A Catholic Church

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For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. — Galatians 3:26–29  

The Nicene Creed (completed in A.D. 381) defines the church’s attributes as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” We now come to that third attribute—catholic. What does “catholic” mean?  

Though few today remember it, considering a Catholic presidential candidate was an explosive issue in twentieth-century American politics. Not just in 1960, when Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy was elected president, but much more so in 1928. In that year, the Republican nominee, Herbert Hoover, faced the popular Democratic governor of New York, Al Smith. Smith was also the first Roman Catholic to be nominated by a major party for the office of President of the United States. Anti-Catholic rumors abounded. Protestant marriages were to be annulled. The pope was preparing to move to America. The new Holland Tunnel was being secretly extended to the Vatican.  

To alleviate concerns, Governor Smith traveled to Oklahoma City in September to give a major speech on the matter of religion. His speech was quickly forgotten when, the following night, in the same auditorium, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of New York City, John Roach Straton, came and gave a speech entitled “Al Smith and the Forces of Hell,” denouncing Smith’s Catholicism. He equated Smith with the urban evils of “card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism.”[1]  

One eastern lady who had come to Oklahoma to support Smith and speak for him had a run-in with a lady from a small town, who was a devout Baptist. “So you be the woman speaker, be you?” said the Oklahoman. “And you’re for Smith?”  

“Yes,” said the eastern lady.  

“Well, I ain’t.”  

“Perhaps if you would let me talk to you, I might change your mind,” said the Smith supporter.  

“No you couldn’t,” said the old woman. “Smith’s one of them Catholics and they brought in sprinklin’!”[2]  

That episode not only highlights the challenge facing us with regard to the catholicity of the church, but also challenges the wisdom of having a Southern Baptist minister like me make a contribution to this book on the topic, “A Catholic Church”!  


What is the church’s catholicity? Why is it significant for us to consider this from the perspective of Reformation theology?  

Most of us become familiar with the term “catholic” by means of the Roman Catholic Church. In so naming itself, the Roman church claims that it alone is the truly catholic church. Its arguments are several: (1) Only Rome has a unified, world-wide authority; (2) only Roman Catholics exist in every country; (3) only they have always existed since Christ; (4) only they have the fullness of grace and truth; and (5) only they are the majority of those who call themselves Christians. In short, they claim to be everywhere and always. As their motto puts it, they are semper eadem, always the same.  

I cannot affirm that “catholic” is an accurate description of that visible organization which is in submission to the authority of the bishop of Rome, the pope. In fact, the two words Roman and Catholic together—one limiting, and the other universal—make up an oxymoron. No one church alone can rightly be called the catholic church.  

The word “catholic” comes from the Greek word katholikos, which means “whole, entire, complete, general, universal.” While this adjective is nowhere used of the church in the New Testament, or of anything else, the adverbial form of it does appear once in Acts, where the apostles are commanded not to speak or preach at all (katholou) in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18). The simple equivalent for “catholic” in modern English is the adjective “universal.” Such universality is not the attribute of any one group of true Christians alone.  

“Universal” or “catholic” is used primarily in opposition to “local.” While a local church is indigenous in the sense that its members are taken from the local population and it is able to congregate all together, its nature is heavenly. That heavenly nature is in Christ, and therefore can participate in the same unity, holiness, and apostolicity that all other truly Christian churches participate in, regardless of where they may be located. In one sense, the catholicism of the church is simply its other attributes—unity, holiness, apostolicity—appearing everywhere and anytime there has been a true church or true Christians.  

So the church’s catholicity is the simple acknowledgement that the church is not confined to any one place or people. In that sense it is not like the Jewish nation, which was limited to the bounds of one nation.  

In this article, we will first examine catholicity historically and exegetically, and then consider some practical implications of the church’s catholic nature.  


First, let us consider the use of the word “catholic”—and the idea behind it—historically. The first known use of this word in connection with the church was in Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Smyrnaeans, written around A.D. 112. Ignatius mentions that “where Jesus Christ is there is the universal church.” Early writers believed in the catholic church in the sense that they believed that Christians everywhere trusted one God, confessed one faith, had one baptism, and shared one mission. In that sense, “catholic church” first meant real or authentic church.  

From about the third century on, the word came to be used as particularly synonymous with orthodoxy. So, the “catholic” church was opposed to a heretical or schismatic church. Clement of Alexandria, around A.D. 200, wrote:  

The one Church is violently split up by the heretics into many sects. In essence, in idea, in origin, in pre-eminence we say that the ancient Catholic Church is the only church. This Church brings together, by the will of the one God through the one Lord . . . those who were already appointed; whom God fore-ordained, knowing before the world’s foundation that they would be righteous.[3]  

By the middle of the fourth century, in addition to the idea of authentic and orthodox (as opposed to false), the word had incorporated the idea of the church’s extensive reach to every land and every class of person. Cyril of Jerusalem, lecturing to those preparing for baptism around A.D. 350, clearly had this idea of what the word “catholic” meant. He said that the church  

is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.[4]  

In A.D. 381 the Nicene Creed defined the attributes of the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” By the middle of the next century, the word “catholic” was inserted in the Apostles’ Creed. By the eleventh century, when the eastern and western churches divided, the eastern writers preferred the description “Orthodox,” while those in the west used the description “Catholic,” with both saying essentially the same thing. So from the second or third century until the modern period, the word “catholic” was a term used for exclusion and definition, to mark off regular from irregular, similar to the way modern conservative American Christians might say something is “evangelical” rather than a “cult.”[5]  

As regional heresies sprang up in the early church, the term “catholic” was important in the battle for truth. Powerful apologists like Augustine refuted the heretics or schismatics by asking them how they could claim to be the universal church when their teaching could not be found in most places where the church was. In the early fifth century, Vincent of Lerins, a monk, laid down a threefold test for what is truly catholic—what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This has been called the Vincentian Canon and has been used, particularly by the church of Rome, to evaluate the worth of various traditions.  

As you can well understand, the Vincentian Canon proved to be difficult for the sixteenth-century Reformers. This was difficult because the Protestants were not everywhere (they were only in Europe) and they had not always existed. “Where was your church before Luther?” was the taunt. And the Protestants were not all the people of Christendom—their numbers were very small compared to those of the church of Rome.  

In what sense, then, could the new Protestant churches claim to be “catholic”? Luther and Calvin gave primacy to the “always” in the definition of catholicity, not to the “everywhere” and “by all” aspects. They defined “universal” or “catholic” as a category not primarily about space but about time, not about the church’s spatial extensiveness but about its temporal continuity. In this sense, they spoke of their continuity with the apostolic church.  

The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What believest thou concerning the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ of Christ?” It answers, “That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends and preserves to himself, by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church, chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am, and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof” (A. 54).  

Ursinus commented:  

The Church is called catholic, first in respect to place; because it is spread over the whole world, and is not tied or restricted to any particular place, kingdom, or certain succession. The catholicity of the church, in this respect, commenced at the time of the Apostles; because prior to this time the church was circumscribed in narrow limits, being confined to the Jewish nation. Secondly, in respect to men, because the church is gathered from all classes of men of every nation. Thirdly, in respect of time, because it will endure throughout every period of the world: “I will be with you always even to the end of the world”; and because there is only one true Church of all times, which is of such a peculiar constitution as to embrace the whole world, and not to be tied down to any one particular place.[6]  

Since the church of Rome differed from the apostolic church’s teaching, it could not claim such temporal universality.  

Among Protestants this idea of temporal catholicity—that is, that the church existing now is the same church in which the apostles were and are—has replaced, or at least largely supplanted, thoughts of catholicity in terms of space alone. In that sense, catholicity among Protestants has seemed very much like apostolicity. To be apostolic is to be catholic, and to be catholic is to be apostolic, because the widespread acceptance of a teaching among self-confessed Christians is one of the marks of the truth of the teaching. The sense of the faithful is not unerring, but is normally correct.  

What a comfort and encouragement this truth is to us! As James Bannerman put it:  

The assemblies of Christians in every quarter of the globe, who worship God in sincerity and truth, are one in such a sense as their distance from one another admits of; and they must all be regarded as branches of the universal Church of Christ throughout the world—the great community of believers, separated by distance and kindred and tongue, who cannot meet together in the body, but who really meet together in the Spirit. The invisible Church of Christ on earth is local, but it is also catholic.[7]  

Let me speak to Baptists particularly for a moment. Some Baptists have had a great reluctance to speak of any universal church at all, other than that final assembly of all the redeemed in heaven. Where does this hesitancy come from? This reluctance has been there not because we have thought that we are the only Christians. We do not think that now, nor have we ever believed it. But there are a few other reasons, each related to the others.  

In part, this reluctance has come because of the understanding—common among Protestants—that the nearly universal definition of the church in the New Testament is “congregation.” This was so much taken to be the case that William Tyndale (in his great work which stands behind all of our English translations of the Bible) simply translated ekklesia as “congregation.” This strand of “congregation-only” ecclesiology has survived in various corners of Protestantism, including the nineteenth-century Landmark movement among Baptists, a movement that still has strength in many congregations.  

Another part of Baptist reluctance to understand the visible church as having a catholic aspect on earth is the underlying assumption of many Christians that a visible church must have a visible organization. In a strange way, the Baptist insistence on the primacy of the congregational understanding of the church has led to our own kind of ecumenism. We share with most other Christians the idea that Christ’s church should be one, and we are confident that it is, and that this unity will one day be manifested perfectly. But before the Lord’s return, we feel that no officers, no organization, no polity has been given to all of that portion of the universal church which happens to be militant (alive) and visible at any one time, except for the officers, organization, and polity of the local congregation. We may cooperate together with other Christians, but no organization of human invention (e.g., popes, general assemblies, or conventions) should be allowed to usurp the biblically mandated authority of the local congregation gathered.  

Still a third source of reluctance among Baptists to speak easily of the universal church as encompassing all visible Christian churches has been our difficulty in understanding the existence of true (or at least regular) churches without the practice of baptism (which we understand to be only of believers). We would no sooner admit unbaptized persons to membership than would those of you who are our paedobaptist brothers and sisters; and we have reached different conclusions than you have about what baptism is. These three considerations—or some combination of them—have led some Baptists and other evangelicals to sometimes deny the reality of the universal church anywhere other than in heaven.  

But, the hesitations of some evangelicals aside, the New Testament in Matthew 16:18, in Ephesians (1:22–23; 3:10, 21; 4:4; 5:23–32) and elsewhere (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28; Col. 1:18, 24; Heb. 12:23), clearly speaks of a church that is not merely local, but universal and catholic, and yet exists not only in the future, but now in this world. It needs no earthly head to create its unity; Christ alone is its head. It is marked by the Word rightly preached, and by baptism and the Lord’s Supper rightly administered to believers (and, some would say, to their children). It is this church—the universal church—and no one local church that has inherited the church’s universal mission that Christ set out in Matthew 28.  

Sometimes we quote approvingly John Wesley’s comment that “the world is my parish.” And when we set Wesley’s statement over against a narrow parochialism that appears unconcerned about what goes on outside one’s own immediate community or sphere of responsibility, we can appreciate what he is saying. The sentiment is correct, even admirable. However, strictly taken, Wesley’s statement is false. Ride however many thousands of miles on horseback he might—being in Newcastle and Bristol every year—the world could never be Wesley’s parish. He was limited in space and limited in time. His mission was limited. No single Methodist chapel was the universal church. Nor was the whole Methodist conference, nor the church of England, nor all the Protestant churches in the eighteenth century.  

Having said all that, there is still a sense in which it is right that each Christian hasve a concern for all other Christians elsewhere, as God gives opportunity. After all, the universal church stretches across time from the cross to the consummation, and across space from Jerusalem to London to Buenos Aires to Tokyo. And these local churches are all our extended family in Christ. This is the reality of the catholic church.  


Although this “attribute” of the church is not talked about explicitly in Scripture, cherishing it helps us to cherish the gospel, because it is rooted in the very dispute that is at the center of the New Testament from Acts on—the question of whether the church would be Jewish or would be multinational and multiethnic. Paul, in Galatians, understood this question to be closely entwined with the very gospel itself. Let’s turn now to the Book of Galatians and remind ourselves of what Paul was contending for there.  

Could both Jews and Gentiles be children of Abraham, and of God’s promises to Abraham? Basically, could they be children of God? Did it matter who their parents were or what nation they resided in? Though Paul didn’t state the question in these words, you could also ask, “Is Christ’s Church Catholic?” Here is Paul’s answer:  

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:26–29)  

How are you forgiven of your sins, freed from its penalty and power, and adopted into God’s family? The false teachers among the Galatians evidently thought they were saved through Christ, but they didn’t accept the idea that salvation came through Christ alone. They may have even thought that they had accepted the idea of faith in Christ being the way these blessings come; but they had certainly not understood that it is by faith alone, and not by observing the law. It is in this way that the church’s catholicity becomes directly important to Paul’s teaching of the gospel.  

Paul addresses the problem in Galatia in an earlier chapter, asking a series of questions:  

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal. 3:1–5)  

If you asked these people how they had received the Spirit, how they had been justified before God and declared innocent before him, how they had been freed from the penalty of sin and were even now being saved from the power of sin, as God had included them in his family—if you asked these Christians how all of these wonderful things had happened, you would find that there was a confusion arising among them.  

Some were saying that all of this happened because they observed the law. Others knew that all of this had happened simply because they had believed the gospel of Christ, which they had heard. Who can say which was really the cause? True, Paul had taught that faith in Christ was the way, but now other teachers claiming to believe that Jesus was the Messiah were saying that while observing the law was not enough in itself, it was nonetheless necessary. That teaching perhaps sounded a little strange at first in some of these young churches. It wasn’t exactly what Paul had taught them, was it? But soon, this message began to sound more plausible.  

It’s amazing how opinions begin to seem credible by simple repetition, particularly if the people who advocate them are at all eloquent and earnest; even more, among Christians, if they’re known to be personally pious. Perhaps that’s how these teachers sounded.  

However they gained their hearing, these teachers brought into question the very gospel itself. Christ had died for believers’ sins—they were not questioning that. They were not crude self-salvationists. Consider Paul’s words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father . . . ” (Gal. 1:3–4). I think that the false teachers may have said that they believed this. They may well have affirmed that God is holy and perfect, that he made us in his image, but that we had sinned against him, and that Christ came to live and die and rise again, to bear and bear away God’s wrath against us for our sins. But the point they were making had to do with how we are to apprehend Christ and those benefits of his death. Is it by believing? Just believing? Really? Then what about our lives? Do we really want to say that it is merely belief that is the means of obtaining the benefits that Christ has won for us? Or now that we think of it, could it be our repentance? Our changing our way of life? Our adapting our living to God’s revealed will? Just what is the principle that describes how we receive the benefits of Christ’s salvation? Can it really be simply by faith?  

We can imagine how the argument might pick up steam, particularly when the matter of Judaism was added in. Certainly God would not want his ancient people Israel to disappear by assimilation. And what about those special signs that marked off God’s people—circumcision, the Sabbath, sacrifices, ritual cleanness rules—surely these signs were to be continued. That would honor God and his Word, wouldn’t it? And surely the continuation of these signs would please God and would bring his Spirit’s presence to us.  

What do you think?  

Whatever questions you may have, Paul had no doubt. He called those who were tempted to believe such things “foolish” (Gal. 3:1). The Galatians were in great danger! Paul had preached clearly to them of what Christ had done, but now they seemed to be forgetting exactly that, or misunderstanding it. Paul had preached the crucifixion of Christ among them, and they had presumably partaken of the Lord’s Supper. They understood Christ’s substitutionary death (which thereby showed that they should have understood the futility of trying to gain salvation by obeying the law).  

So Paul asked them a basic question that would send them back to indisputable truth—truth that they themselves had experienced: “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2). Paul says, “Choose one of these alternatives.”  

How do we win with God—how are we justified and declared righteous? How are we freed from sin’s grip, from its grim wages and from its just punishment? How are we reconciled with God, and re-established in our relationship with him? These are the questions at the heart of Galatians, and the answer to them gives us, in no small part, the key to the description of the true catholic church.  

First, Paul is concerned that all Christian churches everywhere teach how to be forgiven for our sins, or, how to be justified. Granted that we sin, that we do what we should not, and that we do not do what we should, how then on the last day can we hope to win, to be declared righteous by God, the ever-just Judge?  

What then is Paul’s answer? We win, we are justified, declared righteous, not by observing the law but only by faith in Christ alone. Paul writes, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20; cf. v. 16).  

If faith is central, then what is the object of our faith? Paul’s answer is clear—Christ and what he has done for us. Paul showed this emphasis early in Galatians, where he spoke of Christ as the One “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:3–4). For Paul, Christ is central. We should never think that Paul is teaching that our faith itself is the ground of our justification, the basis of it, the reason for it. The ground of our justification is always and only the work of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ alone is simply the instrument by which God gives us our justification.  

Reflecting on this wonderful truth, John Bunyan wrote in his spiritual autobiography:  

But one day, as I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, “Thy righteousness is in heaven:” and methought withal, I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was adoring, God could not say of me, “He wants [that is, lacks] my righteousness,” for that was just before Him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.[8]  

It is not the mere cognitive belief in justification by faith alone that will save you, but rather it is the personal trusting, the “faithing” in Christ alone by which God graciously unites us to Christ, to his suffering, death, and resurrection, and thereby justifies us.  

This is Paul’s primary concern for all the Christian churches everywhere—that they be sure that justification is only through faith in Christ alone. But there is a second concern that Paul has, on which he wants all Christian churches everywhere to agree, and that is on how we are freed from sin’s power. Paul’s first concern is with justification—freedom from sin’s penalty—and his second concern is with sanctification—freedom from sin’s power.  

What Paul has to say about sanctification is the same as what he says about justification: Freedom from sin comes not by observing the law, but by faith in Christ alone. Paul writes, “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:21–22).  

A third aspect of this great truth that Paul presents here, that all truly Christian churches everywhere must agree on, is how we could be adopted as God’s children. The false teachers were obviously saying that the way to relate to God is through observing the law. Paul, however, says that this only leads back into servitude. He writes, “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal. 4:9).  

The way to have a relationship with God—whoever, whenever, wherever you are—is by faith in Christ alone. Paul says his readers—Jewish and Gentile believers—are all sons of God. We come again to the text that has within it the universal, or catholic, nature of the church:  

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.  

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 3:26–4:7)  

This is the background to Paul’s use of the contrast between Abraham’s two sons—one by the free woman, and one by the slave woman, sketched out at the end of chapter 4. We Christians are “like Isaac . . . children of promise” (Gal. 4:28). All Christians—Jewish or Gentile—have been adopted as free sons with full rights.  

Paul taught that the Galatian Christians’ unity came by means of faith in Christ alone. Note how this unity did not come through the works of the law (see Gal. 2:16). The thrust of Paul’s argument in the passage quoted above is from all sons in 3:26 to all one in 3:28.  

This is important because the Galatian teachers were teaching a different way, a distinction between those Galatian Christians who were circumcised and those Galatian Christians who were not circumcised. These false teachers were teaching an identity and a unity based not solely on the faith that they all supposedly shared, but on cultural practices.  

In this, the practical importance of the uniqueness of faith begins to appear. There is one way for all people, and that unity reflects the unity of God. Paul argues that all of these Christians together are children of Abraham exactly because they are justified by faith alone (Gal. 3:7). Unity in Christ knows no cultural, class, or gender distinctions. Paul was being emphatic about this. A skeptic could say that he had really gambled his ministry on this very point.  

Again, look at Galatians 3:28–29: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” The false teachers were trying to introduce another way, which would balkanize the body, and so reflect Christ falsely. Their way would make Christ appear divided when he is not. All of this unifying happened through the One who is the seed of Abraham. The fact that that offspring is referred to in the singular in Genesis is Paul’s point in Galatians 3:16 and 3:19. Have you noticed Paul’s statement in those verses?  

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ . . . Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.  

Talk about believing that every word is inspired! Paul believes that a noun being singular rather than plural is of immense significance! Through this one Seed, the promise has come to all who believe.  

I wonder if this section surprises you? Did you assume that we are all born children of God? No, friends, we must be adopted. Though we were created by him, we had separated ourselves from him by our sins. The Bible even calls us naturally enemies of God.  

But here, in Christ, a way is made for us to be rescued from slavery to sin. And more than that! Isn’t it wonderful that God did not simply rescue us from slavery by redeeming us, but that he went further, that he adopted us as sons? Imagine a wealthy man taking a slave youth and not just giving him his freedom, but also making him his son! That and so much more is what God has done for us in Christ!  

So we read:  

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4–7)  

What a privilege! Look again at verse 6: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” This is the other sending. So, God sent his Son into our world, and then he sent “the Spirit of his Son.”  

How did you imagine that you were accepted into God’s family? Did you think it was perhaps by your attendance at church? Turn up enough, and maybe he’ll start to know your name? Did you think it was by the growing righteousness of your own life? Friends, we cannot perform ourselves into God’s family. Such a glorious adoption comes not by our obeying God’s laws, but by trusting in Jesus Christ and his righteousness, whoever we are.  

This is what all true Christians everywhere have always believed. This is the truly catholic faith of the truly catholic church.  


What are some implications of the church’s universality? Understanding the catholicity of the church cuts against some problems in our churches.  

Contra Provincialism  

An understanding of the church’s catholicity is a blessing in that it cuts across the mild provincialisms of our world. How many times have we heard in a church the justification for this or that practice with the words, “But we’ve always done it this way.” Paul was calling the Galatians back to the way they had begun—in the very gospel itself. But our traditions are sometimes not as firmly rooted in the very gospel itself. They are often of more recent origin, and more particular to our own country, our own denomination, our own congregation, even our own preferences.  

The universal church is not to entrust itself to the will of any one earthly pastor, whether in Rome or elsewhere. While the universal church exists in all cultures, it should be limited to none. The gospel is displayed when Christians of different cultures show themselves all preaching and believing the same gospel.  

Some things we take for granted and become wrongly committed to, so that we never submit to the searching examination of Scripture. This is one reason that travel can be useful for a Christian—getting out to discover Christian practices in other places. One of the quickest ways to grow in understanding your own culture is to live in another one. Things that you’ve always assumed, you begin to realize, are not assumed by others. Is there a correct way? A right answer? Sometimes there is; but sometimes there isn’t. It is useful to know what is of the essence of the faith, and what is merely a certain particular expression of it. Understanding the truly catholic nature of the true church works against our provincialism.  

Contra Sectarianism 

From a congregational perspective like my own, denominations are parachurch organizations. But even those of you with a presbyterian or episcopalian polity recognize that your own “church” and its distinctives are not coextensive with the universal church. Therefore, denominations, and those distinctives that separate us from other evangelicals, should never be allowed to become ultimate.  

Confessing that there is a catholic church does not mean that denominations are necessarily wrong. Insofar as they allow Christians in conscience to work for the kingdom, and they do not breed an uncharitable and wrongly divisive spirit, they can be helpful (as seen in chapter two on unity). But the recognition of what we hold in common among true, faithful Christians must always be valued more highly and held more deeply than that which divides us.  

The gospel is displayed in its essentials when our distinctives are relegated to important but nonessential status. Understanding the truly catholic nature of the true church works against our wrong-headed sectarianism.  

Contra Racism 

This great truth of the universal nature of the true church seriously challenges our uniracial churches. Certainly it disallows churches that only admit people of one race into their membership.  

It at least raises questions about the practical segregation that we know in our churches. God forgive our historically Caucasian congregations for any of the ways we have wrongly forbidden or discouraged those of other races from joining us. Also, in America, there is a great story in the African-American churches that were built by our Christian brothers and sisters who knew so much oppression and misery under their Christian “masters.” In black churches, black Christians were allowed to exercise leadership and make decisions. From tiny financial means, they built great churches and denominations.  

Nevertheless, today, we must say that our racially divided congregations—of any color—do not commend the gospel. Understanding the catholic nature of the Christian church at least raises a question about any church that has a multiracial surrounding population but whose congregation is composed of only one race. Why is this the case? What can been done to better display the fact that the gospel is not limited to just one kind of person? What must we do?  

Charles Bridges gives us an excellent image: “The Church is the mirror, that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe.”[9] My friends, this perfect God is not white. And he is not black. He is not Asian, and he is not European. We may need to divide for practicality over language. But, as much as we can, let us not divide our churches for other cultural reasons. The gospel is displayed when those whom the world understands as having no reasons for commonality—who perhaps even have reasons for animosity—stand together united in love.[10] Understanding the truly catholic nature of the truly catholic church works against our racisms.  

Contra Churches Becoming Parachurches 

Having a ministry to evangelize one particular group of people—for example, college students or businessmen—or to disciple one particular group—mothers of young children or those in the military—is an understandable Christian endeavor. Many Christian parachurch ministries do exactly this. Yet focusing an entire Christian congregation on one particular niche or target group seems to undercut the very universality that the church is to display.  

It is entirely appropriate for a group of Christians to band together to work among blue- or white-collar workers, or among skateboarders, or any other countless number of groups by which people identify themselves. But the truly catholic witness of the church to the fact that the gospel is for every kind of person is undermined when we allow such a specific vision or mission statement to focus an entire congregation on only one small part of what a congregation is to be. God in his sovereignty will use various congregations differently; we trust that that is part of his glorious display of himself. But what it is that actually composes any and every congregation does not change, and we should never make the congregation more specific than God does, lest we unwittingly miscommunicate about the universality of God’s concern in the gospel.  

God’s gospel is more greatly magnified when our churches display a greater range of people whom Christ saves by his own mercy. Understanding the truly catholic nature of the truly catholic church undermines our misguided attempts at subjugating God’s church to one particular ministry, and so obscuring the comprehensive nature of Christ’s mission.  


We must see that Christ chooses the living stones who compose his church—that is not our task. And, by God’s grace, we can savingly trust in Christ anywhere, any time, regardless of who our parents are. The church’s catholicity is rooted in and bounded by the gospel’s catholicity. Anytime, anywhere, anyone can be forgiven his or her sins by faith alone in the one and only Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the true catholic doctrine of the true catholic church. If your church does not teach that, it is not catholic, no matter what’s on the sign outside. 

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of The Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic by Richard D. Phillips, Philip G. Ryken, and Mark E. Dever used with permission from P&R Publishing. 

* * * * * 

[1] Paul F. Boller Jr., Presidential Campaigns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 226. 

[2] Ibid., 229. 

[3] Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement to St. Athanasius (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 247. 

[4] Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Lectures, trans. E. W. Gifford, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 7 (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 139–40. 

[5] Ironically, in the modern period, the word “catholic” as an adjective has come to mean almost the exact opposite—someone who doesn’t draw distinctions, but tries to learn from the good in all. 

[6] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (1852; reprint; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1985), 289–90. 

[7] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 1 (1869; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), 43–44. 

[8] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 229. 

[9] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 1. 

[10] Two qualifications I would make to this call are divisions, first, for the purpose of language and, second, for the purpose of evangelism. Language is an inherent part of the Christian life. If preaching is to be central to the congregation’s life, it should be understood. Therefore, organizing congregations around understood languages is necessary. Second, evangelistic outreaches can certainly focus on one particular subgroup in a culture. But those desiring to evangelize a group or community should be very careful not to distort the gospel with the churches they begin, the very churches that are intended by Christ to personify the gospel. Ephesians 2, Acts 6, and Revelation 7 are good chapters to consider carefully for some of the reasons and challenges of multiethnic congregations. 

Mark Dever

​Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., and the President of 9Marks.

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