When we recite the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, it can be easy for Protestants to stumble over the phrase that confesses belief in the “holy catholic church.” After all, there is a Roman Catholic Church, and to refer to the church as “catholic” seems to imply that we are in communion with the bishop of Rome — the Pope. But if we are not Roman Catholics, why confess belief in the catholic church?
Protestants affirm the existence of the catholic church because the meaning of the term catholic is “universal” and does not imply or command submission to papal authority. To call the church “catholic” is merely to affirm that the one church of Jesus Christ is not limited to one geographical region, socio-economic class, age group, ethnicity, or gender. Believing in the “catholic church” is just another way of stating the biblical teaching that all who turn from their sin and trust Jesus alone for salvation constitute the church universal (Gal. 3:28).
On a practical level, the catholicity of the church means that Christians can find commonality with other believers all over the world. In fact, we are in a far deeper relationship with those Christians whom we have never met than with those unsaved people who share our family bloodlines. English-speaking Christians have brothers and sisters in Chinese house churches. Africans, Arabs, Europeans, and Asians can worship together freely if they are united in the gospel. The poor South American farmer who serves Christ is closer to the wealthy Christian than any of his fellow, unregenerate countrymen. Of course, verbal communication this side of heaven may be impossible between Christians of different national origins. Still, Christians are united to Jesus and, consequently, to every other believer on earth and in heaven, and we have intimate fellowship one with another.
Hebrews 12:22–24 affirms the universal nature of the church as it applies to Christians from all times and places. During worship, we enter the heavenly sanctuary with every believer on earth, and with those believers who are part of the church triumphant — “the spirits of the righteous made perfect”. Though this reality is not apparent to our eyes, our worship includes not only the saints whom we can see but all those who have ever believed in Christ Jesus.