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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of Life Together in Christ, Part V: Holy Catholic
February 2, 2017

Of the four ancient “marks” of the church set before us in the Nicene Creed, the two that are also mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed are most poorly understood. When the Foundations section of our Book of Order explicates these core characteristics of church life (F-1.0302 b. and c.), it emphasizes that they are gifts from God, rather than our own achievements. Underscoring that these attributes are divine gifts is foundational for understanding the nature and mission of Jesus’ church.

Someone designed an ink stamp for a particular purpose in one of the churches I served years ago – to blot out the word “catholic” and substitute for it the word “Christian” in the text of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds in our hymnals. Like many Protestants, they wanted to be ABC Christians: “Anything but Catholic.” For them, the word “catholic” carried all the freight of Roman Catholic traditions that differ from our own.

The word “catholic” is a “small-c” word, not a “capital-C” word. It belongs to the whole church, not just part of it. It derives from a Greek word, kat’holos, meaning literally “per the whole.” When you sip a Coca-Cola, you rightly expect that it will taste the same no matter where you purchase it. Each glass, bottle, or can is kat’holos. For the church, this means that everywhere the church has the same DNA, even if it appears in a variety of forms and places. What gives it this singular identity? Not its rituals or doctrines or governance or ministry, but its parentage. The church is not a self-constituted social group of like-minded people wishing to serve God in some particular way, but a people chosen and constituted by God to bear witness to God’s sovereign work as Creator and Redeemer of the world.

The Greek word for “church” confirms this – ekklesia, which means “called forth.” The church is the people God calls forth from the world to be the Body of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. It may seem to us that we determine which denomination and congregation to join. But Scripture and our confessions teach otherwise. Consider Jesus’ word to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16) A flower blooms wherever it is planted. Likewise, we are called to bear good fruit wherever God has placed us in the church.

The church’s origins and forms lie in God’s will and design. It has one blood type – the precious blood of Christ, whose body it is. It has one breath – God’s rushing mighty Spirit-wind of Pentecost. It is one race – chosen and holy. It has one purpose – to fulfill its Master’s commission.

The church is holy for the same reason it is catholic – it is divinely birthed and commissioned. By “holy” we understand that it belongs to God and God alone. Its membership and purpose are determined by God’s call rather than by human design. The world may strive to be self-made, self-ruled, and self-fulfilled; the church knows that we are not our own, but that we belong entirely to the One whose love claimed us, redeemed us, and promises us fullness of life. (See Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 1, Book of Confessions 4.001.) It is marked not by the membership homogeneity characteristic of human organizations, but by the stunning variety of members that together constitute a functioning body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

The church may not seem particularly holy if judged by its conformity to God’s will. Yet the fact that it belongs to God, and not to itself, is the core of its holiness. We tend to confuse “holiness” with “perfection,” but they have little to do with each other. “Holiness” is all about God’s claim on us regardless of who we are and what we do; “perfection” is something we strive to achieve. The church’s holiness and its catholicity are inseparable, since both are rooted in its being chosen by God rather than self-determined.

The holy catholic church manifests in a variety of external patterns. Congregations of diverse cultures worship with language and arts particular to each. Different forms of church government naturally yield different models of ministry. Variable demographics of congregations shape diverse manners of worship and witness – older or younger, rural or urban, wealthy or poor, settled or migrant. Yet all belong to the same body of the one Lord.

To confess the church as “holy catholic” is to affirm that, for all its varieties of peoples, ideologies, doctrines, and missional strategies, it is the same church everywhere. It is the people claimed by God, redeemed in Christ, and filled with the Spirit for transformative ministry in the world. This is the church. How are we living into our identity and mandate?

For the sake of the One who calls us,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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