The Holy Catholic Church

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1–6, ESV

For years as a pastor, I encouraged the use of the Apostles’ Creed in worship. The Creed is one of the ways to unite the Church. Frequently, people would object to this one line. For clarity, the Roman Catholic Church is not the Holy Catholic Church. As you can see in the passage above, from the very beginning, there was a knowledge that there is only one Church, one Body, one Faith, etc. All of the New Testament writers observed many local assemblies. Nevertheless, these congregations were all a part of the Holy Catholic Church.

The word “catholic” means, “1 universal; relating to all men; all-inclusive. 2 comprehensive in interests, tastes, etc.” (Collins English Dictionary, 2000.) When applied to the church, catholic recognizes the whole Church consisting of all who are justified by faith throughout all of the world and all of time. The Roman Catholic Church was originally just the catholic church. However, the more powerful it grew and the more humanistic it became, eventually the term catholic was used opposite its meaning. Rather than being one church in the world, the Roman Church made itself that one church, and everyone else was not a part of it.

At its most basic level, it was a power grab from which came all manner of heresy. The Papacy was not immutable. There is no Biblical teaching that defends the office of Pope. The papacy was nothing more than an organizational structure used to unify the church. But inerrancy? Infallibility? Ultimate spokesman for King Jesus? None of these can be found in the Bible. No matter how hard Roman scholars want the Pope to be the official passing the keys of the kingdom from Peter, it is just not there.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18–19, ESV

The translation most commonly found in English Bibles ignores the syntax of the Greek, and thus misleads the reader. R.T. France wrote in his commentary:

The insistence by the Roman Catholic Church that they are the only true church has not united Christianity. No, it has divided the church, first with the split from the Orthodox church of Constantinople, then with the Protestant church of the Reformation. What puzzles me is that the Roman Church for well over a thousand years has not been able to see their hubris and their error.

What I want to point out with the Creed’s reference to the Holy Catholic Church is that it falls within the third section, which is foundationally, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The first important acknowledgment must be that to believe in the Holy Spirit, one must recognize that the Church is not something mankind does. From beginning to end, the Church from top to bottom, is a work of God, particularly God the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus is so adamant with the disciples that if he did not go away, the Spirit could not come. This is why Jesus ordered his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is why the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost was such a monumental event.

We need not look to the Roman Catholic Church for hubris. We must look to ourselves. When we gather for worship, it is not because it is the right thing to do. It is not because going to church makes us feel good. It is certainly not about being entertained with snappy music and an emotional massage. We gather to worship because God calls us and the Spirit gathers us. Those who think it is their own decision to go to church or not are deceiving themselves. The gathering of the believers is essential to life as a Christian. Anytime I give into laziness on Sunday morning or choose my kid’s soccer games over church, I give in to the flesh and walk not according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:5–11, ESV

The second observation is that what we do when we gather as the church is to worship God. That is our purpose. Communal worship is far greater than individual worship. I am so convinced of this that I often question whether the individual can truly worship without connection in time and space with other believers. Yes, you can read the Bible alone. You can pray alone. But you cannot baptize alone or participate in the Eucharist alone. If we cannot utilize the sacraments of worship, then we cannot worship. The old Roman Church was right to suggest that there is no salvation outside the church. Where they got it wrong was that the Roman Church was only an expression of the Catholic Church. The Church of Jesus Christ is much larger than the Roman Catholic Church.

One problem with individual worship is that it denies the work of God the Spirit, baptizing us into one body and keeping us in the unity of the body. “I don’t need anyone else.” But God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The closest human relationship anyone can experience is marriage, husband, and wife. Paul teaches us that even this relationship is preparatory for the ultimate one between Christ and the Church. It is a mistake to think that my personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the foundation of salvation. My relation to Christ as a part of the Church is ultimate. So, it is true that Christ died for the sins of the world, but the world is the world of believers baptized by the Spirit into his body.

Closely akin to the second observation is the third. Worship is not something we do. Instead, worship is who we are. Every emphasis in Scripture on obedience is not about doing something to be saved. It is not about doing something to prove our salvation. Obedience is simply what those who are saved do because they can’t even think of doing something else. Yes, Scripture recognizes our progress toward the goal, but the believer makes this progress by obeying Christ. But we don’t make the progress. It is the Spirit within that progresses us, which is called the ministry of Sanctification.

The ultimate goal is the one we had at the beginning. We were created in God’s image to glorify him (worship) and to ensure the rest of creation is nurtured so God may be glorified by it. This is why I say that worship is who we are. If it is something we do, then it is up to us to decide how to worship God. However, we are incapable of making such choices, just like we did not choose Jesus. He chose us and he tells us how to worship. Furthermore, as we worship God’s way, we are transformed ever more into who we were called and saved to be: God glorifiers.

All of this (and more) is the work of the Holy Spirit who had been poured out upon us. All of this is why the Holy Catholic Church is a ministry of the Spirit of God and Christ.

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