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Guest Column: The Church is Catholic and Apostolic

April 2000 | by Joel Beeke

This month we turn to the church’s ‘catholicity’ and ‘apostolicity’. The term catholic derives from the Greek word katholikos, which is a combination of the pronoun kata (meaning ‘throughout’) and the adjective holos (meaning ‘whole’). Thus, ‘catholic’ means ‘throughout the whole’, or ‘common to the whole’.

Hippocrates, the father of medical science, used the word catholic to describe any disease that made the whole body suffer. Philodemon enlarged the meaning when he wrote about ‘catholic traditions’. Polybios used the term ‘catholic history’.

Ignatius of Antioch was the first to apply the word to the church. ‘Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church’, he wrote in A.D. 110. So katholikos came to mean perfect, complete, and all-encompassing, as well as general or whole. All of that is implied in the Belgic Confession’s statement: ‘We believe and profess one catholic, or universal church’.

A worldwide church

When our forefathers spoke of the catholicity or universality of the church they referred to three things, the first of which is the worldwide, universal character of the New Testament church.

The Old Testament church was largely restricted to the nation of Israel, whereas the New Testament church is international in scope. Jesus declared his catholic mission to the Gentiles in these terms: ‘Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd’ (John 10:16). He commanded his disciples: ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:15).

The church transcended its national boundaries at Pentecost (‘Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved’, declared Peter in Acts 2:21), and it has been catholic ever since. It now transcends all differences of race, ethnicity and gender (Galatians 3:27-28), joining people of every tribe and nation into one fellowship.

The one, holy, catholic church is united in Christ, having one faith, one Lord and one end. The list of nations in Acts 2 is a prelude to the multitude of peoples, nations and tongues that, together, will sing the new song of the Lamb in glory for ever (Revelation 5:9).

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer
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A continuing church

Secondly, the church is universal not only geographically but also chronologically. Believers who participate in the fellowship of the church today, and those who will follow in the future, are members of the community of God’s people who have gone before them.

Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever, the church has a glorious past, present and future. The church of the past is triumphant now in heaven. The church of the present is fighting the holy war of faith on earth. The church of the future is already chosen to be born and saved.

An evangelising church

Thirdly, the church is catholic in the spaciousness of its offer of salvation through Christ. The gospel is catholic in its offer of grace. ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out’, Christ promised (John 6:37).

That invitation is the rock of the church’s catholicity. Believers must promote this catholicity by evangelising people of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20) and by helping believers around the world to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

Furthermore, we are called to bear ‘one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’ in a humble and catholic spirit. As Paul exhorts: ‘Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not’ (Galatians 6:2, 9).

Paul writing an epistle, by Valentin de Boulogne 1619
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An apostolic church

The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:20). Apostles were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection (Acts 1:22). They, along with prophets, were spokesmen for the Saviour (John 14:26; 15:26). They wrote the Scriptures, which the church recognised as canonical for faith and practice.

The written Word of God, which testifies of the living Word, Christ Jesus, is thus the norm by which the life of the church is to be measured. The church can be one, holy and catholic only insofar as she is an apostolic church founded upon Christ alone as revealed in Scripture.

Christian history reflects diverse interpretations of what the apostolicity of the church means. Roman Catholics stress an apostolic authority that is based on Scripture plus church tradition, and is mediated through bishops and ultimately the pope, or the bishop of Rome.

Eastern Orthodox and Anglican churches also stress the role of the episcopacy in defining the apostolic church.

But the Reformation reasserted Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) as the true measure of apostolicity. The Reformers identified the marks of the true, apostolic church as (1) the faithful preaching of the Word; (2) the proper administration of the sacraments; and (3) the faithful exercise of church discipline.

A practising church

The pattern for these marks was set by the New Testament church in its doctrine, experience and practice (Acts 2:42 ff.). Apostolic doctrine produces apostolic experience and apostolic living, claimed the Reformers. What we often miss is the need to conform to apostolic practice.

When Protestants say they believe in ‘one, holy, catholic, apostolic church’, they confess that Christ, not the church or any man, is the rock upon which every attribute of the church is built. Christ is the rock of the church’s unity, sanctity, catholicity and apostolicity.

He builds his church by means of office-bearers and apostolic doctrine. We do not believe in a church, however, for that would mean placing our trust in it. We believe only in Christ and that there is a church that is holy, catholic and apostolic.

It takes faith to confess these attributes of the church because we fail to see so many of them. When we gaze on the church’s external appearance, her garments appear soiled and torn. We see disunity rather than unity, unholiness rather than holiness, denominationalism rather than catholicity, and apostasy rather than apostolicity.

A surviving church

We see a church that tragically withholds the gospel from people, then wonders why she has lost her audience. Cold preaching, lukewarm members, love of power, lack of discipline, worldliness, entertainment and politics usurp the gospel. ‘Much that passes for New Testament Christianity is little more than objective truth sweetened with song and made palatable by religious entertainment’, lamented A. W. Tozer.

‘When recreation gets ahead of re-creation’, wrote Vance Havner, ‘then God’s house has become a den of thieves’. What both the world and the church need is ‘neither a Christless churchianity nor a churchless Christianity, but Christ the Head living afresh in his body, the church’, Havner added.

John Calvin
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When we see the church’s decline from within, and society’s threats from without, we are tempted to say that the church cannot survive. Nevertheless, we are not tempted to abandon her, for she, said Calvin, is our ‘mother’. Though she appears to age and fail, we still cherish the church.

By faith, we still trust that ‘the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves by his Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a Church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in truth faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 54).

Because the church is Christ’s bride, she cannot fail. By faith, we believe she will complete Christ’s purpose for her. Jesus guarantees that success when he says, ‘I will build my church’.