The Apostle's Creed and the "holy catholic church"
Northview’s Easter Sunday service began with the words, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” These words mark the opening of the Apostles Creed, a summarizing statement of Christian belief which has been adhered to since the early second century. Even to this day, every week around the world, churches will recite this creed together. While not formally written by the Apostles (that is, those who were witnesses to, and sent out by, Jesus), the creed does helpfully and accurately summarize basic truths which all Christians affirm. In many ways, this creed became the defining boundary of the Christian faith.
In the evangelical world, the Apostles Creed has slowly fallen by the wayside; where it once was held in prominence, it is now barely even recognized. Even when it does get recited, certain lines from the creed stand out as odd, one such statement is, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” The week after Easter, we began receiving questions about this line. “Do we believe in the catholic church?” As a protestant evangelical church, how is it possible for us to affirm this statement? In order to understand how we can affirm this, let’s briefly look at each descriptor of the church.
The (One) The church has been called to unity. Jesus prayed to this effect in John 17, just before he was handed over to the Jewish leaders and crucified, that “all [of his followers] may be one” just as Jesus and the Father are one. The church is called to oneness. It doesn’t take much looking around to see that the church has been largely fractured, but those divisions are merely institutional while theological unity remains when it comes to the essentials of what we believe. In this life we may have divisions, but we know that when Christ returns in the last days there will be one church, one people, from every tribe, tongue, and denomination, worshipping Christ as Lord. From our perspective, we see a church divided; from a heavenly perspective, God’s people have been united with Christ and, by the Spirit of Christ, formed into a body which can never be torn asunder.
Holy God has called His people to Himself and set them apart, transforming the church into a new type of community. This new community, the church, is then called to continue along the path of holiness. Jesus, again in His prayer in John 17, asks the Father, to “sanctify [my disciples] by the truth” and in Ephesians 5, Paul tells us that Christ gave Himself up for the church that the church might be made holy and cleansed by being washed in His blood. We will never reach perfect holiness before Christ’s return, but because of what He has done for us on the cross, the church is marked as a people set apart and moving towards the goal of Christlikeness.
Catholic God has called all kinds of people to himself from all tribes and nations and tongues. The universal church, from those whom God first called until the last days, consists of those who publicly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. When we confess to believe in the holy catholic church, this is what we mean. In a modern sense, the term catholic brings to mind cathedrals, mass, incense, confession, and Roman Catholicism; but at its most basic sense, this word simply means universal. While Northview is not catholic (in the Roman sense), we are all part of the one true catholic (that is, universal) Church which was bought by the blood of Christ. Whether worshipping in Canada, Mexico, India, Ethiopia, or Australia, we are all part of the same church, and while today we are worshipping in our own local contexts one day we will all be united before the throne of the lamb joining together to say “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8, 7:9).
The Christian church has used creeds and confessions from the very beginning to demarcate the boundaries of true faith. This practice is still happening today, every week, when churches around the world profess the Apostles Creed. While in evangelical churches, reciting the creed together is not a common practice, we still eagerly affirm all that it says.
The Apostles Creed (as printed in the Book of Common Prayer, 1789) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. and descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Father. And He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.