How Catholicity Compels Missions

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Step into many missionary contexts, and you’ll find that partnership in the gospel easily veers off the road into one of two dangerous ditches. On one side of the road, missionaries eager for partnership face the temptation to lower their ecclesiological convictions. I suspect this danger is less common for readers of this Journal. On the other side of the road, those who fear compromising convictions neglect the beauty of broadening our gospel partnerships. 

A robust view of catholicity in missions safeguards against both of these dangers. In this piece, we want to show that catholicity is concerned with both preserving and proclaiming the whole counsel of Scripture. Faithful missionary partnerships help our gospel work to go deep and wide. 


Indeed, some of the earliest articulations of theological truth—the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed—unashamedly declare that the one, holy, apostolic church is also catholic. Of course, these creeds were ignorant of the theological confusion to come.[1]

Initially, catholic merely meant the universal church, as opposed to a local expression of the church. As the centuries passed and controversy over doctrine arose, the term catholic was equated with the churches that aligned with the authority and teaching of the bishop of Rome. By speaking of the church catholic, many today quickly assume a reference to the Roman Catholic Church, but this is not necessary. This theologically rich term denotes much more. 

Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 315–386) was the Bishop of Jerusalem and present at the Council of Constantinople in 381 when the Nicene Creed was written. Cyril explained what the authors of the creed meant when they used the term catholic: 

The Church is called ”Catholic” because it extends through all the world, from one end of the earth to another. Also because it teaches universally and without omission all the doctrines which ought to come to man’s knowledge, about things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings under the sway of true religion all classes of men, rulers and subjects, learned and ignorant; and because it universally treats and cures every type of sin, committed by means of soul and body, and possesses in itself every kind of virtue which can be named, in deeds and words, and spiritual gifts of every kind.[2]

Cyril’s definition of catholic contains four discernible elements.[3]

1. Universal Geographic Extent

The kingdom of the Sovereign God—who is Creator, Ruler, Judge, Savior, and Redeemer—extends to every location. The universal extension of his kingdom geographically is a natural result of his omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience.

2. Fullness of Truth, Teaching, and Doctrine

Cyril asserted the veracity of the gospel in all that it claims and its sufficiency in providing all that humans need to know concerning God. The Scripture is total, complete, and sufficient.

3. Universal Application

Universal application does not mean that every individual will receive salvation (universalism), but that the gospel is powerful to save every type of person without distinction or exclusion because of their economic class or social position (Gal. 3:26–29). The church is catholic because people of every language, culture, ethnicity, tribe, and nation will become a part of the people of God. The universal application of the gospel is much more than a coincidence; it is ultimately part of the mission and purpose of God in redeeming a lost world (Rev. 7:9–11).

4. Universal Effectiveness

Cyril emphasized the power of the gospel to deliver sinners from every evil bondage and nurture them in faith and virtue. The gospel effectively restores all people who come by faith to a right relationship with God, no matter their past sins. 

These four truths about catholicity compel the church outward into dynamic missionary activity, seeking the geographic extension and universal proclamation of the kingdom of God. Catholicity is not only an anchor to help the church remain faithful to the apostolic faith, but it also provides a theological basis for global missions.[4]


Given Cyril’s helpful perspective, consider four reasons why catholicity contributes to the church participating in God’s mission to the nations.

1. God’s call of particular people has universal, missional implications.

The church did not simply decide at some point to include all nations in its membership. Instead, the nations’ salvation was part of God’s original plan and mission. When God called Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:5–18), he planned to bless all the families of the earth. God chose the nation of Israel to be a light to the nations, not to enjoy the blessings and promises of God in isolation, excluded from the rest of creation. 

2. Jesus gave us a catholic commission in Matthew 28.

Jesus uses the word “all” four times in the Great Commission. Jesus said he had “all authority” (Matt. 28:18), and now he sends his disciples to proclaim his universal reign. Jesus also commands the disciples to go to all nations (Matt. 28:19), to teach all things (Matt. 28:20), and reminds them of his presence into all the ages (Matt. 28:20). 

Catholicity signifies what is total, complete, and universal; therefore, Matthew 28 is rightly understood as a catholic mission.

3. Jesus prayed a catholic prayer in John 17.

Jesus prayed for unity among Christians based on his own unity with the Father. Why? “So that the world may believe” (John 17:21). Unity therefore is both an existential reality based on the divine Trinity and a utilitarian need based on the church’s mission to the world.

4. Pentecost was a catholic harvest.

At Pentecost, residents of neighboring nations came to Jerusalem, felt convicted by the gospel message, and asked, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Three thousand responded in repentance to the message, received baptism, and were part of the spiritual harvest on that day (Acts 2:37–41). Through the miracle of tongues, God gathered a people from the nations and showed that the gospel was for the whole world. This day “revealed the nature and mission of the church as catholic.”[5] The Holy Spirit reaped a catholic harvest at Pentecost that forever bound the people of God together in a partnership to fulfill the mission of God to all the world. 

How Can We Apply This? 

Faithful missionaries are left asking how this view of catholicity should shape their engagement on the mission field. Consider three practical applications. 

1. Catholicity compels missionaries to prioritize local churches. 

As Christ gave us a catholic commission that propels us into all nations, whenever possible missionaries ought to pursue and prioritize working alongside existing indigenous churches. Missionaries with a healthy catholic view will arrive and labor on the field, eager to serve the bride of Christ that is already present in a given context. 

Too often, zealous missionaries arrive on the ground eager to engage a least-reached area, and sadly forget to pursue the churches that are already present. Too often, our excitement to evangelize the lost can overlook the bodies of faithful believers which Christ has already established for that very task. When we do this, we’re guilty of uncatholic short-sightedness, and we dishonor the good gospel work that has gone before us. 

So, missionary, what churches are nearby that you can help encourage? Are there pastors with whom you might enjoy mutual encouragement, even if their ecclesiology isn’t perfect? What pastors can you help influence toward health? Is there any indigenous church that you could submit yourself to in membership? What gospel-preaching churches can be built up, celebrated, prayed for, and partnered with? 

Asking questions like these will reorient your perspective to prioritize what God prioritizes. You might regard local, indigenous churches as an unhealthy distraction to your mission work, but Christ considers the church his bride. Whenever possible, begin your work by partnering with gospel-preaching churches on the ground, despite their imperfections. Who knows, perhaps you will be one of the tools God uses to help them grow healthier. 

2. Catholicity compels missionaries to partner across denominational and organizational lines. 

As Jesus’s upper-room prayer showed us that catholicity and unity are not merely institutional, but functional, we ought to be eager to partner across denominational and organizational lines. This doesn’t mean missionaries should lower the standards of doctrinal fidelity and adopt a compromised ecumenical posture. It means we should look for opportunities for shared partnership wherever agreement over the gospel and other primary doctrines exists. 

Too often, we fall into the trap of acting like the Great Commission depends solely on our mission organization. We assess what gospel witness is present in a given location through the lens of our own denomination, team, or organization. This short-sightedness limits our view of how God is working. 

So ask yourself, what other organizations are doing faithful work around you? How can you build meaningful relationships and connections outside of your own organization? Are there other denominations that are faithful to the gospel in your context? You may be limited in your ability to covenant together in a local church, but how can you still find space for fellowship, mutual support, and cooperation? 

3. Catholicity compels missionaries to preserve the faith once for all delivered to the saints. 

Understanding biblical catholicity reminds us that we are not alone in affirming the true faith. Our partnership in the gospel stretches not only across geography and culture, but across time. As Jude implored the people of God, we must “contend for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Healthy missionaries will tie themselves to the orthodoxy of our historic faith. Fundamentally, God has tasked churches with preserving true faith and doctrine. The church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). 

Too often, missionaries feel the urgency of their task and then let careful ecclesiology subtly erode. They can turn into lone rangers, free from the accountability and oversight of a local body in their context. Yet if local church is God’s means of preserving and propagating the gospel, should we be surprised when such an approach dilutes the gospel itself? 

Fellow missionary, we understand that highly unique exceptions sometimes exist, but wherever possible unite yourself to a specific, biblical local church in your context. Submit yourself to its leadership and the congregation. Let your life and doctrine be guarded by the means that God designed to affirm right confessors and right confessions of the gospel. In doing so, you will stay faithfully catholic, working in league with the many churches that have gone before you and the many that will come after you. 


Looking back on our years on the field, some of our sweetest memories with fellow believers came from those outside our own tribes. Whether sitting under the teaching of a Presbyterian professor, attending a conference with local Baptist friends, or meeting for Bible study and prayer with Brethren in Christ, we were spurred on in hard contexts by other gospel-believing Christians. 

Don’t misunderstand what we’re saying: we loved running closely with the like-minded saints in our respective local churches. Our greatest energies were rightly centered there. But seeing God’s grace evident in other organizations, denominations, and sister churches regularly reminded us that God is at work in the world far beyond what we can see. 

However, we must also admit that, while we have many such fond memories, too often, our own hearts on the mission field were too shortsighted to see how God was at work. Too often, our hearts were deceived to say with Elijah, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men” (1 Kings 18:22). Thankfully, that just wasn’t true. 

Beloved missionaries, lift your eyes to see the beauty of God’s work around you. Embrace a robust view of catholicity, and let it compel you to carefully, discerningly, and optimistically pursue partnerships for the sake of the church and the glory of God. 

* * * * *

[1] The first two sections of this article are reprinted with gratitude from an earlier article at the Center for Baptist Renewal, How Catholicity Compels Missions, by Joshua Bowman. 

[2] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 18.23. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Lecture XVIII On the Words, And in One Holy Catholic Church, and in the Resurrection of the Flesh, and the Life Everlasting,” in The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, ed. Paul A. Böer Sr. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2014), 626–627. Bettenson,The Later Christian Fathers, 39. 

[3] T. A. Lacey, Catholicity: Conciones Ad Clerum (London: A.R. Mowbray, 1914), 99–104. A. G. Hebert, The Form of the Church (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), 99–105. 

[4] For a fuller discussion on catholicity and missions see Joshua Bowman, Cross-Cultural Missional Partnership: Mediating Relational, Cultural, and Hermeneutical Tensions for Mutual, Faithful Missional Engagement (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2023), 93–124. 

[r5] Hallig, We Are Catholic, 99. 

Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly is teaching pastor at First Baptist Church of Boynton Beach.

Joshua Bowman

Joshua Bowman is an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University.

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