth;

One holy Name she blesses,

Partakes one holy food,

And to one hope she presses,

With every grace endued.

Before we go forward, we need to be perfectly clear about this. There is only one church because we have one Lord—not two. No matter what we may think about the incredible religious confusion of our day—that confusion does not come from God. The church is one because Christ is one.

The great biblical doctrine of the unity of the church flows from this truth. When Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that “all of them may be one,” he was asking for believers to demonstrate on the earth the perfect unity that exists in heaven between the Father and the Son. Sometimes I hear people talk about “creating” unity in the church. But we are never told to “create” unity; God has already done that in Christ. We are to “maintain” and “keep” the unity God has already created among all true believers. This is a doctrine that is easier to talk about in theory than it is to work out in practice.

“Catholic Joe”

As I thought about the oneness of the church, “Catholic Joe” popped into my mind. His real name is Joe Nast, but on staff we call him “Catholic Joe.” Joe is an old and dear friend who has been around Calvary since the day I arrived. Joe is in his late 70s now or his early 80s (that’s just a guess. He might be older than that.) and his health is not good, but when he was able to get out and about, I would often come to church and find a packet of material Joe had collected on his visits to various churches. In my early days at Calvary, when we still had Sunday night services, Joe would come to hear me teach the Bible. He often told me I was his favorite Protestant pastor. In the fall of 1989, just weeks after coming to Calvary, I was teaching the Old Testament Walk-Thru. Joe came to hear me almost every Sunday night. I still remember the first time I met him. Without much introduction, he walked up and handed me a piece of paper with some questions written on it. I still remember the very first question. It went something like this: “Jesus said, ‘I will build my church.’ But the Protestants are divided into 20,000 different denominations and sects. How could they be the church Jesus was building when there is only one Roman Catholic Church?” I’m smiling as I write this because that was my introduction to Joe Nast. Over the years we have had many discussions. We eventually became very good friends, and I learned a great deal about the Catholic Church from Joe’s patient tutelage. In recent years (until he was too weak) Joe often came to Calvary on Sunday morning, and even went with our Golden Heirs seniors group on their trips. I’ve got to confess that Joe’s question stumped me when I first read it. Now that I’m older and a bit wiser (or at least more experienced), I think I would answer it this way: Though the Catholic Church seems like one church, it’s really more like a huge umbrella that covers many groups and factions, that in many cases have little to do with each other. You’ve got the Mel Gibson, ultraconservative, Latin Mass Catholics on one end of the spectrum. On the other end you’ve got Liberation Theologians and eventually you get to people like Father John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University who is so liberal that he apparently doesn’t believe in the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. In many ways the Catholics seem as badly divided as the Protestants. Certainly there is a huge divide between conservative and liberal Catholics that amounts to a war for the heart and soul of their church.

But I don’t want to leave the matter there. As Joe pointed out, quite correctly I should add, Protestants are indeed divided into many groups. In response to those divisions, the mainline denominations have attempted to come together through the ecumenical movement. This desire to merge the various churches came from a noble impulse—”Let’s put aside our differences and form one large church.” After 40 years of talk, the movement has very little to show for itself. The major result has been to almost totally de-emphasize Bible doctrine. How else will you get the Baptists and the Lutherans and the Episcopalians and the Methodists to worship together in the same church? This de-emphasis on doctrine led to a “lowest common denominator” approach to belief. And that led to more and more people coming together who believe in less and less until everyone believes in nothing at all. That’s how you get gay pastors. You just keep stripping away the truth until virtually nothing is left. But when everything is up for grabs, no one can tell right from wrong, and why not have gay pastors?

The Most Fragmented City in America

But that’s not the end of the story either. I only mentioned the Catholics and the mainline Protestants so I could say something about the evangelicals. That would be us—conservative, Bible-believing Christians. We have our own set of problems. We say we like to work together, and we say we believe in unity, and we say that we want to pray together, and we say it’s a good thing when churches unite their resources to do something great for the Kingdom of God. But we say that sort of thing more often than we actually do it. I believe Chicago is the most fragmented major city in America. We are divided racially, economically, ethnically, geographically, and in many ways, we are divided spiritually. Bringing the body of Christ together in Chicago is a Herculean task. We learned this the hard way during the Luis Palau campaign in 1996. After forming a coalition of nearly 2,000 churches, and after spending almost $2 million, and after working and planning and praying for five years, the campaign itself was an almost total failure. Although it was meant to shake the city, Chicago barely knew Luis Palau was here. I say this notwithstanding the fact that many good things happened and many people came to Christ. But the event fell far short of expectations. Looking back, I believe the campaign failed because the churches simply could not or would not work together.

My real point here is not to point fingers at the Catholics, the Orthodox, the Protestants, or at my evangelical friends. We all have our problems. How should we view the oneness of the church in light of the enormous divisions in Christendom? The best way is to understand that despite our differences, we still have a great deal in common. We share a common faith in the Bible as the Word of God, in the doctrine of the Trinity, in the Virgin Birth, in the death of Christ for our sins, and in his resurrection from the dead. To say that is not to deny or downplay serious differences that exist between evangelicals and Roman Catholics on a variety of important issues. It is not a compromise to note the areas of common faith even while upholding our distinctive doctrines. We should be glad when we find others who share our faith at certain points—even while we insist on the great truth of justification by faith alone handed down to us first from the Reformers—and ultimately from the New Testament.

So when we say the church is one, what church are we talking about? We mean the church in the New Testament sense–the assembly of those who have been called out of the world to follow Jesus Christ. Those who truly believe in him are truly members of the church, regardless of their denominational affiliation. We extend Christian fellowship to all true believers everywhere because we are fellow members of the family of God by faith in Jesus Christ. Not everyone who joins a church—any church—is born again. Many people just go through the religious motions. Some never clearly understand the gospel. Others prefer a religion of good works instead of the gospel of grace. There are unsaved church members in every church and every denomination. But the Lord knows his own sheep. He calls them by name, they hear his voice, and they follow him (John 10:27). The Lord knows his own (2 Timothy 2:19). He is building his church one person at a time as men and women leave the world and begin to follow him. That church—the full number of true believers—a number known only to God—is the “one church” Jesus has been building for 2,000 years.

All of us are concerned about the growing rejection of Christian values in our society. We seem to be on a self-propelled descent into the pit of cultural anarchy. But in the pressure of these days, Christians have begun to realize that we can disagree over secondary matters as long as we stand together on the essentials of the faith. Perhaps we will return to being “Christians first” and everything else second.

Christians first—and Lutherans second.

Christians first—and Baptists second.

Christians first—and Methodists second.

Christians first—and Calvary Memorial Church second.

Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” God has a big family—and if you know Jesus, if you have trusted him as your Lord and Savior—you are part of that family. There is much more I will say about the church in the next sermon, but this is where we must begin. The church is one because Jesus is the foundation. If you are built on that foundation, you are part of the one true church. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?