The United and Universal Church
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”- Ephesians 4:4–6
Holiness is not the only characteristic of the church that is identified in the Nicene Creed. The statement of faith also says that the church is “one” and “catholic.” But what is meant by these adjectives?
First, the word catholic in the creed does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, for there was no Roman Catholic Church at the time the creed was written. The word catholic only means “universal.” It is a testimony that the church is not limited to one nationality, ethnic group, socioeconomic class, or gender. Anyone—male or female, rich or poor, European or Asian, Hispanic or non-Hispanic—can be a full member of the church of Jesus Christ. All that is required is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
Scripture addresses the catholicity of the church in many places. Paul, for example, says all believers, no matter their background, are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28-29). The prophets foresaw a day in which people from all nations would worship Yahweh, the one true God and covenant Lord of Israel (Isa. 11:9-10). In Christ, this is happening even as we speak.
Catholicity and unity are intimately related. Because the church is not limited to one area or people group, it forms one body. There is not church a, church b, and church c. There is just “the church of Jesus Christ.” Now, you might be thinking: “Wait a minute. But we do see different denominations. The church is not one; it is split among many bodies.” Of course, that is true. As a visible entity, the church is not presently united. We have Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a host of others. There are important points of disagreement between all these churches that keep them from maintaining visible unity.
Yet when we talk about the oneness of the church, we are speaking primarily of the invisible unity that all of us who believe in Jesus share in Christ. Everyone who knows Christ as Savior is united to everyone else who knows Christ as Savior. That is because all of us are united to Christ, and He has only one body, as today’s passage indicates. At present, this unity is often invisible to us, although it is visible when Christians from different denominations fellowship together. This disunity is regrettable, and we should work toward visible unity insofar as it is possible to do so without compromising the gospel. Even so, we know that one day the church will be visibly united in glory. Jesus has prayed that we will be one, and the Father always answers the prayers of His Son (John 17:20-21).
Many people want to promote visible unity at the expense of the truth. But it should be evident that if individuals cannot agree on the basics of the truth, they are not united in any meaningful sense. Unity at the expense of truth is a foundationless unity, but that does not mean the pursuit of unity—even visible unity—is in itself sinful. We should be seeking unity that does not compromise the gospel. It is what Jesus prayed for.
Passages for Further Study