The Apostles' Creed: The Holy Universal Church

In the late 1990s, my wife and I persuaded a widowed neighbor to join us one Sunday at the faithful Presbyterian church downtown. A standout preacher of the Reformed faith was filling the pulpit. Our neighbor, a serious believer, liked the preaching well enough. It was the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed that alarmed her.

When the congregation confessed, “I believe in…the holy catholic church,” I saw in my peripheral vision the abrupt turn of her head toward me with a look that said: “What in the world have you gotten me into!”

Whether my neighbor never confessed the Apostle’s Creed or only confessed a modified version (“the holy universal church”), I do not know. What I do know is that some churches have avoided the creed entirely because of this one line. Ironically, they think this line proves the creed is not for their church.

But the word “catholic” in the creed is not a subversive cheer for Roman Catholicism. It describes, rather, the unity of the church under Christ. It seems the first use of catholic this way was in the second century when Ignatius of Antioch exclaimed, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” Notice he did not say, “Where the current Pope presides, there is the catholic church.”

More fully considered, the term catholic refers to “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (Westminster, 25.1). 

If the creed simply read: “I believe in the church,” it would be too easy to think we are confessing our own works to organize, maintain and serve our local churches. The creed makes quite a different point. As it is written it leads us to confess God’s gracious work. The holy catholic church is God’s creation through the accomplishments of his Son and by the application of his Spirit.

My own church’s Committee on Ecumenicity & Inter-Church Relations puts it this way: “The unity of the faith is both gift and mandate.” The holy catholic church is to be confessed because it is a gift of God in Christ. It is on the foundation of this gift the apostolic mandate to “care for God’s church” both makes sense and is not forgotten (1 Tim. 3:5). Thus, the creed is following the gospel dynamic, declaring the indicative so we might never become slack in the imperatives: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).

Of course, this doctrine of catholicity is not to be weaponized against truth. Catholicity is not a progressive, modernist, code word behind which ministers of the gospel quietly begin to loosen their convictions. On the contrary, the unity which Christ gives his Church is unity in the truth of Christ, “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). To confess the “holy catholic church” is to acknowledge then the perfect work of God in Christ and His demand that we strive against the sinful disunity that defines the Church’s situation in this present evil age. This striving requires careful and contrarian engagement with error – even in our own communions – but always with a heart which knows that unity, not disunity, is the Lord’s pleasure (Jn. 17:20-21).

The other doctrine at this point in the creed is, “the communion of saints.”

Again, we here confess both gift and mandate. Almighty God, by bringing each of us to saving union with Christ, has also brought us “together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).

We are not merely together in a room or in numbers, but together to “have communion with each other’s gifts and graces and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man” (Westminster, 26.1).

The communion of saints stresses the fellowship Christ has created among believers by his Spirit in order to enlist each of us in deepening one another’s communion with God. It reminds us, as Craig Troxel wrote, “we must be ‘devoted’ both to the church's teaching and to its fellowship (Acts 2:42).”

This gift of the communion of saints is assumed by the apostle in Hebrews 12:15, where he mandates: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” He uses a plural Greek verb, episkopeō (“you all give oversight to it”). He knows, by the merits of Christ and the agency of the Spirit, believers have the requisite gifts and graces to “stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

Like the gospel, these two doctrines in the creed challenge our independency. But just as the gospel still must be preached to separate men from rebellious independence, so must these doctrines of Christ be confessed to do the same.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.