This article is not about a church denomination. It is not about a false institution called the Roman Catholic Church, which preaches popish heresy, administers idolatrous sacraments, and punishes those who live according to truth. Neither is this article about false churches today who mean by the term “universal” that God loves and ultimately saves every single person, no matter their religion. By catholic or universal church, I do not refer to these unfaithful organizations, nor do I refer to any denomination at all. Rather, the catholic or universal church is God’s elect believers, regardless of place, race, or face; nation, vocation, or denomination. This church includes a diverse multitude of God’s people, mysteriously united with one Spirit, the same Christ, and true faith in God (see Belgic Confession, Art. 27 and Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21 for more thorough definitions).
As one of the most important and fundamental articles of our Christian faith, we confess every Sunday in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe an holy catholic church.” Let us beware that we neither say nor mean, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” By improperly replacing the singular article “an” with the preposition “in,” we express dependence upon church as though she is God! This was the very error that the Reformers combated. While there should be a proper love for church, a real and present danger we must consciously avoid is idolatry of church.
What we confess when we say, “I believe an holy catholic church,” is faith in God’s preservation (especially by the Holy Spirit’s power) of such a church. It is to confess that God’s people, though divided by differing congregations and dispersed to different locations, are yet spiritually united in one church. It is to confess that the people of my local Protestant Reformed church or denomination are not the only elect believers. It is to confess that if (God forbid) our beloved denomination apostatizes or disbands and fellowship among believers becomes difficult to find, God still will have His church preserved, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18b). Is your confession on Sunday evening a sham—a meaningless repetition—or a sincere conviction? Do you truly believe an holy catholic church?
To remind the local church of this truth, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to address the church of Corinth in this way: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (I Cor. 1:2). Through this verse, God says to us, “Yes, my beloved Protestant Reformed Church, I recognize that you are a church of God in your specific locale. But remember, that I see you, along with others in My catholic church in every place, who call upon the name of Jesus Christ the Lord—not only yours, but equally theirs!” To a true particular congregation or denomination like ours, God gives the honorable name “church.” And yet, to His elect people everywhere who believe in Him, He also bestows the same title of “church.” Because God Himself does, we must also recognize the importance of both particular church and universal church.
There are two dangers to avoid—two ditches or extremes that I warn you young people about. One hazard is emphasizing the local church or denomination while minimizing or forgetting the universal church. The second is stressing the universal church while diminishing the importance of a local true church.
It is my opinion that Protestant Reformed people lean toward the first ditch more frequently. If we think of church only (or mostly) as one specific congregation or denomination, neglecting the perspective of the Scripture and our confessions concerning the church catholic, then we will actually believe that those outside of our denomination are not (or mostly not) saved. Perhaps we will not explicitly speak such folly, but our proud, demeaning, and hateful behavior and manner of speech will communicate it. I write this with full awareness that there is slander against our people. False accusations come as persecution against our churches in these last days. The allegation that we think we are the only ones is often a lie. But is it purely slander? Or does our conduct portray an overemphasis on the local church and denomination and an intentional amnesia concerning the universal church? While debating (as we should) against error and heresy, what is our attitude toward these brothers and sisters in God’s universal church?
Let us be sure that we remember to recognize the universal church as we witness of the truth in this world. If we deny the universal church and speak of (or imply) our local church or denomination as the only true church(es), we tragically fall into Roman Catholic heresy. The very reason that our Reformed confessions (like the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism) speak so adamantly about the truth of the universal church is to combat such Roman Catholic ecclesiology. That false denomination teaches the lie that only those who are members of her are in the universal or catholic church. Men like John Wycliffe and John Hus, followed later by Martin Luther and the Reformers, insisted on the basis of God’s Word that the church was universal—broader than the one Roman Catholic Church from which they separated. To forget the universal church is to attack a Reformation truth and to revive Romish heresy.
Even worse, it is to attack the triune God. The Father has elected unto Himself these beloved children whom we ostracize. The Son has shed His blood to purchase these citizens of heaven whom we anathematize. The Spirit works invisibly in the hearts of these image-bearers whom we judge. With fear and trembling, therefore, let us confess sincerely, “I believe an holy catholic church!”
As you stand boldly upon the truth of the universal church, beware also of a second ditch. The trend among self-proclaimed Christians in the world and in America today is to emphasize the universal church, while denying (or minimizing) the local church or denomination. Two results often take place when the local church or denomination is spurned.’
In the first place, many who minimize the local church feel that faithful membership in a true church is not necessary. But Scripture clearly speaks against this! Hebrews 10:25 exhorts us, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.” The Belgic Confession, after emphasizing the catholic church in Article 27, underscores the necessity of membership in the local church in Article 28: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and out of it there is no salvation, that no person, of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the church.” Our confession means, on the basis of Scripture, that outward membership in a local church is visible proof of our salvation. Those who refuse to join a true local church display that they are not yet saved.
In the second place, others who minimize the local church often deny the importance of joining a faithful church. They might agree to the necessity of membership in a church, but they claim, “It really makes no difference where I am a member as long as it has some resemblance to church and makes me feel good.” The problem with that mentality is an ignorance of Scripture’s warning of apostasy, the road that many churches are taking. Ignored also are the three marks of a true church that we are to use to evaluate churches. The corporate responsibility of each member to support the truth through his/her respective churches is especially forgotten. I Timothy 3:15 explains that the local church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” Thus, God’s people who join a church are supposed to do so for the very purpose of upholding and promoting the truth through their church. When men and women join a faithful church, their membership communicates, “I believe as truth the doctrines of this church, and I want these doctrines defended and disseminated.” On the other hand, when men and women join a church unfaithful to God’s Word, their membership communicates, “I believe the false doctrines held by this church, and I want these lies protected and propagated.” Faithful membership in a faithful church is of great importance!
My direct assertion that we must work to recognize the universal church should not occasion the misunderstanding that it matters little what church we join. Let us never compromise truth and wound our consciences by joining local churches that we know hold to unbiblical positions. But as we gather in the sanctuaries of our beloved faithful Reformed churches, let us also never arrogantly and heretically imagine that we are solely the people of God. Avoiding these errors, let us confess boldly the beautiful truth, “I believe an holy, catholic church.”
To be continued….