Have you ever thought about how sometimes we call a whole category of things by the name of one specific thing? For example duck tape. In general, people use the term duck tape to refer to any kind of durable cotton-based tape. We forget that duck tape is a brand, it is a particular subset of durable cotton-based tape. Another example would be Kleenex. Once again Kleenex is a specific brand of facial tissue, but we generally use the word Kleenex to refer to any type of facial tissue. Sometimes this happens in the opposite direction where the universal term gets used for a specific thing. This is what is happening when we think of the word catholic.
The Roman Church?
It has become popular to refer to the Roman Catholic church simply as the Catholic church, but this is not correct. The term catholic is a word that means universal. It is much older than the Roman Catholic church as it stands today and has been used by all Christians throughout the history of the church to refer to the whole of Christianity. When we refer to the catholic church in the creed we are not referring to a specific denomination or to the "church" ruled by the pope in Rome. We are referring to the universal church, that is to say, the church of Christ that is present all over the world. See the church catholic is bigger than just a single denomination. The church catholic spans the whole world. These churches, whether they are big churches or small churches, open churches that meet in a building like ours or a secret church that meets in someone's basement in the dead of night to avoid being seen, are all part of the same universal catholic church. We are all members of Jesus Christ Church.
The True Catholic Church
What does it mean to be a truly catholic church? This is an important question because there are lots of "churches" today that are not truly part of the catholic church. What I mean by this is that there are groups that claim to be Christian but reject everything that it means to be Christian, and yet they still claim to be. The Morman's for example claims to be a Christian denomination, they claim to be part of the universal church, but they reject the teaching of scripture that Jesus is, was, and always will be fully God. So once again we come to the question what is a true church? This was a question that came up in the reformation as well. See the Roman Catholic Church argued that the reformed churches were not true churches and the Reformers argued that the Romans were not a true church. As such the Reformers searched the scripture and presented a threefold test for a true church.
The Threefold Test
The first mark is the most important one. It is that the gospel is purely preached. This seems like it should be obvious, but look around the internet today or on tv and you will see examples of false gospels left and right. You will see the gospel of prosperity, the gospel of self, and the gospel of works. These are not the gospel of scripture. The gospel is preached from the scripture, the whole of scripture. It is not based on works, but on God. It does not promise health, wealth, and happiness, but promises peace and eternal life with our savior. It is essential to know this gospel and to be reminded of it often. Christians should never tire of hearing and speaking the good news that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
The second mark is the pure administration of the sacraments. What is meant here is that the sacraments are administered according to the scripture. In the reformation context, this had specific reference to a couple of different things. One is the number of sacraments or ordinances as we call them. The Reformers like us recognized only two pure sacraments, the Lord's Supper and Baptism, whereas the Roman church, even today, insists that there are seven. But the more important issue, not to say that the number is not important because it is, is how the sacraments are administered. For example, the Lord's Supper in scripture is to be done by believers in remembrance of Christ's sacrifice that was completed once and for all. To say that Christ needs to be sacrificed by the priest each week, as the Roman Catholics do, is to misuse the Lord's Supper and deny the sufficiency of the cross.
The third and final mark of a true church is discipline. A church that does not exercise church discipline is not a true church. As Christians, we are all called to help lift each other up and to call out the sin in each other. We are supposed to be doing this in love so that we might all be growing in holiness. A church that does not do this is essentially saying that holiness does not matter. The church leaders specifically are also called to protect the sheep from the wolf that would try to sneak into the flock. A pastor or elder that is not willing to do this is not fulfilling what God has called them to do.
When we say we believe in the holy catholic church we are not saying that we believe in the Roman Catholic church. Quite the opposite. By the above definition, the Roman church is not a true church. What we are saying is that we understand that our first citizenship as Christians is that of heaven. We are recognizing that the citizens of heaven are not from one place or tied to one local body of believers but are from every time and can be in any place. When we come together on the Lord's day, Sunday, to worship our savior and our Lord we are joining together with thousands of other Christians around the world who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They may not look like us or talk like us but if they are preaching and receiving the pure gospel, rightly practicing the ordinances, and participating in the discipline of one another, then they are our brothers and sisters. This week let us remember our brothers and sisters around the world and confess together that we believe in the one, holy and catholic church and that we together are eagerly awaiting the return of our savior.
Soli Deo Gloria