The Church is Catholic

Photo by Josue Michel on Unsplash

Tonight, we will continue our 4-part series on the doctrine of the church. As we have previously noted, the Nicene creed summarizes the doctrine of the church by listing 4 attributes of the church, and I’m spending one sermon on each one. The creed confesses that the church is One, it is Holy, it is catholic, and it is apostolic. Tonight, we will examine the third of these attributes: the church is catholic.

This sermon will be slightly different than normal. I’ll be spending much of my time talking about doctrine, and even some church history, before closing with some practical application, so hang with me. Don’t tune out if you hear a little bit of historical analysis. It is relevant, I promise.

When the Nicene creed confesses that the church is catholic, a lot of people get uncomfortable. They assume that that has something to do with the Roman Catholic church. However, the catholicity of the church is a doctrine that was in place well before the Roman Catholic church as we know it ever existed.

The term catholic comes directly from the Greek word katholicos, which simply means universal, or pertaining to the whole. So, when we say that the church is catholic, or universal, we are speaking of the entirety of the body of Christ, all of Christendom, all believers around the world today, and even across time.

Our confession speaks of the catholicity of the church in the first paragraph of the article on the Church. It says, “The catholic—that is, universal—church … consists of the full number of the elect who have been, are, or will be gathered into one under Christ her head. The church is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

To say that the church is catholic is to speak of all the saints, and to speak of the aspects of the faith that are necessarily present wherever the body of Christ is found.

So tonight, we will examine how catholicity is taught in the new testament, how it has been variously understood in church history, how it is often wrongly understood today, and then we’ll close by seeing how this understanding of the church helps to bolster the unity of the church. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the church’s catholicity actually fosters increased unity.

Let’s first begin by reading Ephesians 4, verses 1-6, and we will spend the remainder of our time focusing on verse 5. Ephesians 4:1-6:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Our verse tonight is a simple assertion that the body of Christ has one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. And these will serve as our three points for tonight.

In our first point we will note the Foundation of the Church’s Catholicity. The foundation of the church’s catholicity.

And the Foundation is our Lord, Jesus Christ.[1] Christ is the sole foundation of any understanding of the church’s universality. This seems almost unnecessary to say, that to be a part of the Christian faith, to be a part of the universal church, you must have Jesus as your Lord. And yet, it must be said.

And it must be said because there are many people throughout the history of the church and many people today who would NOT ground the catholicity of the church exclusively in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They would want to ground catholicity in something else.

We see, for example, very early attempts in the history of the church to ground catholicity in something or someone else. One early church father, named Ignatius of Antioch, wrote a series of letters around 100 AD, very early in the history of the church. And he made a statement in one of his letters that said, “Wherever the bishop (or overseer, pastor) appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”[2] Depending on where you put the emphasis in that sentence, you could either ground the catholicity of the church in the presence of Jesus Christ, or in the presence of the bishop, the latter of which became a common tactic in the battle against heresy in the early church. And that same tendency of grounding catholicity in the presence of the bishop is still around today.

For example, the Roman Catholic church grounds catholicity in the institution of the Roman Church, particularly with the Bishop of Rome as its head. That is, the Roman catholic church views itself as the earthly body of Christ, with the Pope in Rome as its earthly head. He is explicitly viewed as the earthly representative of Jesus Christ himself, the Vicar of Christ himself, and thus he is the head of the earthly body of Christ.

Therefore, if you are not in communion with the Roman Catholic church under the authority and ministry of the Pope, you are outside of the body of Christ, and thus outside of the catholicity of the church. For them, the catholicity of the church is grounded in an institution, and in a person, the Pope and his cardinals, and thus they believe that salvation is found in the ministry of THEIR particular institution. Which, we should note, is a very UN-catholic position. It undermines the universality of the church of Jesus Christ.

But other denominations and churches ground the catholicity of the church in something else. Some ground it in apostolic succession, meaning they can trace their church’s lineage back to the time of the apostles.

Others ground the universality of the church in some sort of experience. They may ground it in a particular kind of baptism, or in a particular experience of grace. For example, some say that to be a part of the church you must have a certain religious experience, like speaking in tongues or something else miraculous.

These all mistakenly replace the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the sole foundation of the church’s catholicity. To be a part of the universal church is to come under the saving Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul says very clearly in Romans 10, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

All that is needed is simple faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, and you are entered into the true communion of saints. You are part of the universal church. It doesn’t take special service. It doesn’t take specific acts of devotion. It doesn’t even take baptism. The Lordship of Jesus Christ is the foundation, and faith in him is the key to submitting to his Lordship.

Just like the thief on the cross who was saved right before the moment of his death, so too can anyone alive today still submit to Christ as Lord.

It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, if you’re rich or poor, or if you speak English or Chinese or Hindi or Arabic. If you hear of Jesus Christ and submit to him as Lord, you too are a part of the universal body of Christ.

So the simple question for you to begin with tonight is, “Do you have Christ as Lord?” Do you trust in Jesus Christ as the only savior of your soul?

To have Christ as Lord means that you submit to him as the only ruler of your life. That you agree with the exclusive claims of Christ as the only means of salvation, and that you Love him as your savior. It means that you are willing to submit to his leadership, to his estimation of what is right and wrong, to his calling on your life. Do you have him as Lord?

And we must note that it is not possible to have Christ as Lord over PART of your life. You can’t have Jesus as Lord over your soul, but not your body. You can’t have him Lord over your Sundays, but not Lord over your weekdays. There is no part-time submission to the Lordship of Jesus. He’s either Lord over all of you, or Lord over none of you.

I pray that you will hear the message of Jesus Christ tonight, and submit to him as Lord. He was the faithful son of God come in the flesh, who succeeded in all the ways that man fails, and who bore the punishment for failed mankind. He died in the place of terrible sinners, and he was raised on the third day as a promise of life for all those who would submit to his lordship, and become part of his body through faith.

Trust in that Lord, and you to will be made part of the universal church, the body of Christ which is united across space and time, SOLELY because of its shared union with Jesus as Lord. Jesus is the only foundation of the church’s catholicity.

Second, Paul says in Ephesians 4:5 that the church has one Lord, but also one faith. Here is our second point: it is in the faith that we see the Evidence of the church’s catholicity. The evidence of the church’s catholicity.

Let’s frame this point by asking a question. We may all concede that the first point is true: that faith in Christ is necessary to determine who is in the universal church. A harder question to ask is, “How do we know if a particular local church is part of the universal church?”

To answer that question theologians have helpfully summarized from the New Testament various marks that characterizes a true church. In the early church, the Nicene creed described the church as united, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

In the reformation, those marks were clarified more precisely into two general areas. For a church to be considered a true church, it must have 2 things: the biblical gospel, and the right administration of the sacraments. The true preaching of the gospel, and the right administration of the sacraments. Churches in possession of those two things may be more or less pure, but they are indeed true churches. And churches that lack both the gospel and the sacraments rightly administered, may not be considered true churches, no matter how many true individual Christians might be in them.

Let’s press into that a little more. First, the true preaching of the gospel. This is the heart of the protestant reformation in the 1500s, a recovery of the heart of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Largely based upon his studies in Romans and Galatians, Martin Luther sparked a big movement to bring reformation to the church, a restoration to the New Testament understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done in the gospel.

And as the protestants began to see the truth of the New Testament, which is grounded on justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners, these reformers began to start their own churches in which they could rightly proclaim the true gospel. They came to the conviction that the Roman catholic church was wrong on the issue of justification, among other things, and therefore had lost the heart of the gospel message itself.

Rome had injected human works into justification, and thereby had undone the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. And even more sad was the fact that when faced with this truth, the Roman church doubled down, and at the Council of Trent officially codified the Roman position on justification, and a host of other doctrines, and went to so far as to anathematize, that is condemn to hell, anybody who teaches or believes in Justification by faith alone, which is what Paul taught in Romans 4, for example. You can still read these statements in the documentation from the Council of Trent. Rome has never rescinded that pronouncement of justification.

So, this is where the protestant tradition started. Protesting the Roman view of the gospel. And even today, we too must exercise some measure of discernment when we judge the legitimacy of local churches and the purity of the gospel they proclaim. When we receive into membership new members, we pastors have to investigate not only the credibility of the person’s personal profession of faith, but also investigate what kind of church they are coming from.

Are they coming from a gospel preaching church? Or are they coming from a false church? Many people claim faith under the name of Christ, but in fact preach a false gospel.

Mormons do not preach the gospel of the New Testament, so they’re churches are false churches. Same with Jehovah’s witnesses. Same with oneness Pentecostals, who deny the trinity, and thereby undo the biblical good news. And sadly, even the Roman Catholic church, which has not only NOT changed their position since the Council of Trent, but has driven itself further away from the purity of the gospel message, thereby showing it is a false church.

There are good Christian people who are still in the Roman church, but the church itself, as is demonstrated in its official statements of doctrine, shows that it has lost the gospel, and thereby removed itself from the church universal. That’s right, you heard it hear first: the Pope isn’t catholic. Not in a New Testament sense.

A church must proclaim the biblical gospel in order for it to be a true church.

The second mark of the church that the Reformers clarified is the right administration of the sacraments. Contrary to the Roman church’s claim of 7 total sacraments, protestants see only 2 in the New Testament: The Lord’s supper and baptism.

The language used by the protestants about sacraments is important too. They specified the “right administration” of the sacraments. That has two particular senses. First, the sacraments are wrongly administered when they are done in a way that undercuts or undermines the gospel message, which was the first mark of a true church. That means, the partaking of the sacraments should complement, not undermine the gospel.

So, for example, when the Roman church proclaimed at the counsel of Trent that “the instrumental cause of our justification is the sacrament of baptism,” they had granted to baptism powers that belong to the sovereign Lord Jesus Christ alone, and had undercut the gospel.[3] You can look it up online: the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, chapter 7.  They removed from the recipient the necessity of genuine saving faith, and make the waters of baptism the instrumental means of our salvation, thereby officially codifying their position of wrongly administering the sacrament of baptism. The same can be said about their views of the Lord’s supper.

But the problem didn’t stop back in the 1500s. There are even protestant churches today that fail to rightly administer the sacraments. For example, some classical Church of Christ churches confuse the gospel of grace with our works when they rigorously assert that faith alone cannot save a man; he must be baptized as well.

Or some Pentecostals do this: “faith alone will not save you, you have to speak in tongues or heal someone to truly be a member of the church.” These are clear examples of the sacraments not being rightly administered and the gospel itself being lost.

But to rightly administer the sacraments not only means that the local church’s official teaching about the sacraments must be proper. It also means that the sacraments are rightly administered in terms of their use among the body. That is, the reformers also assumed an understanding of church discipline as NECESSARY for the health of a true church.

The Reformers couldn’t imagine a church proclaiming a true gospel, and having a proper understanding of the place of the sacraments in the life of a believer, but then allowing a person in clear, unrepentant sin to retain access to the sacraments. That doesn’t make any sense. Part of the gospel is that we are saved from the power of sin and increasingly saved from the presence of it in our lives; we continue to grow in holiness. And for a person or a church to tolerate clear sin and act as if everything is fine, that is evidence that the church doesn’t well understand the gospel message it proclaims.

So, to bring all this back to our verse in Ephesians. The church has ONE Lord and ONE Faith, and that faith is the gospel, which has a particular message and is expressed in two particular pictures: the Lord’s supper and baptism. And for the universal church to have a proper expression in a local assembly of believers (i.e., a local church), then that local church must possess and proclaim the true gospel and the true sacraments.

In sum, the universality of the church expresses itself locally through faithfulness to the gospel message, and that message has certain sacraments that were prescribed by our Lord. To get outside of that message and get outside of the proper view of those sacraments, is to get outside of the church universal, and into a false local church.

It’s not always easy to discern which churches have drifted too far. Some churches, like the Church in Corinth that we have been studying, have a true gospel, and yet still have terrible problems and even terrible sin. But where we find clear, confessional teaching that is contrary to the explicit teaching of scripture, we can be sure that that church is no longer catholic in its doctrine.

The faith of the gospel message is the evidence of the church’s catholicity.

Next, let’s move onto our final point, which is the fruit of the church’s catholicity. The fruit of the church’s catholicity. As Paul says, there is one Lord, one Faith, and one baptism.

That one baptism is significant for the universal nature of the church, and for the unity of the church throughout all space and time.

The baptism we receive, is not the baptism of Morningview Baptist church, nor a Southern Baptist baptism, nor a north American baptism, nor a baptism for whites or for blacks, nor a baptism for the educated and the simple, nor a baptism for the men or a baptism for women, nor a baptism for the reformed or even a baptism in the name of protestantism.

The baptism we receive, the communion into which we are drawn, is the baptism in the of the triune God we serve: the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith, and the communion represented by baptism, is catholic, it is universal.

That’s part of what Paul is getting at when he says things like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[g] nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. ” He’s not saying that in Christ there are no longer distinctions, as if we all become some androgynous amalgamation. Rather, he’s saying that:

“all are equal as Christians by virtue of the fact that they are [baptized into] Christ Jesus. They are all Abraham’s children. Let there be, therefore, no prejudice or bigotry in the church of Christ – no rejection of others because of their skin color, language, nationality, or customs. These things make NO DIFFERENCE AT ALL [Paul says].

[Further,] the idea that one language is better suited to express the Christian faith than another, or that people of some races do not make very good Christians, denies the catholicity of the church. [That has been a flawed prejudice that has occasionally popped up throughout the history of the church, particularly in the South, and it is contrary to the catholicity of the Christian faith.]

So is the notion that one country or [one] people represent in some special sense the kingdom of God, as [some old forms of classic] Dispensationalism [teaches] and [the Black Hebrew Israelites] teach.

But the catholicity of the church does not only mean that people from every nation are gathered into the church by the power of God’s sovereign grace … It also means that God gathers His church through all ages.

The catholicity of the church, therefore, assures us that we shall be with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in God’s heavenly kingdom (Matt. 8:11). It allows believers now living to be referred to in Revelation 6:11 as the fellow-servants and brothers of the martyrs.

Lastly [and to get practical with this doctrine], the catholicity of the church means that all kinds of people belong to the church. Rich and poor, great and small, young and old, master and servant, male and female – the church has room for them all.”[4]

That’s part of what James is getting at in his letter when he blames the Christians for favoring the rich man while despising the poor man in their midst. To act in a prejudicial manner is to practically deny the catholicity of the church which is pictured in baptism. The church is for ALL KINDS of people, regardless of what they look like, where they came from, what their job is, what their social status is, and to act otherwise is to undermine one of the beautiful attributes of the body of Christ.

Additionally, this doctrine of the catholicity of Jesus’s church helps us very practically because it re-orients our perspective in the Great Commission. Catholicity impacts our view of missions. It is very easy to isolate ourselves, and to turn our little brand of Christianity into the totality of Christendom. To wrongly believe that if people don’t do church like us, don’t preach like us, don’t think and dress and talk like us, then they must not be saved. But the doctrine of the church’s catholicity saves us from such self-deception.

Morningview does not equal the pinnacle of Christianity. Nor does any single church. There is no single congregation or denomination that is the sum of Christ’s universal bride. That means we can have great charity with other brothers and sisters in other churches. And We can have great patience with churches that appear to us to be less pure.

Further, it also means that as we pursue faithfulness to the great commission, we don’t have to try and replicate Morningview around the world. I always laugh when I go to other countries with their own unique architectural style and see a Roman catholic cathedral built in the European gothic style. It is as if to be faithfully Christian is to fit into a particular cultural mold. But the gospel is larger than that. Because it is a message, and not a social or cultural rehabilitation program, the gospel can go into every different country, language, and foreign culture and it transform them.

The catholicity of the church is not limited by borders of nations, nor by the bounds of customs, and that’s because the Holy Spirit is not limited by such things. The church is universal because the Holy Spirit’s ministry is universal in scope. And that means that anyone can be part of Christ’s bride.

We serve One Lord, in one Faith, and have one baptism. One of the beautiful fruits of the church’s catholicity is that the baptismal pool is open to anyone. It is open to the poor and despised. It is open to the rich and the powerful. It is open to the master and the servant, to the men and the women, to the old and the young. All that is required for entry into Christ’s church is to confess and believe that Jesus is Lord.

If you do that, then you too can be part of Christ’s bride. Come to Christ, confess him as Lord, receive the faith of the bible, and you too can be baptized a member of Christ’s catholic church.


[1] For more on the catholicity of the church and the Lordship of Jesus Christ, see: Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, trans. Margaret Kohl (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 338; Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 145. Moltmann says, “Where, and so far as, Christ rules, there, consequently, the church is to be found.”

[2] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8.2 (translated in Michael Holmes’s Apostolic Fathers, 3rd edition 2007), page 255.

[3] The Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, chapter 7.

[4] Harold Hanko, “The Catholicity of the Church.” Accessed 9/8/2021.


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