The Sunday morning student worship gathering at our ministry has been going through the Apostles’ Creed. (We have completed the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.) It’s my turn this Sunday, and my talk is about “I believe in the holy catholic church.” Considering that my audience is about 250 6th-12th graders, about half of them Christians, this will be a challenging talk. Here’s my current version. I’m sure I’ll tweak it several dozen times tomorrow.
The discussion thread will not turn into a Roman Catholic-Orthodox-Protestant debate.
What is the “Holy Catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed?
Michael Spencer, speaker
November 4, 9:15 a.m. worship gathering.
Have you ever heard someone say something like this: â€œBilly is a loner, but Bob is a joiner?” Do you know what those words mean?
A loner is someone who prefers to be alone. Itâ€™s not a bad thing, but it can make a personâ€™s life different in ways other people might not understand. There are always some â€œlonersâ€ on a campus like ours. Maybe you think they are bashful or angry or frightened. You may be right. There are all kinds of reasons a person might be a loner. In fact, many of us like to be loners sometimes, but not all of the time.
A â€œjoinerâ€ is the opposite of a loner. Joiners join every club and activity on campus. Show them a sign-up list, and theyâ€™ve put their name on it even if they donâ€™t know what theyâ€™ve signed up for. They want their picture in the yearbook as often as possible and their name in the student newspaper. If possible, they want to go on every field trip, be part of every off campus activity and be invited to every end of the quarter party.
Both â€œjoinersâ€ and â€œlonersâ€ seem a little unbalanced. The best kind of life is a mix of good relationships and being able to be alone. A person who canâ€™t be alone has an empty place inside of him or her that needs to be filled, and a person who rejects all relationships has another kind of problem, because God said that â€œit is not good for man to be alone.â€
Christians face these same choices. Does being a Christian mean we are â€œlonersâ€ or â€œjoiners?â€ Is being a believer in Jesus something that you do alone, or is it like joining a club or a team? It wouldnâ€™t be hard to find examples of both.
For example, go to any Christian concert or â€œfunâ€ event, and youâ€™ll usually find a crowd, but invite that same crowd to an early morning prayer time or to study the Bible and youâ€™ll discover that a bunch of â€œjoiners.â€ They are following Jesus when thereâ€™s a crowd.
As an adult, Iâ€™m more aware of Christian â€œlonersâ€ than most of you. These are people who want nothing to do with the church. They sit at home, watch Christian television and complain about how the church just wants money and is full of hypocrites. They donâ€™t abandon Christ, but they want nothing to do with Christians.
The portion of the Apostles’ Creed weâ€™re examining today says that â€œI believe in the holy catholic church.â€ When we first started this series, I took a moment to read the entire creed with you and to clarify that this is catholic with a â€œlittle c,â€ which means â€œembracing a wide and diverse variety, or all kinds.â€ So I could say, â€œHis musical choices were very catholic,â€ and it wouldnâ€™t mean anything religious at all. It would mean a person likes all kinds of music.
After spending weeks preaching through the various things we believe about the Trinity- Father, Son and Holy Spirit- weâ€™re now bringing the Creed to a conclusion with what all Christians believe about the church. Itâ€™s right here, in this line, that I want to convince you to be a â€œjoinerâ€ and not a â€œlonerâ€ when it comes to being a Christian.
One of our first problems is going to be what we mean by the word â€œchurch.â€ Weâ€™re all very used to saying â€œthereâ€™s a church on the corner,â€ when really, no Christians believe there is a church on the corner. There is a building on the corner that a part of the church- a congregation is a good word- regular uses for worship or other meetings.
As often as the Bible uses the word churches, it most usually uses the word â€œchurchâ€ if it wants to talk about the people of God who belong to Jesus Christ. All of them. All of them of every kind, in every place, every time and from every culture.
Look at Revelation chapter 5. The worship in heaven mentions the church that includes all Christians.
9 And they sang a new song, saying,
â€œWorthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.â€
In Revelation 7, John sees the entire church gathered together in Godâ€™s presence.
Revelation 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, â€œSalvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!â€
So if you donâ€™t hear anything else I say today, please hear this: the church- the people of God- are entirely the results of the work of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We- Christians- donâ€™t make, create, build or even grow the church. God does. Itâ€™s entirely his project from start to finish.
In fact, I hope that one thing you will learn to do is go back to the new Testament and notice how many times itâ€™s not â€œmeâ€ or â€œyou,â€ but â€œweâ€ and â€œusâ€ the Bible is talking about and talking to. Take this passage in Ephesians 2. Notice that all of the pronouns are plural. Itâ€™s all about the church!
2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedienceâ€” 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christâ€”by grace you have been savedâ€” 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Itâ€™s hard to read this and not come away amazing at everything done for his church. Yes, for individuals, but the Bible doesnâ€™t want us to see ourselves as loners. It wants us to see ourselves as those who have been â€œjoinedâ€ into the church, the people of God. As I Peter 2 says,
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Our past was darkness, our present is the call of God and our future is to be the possession of Jesus himself! What an incredible story to live by.
So where is the church now? The Bible tells us that most of the church is with Jesus, in heaven, waiting for the new creation to begin. Here on earth, however, there is always part of that one church still â€œin the battle.â€ On earth, the church presents and represents Jesus by all it preaches, teaches, does and is.
Every time Christians gather, the whole church doesnâ€™t gather, but those who do gather really are the church, and everything God says about the church and commands the church to do is true for them. Large or small, no matter what denomination. Every gathering of Christians who believe the faith summarized in the Apostles’ Creed and do what Jesus commanded his church to do is the true church.
I love to visit other churches. On Sundays I attend the worship gathering in this chapel, but I worship with a local Baptist Church later in the morning. When I was a teenager, I went to Charismatic churches for fellowship and worship. When I visit my children, I attend the Anglican or Presbyterian churches where they belong. When we visit my wifeâ€™s parents, we worship at a large Baptist church or an Episcopal Church we enjoy. On special days like Ash Wednesday or Christmas Eve, we often go to St. Williamsâ€™ or St. Anneâ€™s Catholic churches in London or Manchester. Iâ€™m comfortable in many different kinds of churches and I recognize Godâ€™s people in all of them.
None of those churches are a perfect or complete version of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church that Jesus will one day bring to heaven. Each one of these churches is like the true church and each one is part of the true church, but the Apostleâ€™s Creed reminds me that there is only one church. While Christians have divided, fought, split and made hundreds of denominations, Godâ€™s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church will never be divided, lost or destroyed. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would never defeat his church, and that is the truth.
Now let me answer some important questions about the church.
Do you have to choose one church and all its labels and problems? Wouldnâ€™t it be better to just visit them all?
It might seem that is the right thing to do, but itâ€™s not. The fact is that the New Testament commands Christians to do all kinds of things that can only be done if you belong to one, actual, local congregation of Christians. We are to be baptized. Take the Lordâ€™s Supper. Submit to leaders. Use our spiritual gifts. Be accountable to and serve one group of believers. All of these are things you canâ€™t do visiting here and there.
We all need a church like we need a family. Even though joining any church is to join an imperfect church, there is no way to be a Christian and to be a complete â€œloner.â€
Is one church better than another, or are they all the same?
Thatâ€™s a question you need to answer with your Bible in your hand and a lot of questions in your mind. You need to come to a place where you can say “Yes” to what a particular church believes, even if you have some questions. Making a commitment to what one church believes doesn’t need to mean rejecting other Christians as your spiritual family. Think of the church as one, embracing all believers. Then think of your congregation as one distinctive congregation, like some, unlike others, but still the church that Jesus bought and loves.
While most churches are true churches, there are important differences among churches. Some of those differences- like music or worship style- are minor, but other differences are very important. Donâ€™t let anything Iâ€™ve said about the one church distract you from the fact that many churches may not be good places for a young Christian to be. Some parts of the church are in very bad shape when it comes to the things that matter, and you donâ€™t want to be naive. When a church is wrong, it may be so wrong that Jesus wouldnâ€™t want you there. Read Revelation 2 and 3 to see what I mean.
(Some “churches” don’t affirm what is in the Creed or what is taught in the Bible. I’m not quite sure what to call them, but I do know you should avoid them. Trust other mature Christians to steer you clear of groups like the Mormons or the “Church” of Scientology.”)
We all need families, but every family isnâ€™t the same kind of place for children to grow, learn, experience love and become healthy adults. So some churches are like dysfunctional or unhealthy families, and you should avoid them. Just remember that even in some of the worst churches, there are still people who love and belong to Jesus, and in some of the best churches, there are some rotten apples.
This is where it is very important for you to learn the basics of the Apostles’ creed and not be afraid to ask questions. A church that is unclear on the Bible or the resurrection or the forgiveness of sins isnâ€™t going to be a good church for you.
What if Iâ€™ve been raised in one church? Should I stay or go elsewhere?
There are many advantages to staying in a church that you understand, but if you are away from home at college or starting out on your own, you will probably want to find a church that is right for you. That may be similar to the church you grew up in, or it may be very different. The important thing is that you find a congregation that you can bond with and learn from at the place you are in life. So if your home church didnâ€™t have many young people, a church with ministries for young people is probably a better choice for you. But remember: donâ€™t choose a church on entertainment value. Look at the important things that matter.
While youâ€™ve been here, weâ€™ve never stressed one denomination over another. Weâ€™re a school funded by Baptists, but many Christians of different denominations work and live here. You can ask any of the staff about the church they are part of or what kind of church you should be looking for and they will be glad to help you. You also might read Mark Dever’s book Marks of a Healthy Church for guidance.
What about when someone tells me that only their church or their kind of Christians are really saved, and the rest are wrong?
Sometimes the loyalty people have to their churches goes past the loyalty they have to Jesus. When that happens, they begin acting like the church is the savior. Be very clear: the church doesnâ€™t save anyone. Only Jesus does that, by grace and through faith. When someone says that the entrance to heaven is the same as the entrance to their church, theyâ€™ve lost track of the fact that Jesus saves the church and the church tells and shows the world what Jesus is all about.
If I donâ€™t join a church will I go to hell?
If you donâ€™t join a church you are telling Jesus that he isnâ€™t worth obeying, and that doesnâ€™t sound like what a believer in Jesus would do. If your â€œlonerâ€ act turns into â€œIâ€™ll decide how much of Jesus Iâ€™ll take seriously,â€ then something is very, very wrong.
God is the only one who decides who is going to heaven, but if someone treats the church- the â€œbrideâ€ and â€œbodyâ€ of Jesus- with contempt, I donâ€™t think there is any assurance at all that they are a Christian.
While the church doesnâ€™t save, there is no salvation outside of the Jesus the church preaches and offers to you. That is the Jesus who says, â€œIf you love me, love the church.â€
The church has really hurt me, and I donâ€™t want to ever go back.
Thatâ€™s an important fact that many of you have experienced. Some of you are pastorâ€™s kids and youâ€™ve had some very tough times in the church. Iâ€™ve been hurt deeply by the church, and sometimes I want to be a loner or just start my own thing.
What I want to suggest is that you remember every church isnâ€™t abusive or cruel any more than every restaurant is like the one with the cockroach in the salad bar. That happens, and thereâ€™s no avoiding the reality or the disappointment. But most churches will welcome you, love you and help you. Never perfectly, and if they were perfect you couldnâ€™t join…right? But imperfect churches and abusive churches arenâ€™t the same. There are a lot more of one than the other.
Again, use the advice and counsel of more mature believers on this issue.
If you find a real Christian, someone who resembles Jesus in action and attitude, someone with love and sacrifice in their hearts, someone with the obvious fruit of the Spirit….you will almost always be looking at a person who has joined the church and stayed with the church their entire life. They will tell you that it;â€™s a disappointment, that it needs help, that it sometimes is a dismal failure….but they will also tell you that without the church, they would not be the same Christian. Many of us owe our entire experience with Jesus to the church that God used to love and reach us. All of us in this room are benefiting from what churches choose to do with their money and resources.
I canâ€™t be any more basic or direct: If you are a Christian, you need to join with the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church and follow Jesus in the church.
Now join me in the Apostles’ Creed.