“I believe in the holy catholic church.”
This line from the Apostles’ Creed is one that trips up a lot of us Protestants. “Why are we talking about the Catholic church here at the Methodist/Presbyterian/Lutheran/Etc. church?” There’s an important difference between Catholic and catholic that helps answer this question.
Capital “C” Catholic is the specific kind of church based in Rome. Lower case “c” catholic is what is used in the Apostles’ Creed; that means “universal” or “according to the whole.” In the 2nd century the mainstream church started describing itself as “catholic” to distinguish itself from Christians that claimed to have a special knowledge necessary for true faith in Christ. Unlike those exclusive groups, the “catholic” church believed that Christ gave all the needed knowledge to all the disciples, who in turn taught it to everyone.
So when you say, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” you are affirming the Catholic church… And the Methodist Church. And the Presbyterians, and Lutherans, and Baptists, and whoever else. The catholic church refers to Christ’s holy, universal church made up of all his followers.
Sometimes we need to say out loud, all together that we believe in the universal church to remind ourselves of that fact. We Christians don’t always act like we’re all united in Christ.
I’m guilty of it. In the same way that the Corinthians were saying, I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas” or “I follow Paul, I can sometimes act in a way that says, “I follow John Wesley” (the founder of the Methodist movement). At the end of the day, we Christians aren’t followers of Wesley, or Luther, or Calvin, or whoever else. We are all followers of Christ.
“Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks. Was John Wesley crucified for me? No. There is one man, one God we follow: Jesus Christ.
I’m proud to be part of a church that is acting in a way that says, “We follow Christ.” On Thursday nights Andrews UMC opens its doors to host a free community meal. One of the coolest parts is that area churches and organizations take turns cooking and serving this meal. Baptists, Presbyterians, 7th Day Adventists, Lutherans, and more – all acting like they follow one man, one God, one Christ. Just last Thursday we shared a meal with a 7th Day Adventist. After a great discussion about why his church observes the Sabbath on Saturday, we all agreed that those differences are just details. The Christ we share is most important.
Yesterday was World Communion Sunday. We broke the bread and remembered how we – inside our church walls and beyond – are one body of Christ. One universal church.
A holy catholic church.
Credit to Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity: Volume I and Alister McGrath’s Historical Theology for a refresher on the origins of the word “catholic.”