Article 27 - The Catholic Christian Church
THE CATHOLIC CHRISTIAN CHURCH
We believe and profess one catholic or universal church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects. This holy church is preserved by God against the fury of the whole world, although for a while it may look very small and as extinct in the eyes of man. Thus during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord kept for Himself seven thousand persons who had not bowed their knees to Baal.
Moreover, this holy church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. However, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.
BY FAITH AND NOT BY SIGHT
The article concerning the Church is as much an article of faith as any other article of the Belgic Confession. The fact that we can see churches around us tempts us to define the church on the basis of what we see instead of on the basis of God’s revelation. Each Sunday anew, though, we confess that we believe a holy catholic Church, and so whatever we say about the Church needs to be based on Scripture alone – even if the Lord’s revelation about the Church flies in the face of what we see around us.
Directly on the heels of his confession concerning how God restored the relationship between Himself and His elect after the Fall into sin, deBres made his confession concerning the church. God had given His only Son (Article 17) so that through His sacrifice on the cross (Article 21) persons enslaved to sin and Satan might be justified before God (Articles 22 & 23). The persons transferred through Christ’s work from Satan’s side to God’s side were not only justified through Christ’s blood but were also sanctified by Christ’s Spirit – sanctification (Article 24). The bond with God, once broken by the fall into sin, was restored so that, through the intercessory work of Christ, redeemed sinners may come again into the presence of holy God in prayer (Article 26). DeBres summarizes all this material in one sentence at the beginning of Article 27, when he speaks of “the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”
It is, deBres insists, these redeemed persons, washed by the blood of Christ and sanctified by His Spirit, who form the objects of the Church. The Church does not pertain to those persons still on Satan’s side (the reprobate). Rather, the Church pertains to those persons who have been brought from Satan’s side back to God’s side (the elect). (This, of course, is not to say that there are no reprobate persons in the Church; see Article 29). You cannot separate the doctrine of the Church from the doctrine of God’s electing grace, and hence His justifying and sanctifying work. At the same time, as will be explained below, one cannot equate the Church with the elect.
THE CHURCH IS THE WORK OF TRIUNE GOD
- God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are each involved with the Church.
God the Father elected to life certain persons from the whole of fallen mankind. These elect God gave to His Son (John 6:37,39; John 17:2,6).
God the Son laid down His life to pay for the sins of those whom the Father gave to Him (John 17:2,24). Yet after Jesus Christ atoned for sin on the cross and ascended into heaven, He did not wash His hands of the redeemed. Rather, from His place at God’s right hand He labors on earth still. He does two things:
- He sends preachers of the gospel to those parts of the world where there are elect persons whom the Father had given to Him. Christ, for example, arrested Paul on his road to Damascus and commissioned him “to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). When Paul wanted to go to Bithynia to preach, the Lord forbade him, and directed him instead to Macedonia because in Macedonia were persons whom the Father had given to the Son (see Acts 16:6-10). So the Lord caused Paul’s path to cross the paths of Lydia and the Philippian jailer, so that they heard the Word of life (Acts 16:11-34).
- God the Son also gathers together the persons who have come to faith. See below.
God the Holy Spirit changes the hearts of the elect, regenerating them so that among the elect there is ongoing renewal, growth, and an increase in holiness so that in the Church there may be the holiness there ought to be. It was the Spirit of Jesus Christ who caused Lydia and the jailer to respond to Paul’s preaching with faith.
Lord’s Day 21.54 echoes this work of Triune God in relation to the church. The question is this: “What do you believe concerning the holy catholic church of Christ?” The answer we have learned from the Bible is this: “I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen (that is the work of God the Father) to everlasting life.” Article 27 also speaks of the work of Triune God with respect to the Church. “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers (ie, chosen, set apart by the Father), who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”
In the town of Philippi, then, were persons elected by the Father, justified by the Son, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit – Lydia, the jailer, and (according to Paul’s letter to the Philippians) others like Epaphroditus, Euodia and Syntyche (2:25; 4:2). That these elect persons were transferred from Satan’s side to God’s side, were justified through Jesus’ blood and sanctified by the Spirit, is all part of Christ’s church gathering work. But: does the fact that there were now two –or perhaps ten– believers in Philippi mean that there was a church in Philippi? The answer to that question depends on one’s understanding of what the church is. If –as is common today– one defines the church as the elect (in a given town), one must conclude that the presence of faith in the hearts of two (or perhaps ten) Philippians implies that there was a church in Philippi. However, if one defines the church as Article 27 does, the presence of faith in the hearts of these persons does not yet mean there is a church in that city. What, then, is the church actually?
‘CHURCH’ IN SCRIPTURE
The English word ‘Church’ (and the Scottish ‘kirk’ and Dutch ‘kerk’) is derived from the Greek word ‘kuriake,’ meaning ‘belonging to the Lord’. This word gives expression to the fact that the Church was bought by the blood of the Lord, and so is His possession.
However, the word ‘kuriake’ does not appear in the Bible as a word for church. Instead, the Bible uses the word ‘ecclesia.’ This word was well known to the Greeks of the early New Testament era to describe an assembly. We come across the word in Acts 19, in the context of the riot instigated by Demetrius the silversmith in Ephesus. In verse 32 we read, “Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” The city clerk challenged the crowd that “if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly” (vs 39). Having said that, he “dismissed the assembly” (vs 41). In each of these cases the Greek uses here the word ‘ecclesia’. This was the common Greek word for a meeting, a get-together, an assembly, and was commonly used to describe a gathering of (some of) the citizens of town. Inherent in the word ‘ecclesia’ is the notion of gathering.
Further, God’s New Testament revelation is based on His Old Testament revelation. As it turns out, the word ‘ecclesia’ appeared frequently in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, as translation of the Hebrew word ‘qahal’, which again means ‘gathering’, ‘assembly’. This term occurs, for example, in Deuteronomy 5:22, where Moses recalls the time when God made His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai and gave His Ten Commandments. That meeting at the foot of Mt Sinai is circumscribed like this: “These words the LORD spoke to all your assembly.” Since both the Old Testament and the Greek speaking world of Paul’s day used the word ‘ecclesia’ to describe an assembly of people, it is not correct for us to read the word ‘ecclesia’ in the New Testament as if it describes all the elect.
When Jesus in Matthew 16:18, then, used the word ‘ecclesia’, His hearers on the road to Caesarea Philippi knew what Jesus was speaking about. He told Peter that “I will build My church,” and His hearers understood Jesus to speak not of an invisible, global entity comprising all the elect throughout the ages; they understood Jesus to mean an assembly, a gathering – for that’s what the word ‘ecclesia’ meant. Moreover, this gathering of Christ’s would be distinguished from other gatherings, for Jesus spoke of My Church, My assembly.
Similarly, Paul addressed a letter “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1). The mailman who had to deliver this letter to Thessalonica did not think in terms of an invisible entity of the elect of Thessalonica that could not be located. Rather, the common use of the word ‘ecclesia’ prompted the person charged with delivering this letter to think of a gathering of Thessalonians, something real, something identifiable, something visible. As to which assembly of Thessalonians was to receive the letter, the mailman could discover that by the addition of the words “in God the Father.” That is: this letter was not addressed to an assembly of, say, all the citizens of the city of Thessalonica, or those citizens who came together to play soccer; this letter was addressed to a gathering of persons united “in God the Father”. Nor was this letter addressed to the assembly in the Jewish synagogue (to whom the words “in God the Father” could apply); this letter was addressed to “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The mailman had to deliver the letter to the gathering of Christians, the Christian church. Yet Paul knew that this particular gathering did not include all the Christians of town, for he added at the end of his letter the instruction that “this epistle be read to all the holy brethren” (5:27).
In His teaching to His disciples, the Lord Jesus Christ also made this distinction between the people of God (the elect) and the gathering of the people of God. He spoke of the Church as a sheepfold: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Jesus’ point is that there are elect persons outside the Church, persons who –for whatever reason– are separate from the assembly of true believers. Jesus’ church gathering work is incomplete, and so He continues to labor to complete the church. In the meantime (as in a construction site; see 1 Peter 2:5a), there are elements in this building called ‘church’ that are not yet assembled to their proper place. If you will, the bricks are still on pallets in the yard, the light fixtures are still with the supplier, and the kitchen cupboards still have to be made. This is the force of the present progressive tense in 1 Peter 2:5: “you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house.” This is also the force of the future tense in John 10:16: “there will be one flock”. When the Lord returns on the Last Day the church will be complete, and that’s to say that all the elect will be gathered into one. This is what John was shown in the vision he saw on Patmos: “I looked, and behold, a Lamb (Christ) standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads”(Revelation 14:1). The 144,000 is not to be taken as the literal number of the elect, but, as with much of the book of Revelation, is to be understood symbolically as a number of fullness. It’s 12 times 12, times 103. This number is symbolic of all the elect, the totality of Christ’s Church (see Revelation 14:4). This group, all the elect, is standing together at the end of history, as one assembly on Mt Zion. This is when Christ’s church-gathering work is complete, and this is when the “gathering of the people of God” will constitute the same group as “the people of God.” Today, though, the construction of Christ’s church is still ongoing. That is why we should not be surprised to find sheep of the Lord in town who do not gather with us, be it that they meet together in a place of their own choosing or that they wander as individuals on their own.
Meanwhile, there are places in Scripture where the term ‘church’ is already used to denote simply the people of God, without asking us to imagine in our minds a gathering of God’s people (cf Colossians 1:18,24; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23ff). Yet the church as people of God without reference to gathering is secondary, and this loading of the term ‘church’ is possible only because the apostle reaches forward to the day when the body of the elect overlaps exactly the persons who are gathered together. It does injustice to the Biblical meaning and usage of the word ecclesia to maintain that the term describes first of all the totality of God’s elect – be it universally or in a given town. The church is primarily a gathering, and secondarily all the elect by virtue of their eventual gathering together in one place on the day of Christ’s return.
Was there, then, a church in Philippi once Lydia, the jailer, and perhaps others had come to faith? No, there was no church yet in Philippi, in the normal and primary sense of the word. Jesus Christ had further work to do before there was a church in town; He had to gather together into one those in whom the Spirit had worked faith.
‘CHURCH’ IN CONFESSION
The fathers in the time of the Great Reformation 450 years ago understood well the Biblical instruction concerning the church-as-gathering. The earliest confessions of the Reformation all place stress on the Church as communion or community, or fellowship of believers. The First Confession of Basel of 1534, for example, states in Art 10: “We believe one holy, Christian Church, the fellowship of the saints, the spiritual assembly of believers which is holy and the one bride of Christ....” Similarly, the Geneva Confession of 1536 states this: “While there is one only Church of Jesus Christ, we always acknowledge that necessity requires companies of the faithful to be distributed in different places. Of these assemblies each one is called Church” (Art 18). The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 answers the question about what the Church is with these words: “the Church is an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all the saints....” Confessions that developed under the stress of persecution also spoke of the church in terms of gathering. In the French Confession of 1559 (upon which John Calvin exercised great influence), the true church is “the company of the faithful who agree to follow God’s Word and the pure religion which it teaches” (Article 27). The Scottish Confession of 1560 states: “As we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so we firmly believe that from the beginning there has been, now is, and to the end of the world shall be, one Kirk, that is to say, one company and multitude of men chosen by God, who rightly worship and embrace Him by true faith in Christ Jesus, who is the only Head of the Kirk, even as it is the body and spouse of Christ Jesus” (Article 16). So there is nothing new or surprising in deBres’ characterization of the church in his Belgic Confession of 1561: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit” (Article 27). The fathers of the Great Reformation repeated after God what they heard the Lord teach in His Word: God’s church is the gathering of the people of God, and remains an ongoing work of the Lord.
After the above mentioned Confessions had come into print in the 1560’s, no reformed confessions of great note were written with the exception of the Canons of Dort (1618/19) and the Westminster Standards (1648). The Canons of Dort gives no description of the Church, though passing reference to the Church does appear (cf II.9 & V.9). The Westminster Confession, on the other hand, does present a characterization of the church. It reads as follows: “The catholick or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one....” And further: “The visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel ... consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Article 25.1,2). It is remarkable that this description of the church lacks the centrality of the concept of gathering. Article 25.1 instead defines the church in terms of election, be it that the elect are gathered at some time or another. This change of understanding of what the church is has colored North America’s popular understanding of what the church is. Given, though, what the Scripture teaches on the point, we do well to treasure the emphasis of the Great Reformation: the church is the ongoing work of the Son of God, wherein He visibly and locally gathers together the people of God.
FOUR CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CHURCH
The Church revealed by God in Scripture has various characteristics. In the course of church history, four have commonly been confessed. The Nicene Creed, for example, mentions the following attributes: “I believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” This is a confession based not on what man sees of the church, but on what the Lord has revealed about the church in His Word. These attributes characterize the church today (whether we see them or not), and will characterize the church forever. These attributes are God’s gifts to the Church and at the same time form a mandate to the Church. On the one hand the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic; on the other hand God calls the Church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
1) The Church is One
GIFT: that the Church is one is certainly not a confession made as a result of what man sees of the Church, for one sees so much division. The fact, then, that Scripture speaks of the one-ness of the Church has led many to believe that the Church is a large, invisible entity comprised of all the elect. This one big invisible body would then be the real Church. That makes each local church, each local gathering or assembly, a manifestation of the big thing, the real thing. (Abraham Kuyper was one proponent of this view.) This, however, is not what the Lord means when He reveals the Church as one.
Scripture teaches that there is but one way to be saved. The angel announced that the coming baby was to be called “JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The disciples insisted that “there is no other name under heaven [than Jesus Christ] given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). As Jesus said, “I am the way… No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Yet this same Jesus spoke not of gathering numerous churches, but just one church. “My Church,” one reads in Matthew 16:18, not ‘My churches.’ Since there is but one Savior who works faith in the same way for all the saved, there is only one Church. As Paul puts it, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4,5).
Jesus prayed to the Father concerning the Church: “I do not pray for these alone, (ie, the disciples) but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17: 20-23). God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer is recorded in Acts 2:44, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common,” and also in Acts 4:32, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” There was no division in the early Christian Church; rather, the church was characterized by unity, because there was one Savior and therefore one Gospel.
Revelation 14 speaks of the perfect unity the Church shall enjoy at its completion. “And they sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth” (Revelation 14:3). In unison they sing and confess, and together enjoy the Lamb’s supper. “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! ... Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. ... Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:6,7,9).
We experience the reality of this gift of oneness in the fact that we assemble together in Church on Sundays, singing together, praying together, listening together to the Word, eating together from one bread and drinking from one cup at the Lord’s Supper. The communion of saints as we experience it day by day in the course of the week also gives local expression to the unity of the church. On a broader level, one may think of the bond of churches, as well as sister relations with churches far away. In the closing words of Article 27, “it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”
MANDATE: In the brokenness that characterizes life since the fall into sin, the church experiences fractures in this oneness. Not that long after Pentecost, the oneness of the church came under stress through the failure of the saints to look after the needs of the Hellenist widows (Acts 6:1). The church in Corinth was self-destructing because the members insisted on their own way (1 Corinthians 1-4). Yet brokenness and division harms the cause of Jesus Christ in this world. Christ prayed for unity amongst His own “that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21). This prayer provides catalyst for the church to be the one body God has made the Church to be. The unity we experience in our assembling together on Sundays, be it by listening together to the one word of life, by praying and singing together, by giving our gifts for a common cause inside or outside the congregation, or by eating from one bread and drinking from one cup at the Lord’s Supper, needs constant growth and encouragement. The gift of the communion of saints needs cultivation so that more and more we become an active, living communion, where the one reaches out to the other so that together all members become increasingly unified. See there the mandate of the deacons (cf Acts 6:1-7)! On a broader level, the unity of the Church is to be expressed amongst sister churches nationally (synods) and internationally. This is not to be limited to those assemblies that we already know, for the Son of God is continuously at work gathering His Church. For that reason we are to keep examining whether there are other churches which we are to recognize as true, faithful churches of Jesus Christ, and with whom we should unite.
2) The Church is holy
GIFT: the closing paragraph of Article 27 speaks of “this holy Church”. This designation comes from passages of Scripture as 1 Peter 2:9 where we read, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” To be holy means to be set apart, claimed by God, treasured and special to Him. Since the church is special to God, its members are also regenerated by the Holy Spirit to be different from the world in which they live. This gathering of holy people cannot identify with the people on Satan’s side. Paul speaks of the Church’s holiness in his letter to the Ephesians, to whom he writes, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5: 25-27).
MANDATE: As it is, in this broken world one sees so much sin within the Church. The egotistical attitude of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) did not reflect the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. The church in Corinth tolerated in their midst a man who had his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). Such behavior made the church look worldly – and so the Lord of the church looks weak and worldly too. Precisely because the Lord of the church has made the church holy, it is the mandate of the church to be holy – and that involves an ongoing struggle. The gathering of the believers is to make a point of being separate from sin, being holy through the mighty working of the Holy Spirit within us. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16,17). In the strength of the Lord the church shall increase in holiness. Ephesians 5:27 speaks of the goal of pursuing holiness, namely, that Christ “might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” The reference here is to the Last Day. Though by God’s work in Jesus Christ the Church is today characterized by holiness, we today are at the same time to work towards that holiness.
3) The Church is catholic
GIFT: the term ‘catholic’ in this context does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, the term ‘catholic’ actually means universal, worldwide. In Article 27 we read, “... this Church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.” That is one aspect of the church’s catholicity. Article 27 mentions a second aspect of the church’s catholicity when it states that the “Church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end.” The catholicity of the church, then, refers to both time and place.
This characteristic of the church is inherent in the promise God gave to Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:18). The Church is not exclusively for Abraham’s physical offspring, but for all nations anywhere under the sun (see Psalm 87). The gathering of those washed in Jesus’ blood and renewed through His Spirit is not limited to Abraham’s day, for God says through Isaiah many centuries later, “It shall be that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and see My glory” (Isaiah 66:18). The New Testament, too, speaks of the Church made up of people from any race, language, gender, age, or social status. In the Revelation to John we read repeatedly of “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (Revelation 7:9; see 5:9; 15:4) – and therefore of all ages and places. Hence there is no room for discrimination in the Church on the basis of race or language or social status. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body –whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free– and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
This catholic character of the church tends to generate confusion in our minds. What is catholic or worldwide cannot be seen – and so our thoughts drift toward the scholastic notion of an invisible church. Then it is easy for our thoughts to slip again into the rut of equating the church with all the elect – as if the church is characterized by the election of its members.
Perhaps an analogy with the ocean can help us understand the catholicity of the church better. Off the coast of Vancouver Island one sees the ocean. One sees the ocean too at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, as well as at South Head in Sydney. In all three places one sees ‘the ocean’, yet one never sees ‘the ocean’ in its entirety. The ocean is too worldwide for the human eye to see at one time. That fact, however, does not make the ocean invisible; it rather makes the ocean un-oversee-able. The same is true in relation to the church. One sees the church in Kelmscott, Australia. One sees the church also in Yarrow, Canada, and in Pretoria, South Africa. These are not different churches, no more than the ocean off the coast of Vancouver Island is a different ocean than in Sydney. The one church of Jesus Christ, spread as it is over the entire world, is not invisible but un-oversee-able.
Again, as one considers the catholicity of the church, one notices differences between the churches of Africa and the churches of Australia and the churches of Canada. Do the differences not take away from the catholicity of the church (or its unity, for that matter)? The ocean off the coast of Vancouver Island is the same ocean as around Hawaii or off the coast of Australia, but the wave patterns, currents and water temperatures differ in those three places. Yet all the while, the water remains wet and salty and supportive of life. So it is, too, with the catholicity of the church. In no place on this earth is the church Christ gathers a carbon copy of His work in another place. In the one, catholic church of the Lord many different historical, ethnic, cultural and linguistic contexts abound. Yet all the while, the same Word of redemption is proclaimed and embraced, and people dead in sin are raised to new life. Unity does not mean uniformity, and catholicity does not mean sameness.
MANDATE: The catholic character of the church implies the mandate to be involved in mission work. If it is a gift of Christ that He has died for people of any tribe, religion, language or place, then the Gospel of Christ must also go out to every tribe, religion, language or place. Jesus emphatically linked His sovereignty over the whole world with the command to do mission work: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18,19).
Similarly, in a local community no church may be content to remain an ethnically homogenous group, comfortable in one’s ethnically determined religious culture. Since the church is catholic, God’s people in any age or community must be open to the elect of God of any race or language in that community, and draw them in. So, too, on a personal level I need to live my life in such a way that all around me whom God has chosen to life may be attracted to the church of the Lord. Abraham was called out to be a blessing for all nations.
4) The Church is apostolic
GIFT: In his letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote, “Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19,20). Likewise, concerning the New Jerusalem, we read in Revelation 21:14, “Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” The twelve disciples had seen and heard what Jesus had done and said during His ministry on earth (Acts 1:22; 2:32), and were equipped by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word of God (John 16:13). They were inspired to do so, while others were not. That is why the Church is built on the foundation of these apostles. That is: it is characteristic of the Church to embrace whatever the apostles taught, and so to receive the teaching that God has given. (See also Article 29: the Church “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it.”)
MANDATE: If the Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles, the Church must also believe what the apostles said, and not teach anything at variance with their teachings. Because embracing the doctrine of the apostles is characteristic of the Church, Paul tells Timothy to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (II Timothy 1:13). Timothy must “commit” this truth “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2). Jude tells his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (vs 3). Were the Church to add to or to subtract from the Gospel as preached by the apostles, it would no longer be the Church. The gift of apostolicity implies the mandate to remain apostolic, fully faithful to God’s whole revelation. So the Church must be ever busy with Scripture, always ensuring that she is faithful, reforming.
The ecclesiastical scene of today can discourage the child of God greatly – as it also did in the days of deBres. We see so much disunity, unholiness, parochialism, and even heresy in those who call themselves Christians and claim they are a ‘church’. But the child of God walks not by sight but by faith. Despite what the eye sees, we believe that the Son of God is busy in today’s world, gathering together those whom the Father has given to Him. He is busy sanctifying God’s chosen ones for the Day of His return. In the midst of the brokenness we see today, we’re encouraged by the promise that when Jesus returns the brokenness that mars the church of God so terribly today will be no more. The gates of hell cannot prevail!
In that confidence the people of God strive to be the church God wishes us to be: one, holy, catholic, apostolic – to the greater glory of the God of all.
Points for Discussion:
- Why may I not describe the church in terms of what I can see around me today?
- What is the connection between the doctrine of election and the doctrine of the church? Is the church all the elect?
- How could the mailman in Thessalonica know where to deliver Paul’s letter to the church of the Thessalonians?
- Are there persons outside the church who will go to heaven? Support your answer with proof from the Bible.
- When will the church be complete? How is the Builder currently bringing the church closer to completion?
- What gift is implied in the confession that the church is one? What mandate?
- What gift is implied in the confession that the church is holy? What mandate?
- What gift is implied in the confession that the church is catholic? What mandate?
- What gift is implied in the confession that the church is apostolic? What mandate?
- Will the church necessarily always remain in your town? Will the church of Jesus Christ necessarily always remain the (federation of) church(es) of which you are currently a member?
- Is it necessary to belong to a specific federation of churches in order to go to heaven?