Many Protestant churches still recite the universal creeds of the Church; those that are accepted by all major branches of “Christianity” around the world, including the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. If not recited on a regular basis in the church service, they may be used for special events or services.
Creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed give words and formulaic expression to the most sacred parts of our faith such as the Trinity, creation, and the gospel itself concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But two of the most widely used creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, creep in a phrase at the end that seems to turn a few heads in Protestant churches either ignorant or confused about the meaning of a particular term used in the last paragraph.
I remember introducing the Nicene Creed to my small church in Nashville. As we approached the last line I remember the puzzled looks as we recited together, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
Not only did I receive the blank stares of now very confused baptists, but I actually lost one member who just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get over that term no matter how many times I explained it.
Very simply, the term catholic comes from a Greek word, καθολικός (katholikos), and the Latin, catholicus, meaning on the whole. It is the idea of something being holistic, universal, and whole.
The Church Catholic
Very early on in the history of the Christian Church, the term “catholic” was used to differentiate true, orthodox churches from those that embraced heretical or false teaching. Many of the Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Ignatius of Antioch used the term in reference to those who held to biblical, Apostolic Christianity in contrast to those who had embraced Gnosticism, Donatism, or any other of the many forms of pseudo-Christianity that appeared in the first centuries of Church history.
In this way, the term “catholic” became a demarcation of those churches and those believers who stayed true to the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” To be “catholic” was simply to be a true Christian; one who had not abandoned biblical Christianity for the false teachings of Arius, Sabellius, Pelagius, or any other heretic of the day.
So in this time, to be Christian was to be catholic. It had nothing to do with a denomination or magisterium, but had everything to do accepting the true Trinitarian and orthodox faith.
The Roman Catholic Church
By the fourth and fifth centuries, the Bishop of Rome occupied a somewhat elevated position within the Church. Because Rome was the seat of power in the Empire, this bishopric became a coveted and prestigious position. Over time, argument was made that the Bishop of Rome should be seen as the “first among equals;” But in the fifth century, one particular Bishop of Rome, Leo I, argued for the inherent supremacy of the Bishop of Rome claiming that this position was first held by Saint Peter and granted unwavering and universal authority to that particular bishop (also known as the Pope). This was the beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Roman Church assumed the role of the center and hub of catholic or universal Christianity. It’s Bishop, the Pope, was supreme in the structure of the Church and it was from Rome that Bishops and Archbishops were chosen to serve over particular areas of the now “Christianized” world.
At first, the Roman Catholic Church, though certainly astray in terms of their ecclesiology, was still part of the Church catholic (universal and whole). Although it would have been strongly asserted that not only were they part of the Church catholic, but they were the Church catholic; the only universal, true, and whole Church.
The Prodigal Church
Over time, the Roman Catholic Church began to practice and embrace practices and doctrines not founded in either Scripture or Church history. The veneration of dead Christians (Saints) and of Mary became a central focus of prayer and daily devotional life. Practices such as priestly confession and religious orders were added to the two biblical Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Most heinous of all was the perversion and distortion of the gospel itself. Because the Roman Catholic Church had departed from Scripture as the sole authority in matters of doctrine and salvation, many things had been added to the gospel that in essence created another gospel.
Works of righteousness, the Sacraments, and various kinds of penance replaced the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. More egregious still was that the Church authorized and sanctioned the essential robbery of the poor and ignorant by implementing the disgusting practice of indulgences, granting years off of Purgatory for monetary gifts and offerings to the Church.
When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, he had no intention of separating himself from the Roman Catholic Church, but of purifying it of these unbiblical distortions and so freeing it again be part of the true, universal catholic Church. When these plans blew up as Luther was condemned and excommunicated, the Reformation proper began and produced the greatest “divorce” in Christian history; the Protestant break-away from the Roman Catholic Church.
To say there was “bad blood” between the Roman Catholic and Protestant movements is a gross understatement. Persecution of both sides ensued in territories that gave in to one movement over the other. Bloodshed and even wars resulted in this great upheaval that changed the Church forever.
But even with such hostility between them, the Protestant churches would readily and boldly confess, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
But they weren’t Roman Catholic anymore, right? Why would they gladly embrace the term “catholic” in reference to themselves and their churches?
They did so because they saw the Roman Catholic Church as an aberration, a wayward, and even a false church. Like the Arians, and Sabellians of the first centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had followed after the doctrines of men rather than holding fast to the faith and gospel of the Apostles. By doing so, that which called itself the Roman Catholic Church could no longer be properly identified as “catholic.”
Protestant churches, believing that the Reformation had restored the true gospel (and hence true churches), boldly called themselves “catholic” asserting that it was their teaching and their gospel that made them such, not their submission to a man-made corruption.
Many steps toward reconciliation have been made between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant movements; and in situations where doctrine is no longer valued (ie. the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), partnerships have been formed in the name of ecumenism and “unity.” However, the Roman Catholic Church has not and is in no way close to denouncing the doctrines and practices that separate them from biblical Christianity. They are also certainly not near embracing the biblical gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Until such changes are made, the Roman Catholic Church (as it is) remains under the anathema of Saint Paul because they have “preach[ed] a different gospel” (Gal. 1:8).
In this way, faithful Protestant churches are more catholic than even the Roman Catholic Church because we hold fast to the biblical gospel that Rome abandoned so long ago.
If the creeds are not regularly recited and taught in your church, they should be.
When that takes place, faithful Protestants can confess with boldness that, “[we] believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Further, we belong to that catholic Church; not because of our allegiance to some magisterial institution, but because of our allegiance to the gospel of Jesus and the Apostles. How do we know that we believe that gospel? Because we find solidarity with the Scriptures, the sole and final authority in matters of faith and practice.
So don’t be afraid of being catholic. You want to be catholic. Being catholic means you’re a Christian; and that’s a good thing.