Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
“We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” From this expression from the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, which is a faithful summary of the biblical teaching on the nature of the church, the church is not only one and holy, but also catholic.
Often when one hears the word “catholic,” one thinks “Roman Catholic Church.” Some Protestants have been so scandalized by this word they will not even use it. But the term “catholic” is not limited to Roman Catholicism, just as the term “orthodox” is not limited to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Although “catholic”, like the term “Trinity,” is not used in the New Testament in reference to the Church, the term was intentionally chosen to refer to important biblical truths that speak about the Church. By definition it means “universal,” or “referring to the whole.” The important truth the early church desired to communicate was that the Church as a whole is more than the local church. While a local church is part of the universal Church, it is not the Church universal in its entirety. One of the first known uses of this expression occurs in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome about AD 110, which gives a clear sense of its meaning and importance: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church” (italics mine).
In addition to referring to the universality of the Church of Jesus Christ, “catholic” also meant “orthodox,” i.e., right belief, in contrast to heresy and schism. In the fifth century, Vincent of Lerins defined this orthodox catholicity as “that which is believed everywhere, at all times, and by all people.” Moreover, “catholic” also referred to the Church that extended throughout the world that had no geographical, institutional, cultural or racial boundaries.
It is important for evangelicals to know that the catholicity or universality of the Church of Jesus Christ is exclusive. One must not confuse the universality of the Church with universalism. As we have learned, one comes to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ through Jesus Christ alone. The road is narrow (Matt. 7:13-14) and the way is exclusive (Jn. 14:6). But once one becomes a Christian by believing in Christ’s completed work on the cross through faith, one becomes a member in the true, universal Church. Those that are members in the true, universal Church will gather with other believers in local churches.
What this means is that the universality of the Church is grounded in her identity, her relationship to Jesus Christ: in Christ alone does the whole fullness of deity dwell (Col. 2:9); Christ alone is full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14, 16); Christ alone is the Head of all things, for all things were created by Him and for Him (Col. 1:16); Christ alone is the lone, exclusive Head of the Church (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:23).
Contrary to what we hear in the world, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ is the basis of unity and universality (cf. Eph. 4:4-6). One appropriately writes, “if the church is one, it must be universal; if it is universal, it must be one. Unity and catholicity are two interwoven dimensions of one and the same church.”
In sum, God promised that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), and this promise was fulfilled in Christ and all those who now by faith believe in Him. God is drawing a people to Himself that crosses all social, racial and intellectual boundaries, a Church that is universal in scope (Matt. 28:18-20; Col. 1:18-20). Although being a part of the Church is exclusive, only through Jesus Christ her Head (Eph. 1:21-23), membership is universal in that the Church exists globally and is made up of those from every people and language and nation (Rev. 5:9-10). This is why the EFCA is committed to our Lord’s biblical mandate to “glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.”
Please join me in confessing our sin against Christ and His Church – our provincialism, our sense of personal kingdom building, our envy against others who are ministering in the same vineyard who appear to be doing “better” than I am, broadening where we need to be exclusive and doctrinally narrow, and narrowing and fragmenting where we need to be broad and universal, our ethnocentrism and racism, etc. Lord have mercy. Please also join me in praying that God will do a new work in the EFCA such that the local churches will be true reflections of an outpost from heaven (Heb. 12:22-24). Lord do this for the sake of Christ. Please also pray specifically for those who are working on the administrative and logistical details of the Theology Conference, and for those who are making plans to attend the Conference.