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If you have ever used the Apostles’ Creed, you may have wondered why Protestants confess belief in the “catholic” church. Perhaps the form you followed said “universal” church. But what does “catholic” or “universal” mean?

The Nicene Creed speaks of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” We can understand the oneness of the church as the apostle Paul teaches it. At the church in Corinth, some had moved toward denominational division. They followed Peter, Apollos, or Paul himself. But the apostle to the Gentiles did not congratulate these followers of his. Rather, he cried, “Was Paul crucified for you?” There is one church, just as Christ had one body on the cross. All who are joined to Him are joined to His death. He represented us, for He died in our place. In the same way, the church is holy in Christ. It is not holy in itself. By grace through faith, we wear the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Finally, we can understand that the church is apostolic. We build on one foundation: the teaching of the apostles about Christ.

But for the church to be catholic means something more. It must both be something and do something. First, it must be the church of Christ in the world, standing apart from the structures of political power and of cultural conformity. It is a colony of heaven on earth, living in the kingdom of God even as it waits for the coming of Christ and His kingdom. Second, the church is a partnership in the Gospel, set apart to serve and bound together for service.

The people of God in the world are a company of resident aliens whose citizenship is in heaven. What separates Christ’s disciples from the world unites them to one another. The church catholic is the Israel of God. We might call these disciples “Christian ethnics.” There are, of course, ethnic groups within the church, such as there were in the Presbyterian church of my childhood and youth, which was mostly Scotch-Irish. The first time I visited Belfast, the people sent to meet the plane missed me because I looked so much like the others coming off the tarmac. However, Christian ethnics in this sense do not show that the church is universal. Christians are spiritual ethnics. Their identity is established by their faith, not their genes. Still, a single congregation may, and should, give a glimpse of the fact that the church is catholic. New York, London, and other great cities are magnets for internationals. A Gospel church in such a city may look like the gathering of saints in glory, drawn from every people, tribe, and nation.

What the church is as the colony of heaven also provides the calling of the church to service.

Indeed, in worship the church actually joins with the saints in glory. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:22–24). Thus, “catholic” means that the church worships with all the saints and angels in the presence of our Father in heaven and of the Lord Jesus Christ. The local church has a membership register of those who are gathered there; God’s register has the names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Where do you meet for worship? In heaven, by the power of the Spirit. Who has that access? Believers in Christ. This is the church universal. The Lord of heaven calls us not to forsake our assembling here on earth (Heb. 10:25) so that we may worship together in glory.

The author of Hebrews writes to those who were tempted to go back to the elaborate rituals of Old Testament worship. There is a glorious simplicity in New Testament worship on earth because it joins in the spiritual reality of worship in heaven. Jesus comes to us in the power of the Spirit; we go to Him in that same power.

The catholicity of the church also shows why we must seek the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We find that unity not in the hierarchical structure of the church of Rome, but in the heavenly worship of the church catholic.

God’s colony of heaven in not of the world, but it is in the world. Christians deny the catholicity of the church when they try to opt out of the world. In the beginning of the fifth Christian century, Simeon the Stylite famously lived for 36 years on a pillar near Antioch in Syria. The height of the pillar was increased until he was 60 feet removed from the world below. (Perhaps he unwittingly demonstrated the communion of the saints by trusting the life-support system of believers at the base of the pillar.)

After the church was recognized under the Roman emperor Constantine, the church moved from monastic withdrawal toward political power. In a stormy contest with Philip IV, the king of France, Pope Boniface VIII claimed the two swords: supreme authority over the state as well as the church. In the United States today, we see the danger in a different form: reducing the Christian faith to patriotism. The result is still the same: the state wields the sword and the keys.

We who worship with the angels have a task that archangels desire.

The church remains in the world, but is not of the world. It cannot ignore the world, but neither may it surrender to it. This perspective on the universality of the church will help us deal with the “culture wars.” The church universal must be aware of the worship of the church around the world. Until the last century, Roman Catholic worship required the Mass in Latin. Now the same form of worship is followed in the vernacular. Should the universal church aspire to one form of worship in every culture? Certainly the Lord has revealed to us that prayer, preaching of the Word, and the singing of praise are to be part of our worship, as well as the observance of the sacraments. There are, however, what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “circumstances” of worship. These are elements common to our culture—the music that is used in singing, for example. Understanding the vast cultural variety of the church universal will warn us against rejecting cultural forms unfamiliar to us. At the same time, the glory of the heavenly sanctuary that lifts our hearts in worship will draw us to employ cultural forms that have been transformed by the simplicity and power of faith.

What the church is as the colony of heaven also provides the calling of the church to service. The fellowship on earth not only worships in heaven, it carries the Lord’s commission to serve together in reaching the world with the Gospel. Paul says, “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:4b–5, NIV). Paul, in chains, had the Philippians in his heart. They knew how the Gospel had come to them. Paul and Silas, their backs beaten and their feet in stocks, had prayed and sung praise to God in the prison. An earthquake brought the jailer to them; they brought the Gospel to his house.

The story of the spread of the Gospel is the story of partners. Jesus sent the disciples out as partners. The early missionaries went in the same way. In the mouth of two witnesses, the Word would be confirmed. They also could be a help to one another. It was not good for Adam to be alone; he needed a helper. Even so, all creatures in God’s image need help, and are called to be helpers. Given the truth of the Gospel, we are called to help others, to interpret for them what life means because of God’s grace.

As the church universal, the people of God are set apart for service. The claim of Jesus Christ sets us apart as citizens of heaven, but we who worship with the angels have a task that archangels desire. Angels sang in the fields at Christ’s birth, but the shepherds went to the manger and praised God in the streets of Bethlehem.

The church universal is bonded in service as well as worship, for Jesus is with us in both. Paul longed for his partners in Philippi. Do you pray for your partners in the Lord’s business—in your home, your work, or your school? What about your retirement? Enjoy the partnership—in a mission trip, an inner-city project, your home Bible study, or a Ligonier conference.

The church universal draws you to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, and to His blood. Here we drink the cup of the new covenant with the church on earth, but we get a foretaste of the heavenly wine we will share with all God’s people when we will drink to victory in His heavenly hall.

This Is My Body

Further up and Further In

Keep Reading Bound Together in Christ: Communion of the Saints

From the September 2001 Issue
Sep 2001 Issue