The Church is . . . Catholic

Greg Strand – December 1, 2015 2 Comments

The Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381) states “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

Many Evangelicals are afraid or bothered by referring to the church as catholic. When many hear the term, they immediately think of the Roman Catholic Church. Two correctives. First, that is inaccurate since the meaning of the term means universal. The church is universal. Second, the Roman Catholic Church is not universal, so it is a misnomer to refer to the church of Rome as catholic. In many ways, a good term has been coopted. There is no limited expression of the church that can rightly be referred to as universal.

So then, with this right understanding of the church being catholic, what does it mean to affirm that the church is catholic, viz. universal?

According to Cyril of Jerusalem, the church (Cf. Scott Swain, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ron Swanson, and the catholicity of the church)

is called Catholic . . . 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.

Let’s take a closer look at this extended statement by focusing on the four reasons given for why the church is referred to as catholic.

  • because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other;
  • 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;
  • because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned;
  • 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.

We corporately confess, profess and pray, ‘We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

We acknowledge this is true in principle. We pray it becomes true in practice, modeled after Jesus’ High Priestly prayer for the oneness of Christians in Christ (Jn. 17).

We will be learning and discussing some of these truths at our upcoming Theology Conference on The Doctrine of the Church. Please register and plan to join us!

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to The Church is . . . Catholic

  1. Dear Pastor Greg Strand: I was doing some research today on the concepts in the historic phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” and happened upon your article above. I thought I would write a comment here that expresses some of the difficulties I have come upon.

    Your article above alludes to the fact that the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church” was first composed by the Council of Constantinople in the year A.D. 381.

    I gather that you approve of and employ the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Doesn’t that mean, logically speaking, that you approve of the theology of the church held by the men who in A.D. 381 composed and approved of the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church”?

    In A.D. 381, bishops from all of the local congregations who mutually recognized each other as belonging to the one church came together for a council meeting, for the purpose of affirming true doctrine and denouncing false doctrine. Anyone who was not recognized as belonging to the one church were not even invited to the council. And following the council, anyone who refused to accept the teachings of the council were recognized by all the bishops and members of the one church as having been excommunicated from the one church.

    For the one church in A.D. 381, truth and unity went hand-in-hand. Anyone who refused to accept the complete package of essential truths of Jesus Christ held by the rest of the one church were declared to be no part whatsoever of Christ’s church. The phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church” was to used to publicly and definitely identify who was in Christ’s church and who was not in Christ’s church. The “one holy catholic and apostolic church” at that time was not merely an ideal, merely something to work toward. It was something definite that was defined by the Council of Constantinople, the Council of Nicea (325), the Council of Chalcedoln (451), and by other ecumenical councils.

    The purpose of these councils of all the bishops was to preserve the unity of the one church and to preserve the purity and completeness of the doctrine of the one church. In A.D. 381, preserving unity and preserving doctrine went hand-in-hand. Unity preserved true doctrine, and true doctrine preserved unity. The doctrine of the one true church unity was even a part of the one true doctrine. In A.D. 381 it was considered impossible that there could be a local Christian congregation that was independent of the authority of any of the ecumenical councils. In A.D. 381, any local congregation which refused to accept any teaching of any ecumenical council was simply regarded by everyone in the one church as no longer being any part of Christ’s church. They were cut off from the church of Christ and so also cut off from the vine of Christ. Nothing these excommunicated people said mattered, since they were not fellow Christians. They were unbelievers, right along with the pagans and Jews.

    In A.D. 381, true doctrine was not something to be sought, prayed for, and arrived at “someday.” The one church already possessed the true and complete doctrine (at least that’s what their doctrine said). Likewise, in A.D. 381, the unity of the church was not something to be sought, prayed for, and arrived at “someday.” The one church already possessed true and complete unity (at least that’s what their doctrine said).

    Again, the purpose of calling and holding the Council of Constantinople was for the bishops of the one church to publicly define, defend, and enforce the boundaries of doctrine and the boundaries of the membership of the one church.

    Now, let us fast forward in time from A.D. 381 to A.D. 2015.

    Is there any one church on the earth today which could send representatives from all of its local congregations to a council meeting in one place at one time, and at that council meeting define, defend, and enforce in an authoritative way the boundaries of doctrine in such a way that anyone refusing to accept this council’s decrees on doctrine would be authoritatively and rightly declared to be excommunicated from Christ’s one church?

    I think that the answer to that would be “no” from you and all pastors of the Evangelical Free Church of America.

    Your state your position about the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” this way: “We acknowledge this is true in principle. We pray it becomes true in practice, modeled after Jesus’ High Priestly prayer for the oneness of Christians in Christ (Jn. 17).”

    Well, why is it the case that in the present time Christ’s church possesses its true and complete unity only in principle and not in practice? What grounds have you for asserting that it is even possible for Christ’s church to possesses its true and complete unity in principle but not possess it in practice?

    Would you say that you acknowledge that an adultery-committing wife has marital fidelity in principle, and that the church and this wife’s husband should just pray that this wife’s marital fidelity becomes true in practice someday in the future?

    Would you ever claim that Christ’s church possesses Christ’s true and complete doctrine in principle but does not possess it in practice?

    Pastor Strand, you seem to take the position that the true and complete unity of the church is something to be sought, prayed for, and arrived in at “someday.”

    But would you and your fellow pastors in the EFCA ever take the position that the true and complete doctrine of Jesus Christ is something to be sought, prayed for, and arrived in at “someday”?

    My point is that your position on church unity would have been condemned by the members of the one church of Christ who met at the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

    Yet, ironically (or paradoxically?), you quote with approval the famous phrase composed and decreed by the members of the one church of Christ who met Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381: “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

    Don’t you agree that the members of the one church of Christ who met Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 would have excommunicated you from the one church for your view that the one church could function for a long period of time (hundreds or thousands of years) in possession of unity in principle only and not in practice?

    The members of the one church of Christ who met Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 met for the very purpose of preserving the unity of the one church–and they did preserve it right then and there, or shortly thereafter (not “someday”). Anyone who refused to accept the creed and doctrinal decrees of the Council of Constantinople were immediately recognized by all the members of the one church as having been excommunicated from the one church. Ecumenical councils and excommunication were the tools used in those days to preserve church unity (and doctrine). These tools were used in the New Testament era too, as seen in the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15. Strangely, these tools are not used by the church today. I wonder why that is.

    Pastor Strand, how do you explain or account for the fact that in the present time Christ’s church possesses true unity only in principle but not in practice, whereas in A.D. 381 (and for some time thereafter) Christ’s church possessed true unity in practice? This is not a rhetorical question. I really wonder what your answer is.

    Also, according to your theory, when did the one church of Christ begin to possess in principle only the unity that it had previously possessed in practice? In A.D. 1054? In A.D. 1517? Sometime earlier or later?

    Or is it your theory that (despite what the Christians at the Council of Constantinople thought) the one church of Christ has never really had oneness in practice, but only in principle only? But if that is your view, then wouldn’t it logically follow that the bishops who met at the Council of Constantinople had no right or authority to excommunicate from the one church anyone who refused to accept the creed and decrees of the Council of Constantinople? Shouldn’t they instead have followed the pattern that you follow, which is to merely pray that the various disunited and disagreeing local churches would, at some point in the future, somehow come to possess in practice the unity that the one church (supposedly) already possesses in principle?

    The bottom line for me is this: Were the bishops of the one world-wide church of A.D. 381 wrong in believing that there was only one church and that all members of the one church are in full agreement on essential doctrine and are in full communion with each other (the Lord’s Supper at all local churches being open to any member from anywhere of this one church), and that before A.D. 381 there had always been only one such church, and that until the end of this age there would always be only one such church, and that any local congregation or individual Christian who was declared by a bishop or by a council of bishops to be separated from this one church was no longer in Christ at all?

    (P.S.: I am not a “troll”–at least not in my mind. I really am seeking more light on this issue. I have been studying the concepts in the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” and have mainly seen a mass of doctrinal incoherency.)

    • Thank you for reading this post. Your comment is thoughtful and lengthy. There are many responses that could be made, but I refrain. Rather, I point you to this brief commentary on John 17 by D. A. Carson regarding Jesus’ high priestly prayer for unity and oneness. Additionally, there are four posts forthcoming addressing each of the four descriptions of the church. Once those are published you can read my further thoughts.

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