Based on a talk delivered to the Gereformeerde Gemeente te Vlissingen (Netherlands Reformed Church)
On 24 March 2023 via video link
I have been asked to speak on the “one holy catholic church.” Most of you will know, I am sure, that this phrase, “one holy catholic church,” comes from the Apostles’ Creed. In article 9 of the creed, we are given to confess, “I believe the holy catholic church: the communion of saints.”
I was ministering in London many years ago when a senior elder of a very conservative fundamentalist church in Singapore visited us. At one of our Bible studies, we mentioned article 9 of the Apostle’s Creed; and immediately, this elder questioned why we were using material from the catholic church! When I explained that the creed does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, he was at first quite taken aback, and then said something to the effect that we shouldn’t be using the term because it is very confusing.
I tell this story partly to introduce our subject for this talk, and partly to fulfil the request that I speak from a local perspective. You see, over the years, I have discovered that had it not been that there is one holy catholic church, the church in Singapore would be in trouble. The church to which the elder belonged is one of the most knowledgeable in Singapore. If one of her more respectable elders could be ignorant about the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed, what does it say about Christianity in Singapore?
Well, it happens that the problem with the particular elder could be because his denomination tended to be quite suspicious about ministers and books from other denominations. So, if the elder had only learned from ministers within his denomination and none of them mentioned the apostle’s creeds, then it is understandable why he had such a reaction to the word ‘catholic’ when it was used.
This also shows why the catholicity of the church is important.
But with this introduction, let us briefly examine the phrase “one holy catholic church.”
Let’s deal with the three words, “holy catholic church,” one at a time, beginning from the back.
The church, according to the scriptural usage of the term, refers to the congregation of people who are called out of the world and received by God as the body of Christ. The head of the church, as such, is Christ. “Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body,” says the apostle Paul (Eph 5:23).
From this basic and general understanding of the church, however, we must grasp the idea that the church can be viewed from different perspectives and distinctions.
In particular, there is an aspect of the church that is invisible and another that is visible. See Figure 1.
The church invisible comprises all the elect of Christ throughout the ages. These are genuine members of the church of Christ for whom Christ laid His life down (Eph 5:25). Membership in the church invisible is ratified by Baptism of the Holy Spirit or regeneration. The church visible, on the other hand, comprises credible believers and their children upon earth. Membership in the church visible is ratified by water baptism (cf. Acts 2:47).
There is, moreover, a geographic dimension to the church visible, for there is such a thing as a church local. The Bible mentions the church in Jerusalem, the church in Antioch, the church in Philippi, and the Lord wrote letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. These are what we call local churches. Today there are many local churches and denominations. There is at least one in Vlissingen, and many others in the Netherlands. Likewise, there are many local churches and denominations in Singapore, as there are many in the US, Australia, China, Thailand, Malawi, etc.
When an ordinary member of the church refers to the church, he is most likely referring to the local church of which he is a member.
However, the Bible also speaks of the visible church as one. The apostle Paul, for example, speaks of the church as a body and Christ as the head of the body in 1 Corinthians 12. We know he is not talking about the church invisible because he refers to the members as parts of the body, each having a different function. So he must be referring to the visible church. And since the head could only have one body, there must be a sense in which the visible church is one, just as the church invisible is one.
With this in mind, let’s consider the term ‘catholic’.
Article 9 of the Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe the holy catholic church.”
The term ‘catholic’ means ‘universal.’ When we refer to the catholic church, we are referring either to the church militant (Belgic Confession, chapter 27), or, as is more commonly understood today, to the church invisible universal or to the sum total of all the local churches in the world. The term has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the name Roman Catholic Church is a contradiction of terms, for it is not truly Christian and therefore not truly a part of the church of Christ; and it is Roman, so it is not universal.
Let’s first consider the holy catholic church invisible. This is the church that Christ purchased with his blood. He has purchased only one church. All true believers are members of this church. We are members of the church universal invisible by election. We are in the same church as Noah, Moses, David, Isaiah, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Edwards, Kyper, à Brakel, Bavinck, Berkhof, etc. Our elect children and children’s children down the generations are members of this same church. One day, this whole company of God’s elect down the ages will be gathered in that great congregation to worship the Father in union with Christ, forever and ever.
But consider secondly, the holy catholic church visible. There is, we must remember, also a sense in which we are members of the catholic church visible. Christ prayed in His high priestly prayer of His desire that the church may be one (Jn 17:11, etc.). The church universal invisible is already one by definition. So, the Lord’s prayer must relate to the church universal visible. It speaks of Christ’s desire, and our duty to work on Christian unity.
So there is a descriptive and a prescriptive sense to the word ‘catholic.’ It is the duty of local churches to seek to be united in biblical and confessional truth rather than separated by geography, race, culture, politics, nationality, social status, age, background, etc. Now, this is very difficult to achieve because, as Amos asks, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Am 3:3). Or, as the apostle Paul teaches us, love must rejoice in the truth.
We cannot truly be united when different churches have different understandings of the Bible, and some of these understandings are, frankly, heretical. So we cannot simply unite because of geography or shared history. We must unite only in the truth.
But how can we unite in the truth on this side of eternity when we all have differing understandings of the truth? Well, I will propose that our unity today must be comprehended in terms of concentric circles.
Think of it this way: a husband and wife pair is so close that it may be regarded as one. Their children are in the next circle; this is followed by their relatives, followed by the members of the church, etc.
Of course, it is not so straightforward when it comes to unity in the truth. The concentric circles are not so clean. It is not like the rings of a tree trunk, but more like what you will see on the ground of a dark room if you shine a bright light on it. In the centre, the light will be very bright; then, the light fades out until there is no light a distance from the centre. See Figure 2.
Think of unity in terms of this spot of light. The unity is closest in the centre, for there is agreement on most things. A little further out, the unity is not as bright and tight because there are more disagreements. Yet further out, the unity is becoming dimmer. There appears to be more disagreement than agreement. We can nevertheless still find churches and denominations that are generally faithful in their theology, administration of sacraments and exercise of discipline in this region (See Belgic Confession, chapter 29).
Then you come to the twilight zone just before you cross into darkness. There is still enough light for you to find individuals who may be regarded as Christian because they believe in the fundamentals of the faith: of the doctrine of the Trinity, of the deity of Christ, of His virgin birth, of His miracles, of His resurrection, of His corporal return, and the five solas of the Reformation, and especially of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.
But when you step out of the twilight, you will find the vast majority of Roman Catholics and others, who, for example, do not believe in justification by faith alone, and also liberals and cults who do not believe in the deity of Christ and other fundamentals of the faith. Then as you step further, you enter into the darkness of pagan religions, agnosticism, and atheism.
If you believe in the one holy Catholic Church, you will want to work closely with those who are closest to you in the centre; and you will work less and less closely with those who are further out. Indeed, where there is still some essential light, you will regard them as brethren, even though you may not be able to work with them because you have too much difference in doctrine.
This is the rough guideline for relating to other churches and Christians within the Catholic Church Visible. However, there is one question we have not answered: How do you know you are in the centre of the spotlight? Well, the simple answer is that you know you are in the centre if what you believe is consistent with what Christ believes, or as Jude puts it, “the faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).
This is why we do not only believe in the catholic church, but the holy catholic church! So let’s consider the term ‘holy.’
The term ‘holy’ describes how the church is set apart unto God. It must be viewed descriptively to declare what we are, and prescriptively to speak of what we ought to be. The church is holy because her members are redeemed by Christ, covered in His righteousness and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Thus she must seek to be holy as God is holy. She must function in the way Christ has dictated in His Word so that she may remain the salt and light in the world. She must not allow herself to conform to the world by adopting worldly methods and principles.
Thus, the centre of the spotlight must be intensely Biblical. But how can we ensure that this is the case and that we are in the centre?
I believe we have the tools to answer this question. I am referring not just to the Bible, but to the Reformed Confessions of Faiths delivered down the ages. Think of the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Canons of Dort (1618); or think of the Westminster Standards of 1647. Reformed churches holding faithfully to the Three Forms of Unity recognise that there are true churches holding faithfully to the Westminster Standards. And likewise, Presbyterian churches holding faithfully to the Westminster Standards recognise that there are true churches holding faithfully to the Three Forms.
Although there are some doctrinal differences between the Three Forms and the Westminster Standards, the differences are so minor in the grand scheme of things that Christians and churches that subscribe to these standards may be regarded as being near the centre of the spotlight.
Now, we believe in the one holy catholic church, and that outside of this church, “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2). Therefore, as witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ, we not only seek to lead sinners to Christ, but to lead them to become members of the holy catholic church. Sadly, though, many who are led into the holy catholic church end up in the fringes of the holy catholic church, in the region of the church where there is a lot of truth mixed with errors, and where worship is not in accordance with the revealed will of God.
Therefore, it is also imperative for those who are nearer the centre of the holy catholic church to encourage others to move inward. Some of us may object to doing so. We should not practice sheep-stealing, they say. But let us remember that the broad road that leads to destruction that the Lord Jesus talks about in Matthew 7 cuts through the holy Catholic Church, and the larger part of it is in that region where there is some light and much darkness.
How to lead individuals and churches into the light? We must do so by instruction and reformation. We must earnestly contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints, as Jude reminds us (Jude 3). We must teach and defend the Reformed confessions and catechisms unapologetically. So the mission work of the Reformed Church should not only be to bring the gospel of salvation, but also to teach all things that the Lord has commanded us (Mt 28:20).
Over the years, PCC has had the opportunity to do mission work in places like Malawi, Mozambique, China, Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. In all these situations, we have sought to train pastors using the Westminster Standards. Over and over again, we have found that many pastors are confused about the truth despite having been trained at Bible Schools or even seminaries. And they are amazed when taught the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and they find themselves finally equipped to lead their congregations to believe in what God wants us to believe and to walk as Christ wants us to walk on our way to the Celestial City.
We believe in the one Holy Catholic Church! May the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Church, grant us much grace and help not only to march on, but to conquer darkness as He has conquered. May the one Holy Catholic Church grow brighter and brighter as the light of Christ shines through us as individuals and as churches enjoying His light of righteousness and love. Amen.