WE BELIEVE IN ONE HOLY CHRISTIAN AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH.
Protestants, American Protestants in particular, have periodically heard calls from spiritual leaders to restore the New Testament church. Naturally, that has meant different things to different people. Nonetheless, the reason most spiritual leaders have made these calls to restore the Church is their common belief that the Christian Church achieved its most pure and ideal form in the earliest days of its existence. For many people, this implies that faithful Christians should always try to return to the governmental structure, doctrine, and culture that most characterized the primitive Church.
Not all Christians believe this, however. Protestants, for example, although agreeing that the Church must be constantly reformed and that the early church is the model for such reformation, believe that such issues as church government and style of worship have evolved to meet the needs of the times and places in which the church has been called to minister. Of course, all believers highly respect the early church. The apostles and the two or three generations that followed them were eyewitnesses to the events of the New Testament—or at least were personally acquainted with those who were. All Christians recognize that the generations closest to the time of Jesus and the apostles have a unique authority in the life of the Church.
However, some believe the Church was meant to expand upon the foundation that those generations laid. Thus, we constantly reform the Church but do not attempt to restore the first century church.
Another way of looking at the Church is to view it as a continuum of believers held together through time and space by constituted authorities and beliefs. In this view, the living tradition that derives from the early church, but which evolved through the generations, has the authority to guide the worship, beliefs, and practices of the contemporary church. In this view, the Church’s development has been much like that of a child growing into maturity.
Unlike some contemporary Christians, we respect the Church’s tradition at Christ Church and try to learn from it. We certainly do not disdain it. However, we do not view tradition as having an equal weight with the writings of the New Testament. Jesus Christ called the Church into being and personally appointed its first leaders. That first generation of church leaders was given the authority to write Scripture. No generation since them has held that sort of authority.
We all revere—some even venerate—the first disciples of Jesus. So for us, the primacy of that first generation is obvious but does not imply that succeeding generations of disciples were utterly without authority to apply the gospel to their own times. For this reason, we do not believe that healthy renewal requires rejecting the work and thought of every generation of Christians except for the first one.
Jesus said that He would build His Church (Matthew 16:18). That Church is the sum total of that which the Spirit has led the people of God to build. We enjoy the gains and learn from the mistakes of all generations that have constituted the Church.
Let us stop a moment to define the word church. We need more than one definition because there is both a universal Church and a local church. To further complicate things, we often use the word church to describe the building where we meet.
When early believers referred to the Body of Christ, which consists of people of all times and in all places, they used the word catholic. You might have noticed that many churches use this word when they recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds: “We believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” We usually do not use the word catholic at Christ Church because many people commonly understand the term to refer exclusively to the Roman Catholic Church. That is unfortunate because no other word seems to carry the full meaning of all that it implies. The word catholic derives from a Greek term, kath’ holos which means “pertaining to the whole.” The idea is that all expressions of the Church connect fully to one another.
No denomination—even a large one like the Roman Catholic Church—fully embodies catholicity, and therefore does not have an exclusive right to a word that refers to Christians of all times and all places. However, words often take on a life of their own; therefore, we must adapt our everyday language accordingly. The important thing to remember is the concept of universality itself and how that impacts the way we view the congregation in which we live and worship.
First and foremost, the Church is not really an institution: it is an organism. Only God knows what constitutes the Church, and only He is certain what does not.
Institutions formed to assist believers in carrying out the work of Christ are parachurches; “para” meaning “alongside.” Such entities are scaffolding, created to stand for a season alongside of the Church and to further its effectiveness in the world. Denominations, or so we believe, are a part of this scaffolding. They are not the Church but are connected to it and may manifest its presence in the world.
For this reason, we honor the work God has done through our historic denominations. God has used many denominational leaders to advance Christian ministry in the world. Nonetheless, we create denominations to serve Christians and local congregations of Christians. As long as they serve the gospel well, we honor them and work with them. When they seriously err, as some churches have done across all generations, we must either reform them or abandon them.
Respectfully, we say this even of those church structures that trace their historic continuity to the earliest generations of our faith. Their claims to catholicity are no more valid than that of any other body if they depart from the clear teachings of Scripture. It is a grief to all Christians everywhere that the Church has institutionally fragmented through the centuries. Despite this fragmentation, we confess there is “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Something above and beyond all of our divisions unites us in Christ and with one another.
The Church catholic is a spiritual body. It is eternal and God–indwelt. In this life, we catch only glimpses of that reality. What we often experience is the all too fallible manifestation of the Church within a fallen world. The visible communities that represent the Church may make mistakes and take wrong turns.
The Lord’s words to the seven churches of Asia show how Christ continues to work through His Church even when it is less than it ought to be (Revelation 1–3). The New Testament Church is much like the Old Testament community in that regard. It consists of believers who live and work at various levels of spiritual development. The visible Church consists of tares and wheat, sheep and goats—to be sifted and sorted at the end of the age. For now, the good and the bad are woven together in such a way that complicates our view of the Church (Matthew 13:24–30, 25:31–33).
In summary, Christ has established a perfect and heavenly Church but has incarnated it within visible, fallible, and earthly expressions. That is what we mean by the phrase of this article, “imperfectly represented on the earth by various Christian institutions.” We acknowledge that even corrupt groups often contain genuine believers and that there is no entirely pure, holy expression of the Church in this age. All temporal institutions, including Christ Church, imperfectly represent the one true Church that the Bible says is “without spot, blemish, or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27).
How then can we talk about Christian unity?
Our unity cannot be based upon institutional uniformity. Christians in different groups may worship differently and explain their faith differently and nonetheless affirm their unity with one another. Our cultural diversity, in more cases than not, is good for the work of God and allows us to spread the message of Christ to diverse peoples and in diverse languages. The miracle of Christian unity consists in this: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples because you love one another” (John 13:35).
Although the message of Jesus is the same for all eras of history, the cultures of the churches have become diverse and transitional. We have adapted to meet the cultural settings and the times in which we work. We may use incense or play a guitar to prepare our hearts for worship. We may dance. We may make the sign of the cross. We may place the pulpit at one side of the church building or at the center. We may have Sunday School or use some other method to disciple converts. These are all cultural responses to cultural needs. They are for that reason transitory. Whatever method draws people to Jesus and deepens our commitment to Christ— and that does not turn the method itself into the object of our devotion—may be used legitimately by Christians to advance the work of God.
Having said that, we must also affirm that the Church’s mission is eternal. The Lord founded the Church to be His instrument for discipling the nations. The Church embodies the Kingdom of God. It is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). It is a holy nation of kings and priests (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9).
God has chosen to work within His Church. If you want Jesus to be your King, you must live in community with His people. You must come to grips with the Church because that is where He promised to meet us (Matthew 18:20).