(Note: After receiving some feedback and engaging in a couple of conversations, which prompted me to prayer and meditation, I have decided to revise this entry. I’ve made this decision for a couple of reasons. First, I think my original entry did a bad job of explaining “the Church” so I’ve taken some more time to expound on what that idea means. Second, I think it did a good job of alienating people. With text, things like tone and body language are stripped from a message and it can be easily misunderstood as too harsh. These two factors combined to create a message that I believe was largely misunderstood. Finally, and most important, this is something that I take very seriously (James 3:1) and I hope this revised message will give glory to God and encourage His Church.)
(This is part fourteen of a multi-entry blog series exploring the Apostles’ Creed.)
I think this may be the most widely misunderstood line of the Apostles’ Creed. What does it mean to say…
“I believe in the holy catholic church.”
How many sermons have you heard on ecclesiology? Yeah, zero, right? That’s because many Christians, pastors included, take for granted the doctrine of the Church. Did you notice that I just used a big-C when I said Church? That’s the focus of this entry: the difference between a church and the Church.
The best definition I’ve heard for “the Church” comes from Wayne Grudem‘s Systematic Theology. He defines “the Church” as “the community of all true believers for all time.” A church is a building; the Church is an eternal group of believers. A church is built out of brick and mortar by the hands of men; the Church is an eternal community built by God. Therefore, there is the visible church (a building) and the invisible church (an eternal community); a church and the Church. To miss the distinction here is to miss the entire point of this entry and what this line is all about. Also, when we talk about the “holy catholic church,” the word catholic simply means “universal”. So in this line, we’re talking about the community of all true believers for all time; this is the universal church (however, this is not universalism).
That’s why, in this line, we also use the word “holy” to describe the Church; the Church is holy because it is not a work of man, but a work of God. So what about the horrible things that have happened in the name of God over the centuries? For example, what about the Crusades? In the Crusades their mantra was Deus vult or “God wills it!” Here’s the interesting part about using any of those historical examples; everyone knows on some level that the Crusades go against what the Bible teaches, right? We all know God’s desire for “the Church” does not match the actions of the Crusaders. At some level, we all have an idea of how the Church should look and how it does look. And we all know the Crusades are irreconcilable to Scripture, right? (And on a more personal level, we all have an idea of how our own personal conduct should look and how it does look.) This goes back to the visible church versus the invisible Church; which one was responsible for the Crusades? Were the Crusades a semi-political cause that was the fruit of widespread corruption within a visible, man-made institution? Or were the Crusades the will of God as His will was done on earth through His invisible Church? One consistent pattern throughout all Scriptures and all human history is that, when people get involved, things go wrong. Because of the taint of sin and because all of creation, including us, is subject to physical and moral decay (Romans 8:21) we need the Church. The need visible churches to fulfill their mission as the invisible Church. And, within the pews and seats of those churches, we need Christians to live their lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). We live in a world that desperately needs “the Church.”
This brings us to a largely forgotten and likely unappealing Latin phrase: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus! In English, this means “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Notice it’s “the Church”? That’s what this phrase refers to! So why do I bring that up? Hang in there with me!
Have you ever met someone who says something like…
“Oh yeah, I believe in God just not organized religion!”
“I don’t need to go to some building for God.”
“I don’t trust institutions.”
“I have my own little church-like experience without going to a building.”
Well, if you hear someone say that, they’re revealing a deep ignorance of or apathy towards the Scripture. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I’m just calling a spade a spade! Being connected to the Church, not the building but the true community of believers, is a fruit of being connected to God. People who say they connect with God by themselves are just making excuses for not being involved in a community of Christians; it’s that simple. How can you love God if you don’t love God’s people? First John 4:21 says that if we love God we will love our brother. Who is our brother? Our brother is our brother in Christ. Thus, if we do not love our brother in Christ, we prove do not love Christ (1 John 4:20).
For example, in John 10:14-15 Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd.” What does He lay His life down for? The flock! Sheep travel in flocks. In Acts 2:42, the newly baptized Christians devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were devoted to the fellowship, not to themselves. True Christianity is not a solitary practice but something done within the context of community. In 1 Peter 2:4, the author describes the members of that church as “living stones” that are being built into “a spiritual house.” One brick by itself does not have a purpose; bricks are made to be used together. Peter continues by describing that church (and subsequently all Christians) as “a chose race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people…” (1 Pet 2:9). The context here is very clearly a community; not individual people who never get together. Proverbs 12:17 says that “iron sharpens iron;” it doesn’t say that iron sharpens itself. We need one another to encourage and build one another up, to challenge one another, and to call one another out when we need to repent.
People who share common interests will gather. People who love to run run will form running clubs and will participate in races; people who love to swim will join swimming teams and attend swim meets; people who love to shoot guns (and want to protect the 2nd Amendment) will join the NRA and go to a shooting range; and perhaps the most notorious, people who believe in a political cause will gather together with hopes of enacting some type of change. (Before you argue that people can run, swim, or shoot guns by themselves, please take a minute to consider if you can baptize yourself or take Communion by yourself.) At the very least, people who share common interests will find one another and become friends; unless, of course, your single greatest passion is being alone! People who are passionately in love with God, desire to learn more about His Word, and hope to do His will in this dark, broken world will gather. They will feel compelled to find one another. It’s inevitable! If you love God, then you will want to participate in God’s mission. Guess where that is? The Church! God’s agent in this world is the Church. Thus, if you love God you will want to be involved in God’s Church so as to be part of God’s work in this world. Simple, right?
Let’s look elsewhere at Hebrews 10:24-25, shall we? How can we claim to be connected to the Head (Christ) if we are not connected to the Body (the Church)? Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation, said this about the Church:
Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.
The idea of a personal connection to God outside of the context of a community is, in the grand scheme of things, a very new concept. While we are individually connected to God through Christ, we become part of a body; no man is an island. It’s the result of post-Enlightenment thinking and its resultant individualism; two ideas that permeate Western thinking and the mentality of Americans. Be careful of those who claim to be connected to God, but not connected to God’s Church.
However, for those who are members of God’s Body, there is a beautiful connection, which is what we’ll be looking at in the next line of the Apostles’ Creed, so don’t touch that dial!