God Has a Big Family—Part 2 “I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church”

Ephesians 4:1-6

May 30, 2004 | Ray Pritchard

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


Let’s begin at the most basic point. What does the word “church” mean? In the New Testament the word “church” translates the Greek word ekklesia, which itself comes from two other Greek words that mean “out of” and “to call.” When you put those two words together, you get ekklesia, which means “the assembly of those who have been called out of the world to follow Jesus Christ.” That definition tells us that church is about people. Strictly speaking, the church is the people who come together as believers in Jesus Christ. It’s not the building where they meet. It happens that our congregation meets in a sanctuary built by the Presbyterians in 1902. We constantly hear comments about the beauty of the stained glass, the curved wooden pews, and the magnificent stone arches. When you look at our building, you think, “That’s what a church should look like.” But you could take away the building and it wouldn’t harm the church at all. I know that because back in 1977, when we were in a much smaller building on Madison Street, our building burned down one Saturday night. Even though the sanctuary was nothing but smoldering ruins, the congregation met in a borrowed facility that morning. And even though we’re all very happy about the renovations we just completed, we understand what it really means. The new portico that we all enjoy so much—it’s just a new portico. It’s not the church. The renovated gym where the Upper Room Service meets—it’s just a renovated gym. It’s not the church.

The church is people. Sometimes the New Testament uses the word “church” to speak of all of God’s people around the world. We call that the “universal church.” More often the word “church” refers to a group of believers in a particular location—the local church. Both uses of the term are valid. The Christian church is both universal and local. It includes all true believers around the world, and the church also manifests itself in millions of local congregations around the world.

It is traditional to speak of four “marks” of the church. These four marks can be expressed as four key words. Two come directly from the Apostles’ Creed, and two come from the Nicene Creed. We need to consider all four to get a well-rounded picture of what we mean when we say, “I believe in … the church.”

I. The Church is One

Ephesians 4:4-6 uses the word “one” seven times to emphasize our fundamental unity as believers in Christ. There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father over us all. That seven-fold unity emphasizes the lasting truth that Christ is building one church—not two or three or 15, or 20 thousand, for that matter. The “one church” Christ is building consists of all true believers who have been born again through faith in Christ. They are “the church” regardless of their particular denominational affiliation.

This week a friend sent me an email asking me to address the question of Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes the question is put very bluntly: “Are there any Christians in the Catholic Church?” or “Can you be a Christian and a Roman Catholic?” On one level, it’s easy to criticize those questions as being essentially unkind and unfair. But on another level, the questions reflect the deep divisions (and ongoing animosity in some cases) between Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation. While it’s true that in recent years, the level of rhetoric has gone down, it’s also true that in many places around the world, the chasm between the two groups is deep and wide. And certainly some people on both sides have consigned everyone in the “other group” to the flames of hell. My answer to the question goes like this: When we finally stand before the Lord, he’s not going to ask us about our church affiliation. We won’t be asked, “Were you Baptist?” or “Were you Lutheran?” or “Were you Catholic?” or “Did you attend Calvary Memorial Church?” In that great day God will ask one and only one question: “What did you do with my Son, the Lord Jesus Christ?” Each person will render an account regarding how he or she responded to Jesus. Did you trust him? Did you believe in him? Did you receive him as Lord and Savior? Or did you reject him? Did you instead trust in your good works, your religion, your reputation, or your supposed merit to gain entrance into heaven? The only thing that will matter in that day is whether or not you trusted Christ as Savior.

I said last week, and I say it again this week, that there are profound differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics in many vital areas of Bible doctrine. We don’t simply disagree—we profoundly disagree on some issues of huge importance. It’s also true that we have large areas of agreement—on God, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection, the necessity of salvation, and so on. We truly do have a different view of the role of Mary, justification by faith alone, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the role of communion, and the place of the saints, to name a few key areas. I do not for a moment downplay the significance of these issues. They do matter—which is why we do not join with Catholic churches in joint worship services. It simply would not be appropriate to do so. But that does not mean we think there are no Christians in the Catholic Church. We think true saving faith should not be equated with church membership—ours or theirs.

There are genuine Christians in the Catholic Church.

There are genuine Christians in the Lutheran Church.

There are genuine Christians in the Episcopal Church.

There are genuine Christians in the Methodist Church.

There are genuine Christians in Calvary Memorial Church.

And there are unsaved church members in all those groups, I am sure. Some of them have been taught wrong doctrines. Others simply cling to religious tradition. Some inherit their faith without examining it. And some wrongly believe that being religious will open the doors of heaven.

I simply plead that we not judge people solely by the labels they wear. Let’s treat people as individuals and not simply as members of a group. God has his people in many surprising places. No doubt he has people in places we wouldn’t have them if we were God. But we’re not. That’s the bottom line for me. I am glad to extend Christian fellowship to all true believers in Christ—and at the same time I reserve the right to disagree with them over important issues. To say that the church is one means that the true church includes all true believers in Christ regardless of what labels they wear. And within that basic oneness there is plenty of room for doctrinal teaching and also for sincere disagreement. Unity doesn’t mean unanimity.

II. The Church is Holy

The word holy frightens many people because they connect it with a kind of arrogant religious hypocrisy. To say the church is holy can seem to mean “holier than thou.” That the church has sometimes fallen far short of God’s design cannot be disputed. And we all understand that Christians can sometimes be terribly hypocritical. But that’s not the heart of the matter. The word holy means “set apart for God.” Anything that belongs to God is holy by association with him. We call the Bible the Holy Bible because it comes from God and it belongs to him. The church is holy because the people are holy. And the people in the church are holy because they belong to God by virtue of their redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ. First Peter 2:9 says that believers are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and “a people belonging to God.” Those four phrases describe who we are simply by virtue of God’s grace. Those things became true of us by nothing other than God’s work in us. He saved us and then he declared us his chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation—all because we belong to him. But that doesn’t end the story. The verse also says God did this so that we may “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” That’s where holiness becomes practical. We the holy people of God are to live so that we bring glory to the Lord.

To be holy means to go against the tide because the tide is running in the wrong direction. It means to swim upstream because the stream is flowing into the foul pit of destruction. Holiness always involves rejecting the ways of darkness and walking in the light of the Lord. When the church is truly the church, it will be both salt and light in the world. Remember that salt is an irritant and a preservative. If the church doesn’t irritate the world, it isn’t doing its job. G. K. Chesterton put it this way, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” God calls us to “swim upstream” every day, and then he gives us the strength to do it.

III. The Church is Catholic

Some evangelicals are troubled by the word “catholic” because they think it has something to do with the Roman Catholic Church. Nothing could be further from the truth. Note that when we come to this phrase, the word “catholic” is always spelled with a small “c.” If it were “Catholic,” that would indeed refer to the Roman Catholic Church. But catholic with a small “c” simply means “universal.” When applied to the church, it means that the message of the gospel is for all people everywhere, in every generation and in every situation. We find this emphasis in many places in the New Testament. Mark 16:15 instructs us to preach the gospel to every nation. Jesus commands us to go and make disciples of every nation (Matthew 28:19). He said that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47). We are to be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). So on one hand, to be “catholic” means that we intend to preach the gospel by every means possible, to reach as many people as possible, in every place possible, so that by God’s grace we can win as many people as we possibly can to saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The church is to be “catholic” or universal in its outreach.

But the church is to be “catholic” in its makeup as well. We should expect and pray that our local congregations will in some small way reflect God’s heart for the whole world. Obviously this will happen more readily in an urban area like Chicago than in a small town in Kansas. I used to hear it said that the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning. That’s not true in many churches nowadays. As America becomes more and more diverse, we are seeing the results in our congregations. I marvel at what has happened at Calvary in the last few years. Some Sundays it seems as if we’ve become a veritable United Nations, with people coming from Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, China, India, Korea, Greece, Costa Rica, and dozens of other countries. I expect this trend to continue—and I welcome it.

Recently I ran across some amazing statistics. Did you know that in 1900, 80% of all Christians lived in North America and Europe? By 2000, things had shifted so dramatically that 60% of all Christians now live in South America, Africa and Asia. By 2050, non-Latino whites will make up only 20% of the Christian church worldwide. Already there are four times more Presbyterians in Korea than in the U.S. and there are more Anglicans in Africa than in Great Britain. In Scotland only 10% of church members go to church on any given Sunday while in the Philippines 70% of all church members go to church every week.

And so it goes around the world as the center of gravity moves from the U.S. and Europe to the southern hemisphere. This has huge and encouraging implications—and it portends growing conflicts with aggressive Islam in many parts of the world. In our generation we are seeing the Great Commission being fulfilled as a harvest of souls comes in from every tribe and nation and from every people group on earth.

IV. The Church is Apostolic

To be apostolic means that the church follows the faith preached by the apostles of Jesus. Acts 2:42 says that on the Day of Pentecost, the 3,000 new believers devoted themselves to “the apostles’ doctrine.” There are two ways to know if a church is truly apostolic—but only one is the right way. The Catholic Church speaks of “apostolic succession” as being a succession of human leaders starting with Peter and continuing across the years down to the present Pope—John Paul II. They believe that God has guarded the line of human leadership and that the “keys to the kingdom” have been passed down from one leader to another across the generations. The Bible says nothing about finding authority in a succession of human leaders. It’s not the apostles as men that we follow; we follow their doctrine. A church is apostolic to the extent that it follows the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament. All 27 books are part of the “apostles’ doctrine” that forms the foundation of our faith. When the Bible speaks of “the faith that was once entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), this is what it means. The true church adheres to the teaching laid down in the New Testament. It both keeps the faith and also gives it away to others.

What, then, is the church? If we take the basic meaning of ekklesia and add the meaning of these four words, we get something like this: The church is the …

1) Worldwide body of true believers in Jesus,

2) Who go against the flow of society,

3) Whose faith is based on the Bible, and

4) Who preach the gospel to every nation.

J. I. Packer calls the church the “supernatural society of God’s redeemed people.” I like that phrase because it reminds us that the church is not an organization like the Rotary Club or the 19th-Century Club. Because the church belongs to God, it is truly a supernatural society of those whose lives have been transformed by Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for us? Here are a few implications for us to consider.

A. We are part of something big—much bigger than us.

If we grasp even a tiny part of what God wants to do through the church, we will be cured forever of small vision, parochial thinking, and selfish churchianity. I find it liberating to remember that Calvary Memorial Church is not the center of the world. Sometimes I can get so tied up (or bogged down) in the details of church life that it can seem like this church is all that matters. But seen properly, we are but one tiny outpost in the great army of God that stretches around the world. We’ve got a part to play, but so does every other church in the world.

B. We need each other.

We’re all familiar with the image of fire as a symbol of God’s work in the world. When the Spirit comes in, he sets our hearts afire for the Lord. But even the brightest flame goes out eventually. But when the burning timbers are piled together, the flame grows brighter and brighter. God never intended you to live the Christian life alone. We were made to live together in unity with our brothers and sisters in the church. And I don’t simply mean the church universal. I mean the local church that meets on Sunday morning not far from where you live. Can you grow spiritually without the church? For a while perhaps—but not for a lifetime, and not in the way God intended. We need each other—for friendship, fellowship, discipleship, prayer, encouragement, support, worship, united outreach, and when necessary, for correction and redirection.

C. We need united action today.

Consider the current moral crisis in America. In just one year the supporters of same-sex marriage have made incredible strides. What would have seemed impossible 12 months ago has now come true—thousands of homosexual couples have gotten “married.” How could such a thing happen? There are many legitimate answers to that question, but here’s one to ponder: They proponents of same-sex marriage have been incredibly well-organized, and they have worked together to make gay marriage a reality. And where was the church while this was happening? Erwin Lutzer has a brand-new book called The Truth About Same-Sex Marriage. He titled Chapter 1, “While You Slept.” That reminds me of the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. After the farmer sowed the wheat, an enemy came in and sowed tares (weeds) while everyone was sleeping. That’s what has happened in America. While we slept, the homosexual lobby did its evil work.

After the service on Sunday, a friend from India told me a wonderful story. In the recent national elections in her home country, the ruling Hindu party lost control of the government. My friend said that churches across India banded together to pray for three days before the election. God answered from heaven, and now there is a government in place that is not hostile to Christianity. When Christians come together to work and worship and pray together, amazing answers come from God.

D. We need a worldwide focus.

The world is big, the needs are enormous, and the church is called to go into all the world and preach the gospel. No local church can do it alone. A truly “catholic” church has a heart for the nations of the world. Not along ago I ran across a church with a wonderful name—The Church of All Nations. What a truly beautiful, biblical, soul-stirring concept—a church with intentional focus on the nations of the world. In a deep sense, every church should be “the Church of All Nations.”

E. We need the church and the church needs us.

We are better and stronger when we find our place in the church, and the church is better and stronger when we are there. We sometimes speak of the church as a “fellowship of faith” and as a “community of believers.” But there can be no fellowship unless the “fellows” show up and meet together. And there can be no community unless we intentionally decide to “commune” with each other. The early church father Cyprian said, “He who has God for his father has the church for his mother.” While we might not put it that way, the statement contains great truth. It is through the church and in the church and by the church that the gospel comes to the world. And the church is the place where we learn and grow by rubbing shoulders with other believers and thereby learn to become devoted followers of Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the church is the place where our dreams are shattered—and that is a good thing. Everyone comes to church with a certain set of expectations. New believers often enter the church expecting to find a little bit of heaven on earth. We all think and hope and expect that our brothers and sisters in Christ will treat us better than the people of the world. And we all have certain ideas about music and worship and preaching and about what the church should do and how it should go forward. But sooner or later we discover that the saints are not always saintly, and the people of God are not always godly. Sometimes they can be cantankerous, mean-spirited, unkind, and sometimes downright cruel. The church—by that I mean the local church—routinely disappoints us. When that happens, our faith is shattered and sometimes our hope is destroyed. Once our false expectations are shattered on the hard rocks of reality, then (and only then) do we begin to experience the grace of God. It is only in the nitty-gritty of life together with all its disappointments and rude awakenings that we discover the Holy Spirit at work in us. In the church we are thrown together with some people with whom we’d never otherwise associate. And that’s a good thing because God uses those “angular people” to shape us into the image of Christ.

As Calvary moves forward into the future, I believe we should more and more become two things:

A community of love and

A beacon of truth.

Truth and love. Love and truth. If we can join those two things in our congregational life, we will see God’s hand of blessing and we will see ever-growing streams of people joining with us.

I’m a Churchman

As I come to the end of this message, I gladly reaffirm that I still believe in the church. I’m a “lifer” in the church. I was in the nursery, then I was a toddler, then I was a primary, then I was a junior, then I was an intermediate. I was a church baby, then a church boy, then a church teenager, and now I am a churchman. I’ve been to so many church services, I can’t begin to count them all. Plus I’ve been to prayer meetings, home meetings, small groups, Sunday School, and I’ve been to potluck suppers, church picnics, church hayrides, church swimming parties, church cantatas, church revivals, and church business meetings. I’ve been in the pulpit and in the pew, on both sides of the communion table, I’ve baptized and been baptized, and I’ve joined quite a few churches over the years.

I’ve seen the good and I’ve seen the bad. When the church is good, it is very good. When the church is bad, it can be very bad indeed.

And through it all, I still believe in God’s church—weak, fallible, and in need of much improvement. It still remains the best hope of the world. Where would the world be without the church? What if the disciples had failed? Or what if God had said, “You people have failed. I’m going to cancel the church altogether?” Think about a world without Christian missionaries, or Christian hospitals, sanitariums, rest homes, and Christian relief agencies. What if there were no Christian schools, colleges or universities? Imagine a world without the Bible or Christian music or the saving message of the gospel. As bad as the world is today, it would be immeasurably worse without the church of Jesus Christ. A world with no Christian influence would be a sad place indeed.

And where would Oak Park be without Calvary Memorial Church? We aren’t the only church in town. Other congregations also preach the gospel in our community and we thank God for their ministry. But what if our founders had not started this church 89 years ago? Or what if they had moved the church to some other town? Oak Park needs us even if some folks don’t appreciate our presence. We’re part of the salt and light this village needs.

We cannot turn away from the church.

We must believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

We must believe in the weak and fallible local church.

We cannot turn away because the church is imperfect. If we turn away from the church, we turn away from Jesus himself because the church is the body of Christ on earth.

Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV). It doesn’t always seem that way:

The church is divided and weak. But it will prevail.

Its leaders often fail. But the church will prevail.

Sometimes the services are dull. It doesn’t matter. The church will prevail.

The buildings may be empty, but that isn’t the whole story. The church will prevail. Not because of anything we say or do, but simply because Jesus said so. Individual churches wax and wane, pastors come and go, some churches fall prey to false doctrine, and leaders disappoint us. But God’s church will prevail. Jesus said it and his Word will not be broken.

In light of all this, what should we do?

Pray for the church!

Love the church!

Join the church!

Serve in the church!

Support the church!

Get involved in the church!

Make it better by being a part!

Don’t be a spectator! Join the team!

Why? Jesus is here! That ought to be reason enough.

I still believe in God’s church. What about you?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?