I believe in… the holy catholic Church. – The Apostles’ Creed
Without fail, just about every time we recite The Apostles’ Creed at our campus, someone finds me afterwards and asks, “We aren’t a Catholic church, are we? Then why do we say that ‘we believe in the holy catholic Church’?”
This is a great question, and its answer has many implications for how we think about diversity, evangelism, and the global Church’s mission that most people don’t consider.
Questioning why we would confess the Church as catholic is really understandable, especially considering the word “catholic” in our culture is so deeply connected to the Roman Catholic Church. This is not what we mean, or what the original Christians who recited the creed were intending, when the Church is affirmed as being catholic. While there is so much to appreciate and admire about the rich history and traditions of the Roman Catholic expression of the Christian faith, there are significant differing convictions between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, to which Christ Community as an Evangelical Free Church belongs.
What Catholic Means
The simplest way to understand what catholic means in the Apostles’ Creed (and many of the other early Christian creeds) is to substitute the word universal for catholic. Affirming the Church as catholic means recognizing the universal nature of Jesus’ Church that comprises all believers in all times and places. Cyril of Alexandria, an influential pastor and theologian in the early Church who lived from 313-386 AD, says in his Lenten Lectures explaining the creed that “The Church is called catholic (or universal) because it has spread throughout the entire world, from one end of the earth to the other.” Catholicity affirms that what God is doing in the world through his Church isn’t limited to one local church but includes what he is doing through all the various local churches throughout the world and history.
This historic, orthodox affirmation goes beyond just affirming this fact, and has much relevance for believers today.
Catholicity and Diversity
A helpful way to understand what a particular theological belief affirms is also to think about what it denies. Confessing the Church as catholic denies that the Church is only for a certain kind or group of people. Again, Cyril says, “[the Church is also catholic] because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of [humankind], governors and governed, learned and unlearned.” For Cyril, part of denying catholicity would be to think that the Church is only for rich, influential people, or only for poor, marginalized people.
One of the most beautiful things about Christianity in comparison to other religions is its capacity to translate and incarnate its message into new cultural settings. If you go to any mosque in the world, you will find the Imam leading the service in Arabic and then translating portions into a local language. While there is a richness to knowing the original Greek and Hebrew languages of Scripture, you would be hard pressed to find a single Christian congregation requiring those languages to be used in a service each Sunday. The tragedy of white segregationist churches in our country’s past, and the consequences of that we still experience today, is that it was a failure to live out the historic, orthodox belief in the Church’s catholicity in favor of the heresy of white supremacy.
While the myth of Christianity being a white, Western religion persists, it remains a myth that isn’t supported by current statistics or expected trends into the future. Phillip Jenkins (no relation to me), in The Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity, estimates that by 2050, less than one fifth of the world’s three billion Christians would be non-hispanic whites.
Catholicity and Evangelism
Affirming the catholicity of the Church goes beyond appreciation of diversity; it has a lot to say about the nature and necessity of evangelism. Both of these have been undermined in our day by religious pluralism, whether you subscribe to this view or are unconsciously influenced by it because of our surrounding society. Pluralism views each religion as each individual culture’s experience of the divine, and that God is too large to be contained by any one system of belief and practice. Pluralism holds that since each religion contributes a different culturally conditioned view, then all of them are more or less equally valid. Thus, Christianity is the experience of God in Western culture, Islam among Arabs, Buddhism in East Asian culture, Hinduism in South Asia, and other indigenous religions in their particular culture. The pluralist feels that sharing your belief in Jesus with another person with the goal of them also choosing to follow Jesus is forcing your culture onto another.
This pluralistic view of religions does not take the claims of orthodox Christianity seriously, especially with regards to the catholicity of the church. Effectively, it is no longer “I believe in the catholic (universal) Church,” but rather “I believe in the white, Western Church” or “the Church for those who are already Christian.” Beyond not taking orthodox theology seriously, this view also doesn’t respect and honor the experience of billions of Christians who have committed their lives to a faith that didn’t originate in their own culture. Against this, Cyril writes that,
Again, [the Church] is called catholic because it teaches fully and unfailingly all the doctrines which ought to be brought to [people’s] knowledge, whether concerned with visible or invisible things, with the realities of heaven or the things of earth…. Finally, it deserves the title catholic because it heals and cures unrestrictedly every type of sin that can be committed in soul or in body, and because it possesses within itself every kind of virtue that can be named, whether exercised in actions or in words or in some kind of spiritual gift.
For Cyril, the Church is catholic because it has the universal cure, that is, the gospel message about Jesus, to the universal problem of sin plaguing humanity, and every human being ought to believe the good news about Jesus to access this cure. This is what the earliest Christians believed and why they were motivated to take the gospel beyond Jews to Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians, Scythians, Barbarians, and all other kinds of people.
Do You Believe in the Catholic Church?
It is one thing to say the creed along with others when you gather with other believers, but a totally different thing to demonstrate your belief in that affirmation through your actions.
Does your attitude toward Christians of other backgrounds demonstrate that you believe in just the “Western Church”? Or, does your belief in the catholic Church lead you to recognize, celebrate, and learn from biblically faithful expressions of following Jesus in other cultures?
Are you hesitant to share your faith with others, or even look down on Christians who do share because it reflects an “insensitive and outdated” cultural perspective? Do you regularly pray about and look for natural ways to share about the hope you have in Jesus with others who have a different background?
May the God of all people in all places and at all times help us recognize and embody his love that does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance and belonging among his people, the Church (2 Peter 3:9).
- Cyril, “Lenten Lectures (Catecheses)”. Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310118.htm>
- Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom : The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford University Press 2002.