Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
It is easy to find references that explicitly say that there is one church, and that this church is holy, but the word “catholic” is not found in Scripture. The term means “universal in extent” or “throughout the whole,” and is used to describe the church as a body of believers that is universal in extent, gathered throughout the whole human race out of all the nations of the world. The term is found in the titles that have been given to the epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude. These are often referred to as the “catholic epistles,” because they were addressed, in the first instance, not to any particular church, but to all Christians.
The catholicity of the church is inseparably related to the oneness of the church and the holiness of the church. If the church is catholic, or universal, then there can be only one church. And if this one church has been gathered out of this world, so that she is separated from the world and consecrated to God, then this one universal church is also holy.
For centuries the Romish church has claimed exclusive rights to the name “catholic.” Our children become aware of this at a very early age, and often ask us why it is that we say we believe “a holy catholic church” even though we are not “Catholic.” It is important that we understand not only how the Romish church wrongly applies this name to herself, but also what we mean when we confess this truth, and how we show in our life that we truly believe this truth in our heart.
The Romish Claim to Catholicity
The Romish church applies the truth of the catholicity of the church to her visible organization. She claims that she alone can be referred to as the catholic church, because she is the only instituted church that is visibly spread over the whole earth, and that has existed, so she claims, from the days of the apostles. All other instituted churches are seen by her to be sects that have broken away from the one catholic church.
Over against this, Reformed churches have argued that when the church is said to be catholic, this is referring to her especially as the body of all the elect believers. It is not saying that there is one church (or federation of churches) on this earth that has a visible presence in each nation of this world. Rather, it is referring especially to the universal body of elect believers, and is saying about this body that she has been gathered throughout history, not just from Pentecost to the present, and that she has been gathered not just out of one nation, or out of a few nations, but out of all the nations of the world.
The truth of the catholicity of the church, though referring to the church as the universal body of believers, does have an application to the church as institute. A true instituted church of Christ strives to manifest the catholicity of the church on this earth as much as possible. She does so by rejecting the notion of many today that a true church can remain independent of other churches. A church that rightly confesses the catholicity of the church freely joins herself to other true churches and forms a federation with them, striving also to develop sister-church relations with every faithful instituted church that she can find upon this earth.
Who Belongs to the Catholic Church
According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, paragraphs 836 and 838, the following belong to the “Catholic Church.”
836. “All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God…. And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.”
838.”The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.” Those who “believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”
Thus we see how the Romish church tries to lure Protestants toward her, by teaching that all believers really already are in communion with her, the “Catholic Church.”
She goes on to include the Muslims in the group of those who worship the true God:
841.”The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place
amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold to the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
What the Romish church calls the Catholic Church is really the antichristian church. And the article quoted above shows how the antichristian church seeks to ally herself not only with all who externally confess Christ, but even with Muslims.
Over against this, we confess that the catholic church consists only of true believers. Contrary to their claims, we are not in any communion with the Romish church or with other religious groups who blatantly deny the truth of Scripture. The true catholic church is built upon Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, and she consists of those who believe this Truth. In a day when the apostatizing churches all around us are uniting, and are referring to this unholy union as a manifestation of the unity and catholicity of the church, we must continue to maintain that the unity of the real catholic church will always be, and will only be, a union in the Truth, as that Truth is revealed in and by Christ Jesus.
The Salvation of the Human Race
When the church is gathered out of the nations, the result is that all the nations are saved. When the church is gathered out of the whole human race, this means that the whole human race is saved. This is due to the organic nature of the nations and of the human race. The elect in each nation are the living core of each nation. When these elect are saved, that nation is saved. The elect in the human race are the new human race under Jesus Christ, the Head. When the elect are saved, it is very really the case that the human race is saved.
This is the meaning of all the passages that speak of all nations coming to Jesus Christ and being blessed in Him. Psalm 86:9 is an example of such a passage, which contains the promise that “All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name.” Passages such as this one (and there are many such passages) are not saying that there will come a future day when the majority of those in each nation will willingly serve Christ. Rather, these passages are teaching that if at the end of this age one were to look back over the entire history of this world, and consider the history of any particular nation, there will have been at least some period of time in which elect believers were being gathered out of that nation, and that those elect individuals together actually constitute the nation. In other words, a nation comes to Christ when the elect in that nation come to Christ.
This is also the explanation for the passages in Scripture that speak of Christ saving the world. John the Baptist pointed to Christ and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Now when Scripture says that Christ saves the world, it means that He saves not only human beings, but also the entire creation. But right now we are considering only what this means with regard to the saving of human beings. When God says that Christ saves the world, this means that He saves the entire human race. It is true that Christ died only for His elect sheep (John 10:15), but when He saves His sheep He saves the world. This is because the elect individuals very really constitute the new human race with Christ as the Head.
The saving of the human race is illustrated in what happened at the flood in the days of Noah. Through the judgment of the flood the human race was saved, even though the majority of the people on the earth perished in the waters. When God saved Noah and his family, He saved the human race.
No Racism in the Catholic Church
One who truly believes the catholicity of the church firmly rejects all racism. He speaks against it when he sees it, and he despises it when he sees it within himself. There is no earthly blood line that is more holy than another. By nature we are all depraved, are dead in sin, and can do nothing but sin. It is only and entirely by God’s grace that we have been saved. This work of grace unites us with our brothers and sisters from the different nations of the world in a unity that transcends differences in nationality and race. All believers are citizens of a new nation, and members of the new human race. In this body there is absolutely no place for racism of any kind.
There are many who have tried to defend their racist thoughts and statements by referring to Scripture. Reference has often been made to the cursing of Canaan, where God through Noah said that Canaan would be “a servant of servants.” Since the Africans are often said to be descendants of Ham, Canaan’s father, some have used this passage to defend being racist against the Africans. But this curse is not saying that all the descendants of Ham or all the descendants of Canaan, head for head, were cursed to everlasting destruction. That Shem and Japheth were blessed did not mean that every one of their blood descendants were blessed. Nor did the fact that Canaan was cursed mean that every blood descendant of Canaan was cursed. Uriah, whom David killed, was a Hittite, a descendant of Canaan, and he showed himself to be a godly man, who served as one of David’s mighty men.
God means what He says when He declares that He will save all nations. There are elect people of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ, in all the different nations of the world. We show we believe this when we are zealous, very zealous, in the work of missions. We show we believe this by calling out to God to raise up more men to preach the gospel, not only in our own instituted churches where we have vacancies, but also on the mission field.
This is the commission that our Lord and Savior has given to us. Out of a love for God and for the catholic church of Christ, we must willingly and cheerfully support this work, so that the eyes of our brothers and sisters may be enlightened by the gospel of grace, and so that we might manifest on this earth, as much as possible, the unity, the holiness, and the catholicity of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.