The Catholic Church (Part 1)

I’ve mentioned that “Orthodox” is a word I’d like us Mainline Protestants to reclaim. Another word like that is “Catholic.”

The word “catholic” means “universal” or “entire.” It comes from a Greek word that means “according to the whole.” Unlike “orthodox,” this word actually appears in Scripture, where members of the high priest’s party examine the disciples and order them not to testify about Jesus:

So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.

The word that eventually became “catholic” is translated here as “at all.” The only place in Scripture where this word occurs is here in Acts 4:18.

If that verse were the only place Christians used the word catholic, it wouldn’t matter. But of course it isn’t. Most of the time, when American Protestants say “catholic” they’re referring to the Roman Catholic Church. This is reasonable, as 95% of “Catholics” are members of the Church of Rome, and only 5% belong to the 22 Eastern Catholic churches.

But at the same time, Protestants assert their own catholicity.If, as Scripture attests, the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12), or the bride of Christ (Revelation 19:6-8), then there can be only one Church. And if there is only one Church, then the Church must extend geographically to include the entire world, and chronologically to include its members in every age.

When we look around, however, we see lots of churches. In the U.S. alone, there are about 300,000 Protestant local congregations. If there is only one Church there are only two possible explanations. First, it could be that my church is the authentic church, and all the others are impostors, including the ones I attended before I came here. The other possibility is that the churches are interconnected and thus a single church in reality despite the appearance to the contrary.

A few people have planted their flag on the first hill, but most Christians have preferred the latter. This is an easier choice for most Americans, since we don’t belong to a continuously-operating church in Jerusalem or one of the other churches mentioned in the New Testament. Instead, most of us acknowledge our church isn’t the only expression of the one Authentic Church. Nevertheless, we argue that our church is one of the constituent parts of that True Church.

What, then, is the nature of that invisible strand that connects our church with the other parts of the Authentic Church? I’ll write about that in my next post.