True Catholicity

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” (vv. 9–10).

- Revelation 7

Read the early church fathers and you will find frequent reference to the “catholic church.” The word catholic means “universal,” and it reflects the early church’s belief that the church encompasses people from all nationalities. The catholicity of the church is a necessary consequence of the church’s unity. If God has provided only one church in His mission to redeem the world (see John 3:16; Eph. 4:4–6), that church is necessarily universal. There are no competing bodies through which people can access the means of grace and salvation. Christ has one body, and if God’s purpose is to provide one Savior for the world, that one Savior’s body must exist across space and time.

In their writings, the Reformers continued to emphasize the catholicity of the true church. They did so in the face of criticism that they were anti-catholic, that by breaking away from the papacy they were forming groups that were not universal in character. The Roman Catholic Church made these assertions because of its claim that the universal church consists only of those churches that are united ecclesiastically to the bishop of Rome, the pope. Despite some softening of the language of this stance in the centuries since the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church continues to make this same claim.

The Reformers countered this charge by arguing that the Roman Catholic Church was not catholic enough. And they were right. The ancient church did not place the bishop of Rome above other church leaders or give him final jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. In fact, by limiting the catholic church to only those churches in communion with the bishop of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church robs the church of much of its universality, setting aside other traditions in favor of practices and doctrines developed only in one stream of the Western church. To equate the church universal with the Roman Catholic Church is to exalt a small corner of the Christian world—Latin-speaking Christians, Italian theologians, Roman practices—at the expense of the many believers from many different places who have contributed to the well-being of God’s people.

If the church is to be truly universal, it must embrace orthodox believers and theologians from all times and places and not exalt one preferred set of historical and cultural traditions above others. The universal church is governed not by one bishop, but by men from all tribes and tongues who hold fast to the biblical gospel.

Coram Deo

Revelation 7 indicates that God’s people will include men and women from every tribe and tongue. The catholic church is the church that is enriched by thinkers from every background who preach the truth of Scripture, not the church that makes one geographical or cultural expression of the faith definitional for everyone else. Let us work for the catholicity of the church, finding a place for all faithful expressions of biblical truth.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 12:1–3
Habakkuk 2:14
Romans 11
Ephesians 2:14–16

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