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okay…but are we really catholic?

Last summer we explored the historical nature of our faith. As Vincent of Lérins put it, “we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”. That sermon series focused on the Apostles’ Creed, which was an early baptismal creed used by many western churches. It, along with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, summarizes our Trinitarian faith succinctly. In addition to seeing what has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” Christians, we looked at certain distinctives here at New City. From the very beginning there have been a range of views on a number of secondary issues that have not been believed “everywhere, always, by all” and for which we have a measure of freedom of conscience.

For many, the word “catholic”, used in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, is problematic. Many hear the word and cannot separate it from the Roman Catholic Church, and assume it can only refer to the Roman church and all those who are in communion with Rome and its bishop. The word is much bigger than Rome. It was first used by Ignatius in his letter to the church in Smyrna.

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.

Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2

When a church assembles in the name of the Lord Jesus, Jesus enters into their presence in a unique and powerful way, just as he promised (Matthew 18:20; Hebrews 12:18–24). Ignatius wrote that wherever Jesus is, that is, wherever he manifests his presence in his assembly, “there is the catholic church”. The word he used was the Greek word καθολικος (katholikos), which is the prefix κατά (kata; “according to”) and ὅλος (holos; whole, or complete), meaning the church assembled in the very presence of Jesus is assembled “according to the whole”—Christ’s church is present in its fullness. This is because the Lord Jesus is present in his fullness.

Many have heard that the word catholic means “universal”, which it does, but only sort of. It means universal in the sense that the entire church is assembled across space and time (since God is not limited by space and time), but that’s not a great translation. This is why most languages do not translate the word but transliterate it. We see a similar phenomenon with the word “baptize”. It was a common word in Greek but we do not translate the Great Commission as requiring us to go into all the world to make disciples, “dunking them” in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, we transliterate the word as “baptize”, indicating the unique purpose for this particular dunking or immersing. Transliterating the word catholic is not unique to English. Consider the following languages. (Those that do not use the Latin or a Latin-like alphabet have a phonetic spelling after them.)

  • Azerbaijani: katolik
  • Norwegian: katolikk
  • Malagasy: katolika
  • Albanian: katolike
  • Italian: cattolico
  • Slovak: katolícky
  • Russian: католик
  • Bengali: ক্যাথলিক (Kyāthalika)
  • Japanese: カトリック (Katorikku)
  • Yiddish: קאַטהאָליק (katholik)
  • Portuguese: católico
  • Scots Gaelic: Caitligeach
  • Croation: katolički
  • Punjabi: ਕੈਥੋਲਿਕ (Kaithōlika)
  • Khmer: កាតូលិក (kataulik)
  • Maori: Katorika
  • Amharic: ካቶሊክ (katolīki)
  • Luxembourgish: kathoulesch

What is so important about this word that so many languages transliterate it rather than translate it? The church, throughout history, has been, well, catholic. This does not mean Roman, for the Eastern Orthodox Churches have never been Roman. Protestants are not Roman. We are catholic, however, for we believe what has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians. By reciting the Apostles’ Creed each week we are both reminding ourselves and declaring to one another that while we have certain distinctives we are catholic Christians who are united with all who confess Jesus is Lord. This is why we are able to worship on Good Friday with our brothers and sisters in Christ from Gracehill Church (Presbyterian), Fourth Reformed Church, and Coit Community Christian Reformed Church. We don’t agree with them on every issue. I’m sure they don’t agree with one another on every issue. We do agree on the faith that has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians, however, which makes us catholic. When they assemble together in the name of the Lord Jesus on Sunday mornings, there is Jesus Christ, and wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church—there, just as he is with us.

Because of this historical meaning of the word catholic, it is important for us to embrace the word and thereby demonstrate something significant to the world: Jesus came to unite a diverse people together in faith in him. As I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon, the existence of various Protestant denominations is not the problem for the church has had a variety of opinions on significant issues from the beginning of the church, yet Christians can declare their unity in the essentials of the faith we have received—that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians.

Last Sunday Martha asked that we continue to pray for Ukraine in general and Ukrainian believers in particular. She mentioned that non-Eastern Orthodox Christians in Ukraine chose to observe Easter last Sunday rather than the Sunday before, which is when all Protestants and Roman Catholics observed Easter. Think of that. Eastern Orthodox churches do not observe Easter Sunday when the rest of the church across the globe does. That’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it? This difference is actually quite old.

In the second century there was a raging debate over when to celebrate Easter. The practice had not yet been formalized for all churches. The eastern churches observed a fast leading up to it and then celebrated Easter on the actual date of the Jewish Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which it fell—like Christmas Day. The western churches also fasted leading up to Easter (this is the Lenten fast) but always observed Easter on a Sunday. This was a significant debate and threats of excommunication were being made over it.

One of the elders in the city of Rome was a man named Anicetus. In the church in Smyrna was another elder, a man named Polycarp. Both were serving the Lord Jesus faithfully in their respective churches. Polycarp visited him in Rome to discuss a number of matters, including the date of celebrating Easter. Early historian Eusebius recorded two very interesting things that took place during this controversy. First, he records that Irenaeus wrote to the church in Rome admonishing them to not cut off “whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom” (Eusebius, “Church History”, 5.24.11). Notice the use of the world “whole”—that’s part of the word catholic. Second, as this controversy raged on, Eusebius records the following.

And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.

But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.

Eusebius of Caesarea, “Church History”, 5.24.16–17

Notice he writes there were multiple disagreements they debated. The existence of disagreements has always been the case, except on those doctrines that have been believed everywhere, always, by all. Also notice that when both sides realized they would not persuade the other, they agreed to continue to observe Easter as each had received it. Anicetus even acknowledged that Polycarp had been taught by the apostle John to observe it differently than Roman Christians had been taught by those trained by Peter and Paul! In other words, the apostles disagreed on this matter. Yet not only did Anicetus celebrate communion with Polycarp, he had his dear brother in Christ lead the communion celebration.

While all Christians today celebrate Easter on a Sunday, the Eastern Orthodox Churches calculate which Sunday differently, so in most years they celebrate Easter on a different Sunday than the rest of the world. Because this is not an essential of the faith, non-Eastern Orthodox Christians in Ukraine chose to observe Easter with the Orthodox on the date the Orthodox chose. This is a demonstration of our profound unity in Christ.

Instead of being put off by a long-used word that can have negative associations, let’s laud the fact that Christ’s church is significantly larger than our small ponds. In our humanity we want to draw lines in the dirt where God himself has not drawn them. Let’s recognize our catholicity and embrace the unity we have with all those who confess Jesus is Lord, who believe what has been believed everywhere, always, by all.