Dead history or living future? – part 3
What do people mean by “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church?”
There are some ancient creeds, or statements of the faith, that all denominations and ‘orthodox’ churches accept as valid and binding. They were adopted before the Reformation. This intriguing statement about “one holy, catholic and apostolic church” comes from the Nicene creed, which is the first of the major creeds. So it is important to wrestle a little with what it means. And it really is ‘wrestling’ because at first it looks as though the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century broke up the one Catholic church and fragmented it forever. Here are some brief thoughts out of my wrestlings ……
“One” church. Unity is on God’s heart. Psalm 133 and John 17 make this plain. But unity does not depend on being part of the same organisation. It is a matter of the heart (love) and the mouth (words build or destroy). Sadly, in the aftermath of the Reformation, Christians of most persuasions behaved in very un-Christian ways, trying to force others to believe what they believed. But the heritage of the Reformation is that ordinary people reading scripture together with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can re-discover truth in the New Testament, if only they determine to put it into practice.
A “holy” church. It seems Christian teachers have disagreed on what is true holiness and how to achieve it, before, during and since the Reformation! But whatever our theology, beneath it all is a common understanding that our God is holy and He wants us (and enables us) to become more like Him. When it comes to praying, reading scripture and serving the poor together with Christians of different backgrounds, it soon becomes obvious in practice what “holy” means.
“Catholic church.” This is the word that causes those of us from Pentecostal/Charismatic and Evangelical backgrounds to wince and move swiftly on. Yet it does not have to be a problem. We think of the organised Roman Catholic church, but the dictionary definition of “catholic” – and the meaning the draftsmen of the Nicene creed had in mind – is simply “universal” or “diverse.”
We are talking about being part of the whole, universal church worldwide. And the meaning that stands behind this word is a beautiful concept – diversity. The one church should not be limited to an organisation that tries to make people think, look and sound the same. In fact we are part of a family, a body, a house. These are the images used frequently in the New Testament that speak of diversity – we are different in background and style but if we are being built by the Holy Spirit into a spiritual house, or if we are connected to the Head of the Body, then we share the same heart attitudes of love for God and for each other and for those outside.
An “apostolic church.” Some see this as merely a church that pays attention to the teaching of the first apostles. However there is a growing awareness that the five ministry gifts in Ephesians 4:11-13 are active today and need to be recognised and released to play their different but complementary parts. But the meaning of the word “apostle” is not like the other four, where the name gives a clear indication of what they do. The apostle is one “sent as a messenger/ambassador.” Paul is clear that this gift carries authority (1 Cor 12:28) and together with prophets provides a foundation for the church (Eph 2:20). Perhaps the best ways of interpreting the New Testament data is to recognise them as fathers in the family whose role is to pioneer new churches and to build people together.
“I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” These words point us to understand the church as much more organic and diverse than human institutions tend to be. The challenge is that churches and networks/movements have to be both organic (created and kept in their identity by the Holy Spirit) and structured (benefitting from the sort of connections and structures that any human family or organisation needs to function well).
Living with the tension between organic and structured has been difficult throughout church history and it is easy to criticise others. The key thing, though, is to follow the Spirit and also godly leaders who are genuinely seeking to participate with the Holy Spirit in building one holy, catholic and apostolic church.