In the Nicene Creed we confess that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
Of these four marks, the third mark–the catholicity of the church–is probably the most susceptible to misunderstanding among evangelical Protestants.
The catholicity of the church, according to common Protestant confession, concerns the “universality” of the church. Under the authority and blessing of her risen Messiah, the church is commanded to make disciples of “all nations” through Word and sacrament (Matt 28.18-20) so that a chorus composed of every tribe, tongue, and nation may with one voice offer praise to God and to the Lamb (Rev 5.9-10).
But the catholicity of the church is about more than just the multi-national nature of its membership. The catholicity of the church also refers to the “wholeness” of its doctrine and virtue. According to Cyril of Jerusalem, 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.
The church “teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge.” The church “treats and heals the whole class of sins.” And the church “possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named . . . and every kind of spiritual gifts.” In other words, the church teaches “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20.27) in order that, through its teaching, Jesus Christ might redeem and renew the whole human person according to the image of God. In doing so, the church fulfills its catholic identity.
The church is called to catholicity in membership and in maturity. Both aspects of catholicity honor the supreme and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ. Both aspects of catholicity are essential to the church’s well-being (see Eph 2.11-22; 4.11-16).
In recent days we have become increasingly alert to the church’s failure to pursue and realize the universal nature of its membership. In seeking to address this failure, let us also seek to address our failure to pursue and realize the fullness of Christian doctrinal and moral teaching in our ministries. The two failures, after all, are often related. Whether it be “attractional churches” or “radical grace churches,” both are especially suited to the sensibilities of old white guys.
“There’s one more thing I hate more than lying and that’s skim milk, which is water that’s lying about being milk.” Ron Swanson’s attitude toward skim milk should be our attitude toward skim milk Christianity. We confess the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church. Let’s not be content with our failures to realize either the universality or the wholeness of the church’s identity. And let’s pray that the Lord of the church will grant us grace, under his Word and by his Spirit, to realize the promise of the church’s identity as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”
This article first appeared on Reformation 21