I believe in the holy catholic church

Of all the articles of the Apostles’ Creed the one most ignored by modern Evangelicals is the one in which we affirm, ‘I believe in the holy, catholic church.’  Even before the current coronavirus pandemic, many were attempting to live their Christian lives without any church-connection: some because they’d fallen in with the prevailing culture of individualism and personal self-sufficiency; some because of a distrust of all institutions; some because of what they see as doctrinal and moral impurities in the church; some because of its failure to adopt their own particular shibboleths; others because they’ve been hurt by the church; yet others because of tensions between them and other members of their congregations; and still others because they ‘get nothing’ out of going to church.

These currents were already running strongly before the world was hit by Covid-19, but the pandemic has given them new force.  The prohibition on religious gatherings (as on others) provided a good excuse for those who were growing weary of church; others quickly grew accustomed to the live-streaming of their local services, and fell in love with the idea that you could now go to church without ‘going to church;’  yet others discovered that celebrity on-line evangelists were (at least on first acquaintance) far better preachers than their own local ministers (and their praise-bands better still).

There is good reason, then, to worry that even after the virus has been contained there will be no rush back to church. Many ministers are already reconciling themselves to evening-services being a thing of the past; others have already begun holding virtual Communion Services.

In these critical new situations it is more important than ever to endorse wholeheartedly the historic Christian confession, ‘I believe in the holy catholic church.’  But what does it mean?


A divine institution

It means, first of all, that we believe that the church is a divine institution, not a voluntary body which Christians may choose to join or not to join at their own discretion.  From the very beginning it was God’s will that those professing his name should live, not as spiritual soloists, but as his own special people, living as a distinct community under one law, sharing the same privileges, following the same order of worship, and charged with the same commission.  Under the Old Testament they formed ‘the congregation of the Lord;’ under the New they form what Christ called ‘my church’ (which, without taking undue liberties, we could translate as ‘my congregation’).  Assembling, congregating, meeting together, was to be of the very essence of the Christian life, and it is no more possible for believers today to follow Christ without following his church than it was possible in the days of his flesh to follow him without at the same time following the Twelve. You couldn’t be one of the ‘saints in Ephesus’ (Eph. 1:1) without being part of the church which, as he told the Ephesian elders, he had purchased with his own blood [1](Acts 20:28). 

All this is crystallised in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Instituted by the Lord himself, and obligatory for every one of his disciples, by its very nature it involves the physical coming together of believers (1 Cor. 11:17), the physical giving and receiving of the bread and wine, the physical eating of the bread for which thanks have been given, the physical taking of the cup, and the physical engagement in a shared act of obedience, remembrance, thanksgiving and proclamation.  This is not to say that the church was instituted in order to make possible the Sacrament of Communion, but it is to say that the Sacrament would never have been possible without the prior institution of the church. And thankful as we should be for the opportunity to share on-line in the preaching of the Word, no virtual bread, and no virtual wine, can ever be signs and seals of the true bread that came down from heaven or of the blood to which we owe our life.  Nor can any computer screen give us the opportunity to take and eat.


Only one church

Secondly, the words, ‘I believe in the holy catholic church’ highlight the fact that there is only one church.  This is the import of the word ‘catholic’ as used here.  This one church has, of course, many local manifestations, each reflecting  the language, culture, history and demography of its own environment; and, over and above these unavoidable variations, there are also, tragically others created by the countless schisms and heresies which have left her ‘sore distressed’, and by the plethora of parties which flourish even under the umbrella of apparent denominational unity.  But none of this can take away from the fact that Christ has but one body, and that he speaks, not of building my churches, but of building my church (Mt. 16:18); or from the fact that St. Peter can describe God’s widely dispersed elect as one chosen race, one holy nation, and one people for God’s own special possession (1 Pet. 1:9).  This oneness finds expression in such features as unity of doctrine, baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the celebration of Communion as the Sacrament of Remembrance (1 Cor.  11:25).  But what ultimately binds us together is neither shared sacraments nor unity of doctrine, but our common experience of the new birth and our adoption as members of God’s family.  Schism may rend the visible church asunder, but nothing can fracture the bond, the organic bond, that links every believer to every other believer.  We can offend against the unity of the family, but we can never undo it.


Outside the church, no salvation

Thirdly, we believe that the church is the community to which, humanly speaking, we owe our salvation.  This is what Calvin meant when, following the Church Father, Cyprian,[2]  he wrote that whoever has God for their Father has the church for their Mother;[3] and it is what the Westminster Confession (25:2) meant when it declared that outside the church ‘there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.’  By inserting the word ‘ordinary,’ the Confession did indeed allow for exceptions: for example, those dying in infancy,[4] and that very small number of human beings who, because of cognitive limitations, cannot be reached by either the word or the sacraments.  Such exceptions apart, however, the principle remains that away from the church ‘one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation’.[5]    

The fundamental reason for this is that it is to the church that God has committed the means of salvation.  From her we received the Bible; through her we heard the word preached; through her God sent us missionaries and evangelists; through her we were introduced to the gospel as children. 

Yet the principle, ‘outside the church there is no salvation,’ cannot mean that all conversions depend on contact with the institutional church.  The one categorical principle is that we can never be saved unless we ‘truly come to Christ’ (Westminster Confession, 10:4; linked to this is a second, namely, that we shall never come unless the Father draws us (Jn. 6:44); and linked to this again there is a third, that God has absolute discretion as to the means by which he draws us.  It may be that in the work-place we heard colleagues casually ‘speaking the word’ (Acts 11:19);[6] it may be that ‘accidentally’ we found a Bible, or even a few pages of it; it may be that a solitary Christian pedlar spoke of Jesus as he travelled through the unevangelised fields of north-east India; it may be that Roman soldiers serving in the remote province of Britain found opportunities to speak of Jesus to the native population.  None of these represents organised missionary activity on the part of the institutional church, but in every instance, and in one way or another, God used his people to bring us that knowledge of Christ without which we could never have come to faith. 

But not only is the church our Mother in the sense that it was through her that we were born into the family of God: it is also through the church that believers are normally nourished in the faith from the earliest days of spiritual infancy to the final moment when growth gives way to glory.  No matter how dramatic and memorable our conversion, and no matter how personally gifted we may be, discipleship will wither on the vine unless we follow God’s order, cherish the gifts and fellowship of our co-believers and join together with them for teaching, the breaking of bread, and prayers.  Each of us individually is indebted to the whole church: to the apostles and prophets who still speak to us through the holy Scriptures; to the evangelists  through whom we were led to faith; to pastor-teachers whom the risen Lord has   given us precisely to build us up towards spiritual maturity; and to all the brothers and sisters who admonished us when we were out of order, encouraged us when were depressed, and helped us when we were weak (1 Thess. 5:14).


I believe in the church as she is

Finally, the church we believe in is the church as it actually exists.  We do indeed believe that in the highest sense the church consists of all the elect that have ever been or shall be.  This is what theologians have traditionally referred to as the invisible church, the boundaries of which are known only to God.  But when men like Calvin and Cyprian spoke of the church as the Mother of us all they were referring to what they called the visible church: the church that exists in time and space; the church that assembles together for preaching, sacraments and prayer; the church that consists of all those who profess the Christian faith (Westminster Confession¸25:2), but of whose inward spiritual state no mere human being is competent to judge.  Its members, far from being invisible, are our flesh-and-blood neighbours; all of us are in some way flawed; the level of its preaching often falls below what we imagine were the levels of the past; and sometimes it hurts and disappoints us, as men like St. Paul knew only too well.  It is far from perfect, and even in its purest forms it is always subject to mixture and error (Westminster Confession, 25:5).

But it was always so, even in the case of the churches of ancient Colossae, Corinth and Ephesus, which enjoyed the ministry of apostles; and no less true of the churches of the Reformers and the Puritans.  As C. H. Spurgeon is said to have remarked, ‘There is no such thing as a pure church.  If there were, I would join it, but then it would cease to be a pure church.’  It is crucially important to remember the last part of this remark.

Into this church, consisting at its best of sinful saints and saintly sinners, each one of us is grafted the moment we are grafted into Christ himself: visible believers in a visible church.  To be united to Christ is to be united to all the other members of his body; to have God as our Father is to have all his other children as our brothers and sisters; and to fall out with his family is (at the human level) to run a very real risk of falling out of it.  No one member can say to another, ‘I don’t need you!’  Even less can we say to the whole body, ‘I don’t need you.’  By the time we reach that point, we may as well say, ‘I don’t need you!’ to the Head himself, Jesus Christ.  There is no way of being connected to the Head without being connected to the members.   







[1] But note the balance struck by Bonhoeffer: ‘One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.’ (Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein; London, SCM Press, 1954, p. 58). 

[2]On the Unity of the Catholic Church, vi.

[3]Institutes, IV:I, 1.

[4] See, for example, the categorical statement of A. A. Hodge, ‘All the members of the human race dying in infancy are believed to be saved through the merits of Christ.’  The Confession of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine Expounding the Westminster Confession (1869. Reprinted London: Banner of Truth, 1958), p. 314.

[5] Calvin, Institutes, IV:I, 4.

[6] This should not be regarded as ‘exceptional.’  It was through such ‘speaking’/amateur misionarie that God planted the church at Antioch which quickly became the metropolis of early Gentile Christianity.