We’ve been working our way through the Apostles’ Creed on Sunday mornings, examining what has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” Christians. (See here for more about that.) Last Sunday we looked at the Creed’s claim that “We believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints”. (You may watch or listen to the sermon here.) While many Protestants find themselves uncomfortable with the term “catholic” it is our word and we should reclaim it.
We saw on Sunday that when we assemble in the name of Jesus, Jesus is present fully, which makes our church the whole church. Each church that assembles in the name of Jesus is the whole church, the holy catholic church. Assembling in the name of Jesus is something a local congregation does which means that the church Jesus promised to build has always existed in local, concrete assemblies. Since each church is the whole church—having the full presence of Christ—what is the relationship between local churches? Miroslav Volf put it this way:
Confession of faith not only distinguishes the church from the nonchurch, it simultaneously connects every church with all other churches.Miroslav Volf, “After Our Likeness: the Church as the Image of the Trinity”
Our catholicity is seen in our willingness to receive all who confess Jesus is Lord and in our connection with all churches that assemble in the name of Christ. A common argument against Protestant churches by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists is that Protestantism is “fractured” for having so many denominations and associations of churches. This does not deny our catholicity, however! Local churches may associate and identify with other churches as they see fit. A local church can even submit itself to the authority of a denomination or other church without giving up its essential nature as a true church. Submission to another church (for example, the one in Rome) or connection to other bishops (as in Eastern Orthodoxy) cannot be a requirement for ecclesiality, however. An assembly that assembles in the name of Christ is a true church and is, therefore, the whole church.
At New City we pray regularly for our sister churches in our immediate area. Some are Christian Reformed and some are Reformed. There’s a Baptist church and a Presbyterian church. I meet with the lead elders from these churches regularly to pray for them and their churches. This reveals the lie that having differing views on issues such as baptism demonstrates fracturing and disunity among God’s churches. Our unity is in the core of our faith (as contained in creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed), and in the presence of Christ in our assemblies, for these churches assemble in the name of Jesus.
This does not mean the differences are irrelevant. For example, at New City we understand baptism as being the public profession of faith by which a person is received into a church’s membership while most of our sister churches in the area have a different understanding of baptism and so they baptize the infants of believers. This does not destroy our unity with them, for our unity is grounded in Jesus Christ. Again, this doesn’t mean our differences are irrelevant. While we can engage in evangelism and outreach with our brothers and sisters at Fourth Reformed, if we merged into a single congregation, what would we do when a person comes to faith and repentance and wants to be baptized? Would we get a cup or a tub? What if this new believer has children? There are practical reasons to remain separate churches, but these practical differences do not divide us, for when that church assembles in the name of Jesus they are the whole church for Christ is present in their assembly, and when we assemble in the name of Jesus we, too, are the whole church.
Because we believe in the holy catholic church, we must welcome and receive all who confess with us that Jesus is Lord. These are no mere words that must be uttered, as if they were some sort of secret passcode. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:3, no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. This means that only a Spirit-empowered life can live out this confession. We must welcome all who say by the Spirit that Jesus is Lord.
While many argue that Protestantism violates the unity of God’s church, the truth is that Protestantism actually demonstrates the unity of God’s church in all its diversity—provided we practice our catholicity by welcoming all who share our confession. It would be foolish to think that we at New City have every theological detail correct while any church who disagrees with us is in error. One day we will all have the details correct, but that day is the day the Lord returns, and so far that day is not yet today. God is simply too big and too vast for any individual church or group of churches—no matter the size—to claim it has all the details nailed down. All true churches that assemble in the name of Christ receive the faith that has been handed down, even as they disagree on secondary matters. As Vincent wrote in the fifth century,
Moreover, in the catholic church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “catholic”, which, as the name itself and the reason for the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.Vincent of Lérins, “The Commonitory”, 2.6
To welcome all who share our faith requires humility, for many may disagree with us on finer points. We are limited in our understanding of God and his Word and so we have different views on things like baptism and communion and church governance and spiritual gifts and even the role of the law of Moses in the life of believers (we will cover these exact issues in this current sermon series!). Rather than our differences showing disunity, these differences demonstrate our unity, for our unity is in Christ. Because Christ is our righteousness, theological precision is not. We are going to worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ on the new earth for all of eternity. Why on earth would we not extend that fellowship to them now?